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Ciciora's Corner - Fast history: Part II

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 5:32pm
Walt S. Ciciora, expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

This book deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Walt S. CicioraThe last column began discussing the book “High Definition Television: The Creation, Development and Implementation of HDTV Technology” by Philip J. Cianci. As mentioned then, this is an excellent book on the fascinating history of HDTV.

The “Grand Alliance” was formed to incorporate the best of the best into one system and come up with a digital HDTV standard that fit into the existing 6 MHz bandwidth allocations. All we have to do is watch HDTV to see that the effort succeeded.

But the process was brutal. An engineer who worked in my group later spent a great deal of his career on this effort. At a social function, I met his wife. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but her definition of HDTV startled me: “Home-Destroying Television.” The hours away from home, the travel, the late nights all hurt. And he wasn’t alone.

Most of the committee meetings, the standardization efforts, and the hardware and software development consumed significant portions of people’s lives. Children grew up with less attention than they deserved. A lot of this was driven by inter-industry and inter-company competition and the embryonic nature of the digital technology. Competition creates an artificial urgency. National interests also served as drivers. Some hoped that having a unique national standard would resurrect their country’s consumer electronics industry. Others strove for a worldwide standard to maximize the market for programming. A little reflection while reading the book will fill in this part of the story. It’s troubling to consider the human cost of all of this.

Both Europe and Japan started with analog approaches. After investment in these approaches, it became clear that digital was coming faster than expected and would eclipse the analog systems already in early launch. Early adopters relearned the hazards of unbridled enthusiasm for new technology and the virtues of patience. Everyone learned that no matter when you buy, next year’s products will inevitably be cheaper and better. After you buy an HDTV receiver, stop reading the sale papers; there is only heartache there!

Digital compression of SDTV signals greatly expanded the capacity of DBS delivery and made it competitive with cable television. Digital compression also facilitated telephone company entry into the video delivery business.

In-home HDTV had a practical problem. HDTV and SDTV were almost indistinguishable on small screens at normal viewing distances. HDTV needed a big screen to be exciting. Big-screen picture tubes were expensive, heavy and – most worrisome – had long necks. There was a practical limit to how deep a television receiver would fit through the door. That, in turn, limited how big the screen could be. And it wasn’t big enough. Other display technologies were required.

A wide variety of new display technologies appeared. None of them was perfect. Each had advantages and disadvantages, and each rapidly improved. This caused a great deal of confusion in the marketplace. Plasma, tube-based projection, micro-mirror-based projection, LCD in many varieties – all filled the shelves of retailers. All had the advantage of being able to make it in through the door. Picture tube receivers quickly disappeared.

Human nature, “not invented here” and honest technical disagreements resulted in multiple standards. Surprisingly, that turned out to be less of a problem than expected. Digital electronics had its own “fast history” advancing in speed, capacity and affordability. As a result, signals from different standards became readily cross-convertible with few artifacts. Multi-standard receiver-integrated circuits allowed consumer electronics products to be sold in multiple countries.

Efficient digital compression enabled changes in the way television programming is consumed. The PVR coupled the fast history of the hard drive with the fast history of digital television, giving viewers freedom from the clock and allowing television on their personal schedule. True VOD performed a similar transformation. Switched digital video greatly expanded the choices deliverable. And digital compression has evolved to even greater efficiency, allowing more video signals to be transmitted and stored in available capacity.

At the same time, the Internet was having its own fast history. The cable industry recognized an opportunity. Multiple proprietary approaches were introduced at first. Once the proprietary products proved the market demand, an industry standard for high-speed Internet was developed, and the hardware became a commodity. The standard was called the Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specifications, or DOCSIS, and borrowed heavily from the digital television compression technology.

DOCSIS evolved through several iterations to become a powerful data delivery system supporting a variety of new services. Delivery of quality video over the Internet, and also to multiple screens, computers, cell phones and video pads, has further changed the definition of television.

The last chapter, “Exceeds All Expectations,” sums up the story. While it took decades for consumer electronics technology to catch up to the analog television system’s potential to make pictures, consumer electronics has already surpassed the HDTV standard’s potential. Work is already underway on higher-definition television.

This book deserves a place on your bookshelf, too.

Email: wciciora@ieee.org

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