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July 05 – HD TV is just around the corner

by Bob Crabtree on 14 July 2005, 00:00

Tags: 3Com

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How it was

DVdoctor's Bob Crabtree does a U-turn on HD TV, reckoning that owners of large-screen TVs want it now, and that the BBC may roll out an HD service sooner than expected

Rather like High Definition TV itself, this column has taken longer in the making than anticipated. Although I determined to write it, or something like it, back in early June while attending a BBC R&D open day, other stuff got in the way.

At that open day, I'd seen and heard things that caused me to radically change my opinion on High Definition TV. Until that time, I'd massively underestimated its appeal to the public and saw no reason to believe there might be any change in its leisurely roll out in the UK, which, officially, is due to start with Sky next year, but may, I'm now starting to think, happen earlier.

My changed perspective also made me fully appreciate that the HDV camcorder systems being promoted by JVC and Sony – and associated editing hardware and software - have a more immediate use than many sceptics believe.

To understand my views on HD TV before that BBC event, let's step back a good few years to a visit I made to Funkausstellung (the Berlin Radio Show) in 1991 – the first to take place after the Wall came down and also the show where HD TV made its first big-scale European debut.

I was rather shocked to see the East Berliners walking round collecting every available freebie, from carrier-bags and ballpoint pens to balloons and paper hats. But I was also shocked by how little I was impressed by HD TV, despite its very fine resolution.

Like many of the new standard-definition sets being shown, all the HD sets were 16:9 and analogue. Most were in the Japanese Hi-Vision HDTV format but there was a few hand-built monitors using HD-MAC – a Europe-only system primed to become operational in 1996 but abandoned three years before that date in favour of DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting), a suite of (still unimplemented) digital technologies.

The pictures lacked brightness (they had to be shown in quite dimly-lit areas) and weren't large-screen by today's standards. Even so, because they used CRT technology and 90degree tubes, they were very bulky. They held little allure for me or, seemingly, for show visitors. Many did admire the picture quality (they also had good words for 16:9 – and widescreen was supposed to be THE big thing that year). But few lingered long (the same was true with standard-definition 16:9) - and that aroused my curiosity sufficiently to try to find out why.

What I did was follow people to try to discover what would sustain their interest - thinking that would be a good indicator of which technologies at the show were going to be successful .

Turns out, that my strategy didn't work. But what I did realise is that the thing most of my "targets" were entranced by was the TV programmes they liked the best – and it didn't matter even if the picture was mono or of poor quality.

After due deliberation I came to the conclusion that you should judge a system's likely success or failure by its "software" rather than the cleverness of its hardware. Rather later, I realised I'd learned something that would be helpful through the rest of my journalistic career.