The Sharper Image


June 26, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

Television may be still the vast wasteland derided by critics in the 1950s, but the view, at least, continues to improve.

From the boxy black-and-white sets of the tube's first decade, Americans graduated to color sets in the 1960s. In the 1970s they added VCRs, and during the '80s the set metamorphosed again as an arena for video games.

Now this most ubiquitous medium is about to reinvent itself yet again, in the form of high-definition television, or HDTV. It's an innovation that promises truer colors, crisper images, a wider view and sharper sound. The new technology will produce pictures as fine as the highest-quality photography art books, as engaging as the movies and as realistic as the view out the window.

HDTV's pictures will be clearer than today's television because there are more scanning lines, the electronic signals that race back and forth across the screen to create images. Sets now are built to a 525-line standard, but only 180 to 480 are used at a time. HDTV scans 787 to 1,200 lines. The result, its boosters say, is a picture so smooth it looks like film.

Recently, the three top rivals for the right to develop the next generation of TV sets agreed to collaborate on a single approach to HDTV, a development that could lead to the appearance of digital commercial broadcasting and cable stations as early as 1995.

The three groups that will cooperate on developing the new technology are the sole survivors of a rigorous, world-wide competition begun five years ago by the Federal Communications Commission to choose a new standard for HDTV.

When the competition was announced, Japanese and European manufacturers were conceded to be far ahead of U.S. companies in HDTV research and development, and for a while it looked as though Japan would corner the market.

But sales of the first Japanese HDTV sets, which were introduced in Japan in 1990, proved disappointing. The Japanese receivers had a price tag of $35,000, and the only commercial TV station in the country equipped to transmit HDTV signals broadcast for only one hour each day. Not surprisingly, there were few takers.

The Japanese HDTV system was based on analog technology similar to that used in conventional present-day television sets. Meanwhile, American manufacturers and their European partners were at work on a revolutionary new approach to HDTV that incorporated the digital technology employed in computers and CD players. By early this year, all three finalists in the FCC competition had proposed digital HDTV systems, in effect leapfrogging Japan's analog approach.

The digital format means that TV sets incorporating the new system will have access to a much wider range of applications than current sets, including computer-based interactive video and high-speed two-way communications.

The three groups that will develop the final form of HDTV for the U.S. market are made up of partnerships between General Instrument Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the team of Zenith Electronics and AT&T, and a consortium formed by Philips Electronics of the Netherlands, Thomson Consumer Electronics of France and the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

That lineup practically ensures that American companies will reap substantial profits from the new technology. The first commercially available HDTV sets will probably cost between $1,000 and $2,000 more than present-day TVs. The price should come down as the technology matures. Commercial broadcasters will continue to transmit conventional TV signals alongside the HDTV broadcasts well into the next century, however.

Still, Japan won't walk away lightly from the $1 billion investment it already has sunk into its rival system. The potential market is huge -- perhaps half a trillion dollars -- and the spinoffs in related technologies will set the future for high-tech industrial and military equipment makers as well as for firms making consumer products. And Japanese companies have shown great agility in applying technologies developed elsewhere to new products and marketing them.

So even after the new standard is formally approved by the FCC sometime next year, U.S. companies will still face an enormous challenge in trying to translate their technological advantage into manufacturing capability and market share.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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