Message: 1
Date: 1.1.93
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

HDTV: What's wrong with this picture?

High Definition television is clearly irrelevant.
When you look at television, ask yourself: What's wrong with it? Picture resolution? Of course not. What's wrong is the programming.

Why is this aspect of the big picture so unclear?

During the late sixties, a few visionary Japanese asked themselves what the next evolutionary step in television would be. They reached a very logical conclusion: higher resolution. They postulated that the move from black-and-white to color would be followed by filmic-quality TV, which in turn would be followed by 3-D TV. They proceeded, in their inimitable style, to develop something called Hi-Vision by scaling up TV as we know it in the analog domain.

Around 1986, Europe awoke to the prospect of Japanese dominance of a new generation of television. For totally protectionist reasons, Europe developed its own analog HDTV system, HD-MAC, making it impossible for Hi-Vision, which the United States officially backed at the time, to become a world standard.

More recently, the US, like a sleeping giant, awoke from its cryogenic state of mind and attacked the HDTV problem with the same analog abandon as the rest of the world. However, this awakening occurred at a time when it was possible to think about television in the digital domain. The perseverance of a few has resulted in our nation being the sole official proponent of a purely digital process. That's the good news.

The bad news is we blew it. We made the same mistake as Japan and Europe when we decided to root our thinking in high definition. Despite a great deal of hand waving, the truth is that all these systems (currently under consideration for a national standard by the Federal Communications Commission - which President Clinton could then change) were constructed on the premise that achieving increased image quality is the relevant course to be pursuing. This is not the case, and there is no proof to support the premise.

Prime Time Is My Time
What is needed is innovation in programming, new kinds of delivery, and personalization of content. All of this can be derived from being digital. The six-o'clock news can be not only delivered when you want it, but it also can be edited for you and randomly accessed by you. If the viewer wants an old Humphrey Bogart movie at 8:17 pm, the telephone company will provide it over its twisted-pair copper lines. Eventually, when you watch a baseball game, you will be able to do so from any seat in the stadium or, for that matter, from the perspective of the baseball. That would be a big change.

As intelligence in the television system moves from the transmitter to the receiver, the difference between a TV and a personal computer will become negligible. It can be argued that today's TV set is, per cubic inch, the dumbest appliance in your home. As the television's intelligence increases, it will begin to select video and receive signals in "unreal time." For instance, an hour's worth of video - based on a consumer's profile or request - could be delivered over fiber to an intelligent TV in less than five seconds. All personal computer vendors are adding video capabilities, thereby creating the de facto TV set of the future. While this view is widely respected, it is not yet accepted worldwide.

Reckless Nationalism
TV is so bound in culture that even some very democratic countries legislate the number of hours that foreign programming is allowed on their domestic channels. Less democratic nations use TV for propaganda and control. This blending of the cultural with the potentially political has crept into the technical arena and, for a variety of gratuitous economic reasons, we are presented with the likely nightmare that Japan, Europe and the United States will go in totally different directions vis-a-vis TV. However, my bet is that 1993 will be the year these diverging courses correct themselves and converge. Europe, Japan and the US will collaborate, and being digital will be recognized, finally, as a truly evolutionary step. Why am I optimistic after outlining such gloomy polemics? For several reasons, all relating to one question: Where is the action?

Nintendo, Sega, Apple, and IBM - not your run-of-the-mill TV makers - will present us with a burst of multimedia products in the home very soon. At least 200,000 direct broadcast satellite receivers, fully digital, will hit the stores in time for Christmas. And cable operators are trying to get digital TV even sooner than that. Namely, there will be an outpouring of digital video services that have absolutely nothing to do with HDTV, and they will be in place long before action can be taken on any FCC decision if, in fact, one is made.

Finally, a small band of multinational people are making great progress in the standards arena. The roots of digital/video harmony reside in the Motion Picture Experts Group, MPEG, which is a bona fide part of ISO, the International Standards Organization.

As Scalable as the US Constitution
The biggest reason to be optimistic is that the digital world carries with it a great deal of tolerance for change. We will not be stuck with NTSC, PAL, and SECAM, but we will command a bit stream that can be easily translated from one format to another, scaled from one resolution to another, transcoded from one frame rate to another - independent of aspect ratio. Digital signals will carry information about themselves and tell your intelligent TV what to do with them. If your TV does not speak a particular dialect, you may have to visit your local bookstore and buy a digital decoder, just like you buy software for your PC today.

Being digital is a license to grow. The manner in which memory and features are added to your PC or organizer will be the same for your TV. When people argue over the number of scan lines, the frame rate, or the aspect ratio of television in the future, one can rest assured they are discussing the most irrelevant pieces of the puzzle. What they should be talking about are the consequences of being digital and the enormous changes that will affect the delivery of information and entertainment. Namely, the future of video is no different from that of audio or data; it will be nothing but a bit stream.

Next Issue: Will There Be a Bit Police?

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[Copyright 1993, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 1.01 January 1993.]