TV technology? It's a moving picture

It took 40 years from John Logie Baird’s first black-and-white TV to get colour TV transmissions in the UK, and more than 30 years before the UK launched its first digital TV system.

Just over a decade later, high definition TV is commonplace, all of our TV broadcasts are in digital formats, and we’re reconsidering what TV is, and if we still want a big screen as the centre of everyday life.

Reliable rockets have made it easy to launch broadcasting satellites the size of a bus into space, more than 20,000 miles above our heads. They can cover the whole of the UK, and deliver hundreds of TV channels compared to the dozens that come through your aerial on Freeview.
TV technology is moving at a dizzying pace Picture: NHK/Panasonic

From iPlayer to myPlayer

More than half of British homes now have a broadband internet connection, and for many of us that’s as likely to deliver video entertainment as an aerial or satellite dish, whether it’s YouTube or more professional services like Netflix, Lovefilm and the all-conquering BBC iPlayer.

It’s all instant, of course, and that’s the biggest change ahead for TV. If you have a young child, they already find it hard to understand that CBeebies isn’t available instantly on your iPad, laptop or smart TV. 

There are limits to instant satisfaction: even if it can delivered instantly, on-demand, the poor, lumbering blobs of flesh we call people can’t make films and TV shows much faster than they already do. Even so, how long will it be before the BBC releases the latest episode of EastEnders at 2am instead of 7.30pm, ready for anyone to watch from the moment they wake up?

We’re already forgetting what it means to ‘miss’ a TV show. Digital TV recorders like TiVo and YouView have ‘backwards’ programme guides that let you browse what was on yesterday, and watch via broadband. The seven-day limits of catch-up services like iPlayer are merely the creations of killjoy lawyers and accountants. 

By 2020, they will have evaporated, and as you rewind through past TV shows on catch-up TV, there will come a point where you’re asked for a small payment to watch the older episodes.

If you’ve got a digital TV recorder like Sky+, it’s already hard to miss your favourite shows, and the recordings are yours to keep. TiVo is clever enough to record shows it thinks you might like, and this intelligence is going to grow into a digital butler, who will present us with a menu of entertainment when the TV switches on, tailored to our tastes.

This won’t just be happening on one big screen, but on mobile phones, tablets and via games consoles which are already morphing into entertainment hubs for children. It will happen on any screen we can see, even on blank walls, via the micro-projector built into your smartphone.

Now that’s what I call home cinema

How will it look? More detailed, for a start. It shouldn’t be a surprise that today’s Full HD has been shown its shelf-life, and it’s about 10 years. The 2012 Olympic Games are also being used as a showcase for the next step in TV quality: ultra high definition TV, or Super Hi-Vision.

SHV is the name given by its developers at Japanese state broadcaster NHK, who also developed high definition TV, 25 years before it was debuted on British screens. It’s 16 times more detailed than Full HD, and four times more detailed than the Digital Cinema technology used in Hollywood, so it could conquer the film industry as well.

You’ll need a bigger screen to enjoy Super Hi-Vision, and Full HD starts to look less impressive on screens larger than 85in anyway. That’s the size of the SHV display Sharp showcased at last year’s IFA tech show in Berlin, while Panasonic has brought a prototype 150in SHV screen to the International Media Centre at the Olympic Park.

There are still big hurdles in cameras, displays and broadcasting technology before it makes the leap from demonstration to reality, but NHK is confident those can be overcome in time for it to launch a Super Hi-Vision channel in Japan before the end of this decade.
SHV may be the last word in two-dimensional TV, since it was designed to match the resolution of average human eyesight. If they added more detail, we wouldn’t be able to see it.

It’s probably a stepping stone for 3D TV, which it’s fair to say hasn’t won the public’s love in the same way as HD and on-demand TV. The biggest obstacle is 3D glasses, but glasses-free 3D currently suffers from the ‘sweet-spot’ problem, where each viewer has to stay in one place to get the 3D effect. 

It’s not very comfortable, and one way to overcome it is with very high resolution displays that can create a range of sweet spots so smooth you don’t even notice them. So your Super Hi-Vision TV may also be very nice for 3D.

But it probably won’t look like a TV, any more than a Sony Bravia today looks like a Sony Trinitron of the 1980s. Most likely, it’s be a thin, light and very bright organic LED screen, hanging on your wall.

If the next decade of TV is all too dizzying, don’t worry - you don’t have to be first. At this rate of progress, the classic ‘early adopter’, who wants all the latest tech as soon as possible, starts to look like a bit manic. If you want to wait, the latest new ‘thing’ will have the kinks ironed out in a year or two, it’ll be cheaper and better.


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