It’s June, 2008. You come home and the TV, now merged with a set-top box and a personal video recorder, turns itself on.
You have mail! Don’t worry, it’s not from your pesky cousin or some stranger who wants to help you get rich quick. This message is from your TV itself. It noticed that Porky’s 2 was on the Movie Channel today and has helpfully recorded it for you.
After all, it knows darn well that you watched the original Porky’s just last week in a single sitting, and then played it again. What’s more, your TV took the initiative of telling your cousin’s set-top box to record it, since he shares your quirky taste in movies.
That’s one the scenarios that Curtis Wong, manager of Next Media Research for Microsoft Corporation, gave at the recent Banff Television Festival. He was responding to a question I posed to gurus at this annual event: What will my beloved television look and feel like in the next five to 10 years?
Wong also says that your TV screen will be getting a lot bigger and brighter.That view was supported by a large contingent of Japanese broadcasters and technicians who came to Banff to tout High Definition TV. Watching HDTV has been compared to looking out a window, because it has five times as much information as a conventional TV picture. It’s digital, it’s crystal clear and it boasts the 16:9 aspect ratio that’s used in movie theatres.
As NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation announcer Miki Sumiyoshi explained: “I am now very worried about HDTV because it will show every problem with my makeup, and every wrinkle.”
Of course, it can also show incredible details of wild animals, such as the individual whiskers on the face of a walrus. Japanese film-maker Mitsuaki Iwago isn’t afraid to get close to dangerous animals, and we were treated at Banff to some of his amazing images.
HDTV has been a bit of a hard sell. It was used as far back as the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but failed to catch on, perhaps because there’s limited HDTV programming and the monitors still cost thousands of dollars. Even in gadget-happy Japan, HDTV sets still account for only six per cent of all televisions.
NHK is now aggressively pushing HDTV, even setting up a new broadcast centre in Antarctica. Throughout 2003, Japanese correspondents will explore the South Pole region to highlight ecological and other issues, and show off some very beautiful images. This capability was demonstrated with a live HDTV hookup between the Banff TV Festival and NHK’s base in Antarctica.
HDTV’s time will come. More and more broadcasters are shooting their shows in this format. Examples include NYPD Blue, Jag and Everybody Loves Raymond. Industry experts predict a new generation of high-definition DVD players that can also record HDTV programs. So, it may finally be time to dump your VHS tape player.
In fact, you may be dumping your television set as well, sometime in the next decade. The U.S. government’s original plan was to force all U.S. stations to move to some form of digital broadcasting by May 2006, but that deadline is apparently slipping.
Canada will almost certainly follow the U.S. lead. For now, if you want to experience HDTV in Canada, your best bet is one of the satellite services such as Express Vu or Star Choice.
But beware. Once you see HDTV, you may be spoiled for life. Of course, the Japanese mentioned that they are now working on Ultra HDTV, with twice as many lines in each picture.
Ah, but what about the dream, or was it a nightmare, of interacting with our television set? Just a few years ago, pundits were predicting that this would be next big thing.
Well, interactive TV isn’t dead, but it’s certainly limping, according to Sharleen Smith, who led a masterclass at the Banff TV Festival. She’s done ground-breaking projects for the USA Network, the Science Fiction Network and Oxygen.com.
Smith admitted that “there’s a serious lull, and not much interactive TV happening right now.” Part of the blame, she says, is a lack of standards for set-top boxes. Because of this, the most sophisticated applications most of us can get from them is video-on-demand movies.
Smith described a program at the Sci Fi network where the on-air hosts made wry comments as they screened old B-movies. Why not, she reasoned in 1996, let the audience make fun of the movies online? Instant messenger chatting was just catching on, so Smith created some episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with audience participation. Of course, they had to screen the comments for relevance and decency, but it made for some very witty and relatively inexpensive television.
Another project that married websites to TV allowed users to select the photo of a celebrity (Fabio was a popular choice), then aim a catapult loaded with nasty things at it. Viewers could then fire the weapon from their home computers. It was a bold experiment that, Smith says, “kind of extended an invisible hand into the TV studio, that sacred place where most people never get to go.”
This was a bit of a down year for the usually ebullient TV industry folks, with problems ranging from SARS to cuts in government funding. Even the Banff TV Festival, which has gotten bigger almost every year, was off in numbers and a bit subdued.
But I came away with the impression that the New Media types are as excited and crazy as ever, and that they have some amazing things up their sleeves for us. Stay tuned.