For much of the past decade, the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has been dominated by the industry's efforts to put cram pixels onto ever-larger TV screens. The initial "high definition" sets, which made their debut in 1998, struggled to reach either of the two original benchmarks for HDTV: the ability to display 1080 interlaced horizontal lines or 720 lines scanned progressively from top to bottom. Within a few years, though, 1080i and 720p were routine, even for exotic plasma sets. So the show's buzz shifted to a higher resolution, 1080 horizontal lines progressively scanned, a.k.a. 1080p or "full HD."
Today, 1080p is fairly common among all types of HDTV. In fact, all the pieces of the high-def puzzle are in place, including video recorders and disc players. So when the International Consumer Electronics Show returns to Vegas this week, and industry will be looking for something to tout for their TVs besides more pixels. One candidate: more content.
Increasingly, traditional consumer-electronics manufacturers are trying to bring video from the Internet to the living-room TV. Korean TV maker LG just announced a deal with Netflix to bring streaming movies to the TV set through a new set-top box. Samsung is expected to unveil a line of Internet-connected TVs at CES, offering on-demand news, weather and financial information, as well as a set-top box capable of tuning in selected online video sites. Sony and Panasonic also are likely to show new connected-TV models. Meanwhile, at the high end of the market, custom installers are making connected TVs a "very big focus" of their work, said David Berman, training director for Home Theater Specialists of America.
For years, TV manufacturers had let the tech industry try to bridge the gap between PCs and TVs, with limited success witness Gateway's ill-fated Destination system, a hybrid Windows PC and big-screen TV from the late 1990s. Since then, makers of computers and home networking gear have developed set-top boxes that can link a TV to a home PC, and HP has marketed high-def TV sets capable of connecting directly to a home network.
Then, at last year's CES, Sony announced a book-sized add-on for its Bravia HDTVs that would let users watch videos from selected sites online. Bringing the Internet directly to the TV makes sense, given consumers' reluctance to add yet more set-top boxes to their living room. But Sony's move also highlighted how hard it is to make a truly Internet-friendly TV. There are so many different formats and encryption schemes used by online video sites, it's hard to design a TV that can handle that complexity and variability. Sure, you could build a PC into the TV set, but that inflates the cost dramatically and presents a host of usability problems. That's why Sony's sets accommodated only a small slice of the Net, overlooking such rich sources of video as online movie rental sites, MySpace, YouTube and the networks' websites.
Hoping to solve this problem, five major Japanese set makers (Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba and Hitachi) formed a consortium called AcTVila in 2006 to develop standards for Internet-connected TVs. The group agreed on which compression formats, DRMs and browser features that would be supported in a TV's chipset, adding functions but keeping the cost low. Last year they started what amounted to an online video portal, streaming content to buyers of the new sets. Again, the TVs can't display much of what's available online, but at least the standard lets online video suppliers know what formats they'd have to use in order to be seen on these sets.
Paul Liao, Panasonic's chief technical officer, said the AcTVila approach was right for Japan because so much of the country is wired for broadband, and the speed of the average connection is comparatively high. In the U.S., he said, the demand for online video on TV isn't so clear yet. The X factor is the popularity of sites with user-posted videos, such as YouTube and Veoh. "User-generated content is likely to be a big driver" of Internet-connected TVs in the U.S., Liao said. "The only question is whether it's consistent with watching it on a big screen."
Ahh, yes. Will someone who's accustomed to watching "Desperate Housewives" in 720p (assuming it ever returns to the air) be willing to watch, say, a clip of a Nine Inch Nails concert shot by a cellphone camera? Dmitry Shapiro, founder and chief innovation officer for Veoh, thinks viewers care less about the video quality than about the viewing environment and the uniqueness of the content. Plus, he said, the resolution of online video is improving, from both professional sources such as Hulu and user-generated sites. With entry-level high-definition camcorders selling for less than $150, amateur filmmakers will soon be delivering the pixels in abundance, too.
Shapiro predicted that the companies most likely to bring the Net to TV sets won't be big consumer-electronics manufacturers, but smaller tech companies with relatively inexpensive products that can be updated easily to keep pace with the rapid changes online. That suggests another set-top box in the living room, which Liao thinks is a non-starter with consumers. When Panasonic was developing a new line of digital-cable-ready TVs, it surveyed consumers to find out whether they'd be interested in a set that did away with their cable box. Liao said he thought the biggest selling point was eliminating the monthly rental fee, but the surveys showed otherwise. "They didn't want to have to be bothered with connecting another box," he said. "This tangle of wires ... they just hate that."
The more TVs that are capable of tuning in the Web, the better the prospects for traditional TV-style entertainment delivered through the Net instead of cable, broadcast or satellite. That's important for independent producers, who've seen their numbers dwindle since the courts and Congress dismantled the rules against networks owning production studios in the early 1990s. Entrepreneurial writers, such as the team behind Quarterlife, also stand to gain from a closer tie between the Net and TV. True Internet TV isn't arriving as quickly as observers had once hoped, but for independents looking to gain back ground for their creations, the emerging platforms represent an important development.
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