The Screens We Watch

Old TVAmericans spend a lot of time in front of screens of some sort – televisions, computers, smartphones. Various studies estimate that the average adult spends between 6 and 8 hours per day in front of screens. So today I thought I would take a short tour through the history and the future of screens.

Early discoveries. Our screens got their start with the early work on cathode ray tubes that began in the late 1800s. In 1907, Henry Joseph Round discovered electroluminescence; later that same year, Russian scientist Boris Rosing was able to transmit crude images onto a screen. Television got its real start in the late twenties when John Logie Baird was able to transmit faces, objects, and colors onto a screen.

Television. The first commercial television screens were produced by Telefunken in Germany in 1934. But TV exploded onto the market after World War II. By 1954 56% of the homes in the US had a television and by 1962 90% had them. These were all cathode ray tubes that transmitted images using an electron gun onto a fluorescent screen. Kids today have a hard time believing that a TV in the 50s was as heavy and hard to move as a washing machine is today.

Color Television. Color televisions were produced starting in the early 50s and became widely available after 1960. These also used a cathode ray tube and three separate electron beams, one for each primary color (red, green, and blue).

Computer Monitors. Early computer monitors were also cathode ray tubes, but generally of one color only. I’m old enough to remember the first computers with the orange letters on black background followed by the green on black screens. We had the first Macs at our office in 1984 and they had a 9-inch, monochrome 512×342 pixel display. Today the newest Macs have a 5,120 x 2,880 pixel display that supports millions of colors. I also had an Osborne 1, the first ‘portable’ computer with a tiny, 5-inch orange screen.

Newer TV Technologies. By the early 2000s there were three new technologies that quickly replaced cathode ray tube TVs: plasma TVs, rear-projection TVs, and LCD TVs. A plasma TV works using small cells of electrically charged ionized gases to produce the picture. Rear-projection TVs were just that—a projector using the same basic technology as front projectors used in classrooms and businesses. But LCDs (liquid crystal display) won in the marketplace and by 2007 almost all TVs were LCD. LCDs work by having a tiny transmitter, immersed in liquid, for each pixel. These transmitters are induced to produce specific colors.

LED TVs. The newest technology are LED TVs (OLEDs, FEDs, and SEDs) that use tiny light-emitting diodes to produce the color. These TVs are just hitting the market but have not yet gotten much market penetration. OLEDs look to be the most promising technology and it uses tiny LEDS emitting light onto an organic electroluminescent film.

Touchscreens. The first touchscreen was developed by E.A. Johnson in 1965. These were first used for air traffic control and were made available for consumers with the IBM Simon. Apple used a touchscreen on the first iPhone and these are now standard in billions of smartphones and tablet screens.

Retina Display. Apple introduced retina display screens with all of its products in 2014. This basically means that the resolution is so great that the human eye is unable to detect any pixilation.

Future Screens. There are a number of new screen technologies now hitting the market. For cell phones and other uses there are bendable screens that are thin, flexible and even transparent. We are on the verge of being able to buy TVs that come in a tube that you can unroll and hang anywhere.

And we are now seeing what comes after screens. It’s hard to call the experience inside of a virtual reality headset a “screen”. It is instead an immersive 3D display that puts a viewer into the middle of a scene. And there are even now early versions of whole-room holograms that are the precursor to the Star Trek holodecks. I’m imagining that the day may come soon when kids will have no idea what a TV set or monitor are.

The Future of TV – The Sets

English: Various remote controls fot TV-set, D...

English: Various remote controls fot TV-set, DVD and VHS. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think everybody agrees that television viewing is changing rapidly, and everybody in the industry has been thinking about how these changes will impact the cable business. I am going to do a series of blogs for a few Mondays looking at where industry experts think the business is moving. I will start off today looking at the future of the television set and then move on to other aspects of the business such as advertising, content production and viewing habits.

For the first time in many decades the purchase of new television sets is down. This seems to be due to two primary factors. First, 11% of homes now say that they now watch all of their video from computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones. So some households have given up on the communal nature of having a centralized set that everybody can watch together. However, the communal nature of TV viewing probably means that most households are going to want to keep a TV set of some sort. Second, TVs are being upgraded less often and people are treating them as a screen more so than a standalone device. When somebody connects a Hulu or Goggle Chromecast device to their TV they have in effect upgraded without the necessity of buying a new monitor.

So I looked around to see what experts think will happen to the TV set over time? Here are some guesses for both short-term and long-term.

Short-Term.  In the short term TV sets are going to get glitzier and have even more functions than they do today. Of course, not all big TV innovations succeed such as the fizzle that came with 3D TVs in 2010. But before TV manufacturers agree that the future of TVs is dead they are going to try to sell new sets by pushing new features. Some of the features being seen on new TVs now include:

  • Split screens. This takes the idea of picture in the screen and creates up to four separate pictures on the screen at the same time. Thus, a sports fan could watch four football games simultaneously. This has to be giving nightmares to companies delivering IPTV over DSL if each set can be asking for up to four HD channels at the same time.
  • Ultra High Definition. There are not TVs being made with 4k resolution which provides 4 times as many pixels with a 3840 X 2160 pixel grid as compared to today’s 1920 X 1080 grid.
  • OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) TVs. These are ultrathin TVs made of layers of sprayed on materials that create a new kind of diode. The diodes emit their own light and turn black when not being used. The Koreans have made an OLED screen that is flexible and only 4 mm thick.
  • IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide). Sharp has introduced a new LCD screen that is much brighter and also that can change colors much faster than older LCD screens. This ideal for gaming but also makes a superior TV screen.
  • Smart TVs. It is being rumored that Apple TV is almost ready to release its iTV, or the next generation of smart TV. A smart TV is really a new kind of smarter settop box combined with a screen. Apple will probably include Siri and iSight and other computer and smart phone features into the box. The smart TV will no longer be just a tuner and recorder but will be a full-functioning application machine that can bring the web and cellphone apps fully integrated to the TV set.

Long Run. In the long run it is likely that the TV settop box functionality will be completely separated from the display. The OLED flexible and transparent displays will mean that a TV will be able to be installed anywhere by laying a film over an existing surface. And so there could easily be an inexpensive TV display on the side of the refrigerator, on every mirror in the house or on any wall. These TVs will be operated using the combination of a smart box along with very fast WiFi in the house that will let all of the TVs be integrated into one system. This will allow for interesting new features such as ‘follow-me’ TV where the TV signal would follow the person from device to device and from room to room as they move throughout the house.

TV is also likely to become far more personal to each person in the household, a topic which I will look at in a future blog.

One small detail I almost forgot. The lowly TV remote is likely to die soon. The remote we have today is largely still needed due to a rule at the FCC called the integration ban which requires cable settop box manufacturers to produce a removable tuner, called a cable card. And so the current remotes still work on ancient infrared technology.

Remotes are starting to be replaced by smartphones and there are apps which can take over many of the remote functions. But in the not-too-distant future the smart TVs are going to do away with the need for any device and you will be able to control the TV by voice commands or by gestures. I know this will save me the five minutes it takes me every time I go to watch TV and try to remember where I left the remote!