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The future of big-screen TV

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

The future of big-screen TV

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

For the last five years, big-screen TVs have been hot-selling items at North American stores. Profits are higher on these big-ticket sets, of course, and that has made retailers very happy.

Oddly, the rush to buy sets with giant screens has been prompted more by market hype than technological improvements. Projection television sets are not much different today than they were 20 years ago, when I bought my 6-foot Advent VideoBeam TV.

But fans of the big picture now have a reason to rejoice. Manufacturers are planning dramatic changes in their projection sets, and some of these redesigned models are likely to be no more expensive than the ones they replace.

Projection TVs, in which the picture is reflected off the front or through the back of a screen, have been challenged in recent years by increasingly large direct-view sets. In a direct-view set, the screen is the faceplate of a picture tube. In most cases, a direct-view set has a brighter picture than a projection TV.

But direct-view sets aren't available in sizes larger than 40 inches from corner to corner. Although a 40-inch TV picture is a lot larger than a typical 27-inch picture, it's still not big enough for the kind of movie-theater realism that many video fans insist on. Only a projection set can provide pictures large enough for the you-are-there feeling you get at the movies.

Projection TVs with screen sizes of 48 to 72 inches are common, and some consumer models will even throw a fairly dim image onto a 10-foot screen or white wall.

Most projection sets also have completely flat screens, unlike even the latest so-called "flat-square" direct-view sets, which have slightly curved faceplates. This enhances the realism of the picture.

These advantages, however, haven't helped bring what's on the screen any closer to theater standards. What projection TV manufacturers are doing to change this amounts to a revolution in set design. They are taking two approaches:

Screens are being made much wider, so that they are similar in shape to movie screens. Sets of this kind are already available in some areas, in both direct-view and projection models.

Picture quality is being improved by technical tricks so that new projection sets will provide superior images even from standard broadcasts and videotapes.

Wide-screen direct-view sets were introduced in North America last year with great hopes from manufacturers and even greater indifference from consumers. RCA had to cut back its production of these sets, which do not have the impact of a big projection screen.

But new VCRs with a wide-screen setting—which tailors the image of suitable movies to fit perfectly on a wide screen—will start to become widely available this year, and all new wide-screen sets will have a similar circuit also. Camcorders that can shoot wide-screen images are now appearing, too.

Among the technical improvements in new projection sets are microprocessors—in effect, tiny computers—inside some sets that fill in the blank areas between the lines that make up every TV picture. Many also will have anti-ghost circuits to cancel out picture reflections.

And most new projection TVs will have two auxiliary picture effects. One is a PIP (a picture-in-a-picture) feature, available on some sets for years), and the other is a POP circuit, which puts one or more pictures outside the regular one. (Yes, it stands for "picture out of a picture.")

Competition is likely to keep these new sets at moderate price levels, starting at about $3,500 for a basic wide-screen projection set to about $10,000 for one with a wall-sized screen. That's not cheap, but it definitely is a stunning way for dedicated video fans to enjoy life-size realism at home.

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