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HDTV and Beyond - Developing New Television Standards

The first paper session at EuroITV 2009 starts with Nils Walravens, whose focus is on the past, present,and future of HDTV in Europe. In Europe, only 20% of users currently own HD-ready screens, and only 5% view HD content at this point (so surprisingly, Australia seems to be ahead on this point - a sign of its growing prosperity over the past decade?).

HD emerged first in Japan, as a new analogue standard that was incompatible with existing TV standards; in Europe, HDTV was seen in the late 80s and early 90s as a lifeline for the television industry (struggling at the time), and there was a drive towards developing its own standards (which failed, due to poor policy decisions). European development failed to consult effectively within and beyond the industry; terrestrial transmission was impossible, not least because signal quality was poor; the standard remained analogue, not digital; and prototype devices were ugly and extremely expensive. And of course there was no attractive content which would drive user adoption. HDTV was translated as 'high-deficit television' as a result...

In the U.S., there was a broad and inclusive initiative by the FCC, aimed at developing its own HD standard, and that standard was designed as digital solution. European companies also joined this more attractive model, and in 2001, 720p was standardised (1080i and 1080p followed in 2005). Around 35% of U.S. households now have HD screens, and some 20-40% watch HD content. This is also supported by HD disc formats (Blu-Ray, etc.) and the emergence of HD gaming consoles (PS3, XBox, etc.). Additionally, there was also a move towards 16:9 formats, and Philips now even has a 21:9 (i.e. full cinema) ratio screen. Further, there's a renewed push towards 3D, which is likely to be delayed by the current financial crisis, though.

The future holds further developments towards SHV (Super Hi-Vision) or UHDTV (Ultra HDTV) - at resolutions of up to 7680x4320, some of which are being explored in Japan now (also with 22 discrete audio channels). The sheer size and realism of such screens have shown to induce nausea in some viewers, though - so the human capacity for television may be reached here, if not the technological limits.

Adoption of such advances depend on unpredictable market factors, though, not on engineering or marketing - the history of SMS is a useful reminder of this. This is an important lesson for further HDTV developments, which must include broad consultation rather than serve only dominant players. Additionally, of course, there is also a clear need for good HD content in addition to the technology - consumers must be taken seriously, and their needs must be served effectively. In other words: technological determinism must be kept in check; there is a need to combine top-down and bottom-up research and development initiatives; attractive content must be developed alongside the technology; and consumer research has a growing and important role in development efforts.

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