With the advent of cable converters, descramblers, video-disc players and other gadgetry, many modern television sets look like complicated electrical command posts. Still, except for the introduction of color, the television screen itself has changed very little over the past 35 years. But now a new generation of sophisticated computerized machines is about to reach the North American market, offering the clarity of a sharp photograph and the depth of full stereophonic sound. Soon viewers will be able to watch several channels at once, freeze a frame or zoom in for close-ups of crisp, high-resolution images. Indeed, the new television sets could make current models old-fashioned within five years.
Those dramatic changes are based on digital technology, which revolutionized data processing and telecommunications. The new television sets, which store image information in a computer memory, are simpler and more reliable than existing models despite their improved picture and sound quality. Toshiba of Canada, the only domestic man-
ufacturer with a computerized set on the market, is offering a $1,700 21-inch model with stereophonic sound capability which also allows viewers to superimpose one image from an attached video device onto another on the same screen, and to switch between the images at the flick of a button. Manufacturers are now working to develop sets that display as many as nine channels simultaneously. Some experts predict that digital television sets will eventually perform a number of diverse functions. Said Bill Deneweth, audio product manager for Toshiba of Canada: “Within 10 years we will see a marriage between data processing, computer storage, telephone systems and television. The possibilities are endless.”
Television’s leap into the computer age was a byproduct of research into computerized telephone systems. More than a decade ago the giant New Yorkbased ITT launched a drive in Europe to develop a digital telephone switching system that would replace the slower, more expensive relay, or analog, systems in use around the world. One result of that research was crucial to television technology: a digital chip set that can replace as many as 400 individual analog television components while providing far greater fidelity and detail.
ITT developed the first digital television in 1983, and has had brisk sales in Europe. The company does not manufacture televisions for the North American market but early this year it made the digital chip set available to other manufacturers. Although Motorola, Philips and several Japanese companies chose to develop their own digital systems,most of the major television makers—including Toshiba, Sony, Matsushita (manufacturer of Panasonic and Quasar), General Electric and Zenith —chose to build on the ITT system. Said Kenneth Kewin, national product training manager for Sony of Canada Ltd., which will introduce a digital set in November: “The benefits are enormous. In addition to an improved signal, the sets are far easier to manufacture and to repair.”
High-resolution digital sets bound for Canada in the coming months will be expensive, and digital transmission of television signals may not be available for up to ten years. But the industry says that high-quality, less expensive receivers will soon be readily available. Said Deneweth: “My guess is that in five years 50 per cent of all televisions sold will be digital.” That scenario will create a dilemma that is painfully familiar to consumers of other new technology: to buy now, pay more and risk instant obsolescence or to wait until the price drops and the market stabilizes—at a cost of hours of digital delight.
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