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Super Hi-VisionHDTV – Already On the Road to Obsolescence?

By Jim Bray

High definition television is hot and getting hotter.

But is today’s HDTV merely a way station on the road to really, really high definition television broadcasts?

Of course! There’s always a new technology just over the horizon (consider it job security for engineers, retailers and writers!), and if the Japan Broadcasting Corporation NHK has its way, we could all be watching its latest HD tour de force, "Super Hi-Vision" sometime down the road.

NHK’s new high definition television technology ups the pixel ante substantially: the company says it’s 16 times better than the 1920x1080 TV’s occupying sales floors as you read this.

Hype, or hope for the future? At this stage of the game no one knows for sure, but it may not be wise to scoff at NHK. This is a company that has been pushing the HDTV technology envelope for many years. In fact, their analog system was around long before most people in North America had even heard the term High Definition Television.

Unfortunately for NHK, their HD system became technological road kill in North America when the U.S. FCC mandated a digital route to HD heaven.

Despite that corporate speed bump, however, it appears NHK hasn’t been sitting back licking its wounds, but instead has been working hard in the lab to raise the technology to newer and greater heights.

Hence Super Hi-Vision, which the broadcaster rolled out at the World Exposition in Aichi, Japan late last year. NHK demonstrated Super Hi-Vision using a 600 inch screen to wow the audiences.

How good was it? Well, I wasn't there, but NHK says Super Hi-Vision is so lifelike that "viewers could feel as though they were actually at the broadcasting site, or that the object they are viewing is right in front of them."

Works for me. Having had my socks knocked off by "The Polar Express" in 3D IMAX last Christmas, I can assure you that, as good as it is, today’s HD isn’t the be-all and end-all. So maybe NHK really is inventing the next "better mousetrap" and hoping that, this time, the world will beat that proverbial path to its door.

It isn’t merely a new video standard, either. NHK is positioning Super Hi-Vision as a whole new ball game for high quality programming delivery, for both video and audio reproduction. Here’s what they claim the technology will deliver:

  • A resolution of 7,680×4,320 pixels (for a total of 33,177,600 pixels compared with 1080’s 2,073,600!) progressively scanned at a 60-Hz frame rate.
  • 16x9 aspect ratio
  • A 22.2 channel 3D loudspeaker setup (which should make audio manufacturers and retailers happy!)
  • 21-GHz band broadcasting satellites to deliver the Super Hi-Vision signal to homes. NHK says they’re studying "special compensation technologies employing a phased array antenna system to solve radio attenuation problem caused by rain in 21-GHz band."

I have no idea what that technical stuff means, but if nothing else it appears to indicate that these people are trying to cover all the bases, even to minimizing the effects of weather on transmission.

To create the content, NHK developed a camera equipped with 8 megapixel CCD image sensors capable of taking 4K x 8K pixel images. For the demonstration, they set up two cameras in a sea park and transmitted live, uncompressed baseband signals back to the theater (which was about 20 miles away) via a fiberoptic network.

NHK senior research engineer, Mikio Maeda, was quoted as saying the huge amount of information the technology requires made it difficult to transmit the test signals. I can imagine!

The demonstration was successful, however, leading NHK to proclaim that Super Hi-Vision is viable as a future broadcasting technology.

Besides the source and transmission sides of the equation, NHK says it’s working on building a lightweight, low profile home display device, which will be necessary if they want consumers to actually watch the Super Hi-Vision programming. The company’s website has a couple of conceptual drawings (very small ones, alas), one of which depicts a huge screen that would look really great in my home theater, as well as a small, computer monitor-type panel.
Naturally, the system will require everyone to buy new equipment, from content creators through broadcasters and all the way to the end user. This is probably the last thing anyone wants to do for the foreseeable future, however, since everyone involved is still investing heavily in today’s HD equipment and the idea of getting back on the "replace and upgrade merry go round" won’t have much appeal until the current stuff has had a few years to pay for itself.

NHK isn’t talking about Super Hi-Vision becoming available any time soon, however. According PC World, NHK says the technology is "unlikely to be commercialized until sometime in the next decade."

Even if Super Hi-Vision does make it to the marketplace, the first generations will undoubtedly be very expensive, so it’ll be several years after that for it to become a mainstream consumer item.

And if history is any indicator, it may never reach us anyway.

So there’s still plenty of time to enjoy one of those HDTV’s in stores today.

Copyright 2006 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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