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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 January, 2004, 08:49 GMT
TV's hi-definition vision of the future
By Ian Hardy
BBC ClickOnline in Las Vegas

The television set has come a long way since the mechanical contraption first demonstrated by its Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, in 1926.

TV displays at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Hundreds of HDTVs drew the crowds at the CES
In 1930, the Baird Televisor went on sale for 18 as a rare, but fully-fledged consumer product.

But in 2004, there are now more TVs than you can shake a remote at, as demonstrated at last week's Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Most of those on show were no ordinary sets though, they were high-definition.

"High-definition television (HDTV) is a widescreen, high-resolution format that has five times more information on the screen than conventional television," explained John Taylor, vice president of public affairs at LG Electronics.

"Combine that with Dolby digital sound you have that ultimate home cinema experience."

Big projections

Traditional analogue TV is a far from perfect technology.

HDTV gives viewers a stunning and convincing quality. The hundreds of new, flat panels on display at the CES attracted a great deal of attention, particularly those from the Sony camp.

John Logie Baird
1926 - Baird successfully demonstrates mechanical TV
1930 - Baird Televisor on sale for 18
1932 - BBC launches regular TV service (low-definition)
1936 - First regular public high-definition television service from Alexandra Palace
1955-1964 - Colour television experiments conducted at Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove
1967 - Colour broadcasting begins in the UK
1989 - First analogue satellite transmissions from BSkyB
1994 - Launch of digital services in Europe
It has four formats, including a 70-inch rear projection, a 61-inch plasma screen, a 42-inch LCD display and a silicon crystal display that requires a front-loaded digital projector.

Sony is not alone, of course. LG Electronics unveiled what it said was the biggest plasma flat screen in the world.

It is a giant 76-inch display that is just 3.5 inches deep, which will be on sale by the end of the year at a rumoured - and equally massive - $35,000 (19,200).

But potential HDTV customers are not just faced with a choice of four formats.

Those in the industry admit there is a great deal of confusion amongst consumers, and say HDTV equipment is often bought with little understanding of its true capabilities, as Bill Casamo, executive vice president of Voom, explained.

"Half the people in the US that have bought a HDTV set have no ability to receive HD, they have no receiver to receive it," he said.

"So they use it as a playback device for DVDs, which is not high definition."

The US Government has tried to make the HDTV situation a little easier by telling manufacturers they now have to build digital tuners into many of the TV sets.

Previously it was a separate purchase, but this does add to the already-high price tag.

Stop gap

Devices like Roku's HD1000 have tried to fill the gap for those who have bought a HDTV with no tuner, and who are in search of a true hi-definition experience.

The company sells multimedia collections on memory cards, including famous artwork, samples of high definition video and original animation.

Roku's CEO, Anthony Wood, hopes it will give consumers around the world a taste of the real thing.

TV displays at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
The lack of HD content is slowing HDTV adoption
"One of the biggest problems of HDTV today is that there is not a lot of content that is available in HDTV, and I think that's a problem worldwide," he said.

It has been embraced more readily by the US and Japan, but there are many places on the planet where interest is minimal, perhaps due to the small amount of content available.

Hollywood is also yet to fully embrace the idea of supplying high quality imagery to the globe until piracy issues have been addressed, according to the Consumer Electronics Association's Jeff Joseph.

"Copy protection is probably the last critical remaining roadblock on the road to HDTV," he said.

"We need to find a balance between the legitimate concerns of the content providers who want to protect intellectual property - it is critical to respect copyrights.

"But at the same time, we have to respect and honour the fundamental home recording rights of the consumers."

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