Government Video - September 1997

Oh Say Can You HD
by Sheldon Liebman

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission finally decided on some definitions for "Digital Television" and "HDTV," promising to improve our resolution while thoroughly confusing the market, at least for a little while.

This is not the forum for a large scale discussion on the merits of the decision or the ultimate timetable with which it will be implemented, but this important decision does have some direct bearing on the topic of this article - advances in high resolution and large format display technology.

One of the most significant issues with the new standards is the availability, or lack thereof, of display devices that are compatible with any or all of the proposed digital television formats. We've all watched closely as the worlds of computers and video have steadily merged together, and the passage of the Telecommunications Act, in the opinion of this writer at least, finally creates an environment where computer displays and television will become one and the same.

Television Becomes PC (and Vice Versa)
Computers have been configured for high-resolution display for quite a while. Workstations like those from Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems and IBM have used 1280x1024 as their display standard for the better part of 10 years. At this point, even PCs have evolved to this resolution, although it is highly recommended that you have a 19" or 21" monitor to be able to see the results clearly.

Over the past few years, graphics cards capable of displaying 1600x1200 resolution have become commonplace, although many limit the number of colors you can see at that resolution. As far as the total number of pixels is concerned, the difference between 1600x1200 and 1920x1080 (HDTV) is only 8%. This means that the jump from the current crop of SVGA cards to a new crop of HD compatible SVGA cards may not be very large.

Some computer companies have already made that leap, although only at the highest end. Today, the standard display for SGI's Onyx2 InfiniteReality is a HD monitor that SGI purchases from SONY. The assumption here is that people using this machine are doing work for high-end television and film production. Both the resolution and aspect ratio of HDTV are therefore appropriate. This $8000 monitor can also be used with other Onyx2 systems.

For other PC users, I predict that HD compatible cards will be available within the next 12 months and monitors will be available to use with them. The reason for this is that PC users are already comfortable paying a lot of money for large, high-resolution monitors. With prices already above $2500 in many cases, deciding to purchase a monitor for $5000, which is the number being tossed around for HD displays, may not be a difficult decision.

For people who work out of their homes, the combination of a high-resolution monitor with a PC may mean the system is removed from a spare bedroom and showcased in the middle of the family room. This would allow it to be used for high definition broadcasts as well as acting as a computer. The current crop of "PCs as home entertainment systems," like the Gateway Destination series, don't offer the resolution to make this a viable market. HD compatible PCs, however, would definitely be able to address every piece of this puzzle.

Projecting the Right Image
Even though the U.S. specifications for HDTV have just been formalized, the previous incarnations of HD have been used in a variety of circumstances for at least the past 5 years. High Definition projection systems have been available from companies like AmPro, Hughes-JVC and Sony that are compatible with standard television signals, SVGA signals and a variety of HD formats.

Currently, Hughes-JVC offers over a dozen versions of their single lens and three lens light valve projectors, with prices ranging from $45,000 up to $250,000. At a brightness level of 12,000 Lumens, their top of the line ILA-12K provides an impressive image up to 60 feet wide. The company promises that all of its light valve projectors will be compatible with the new digital television standards as they move from paper to the real world.

AmPro has also introduced a 12,000 Lumen projector in conjunction with Switzerland's Gretag Display Systems. The AmPro Eidophor AE-12 uses a single lens to simplify setup and can accept signals with resolutions up to 2500x2000 pixels.

"Settling" for 1280x1024
As we wait for the next generation of computer displays and HD production equipment to arrive, there are a number of other products being introduced that allow high-resolution graphics to be displayed in large formats. Specifically, we are starting to see the next generation of flat panel displays that operate at 1280x1024 resolution (or accept that resolution as input).

A couple of these products were on display at the recent SIGGRAPH show by IBM and SGI. Both companies now offer LCD panels that operate at a full 1280x1024 resolution. In the case of the IBM display, one of their booth people described the product as "two 640 panels that are left together." Apparently, IBM's panels are created in pairs and then cut in half to become the standard LCD panels used in ThinkPads and other IBM computers. By eliminating the last cut, the company has created a 16" panel display that accepts input from virtually any PC or high-resolution workstation.

The 9516 Monitor, as the product is called, carries a list price of $5999, which is actually very reasonable for a high-resolution LCD display. The product comes with a cable that allows a standard 15-pin VGA connector to be married to the 5 BNCs on the unit itself. Because the monitor has these BNC connectors, it can easily be configured to work with virtually any PC or workstation.

SGI's Indy Presenter is also a 1280x1024 panel and can be used with the full line of SGI workstations. The product uses a special connector to link to the output of an SGI workstation, which is why it cannot be used with other computers (at least for now).

The Indy Presenter is priced at $12995, which is over twice the price of the IBM product, but there's an interesting twist to this product that will justify the additional expense for many people. When used in an office environment, the Indy Presenter sits in a nicely designed housing that can be adjusted for the best viewing angle. It can also hold a small camera on the top of the display, making it easy to use in a desktop videoconferencing environment.

It's when you get out of the office, though, that the Indy Presenter really shines. The backlight for the panel is actually removable, allowing the device to be placed directly onto a standard overhead projector, just like other LCD panel systems. When you do this, you have the ability to project the image directly onto a large screen without having to move around any cables! And, you get to project at full 1280x1024 resolution.

Portable Projectors Gain Too
Last year, portable projection systems were mostly limited to 800x600 resolution. Today, a number of 1024x768 models are being introduced and some accommodation of 1280x1024 signals is also available.

One example is the new Proxima 9200, which is scheduled to begin shipping later this month. The 9200, priced under $12000, is capable of accepting and displaying a full 1024x768 image in a 13.5-pound package. It accepts both computer and standard video (Composite, Y/C) signals and can project an image up to 50 feet wide. Although it is not a true 1280x1024 panel, it contains scaling circuitry that allows it to accept 1280x1024 signals and convert them to 1024x768 for display. Although this is not as crisp as a true 1280 display, it still provides a reasonable image and eliminates the need for an external scan converter.

It's a Gas!
Earlier this year, Fujitsu made headlines when it introduced a 42" gas plasma display with a 16:9 ratio for video and computer sources. The panel is bright enough to be used in a normal office setting and features a wide viewing angle of 160 degrees. Although the resolution is limited to 852x480, the display is large enough that many people are excited about it anyway. At SIGGRAPH, one of these panels was being used in the IBM booth to display standard video images. However, no details were available on how to get one of these products.

If you're interested in this technology and have a spare $13995, you can have your very own wall mountable television from AmPro. The AmPro Plasma 42 is less than 6" deep and can be mounted on a wall, recessed in a cabinet or left freestanding. Although not the highest resolution or largest format display available, it is certainly one of the most impressive.

Where Do You Want to Go Tomorrow?
The next 12 months should be extremely interesting with respect to large format and high-resolution display technology. If my predictions are correct, the ultimate merger of computers and video will be well underway during that time. Hang on!

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