HD as the first step beyond TV

by Doc Searls

What comes after television? That's a question I've been asking at every Consumer Electronics Show. The answer, of course, is not just "more TV" but bigger and better TV, with better sound and higher resolutions, made possible by digital sources, processing and displays. In other words, computing and networking.

So does TV become just become a suburb of computing, or does the reverse happen? The TV folks imagine the latter. But the former is inevitable. Our job is to make the inevitable happen sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, we get to watch Big TV metasticize — and to enjoy what we can of it.

At last year's Consumer Electronics Show all the TV manufacturers I spoke to made one fact clear: the "new TV" would be a 1920 x 1080 screen — similar to the ones we use for computers, but optimized for television. Meaning they would also have HDMI inputs, component video connections and tuners for cable and over-the-air digital signals. Even though computer screens commonly come in resolutions upwards of 1920 x 1080, TV screen makers would plateau their offerings at 1080p, because that was the upper limit of the ATSC (Advanced Television System Committee) formats, and a 1080p screen would handle all of the 17 other ATSC formats of lesser resolution.

Specifically, they predicted that 1080p screens would be available at Costco for under $2000 by the end of the year, and that 1080i camcorders would be down around $1000. They also said full 1080p camcorders would start showing up in professional gear, but would take longer to come down in price.

Because of predictions like those, the flat-screen bracket over the fireplace in our new house remained empty for almost two years. That ended last November, when we bought a new 40" Sony KDL-40XBR2 Bravia screen from Amazon for $2299. No tax, no shipping charges. A few places charged less, but I'd never heard of them, and my experience with Amazon (which runs nearly everything on Linux) has been excellent over the years. (I don't want to check, but I'm sure the price on our unit has continued to sink.)

I decided to take the plunge after spending a couple nights at the house of a friend whose 46" version of the same screen (both are 1080p) also doubles as a computer display. He'd sit on his easy chair and control his screen with either a TV remote control or a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. (I mentioned this back in the November 14 SuitWatch.) We're not that fancy yet at our house, but I have tried hooking a computer up to the screen, and the results are startling — mostly because photographs look much better than any of the HD content coming in over TV channels. The resolutions are higher to begin with, and the images are far less compressed.

TV still has advantages, of course. The main one is that we still like what we can only get easily from TV stations and networks: movies, sports, and programs of various kinds. That's why nearly all of us have continued to put up with the 540-line NTSC and 576-line PAL systems that have been around for decades. Of course we still watch SD on HD screens, because that's most of what's still out there, and ... well, what else are we gonna do? We gotta watch TV, right?

Compared to SD, HD is pure deliverance. More than one friend has called the difference "life-changing". Some forms of programming — notably sports, music videos and nature footage — are so good, relatively speaking, that they're hard not to watch. Andrew Sullivan gushes,

My own guilty pleasure is the Discovery Channel, National Geographic television, and other nature shows. I loved them before HDTV; but now they're astonishing. The clarity that allows you to see nature as if you were there, in your own living room, is a window onto the entire world. I watched a broadcast from the Space Station, to take a simple example. I've seen plenty of TV from space before, but always as if through a blizzard or a fuzzy lens. The image always made space seem somewhere else entirely, a different dimension, unlike anything on earth. but HDTV changes all that. To see someone floating without gravity as if they were in front of you creates a whole new perspective on what space travel is actually like. It makes it real - for the first time in human history. If I were NASA, I'd do nothing but get HD images from space to the American public. It would reignite enthusiasm for space exploration.

But soon enough, you start picking nits. Every HD picture is plagued by MPEG compression artifacts: folds, quilting, blocking, mosquito noise... We get our HD from Dish Network, which currently offers about 30 HD channels, not counting the premium and PPV (pay per view) ones we don't bother with. I've compared our satellite picture with the cable pictures at friends houses and in stores, and there's no doubt that satellite is better. The system is all-digital and compresses its video far less than cable does. But still, it does compress. A lot.

The standard here is ATSC, for Advanced Television Systems Committee. ATSC is actually a pile of standards and practices that vary all over the place.

But bandwidth for live streams is still scarce, so every time your cable or satellite provider add more channels over the same "pipes", they compress the pictures more. I noticed that problem even in SD on our 16-year-old Sony Trinitron, back when Dish began adding channels without adding satellites (though our new system looks at three satellites at once). At one point I put up a roof antenna to check the difference between the "pure digital" channels from satellite and direct over-the-air (OTA) analog signals from stations carrying the same programming. The over-the-air pictures were much better, simply because they had no compression artifacts. In fact, watching them brought a sense of relief. "Look: the sky is a gradually shaded blue, not some kind of blue plaid!"

But analog TV isn't just terminal, it's condemned. By 2009, every station in the U.S. is required to abandon its legacy channel on VHF or UHF and fire up a new digital transmitter on a new channel inside the UHF band. In Los Angles, KCBS is moving from Channel 2 to Channel 60. KCOP is moving from Channel 13 to Channel 65. KTLA is moving from Channel 5 to Channel 31. While the new addresses are still channels in the sense that they correspond to frequencies, they're really a chunk of spectrum across which the station can stream up to . A digital station facility can actually broadcast a number of different program streams simultaneously (up to four, I think), plus data streams of various kinds, inside its spectral chunk, which handles up to 19Mb/sec.

One would think, then, that terrestrial over-the-air HDTV would be advantaged over cable and satellite, because it has a lot more choice about what to do with its 19Mb. But what I've seen from over-the-air signals so far hasn't been spectacular, though getting the stations have been an exercise in mixed analog/digital fun.

See, we live high on a hillside in Santa Barbara, facing south across the Pacific. Yet, thanks to the vicissitudes of geology and geography, we are not within sight of a single digital TV station transmitter. Our clearest shot at any HDTV transmitters, it turns out, is across the ocean to the southeast, toward San Diego and Tijuana, two hundred miles away. With our new high-gain Winegard UHF antenna pointed that direction, we get a nice bunch of digital signals. KGTV, a CBS affiliate better known as Channel 10, radiates its digital signal on Channel 25. KSWB, branded as Channel 5 because that's where it lives on local cable systems, actually radiates its SD signal on Channel 69 and its HD signal on Channel 19. That channel also carries a second "station" called Tube. Confused yet? It gets worse. KPBS, the PBS affiliate best known as Channel 15, radiates its digital signal on Channel 30, and adds a second "station" called "Create". Both show up in the midst of our satellite channels on the Dish receiver, which normally has channels are labeled 101 through 9999, but adds the OTA HDs amongst our local TV stations, which make a round trip of about 25,000 miles up and back from Dish's satellites high over the equator. Their channels on Dish correspond roughly to their channels on Earth. KEYT, our local Channel 3, is on Dish channel 003-00, which one can summon on the remote via a relatively simple "003" key entry. The Dish receiver, which has an OTA tuner for terrestrial stations, adds them into the lineup at whatever channel they choose to use. So KPBS, though its digital signal goes out on channel 30, tells the receive it's on 015. Its main channel is 015-01 and its secondary "Create" channel is 015-02.

We got all this working on New Years Day, when treated ourselves to the Rose Parade on Discovery HD and the Rose Bowl on KGTV, occasionally interrupted by signal losses that are common in winter here -- especially when you're dealing with UHF frequencies bending across 200 miles of curved water. Here's a photo set of the whole fun exercise.

With digital signals, reception is much more binary than with analog. There's no snowy picture or gradual fading as the signal weakens. Instead the receiver works to keep painting a coherent picture decreasing amounts of data. The result at first is something that looks like abstract art or one of those old screen savers that divides your picture into squares and starts re-arranging them. When that fails, the receiver throws a "lost signal" error message on the screen. Our Dish Network receiver can display signal strength, which serves as a warning of lost signal risk, as well as a handy way to aim the antenna (ours has a rotator too). When signal strength gets down to "60" (not sure what that number means, but at least it's consistent), watch out. Above that, you're fine. (By the way, at CES I got some hang time with the SiliconDust people. These are Linux fanatics who make what looks like a real fine over-the-air digital TV receiver that can serve your TV or hour home computers directly or through a LAN.)

Of course, the whole thing is deeply silly, technically. Few people watch more than two channels at a time (usually recording one while watching another), meaning most of the data streamed to us is wasted, making the compression of everything-at-once even more annoying. There are no "channels" or "stations" in the original sense; just familiar names for data streams that are needles in a growing haystack of other streaming options.

The strangest anachronism is the persistence of over-the-air TV. Relatively few people still get their TV from antennas. Why even bother with transmitters any more? TV stations suck huge amounts of electricity off the grid, and squat on vast districts of spectrum. Their transmitting antennas crowd the tops of towers, buildings and mountains. Here's a link that shows technical particulars for all the TV transmitters within 30km of San Francisco. While stations putting out 100kw, 316kw or 5000kw of "effective radiated power" are actually running transmitters at a fraction of those values (and using stacked antenna arrays to concentrate energy in the horizontal plane, toward the viewers), they're still wasting a load of electricity bathing nature in radiated energy that is increasingly anachronistic, if not pointless.

Why not just put everything all on the Net so people watch what they want, when and where they want it? Or produce what they want, when and where they want it? These are questions both history and the marketplace are starting to ask.

Meanwhile, the flywheels of business-as-usual keep spinning. Same goes for the economics involved in making changes, which are non-trivial for everybody in the business. On the one hand stations are losing advertising revenue to a jillion other alternatives. On the other hand digital equipment is still very expensive. In many cases the equipment is far more expensive than stations can afford. So they'll carry HD programming from the network, then drop down to SD for news and other local programming.

I learned about the stations' problems from my friend Terry Heaton, a veteran local TV executive and a consultant of high standing in the business. He told me there aren't enough viewers yet, and production is still too expensive. So, rather than experiment, most stations are moving along with extreme caution.

So I had an idea for him, which he liked and said he'd pass along to the stations. Here it is: put locally produced amateur productions on one or more of the secondary HD channels. People are starting to use high-def camcorders, and to produce high-def videos. More and more people are going to want to start sharing those, but won't be able to fight the slow upstream bottlenecks that their local cableco or telco has provisioned for their Internet service. But the TV stations have the bandwidth, at least on the downstream side.

The first place to bet here is with the young folks. High school and college kids. Next are the "placebloggers" who are also becoming placecasters. The stations should open a channel to broadcast whatever legal stuff these folks want to come up with. There are administrative and electronic costs, but few if any costs for expensive new "professional" gear. Hey, why not?

By the way, professional gear pricing took a big jump downward at CES, where a company called Red showed off a cinema-grade digital film camera that essentially makes 35mm-grade cinematography available in digital form at prices independent producers can afford. It shoots with a 4520 x 2540 resolution (2540 progressive) at 60 frames per second RAW, using a 12-megapixel Mysterium CMOS sensor. It's flexible, format-agnostic, and costs $17,500. For something this good, that's cheap. What else will get just as cheap, and cheaper, fast? What will happen once it does?

The answer will go way beyond "consumer-generated content", which is the industry's first clumsy name for a tidal wave of original new work that will overwhelm and eventually sweep the old systems away.

Listen to Mark Cuban, thinking out loud.

So the contrarian in me asked the question: "Should we look at taking the video in the other direction?". Should we be sourcing video from traditional TV delivery options. Can user generated content be uploaded to cable or satellite companies and then delivered as regular TV to be played back from a settop box or DVR.

Your DVR, whether you know it or not is a PC. It has a hard drive that is probably as big as the hard drive in your PC. The one huge difference between your PC and your DVR is that the DVR has a user interface that is optimized to sort, select and display video content on your TV. In other words, dozens of companies are trying to create add on devices that will somehow make your PC act more like a DVR.

So why not just use the DVR ?

There is absolutely no reason why you couldnt subscribe from your DVR to a CBS "User Generated Content" feed that has the same content as what they offer to their Youtube Subscribers. The difference of course being its in TV or HDTV quality. The content would be delivered through your cable or satellite provider. There is no limit to the number of content providers , large or small that could offer subscriptions.

What about pure user generated content ? What about people's cat, kids and response videos ? Simple.

Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner, Charter, Insight, Cox, any cable or satellite provider could easily offer a website that allows users to upload content the same way they upload to Youtube. One key difference is that they wouldnt have to limit the length or encoding quality of the content. Youtube and other sites that make their money selling ads around content, have to limit quality and length of video to minimize file sizes, which inturn minimize their bandwidth costs. Bandwidth costs are so expensive at the volumes Youtube streams, many have questioned their ability to cover those costs even with the constraints.

Traditional TV delivery methods however are multicast , as opposed to internet videos unicast approach to video delivery. In English, that means that the cable and satellite companies could take the uploaded videos and push them out to all DVRs of anyone who has subscribed receive those videos in a single stream. internet video requires 1 stream per person per video.

The user side would be incredibly simple.

If you subscribed to all of CBS videos, you get them. If you subscribed to all of NBCs video, you get them. If you subscribed to all of Universal Music's videos. You get them.

Dave Winer followed with a Settop box HTTP server post. He writes, "Settop boxes with fractional horsepower HTTP servers. Of course! Why not? Can't wait. Let's go."

Chances are your set-top is already a Linux box. Connect the dots.

Then remember that the professional video (some still call it "film") production world is already thick with Linux. As the production side gets cheaper and more flexible — and more filled with free and open source materials — the whole business is bound to turn inside out. Rather than old fashioned high-wattage "channels" raining "content" down on "consumers", we have producers distributing their creative work in a flatly-connected environment where everybody gets no more or less than what they want, or are willing to pay for — preferably directly to the artists and their partners.

The marketplace that emerges in that flat new world will be many times larger than the old pyramids it replaces.