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High Definition: Choosing Sides

It seems these days that no matter which way you turn, there are people arguing passionately for or against something. Democratic candidates, Republican candidates. More taxes, less taxes. PC or Mac.

It seems these days that no matter which way you turn, there are people arguing passionately for or against something. Democratic candidates, Republican candidates. More taxes, less taxes. PC or Mac. There's no middle ground, lest you be seen as waffling or indecisive. The same sort of thing is going on in the consumer and professional electronics industries. We have got folks debating which blue-laser format is better (Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, although that debate is about finished), which flat-panel display technology has the edge (LCD vs. plasma), which projection technology is superior (3LCD vs. DLP), and even which digital display interface will be the best solution going forward (HDMI vs. DisplayPort).

In the broadcast industry, the progressive-HDTV-versus-interlaced-HDTV battle ended in a draw, as CBS, NBC, PBS, and many other major cable and satellite networks adopted the 1080i format for broadcast, while ABC, ESPN, FOX, and ION selected 720p. Both are compatible with HDTV sets—a textbook example of peaceful coexistence.

In our own industry, one of those “us vs. them” battles was actually resolved in a civilized fashion to the benefit of all parties involved. Industry trade association giant InfoComm persuaded the smaller but still formidable NSCA to consolidate their two trade shows into one; a common sense solution that brought forth cries of “hallelujah!” from manufacturers, reps, and members of the press.

But some of these battles will only be decided by market forces. Still others will require more political solutions.

Was it always like this? Weren't people more accommodating back in the day? From the standpoint of politics, no. On the other hand, many of these fights over display, interface, and storage formats could be avoided, if it weren't for the substantial capital investment that manufacturers have made in pet projects and the possible profits to be realized.

Years ago, standards committees got together to discuss these matters. They held meetings, did research, wrote papers, put forth proposed standards, and eventually adopted them, leading to things like the NTSC and ATSC television systems used in this country.

Those committees are still active, but it's questionable whether they carry as much clout as they used to. How many readers have purchased a new HDTV or blue-laser player and read or heard about Deep Color and xvYCC? Both are proposed systems to allow the encoding and display of wider color gamuts than those currently used for broadcast video and red- and blue-laser DVDs.

The reasoning behind these proposed standards is that the microdisplay, LCD, and plasma light modulators used in today's HDTVs and HD monitors are quite capable of showing millions more colors than can be rendered in the CRT-based ITU BT.709 color space. Indeed, Mitsubishi's new laser-powered rear-projection DLP that the company showed at CES 2008 features potentially the widest gamut of all.

The only problem with these proposed wider color spaces is that they are of little value unless packaged media or other content is encoded with them. Presently, none are. And that's because the people who work in the broadcast and motion picture industries don't use either of these color spaces as a production and post-production reference.

Every high-definition television program you watch via cable, satellite, or through a terrestrial broadcast is encoded to the BT.709 color space (or should be). Standard-definition shows are coded to the REC.601 color space, itself an outgrowth of SMPTE-C, developed by consensus through an internationally recognized engineering body.



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