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Copyright © 1994, 1995, 2000
A. Thomas Heald
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3000 words

 

Future Intense
by
Tom Heald

Lead Feature Article in Video Magazine, July 1995

 

Predicting the future is like flying in clouds; it's hard to tell which way is up. But, there are indicators we can use as an artificial horizon. Development labs around the country are pushing the technology envelope so fast that it's hard for product developers to keep up. Over the next 15 to 20 years we will see more changes in home video than seen since the advent of movies, 100 years ago. Everything from the camcorder to the VCR; from broadcast TV to your living room set; from the local VCR rental shops to the cable industry is undergoing a metamorphosis. And you won't believe what is about to emerge from its chrysalis!

Advancements in lasers, non volatile memory, and holographic storage will bring new video storage media with astronomical capacities, allowing us to display improved video formats on our smart TVs. It won't be long before the average TV will have more computing capacity than the fastest desktop computer in the home today. They'll need it to show the newest video formats with the latest compression algorithms and digital effects. No self-respecting digital TV of the future will come without a built in phone, access to the videobahn, and a CEBus connection to talk to all of the other equipment in your home. But above all, it's the picture that counts.

The sharpest, brightest video is still produced by direct view TVs; but their size is limited, not by the laws of physics, but by the width of our doors. New flat panel displays will raise that limit with new wall-size, flat panel displays that are crystal clear. As the size of a display increases, so must its resolution. High definition TV is just the beginning, there's studio quality video, and holovideo. With each step up in quality, requiring storage devices of greater capacity.

Today's Video CDs are evolving into Digital Video Disks (DVD) with a huge increase in capacity. Sony recently demonstrated a DVD with the capacity to hold two hours and fifteen minutes of high quality video, superior to today's laser discs. Toshiba countered with a double sided disc that holds four and a half hours of high quality video and has an overall capacity of 10 gigabytes, 15 times the capacity of today's CDs. Sony responded with a two-layer disk that doubles its capacity to 7.4 gigabytes, and can be read from a single side using a technology developed by 3M. And that's just the beginning. Both sides promise increased capacities when the blue laser is available for production next year.

In the early rounds Toshiba seems to have the edge with the backing of some of the worlds leading consumer electronics and entertainment companies. Time Warner Inc., Matsushita Electric (Panasonic, Technics, Quasar), Thomson Consumer Electronics (RCA, GE, ProScan), Hitachi, Pioneer Electronics, MCA, and MGM/UA are all supporting Toshiba's format.

"Matsushita believes this new format has the potential to become the accepted worldwide standard," said Richard A. Kraft, President of Matsushita Electric Corporation of America speaking on behalf of Toshiba's format. "One worldwide standard will greatly benefit consumers." Let's hope so, because competing standards could trigger a Second World War that, once joined, could make the Beta/VHS War look like a church social.

IBM has demonstrated a rewritable optical disk based on their new blue laser that has five times the density of any video disk using infrared lasers. According to IBM this new laser is likely to find its way into their Optical Library, which holds 12 dozen, 5.25 inch optical disk cartridges, increasing its capacity to 5 trillion bytes. At that rate IBM's Video Jukebox could hold over 1,300 hours of compressed, broadcast quality movies or over 300 hours of HDTV. Can you imagine? A dozen Jukeboxes could hold the nearly 8,000 laserdisc titles currently available, and allow access to any one of them within ten seconds via the Videobahn; you know, that high speed lane on the Information Superhighway we have been promised called Video-on-Demand.

"We're working to make this blue laser device small enough to fit inside a personal computer or workstation," said Dr. Edward Engler, program director of IBM's Optical Storage Laboratory. The current unit is about the size of a VHS videotape, which is just right for their refrigerator sized Jukebox, but far too large for home video equipment. It won't be long though, before the Big Blue laser spawns a baby blue laser just the right size for camcorders and VCRs.

If you're not impressed with a mere fivefold increase in density, how about 50 times? "By using multilevel disks," said Hal Rosen, manager of Novel Recording Studies at IBM's Almaden Research Center, "we are now extending optical data recording into the third dimension." By stacking several recording surfaces on top of one another, IBM is able to read and write data by moving a lens up and down to focus a laser beam onto one of up to ten layers. (See Gleaming the Disc, December 1994) With the baby blue laser and multilevel disks, we could have a rewritable DVD holding 50 times more information than current CDs. Why that's enough room for 33 hours of laserdisc quality video, all available on a disk not quite twice as thick as today's CD. If you rented one for a weekend, you'd have just enough time left over for a little sleep.

"We believe," said IBM's W. E. Moerner in his paper on Holographic Data Storage, "that within the next decade, improved polymers will permit us to store several billion bits of information -- more than the entire text of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- in a polymer film the size and thickness of a dime." Holographic storage, or holostor, is being worked on at Bell Labs, IBM's Almaden Research Center, and Stanford University to name a few. Until recently they haven't had the technology to produce an affordable system. However, liquid crystal displays, originally developed for digital watches and computers, are now being used as a template to form pages of digital information to be stored on one of those holographic dimes. CCDs used to capture images in camcorders are now being used to read digital information projected from holostors.

As anybody who has ever looked at a hologram knows, when viewed at different angles, different images are seen. Holostor takes advantage of this characteristic by recording each page of digital information at a different angle. This allows each of the dime size volumes to hold over a hundred pages of holographic information. Then imagine 36 of these little holographic volumes on a thin five inch square sheet of plastic and you have an idea of the potential. Such a holostor could hold about 22 hours of HDTV. But that's just the first phase, eventually IBM expects to shrink the dime size volume down to the size of a pin head, providing 100 times more capacity. You could slip one of those babies into your holographic VCR and record 6 hours a day for a year before you filled it up. Which is probably why most VCRs come with year-in-advance programming in the first place.

Today, rewritable optical disks are common on home computers. The new double sided 5.25 inch optical disk cartridges can store over one and a half hours of MPEG-1 compressed broadcast TV on a single disk. The new DVDs will be able to record four and a half hours of enhanced laser disk quality video on a single disk. Optex has developed an alternative to the VCR that uses a 5.25 inch rewritable disk cartridge capable of holding 6 hours of compressed video. The prototype Playser, short for laser player, should revolutionize the home video recording market and force other manufactures to come out with their own versions of rewritable DVDs as replacements for VCRs over the next several years.

In about the same time frame, the digital VCR promises four and a half hours of enhanced video at premium prices. Is there really a market for tape? Its success will depend on when recordable DVDs hit the market. If they are late, Digital VCRs will be used by high end user, but don't expect tape to last much beyond the advent of recordable DVDs.

Even professional videophiles are getting away from tape. Avid, a leader in digital editing systems, and Ikagami, whose cameras are favorites of news crews across the networks, are jointly developing a camera that uses a plugable hard disk drive instead of tape. It makes editing a snap. Simply pop the hard drive out of the camera and plug it into the editing system. No analog to digital conversion is required. Direct access eliminates all that searching and rewinding. The next logical step would be to replace the hard drive with a DVD. The only disadvantage is the somewhat higher demand placed on batteries when recording on an optical disk.

Limited battery life can be overcome by using a non volatile memory module. It works like the main memory in your computer, only when you turn it off it doesn't forget. You can expect to see flash memory cartridges, much like game cartridges, that will contain gigabytes of memory. Hatachi has demonstrated a tiny, ten ounce camcorder that can record 30 minutes of sub-VHS video onto a 400 megabyte flash memory chip about the size of a sugar cube. Imagine ten of these cubes inside a plugable module you could slip into your camcorder. With good compression it could record four hours of laser disk quality video, or, at the flip of a switch, it could record an hour of HDTV. It would require very little power, and there are no tape transports or recording heads to give problems. In fact, the only mechanics will be in the lenses.

Best of all, when you get home you simply plug the module into your computer, edit the video onto your DVD using the latest digital special effects, and make original quality copies for all your friends and neighbors. Is the world ready for wide screen, laser sharp, morphing home movies? The only thing lacking is a gadget to automatically edit out all the boring parts.

The problem with this picture is the price of flash memory. But, with memory chip capacities doubling and prices halving every year or so, we should see affordable video flash cartridges by the time HAL goes into orbit in 2001.

Even sooner we should see DVD players with enhanced laser disk quality video and the next generation of laser disk players supporting high-definition video. In Japan, HD laser disk players are already being marketed. As soon as the HDTV standard is fixed we can expect to see a new 12 inch digital format. Of course both the 5 and 12 inch digital video discs players will be compatible with today's discs, and the top of the line digital laser disc players will be able to play everything from today's CDs to tomorrow's digital laser discs.

By the time Roy Scheider's character, Heywood Floyd, blasts off to find out what happened to HAL in 2010, the National Film Archive could have the technology to release a commemorative set of nine holostor modules packaged in a 1 by 4 by 9 inch jet black case titled the Filmography of the 20th Century. It could contain the restored versions of over 50,000 movies as they were originally released at a high enough resolution to be enjoyed on wall size screens. Just a dream? Maybe, but the holostor is real.

The promise of large, flat panel TV has been around for over 25 years, but has yet to be realized in the home market. Small, liquid crystal displays used in portable PCs produce incredibly sharp colors when viewed head on, but tend to fade when viewed at an angle. Fujitsu General is marketing a 21 inch gas-plasma TV that is only 2.5 inches thick but lacks the contrast and brightness of conventional TV. Matsushita Electronics the parent company of Panasonic, Quasar and Technics brands, has developed a new flat panel display based on a modified CRT design. Instead of directing a beam from a single cathode at each pixel on the screen, they use an array of tiny emitters under groups of pixels. This has allowed them to market a 13 inch display in Japan that is only 4 inches thick. Using this active matrix design they currently have a 16 inch prototype that is even thinner and they are working on 21 and 25 inch prototypes.

Texas Instruments is developing a new chip made up of 440,000 tiny hinged aluminum mirrors that can be electronically switched back and forth between two positions. Using this technology TI clams it will be able to project magazine-quality color images onto screens the size of a living room wall at virtually any brightness desired. Projection TVs have always suffered from brightness problems. However, the addition of the blue laser to the already existing red and green lasers opens up new possibilities for creating razor sharp color images at high levels of intensity. A Laser TV was demonstrated by a German firm at the International Electronics Exposition in Berlin. It can project a bright, sharp image onto a wall size screen while using less power than a conventional TV.

Another application for the new blue laser is 3D-TV. Navy researches have developed a true three-dimensional TV that doesn't require any fancy glasses with polarized, or colored, or switched liquid crystal lenses. It works by projecting a laser image onto a spinning helix. Think of the helix as a spiral staircase with a ramp instead of steps. If you emagin a singel dot projected onto the helix from above, it will appear to move up and down as the helix spins beneath it. By timing a laser to illuminate each spot when it is at the proper height and depth, a true three-dimensional image is created.

The researchers are already using this three-dimensional, volumetric imaging technique to track aircraft from San Diego to Los Angeles inside a transparent cylinder three feet in diameter and 18 inches high. For now the images are formed with red, green and yellow lasers but when the yellow laser is replaced with a blue laser it will be able to recreate real-time, three-dimensional images of any subject in any color.

The next step beyond 3D-TV is Holovision or, as the researchers at MIT prefer, Holovideo. Holographic video isn't new, we have all seen it on Star Trek and Star Wars -- but this is real. (See Video's Fourth Dimension, Nov., 1994) At MIT, they are building a real-time, three-dimensional, holographic display that projects images into dimensional space. You don't need any special glasses or helmets to view its true-to-life images. It's reality without substance. You can reach out to touch the image, but when you do, there's nothing there. Just patterns of light playing tricks on your visual cortex.

The biggest obstacle to holovision lies in the resolution and bandwidth necessary to record holographic images in real time. The technology envelope just hasn't expanded far enough for today's CCDs and the like to capture all the imaging data required. Today, researchers at MIT are using a super-computer to generate the holographic images they are projecting. Just as the TV or holovision set of the future will probably have a super-computer inside it to handle the volume of compressed data and to communicate with all the other systems in your home.

"We're trying to find a common communication scheme that the industries can all hold to," said Tom Mack of the EIA (Electronics Industries Association) in Washington, DC. Its Consumer Electronics Group consists of representatives from manufactures of home electronics equipment. One of the standards EIA is working on is the Consumer Electronics Bus. The CEBus is a multimedia standard for controlling different types of equipment used in homes today via: power line signaling, twisted pair phone lines, coaxial cable, radio frequency or infrared signals.

Suppose you have six channels of audio coming out of your home theater mixer, but no cables. You don't need them! Each channel is digitized and sent to a specific speaker system over your home's electrical wiring. Inside each of the six speakers, the CEBus protocol selects the specific signal directed to it. A final amplifier inside each speaker pumps up the wattage to the indicated level. When you change the volume or audio mix back at the TV, these changes are instantly transmitted to the speakers.

Say you wanted to change the channel you're watching on a satellite receiver located in another room. You point your CEBus compatible remote at the TV and select a channel. The TV decodes the remote's signal, sees it is a command for the satellite box, and sends it over the coax to the satellite's tuner. In the back room, your son zaps his TV to change channels on a separate tuner in the same satellite box, so he can watch the final episode of the Star Trek: Voyager series.

Meanwhile, your daughter is in the garage working on her stock-car. She points a greasy remote at a battered TV and zaps the home's CD Jukebox to play her favorite music on the TV's stereo speakers. Then she directs the home's Video Jukebox to load the Chilton's 91-96 Home Auto Repair DVD, and brings up the timing specs for an old '94 Mustang into a video window beside the engine analyzer's output on the TV. Both Jukeboxes are located well out of harms way, next to the satellite receiver, and a computer in your equipment room; the room people use to call the guest-room.

Your camcorder will use broadband infrared to transmit both picture and sound directly to the TV without wires. When you sneak into the kitchen during a break in the playoffs you will be able to switch the kitchen speakers to the two front channels of your home theater system so you don't miss anything. In existing homes, every wall plug will be a CEBus connector while new homes could be wired with a high bandwidth CEBus connector next to every wall plug.

Science fiction? No, every bit of this technology exists in research labs across the country. Over the next fifteen to twenty years a blend of these technologies will work their way into the equipment in your home. So come, take a trip down the videobahn. In future articles we will look at video-on-demand and its effect on video as we know it today. We'll ask media-moguls about their visions of the future, and discover whole new worlds made to seem real through digital effects in future flicks. In this new age of video, we all have a choice: to boldly go where no video has gone before, or end up as road-kill on the videobahn.
 


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