Amidst the fury of overlapping IFA, CTIA, CEDIA and Photokina trade shows is this week and next is the IEEE International Conference on Consumer Electronics-Berlin, where longtime industry engineer and Zenith R&D Labs leader Wayne Luplow presented a keynote address reflecting on a fascinating 50 years in the consumer electronics industry.
Luplow, who had stints with LG Electronics, Zenith, and RCA/Sarnoff, pointed out that over the years, “we’ve seen cycles of innovation and consumer behavior repeated, time and time again” — a convenient phenomenon for forecasting technologies and trends of the future.
Throughout, he said, “advances in consumer electronics are only made after significant investments in solid research and development,” and often competitive cooperation and collaboration has yielded some of the world’s greatest technological achievements.
“The tech roadside is littered with inventions that may have seemed like great ideas, but there wasn’t a compelling product or the right mix of price and promotion,” Luplow observed.
Successes, he said, are predicated on “innovation matched with a better experience for the consumer — and the right mix of product, price and promotion.”
As for the next 50 years, Luplow said, “television of tomorrow will be, all at once, bigger — and smaller. A home theater and a theater-on-the-go. Personalized with programming tailored to you, and able to receive live images from anywhere on the planet — whether delivered by an antenna, cable, satellite, cellular or Internet connection.
Content itself will be more personalized and targeted, but also offer more choices to let millions experience the same thing at once.”
Of all the projects Luplow was part of, he said the one that brings him the most pride, is “the work that went into creating and deploying North America’s Advanced Television system. Today, an initiative called the Future of Broadcast Television is building on that effort, working with standards-setting groups here in Europe, in Asia, and in the Americas, to pursue next-generation digital TV standards.”
Luplow said he started work on advanced television at Zenith, where he helped direct development of technology behind the ATSC DTV transmission standard called Vestigial Side Band (or VSB for short). Zenith also played major role in the Grand Alliance in the United States that merged competing advanced TV systems to create a “best-of-the-best” all-digital broadcasting standard.
Even after LG acquired controlling interest in Zenith in 1995, the Zenith R&D Lab continues to develop advanced new transmission and reception techniques for over-the-air digital TV to mobile and fixed receivers, he noted.
Luplow continues work on the ATSC board of the IEEE CE Society, which has continued work after adoption of the U.S. digital television standard in 1996.
“Today, in fact, ATSC is working on next-generation transmission technologies that will bring TV into the Internet age, with non-real-time and Internet functionality, as well as more flexible new ways for broadcasters to reach consumers wherever they go,” he said.
Luplow said that although price erosion has put tremendous profit pressure on manufacturers and retailers over the years, “it’s what consumers have come to expect, and is a major driver for innovation… But falling prices aren’t the real story. Frankly, neither are bigger screen sizes. The real amazing part of the past five decades is how innovation has shaped our industry.”
Luplow said cooperation with colleagues and competitors, alike, is key.
“There’s a wonderful example in Zenith’s past about the value of cooperation to solve a persistent problem. Zenith’s founder, Commander Eugene McDonald, couldn’t stand television commercials, so he directed his engineers to work on early concepts for pay TV beginning (believe it or not) in the 1940s.
“And by the mid-1950s, he was delighted to green-light a lab project that showed how a beam of light could be used for the first time to control a TV set, and particularly to mute the sound ‘during those annoying commercials’ — as Zenith ads said at the time.”
Luplow recalled that “in Zenith’s labs in the 1960s, we were also working on surface-acoustic-wave filters to replace coils and other components for integrated TV tuners.
"And, of course, development of color TV was in its heyday. While RCA had been first to market with a practical all-electronic color set in 1954, Commander McDonald made it clear that Zenith would not experiment on American consumers. RCA carried the ball with color, virtually on its own, until Zenith and others joined with color sets in the early 60s.”
Color TV didn’t really take off until the 1969 introduction of technologies like Zenith’s Chromacolor — the first black matrix surround on a shadow mask tube that doubled the brightness of a color TV, he pointed out.
In the end it was “price and promotion, and good network content that made color TV a wise investment for most consumers — and industry growth exploded.”
He recalled various Zenith technologies over the years, including work on the first pay;TV system for over-the-air broadcasts, called Phonevision; the picture “zoom” feature, developed by Zenith in the 1970s that allowed the viewer to zoom-in, or expand, a part of the picture by remote control; the SpacePhone, long before VoIP became common in today’s smart TV-platforms; and, in the mid-1980s, teletext in decoder-equipped TVs that displayed electronic newspapers via the vertical blanking interval of analog terrestrial broadcasts.
Luplow recalled that sometimes marketing hype predated actual product delivery, such as talk of flat-panel TVs back in the 1960s — “Most consumers today probably have no idea that flat panel TV technologies were being developed and perfected in laboratories around the world — decades ago,” he noted.
As for today’s HDTV, he recalled that more than 25 years ago Zenith started down the path of “Spectrum Compatible” advanced television with AT&T Bell Labs. It was the first partially digital system that proved the concept of simulcast broadcasting.
“These developments were key building blocks for the all-digital HDTV systems of the early 1990s. One of Zenith’s main contributions to the industry enabled TV simulcasts — with the previously unused “taboo” channels that could be used to add-in the DTV/VSB transmissions without interference-from or interference-to analog signals,” he said.
The “Digital HDTV Grand Alliance” of competing system developers proved to be “a great adventure in cooperation and collaboration” between fierce competitors, such as RCA, Philips and General Instrument, which together developed today’s North American DTV Standard.
Luplow said, “The road ahead is even more exciting, for manufacturers, broadcasters, studios and content creators alike. The next-generation ATSC 3.0 standard will bring new flexibility and new opportunities for over-the-air TV stations.
Mobility will continue to grow in importance. Internet-connected “smart” TV is already a standard feature in most big-screen TV sets, merging the immediacy of live TV with the deep catalog of streamed content and the information-rich Internet.
“But I also believe that we must have patience. This stuff takes time. After all, many of our technology transitions have ended up in the dust-bin of history.
“As a longtime observer of television, it’s obvious to me that the road ahead is for TV products that are bigger and better –including Ultra HD 4K and even giant 8K screens with stunning picture quality. But TV is also getting better and smaller — with more mobile options to bring live broadcast content to viewers watching on tablets, smartphones, watches and any number of future devices.”