January 14, 2007 20:01 dmercer
...after the out-of-this-world experience of Las Vegas, that is. A visit to retirement-age parents in suburban Essex is a good way to be reminded of the down-to-earth realities of how digital technologies are used by typical users, in contrast to the techno-geeks that frequent CES.
A few months ago my parents purchased a smart new Sony Bravia 32" LCD TV with integrated digital terrestrial (DVB-T/Freeview for anyone searching these terms on Google). It's worth noting, particularly for Americans that buy and never use the ATSC capability of their IDTVs, how easy the original installation process was and how impressive the results. Plug in device, tune in channels and enjoy. Use existing roof-top aerial installation. There really was little else too it, and the transformation from analogue terrestrial was indeed like moving from night to day.
Visiting the same household this weekend I was therefore surprised to see a 14:9 image on the 16:9 digital display. The explanation, apparently, is that one of the two main users prefers the analogue teletext service, with which he has become familiar over the past 20 years, and therefore often tunes the set to analogue broadcasts. 14:9 images are regularly transmitted by the BBC's analogue channels.
One of my many personal peeves is the apparent irrelevance to many people of the basic shape of the TV picture they are supposed to be watching. Ever since the arrival of 16:9 TVs in the early/mid 1990s I have lost count of the number of widescreen TVs on which 4:3 pictures are happily viewed in various distorted formats by an apparently oblivious audience. And then I spend my time with firms like Silicon Image who want to squeeze the next ounce of image quality out of displays, while apparently failing to realise that the vast majority of TV viewers don't even seem to recognise when the basic picture shape is distorted.
OK, maybe I'm being a little unfair - my parents do tune digital channels on a regular basis, and watch full 16:9 pictures, although we did have an interesting debate as to whether these were truer to life than 4:3. But after I demonstrated the BBC's digital interactive text services, I was told this was the first time they had been seen, and that in any case they were more difficult to read as they didn't fill the whole screen (they are designed around a live picture-in-picture video feed).
It's a familiar story from the UK (not that the UK is by any means unique) of rapid technology adoption but variable and misguided usage of that technology. These particular Freeview "users" were unaware of the impending switch-off of their analogue signals. Once the UK's digital transition begins in earnest next year I suspect we will be hearing a lot more from the analogue minority that remains.
On another subject, I was watching The Simpsons on Sky One on a friend's Hi-Def Sky Digital system today. And then we switched to Sky One HD expecting to see the same programme transformed. But of course it turned out to be an extremely old episode that just about merited the description colour, never mind HD. To be fair, Sky's small print does not claim HD for every programme on its HD channels, and they clearly label each programme that is actually transmitted in HD format. Sky admits that only a "selection" of programmes will be in HD. "Selection" is certainly the word - between 12.30am tonight and midnight tomorrow only 4 out of 24 hours' programming on Sky One HD are broadcast in HD.
The big picture behind all this? For all the talk from the industry about transforming the experience for users, the reality is that the majority of consumers are happy with a lot less than the best the industry has to offer. And many of them pay for experiences without really understanding what they are supposed to be getting for their money. A sober and useful reminder of real-world issues after the hype of the CES and Apple jamborees.