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article imageFads and phases: TV's bid to make you buy the 'Next Big Thing'

By James Walker     Dec 18, 2015 in Technology
Over the past few years, televisions have changed to include new display types, online streaming and party-trick features such as 3D. Much of this has yet to see widespread adoption though, raising the question of what we're looking for in a TV.
The changing face of television
Since televisions became widely available in the 20th century, two major shifts have been observed that each dramatically changed the viewing experience. The first began in 1951 when CBS broadcast the first commercial TV program to be shot in colour. Gradually over the next few decades, colour displays replaced the black-and-white screens in households worldwide. Colour gave content new life and opened the door to more immersive and realistic experiences in the future.
The second change was completed more recently. Over the past decade, analogue radio channels have been switched off as digital and cable services have come to dominate TV tech. Viewers can now enjoy crystal-clear full HD content while avoiding all the annoying interference that plagued analogue tuners.
TV manufacturers haven't stopped with colour displays and digital signals though. The terms "LCD", "LED", "plasma", "OLED", "3D" and "4K" have all cropped up relatively recently, leaving customers overwhelmed by confusing jargon and "must-have" features. These new technologies have often failed to live up to expectations though, despite the best efforts of the industry to sell ever-larger and ever-pricier televisions.
Plasma — brightest, then gone
A key example of this over-selling of new tech can be observed in the boom and bust of plasma displays. The idea of plasma being used to create a screen dates from 1936 when Hungarian engineer Kálmán Tihanyi conceived the essentials required to create a plasma television. After initial development in the 1980s and 1990s, the technology became a popular display type for large TVs during the 2000s.
The PLATO V plasma computer monitor from 1981
The PLATO V plasma computer monitor from 1981
Wikimedia Commons
The screens are made of small cells that contain electrically charged ionised gases. When the cells are charged with a large voltage, the gas forms a layer of plasma. When an electrical current is applied, some of the moving electrons collide with mercury particles and momentarily gain more energy.
This energy is then lost in the form of photons of ultraviolet light that go on to collide with phosphor particles, raising their energy level. The phosphor also quickly loses this extra energy, as infrared and visible light. It is this emission of visible light from the phosphor particles that creates the image on the panel.
A glowing plasma lamp [Image credit: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be]
A glowing plasma lamp [Image credit: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be]
Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Commons
Plasma televisions are known for exceptional brightness, wide viewing angles and high refresh rates which help to reduce motion blur. It's not all positive though, as many early adopters of the technology found. Plasma quickly gained a reputation for a gradual loss of brightness over time, issues involving image "burn-in" and ghosting and comparatively high energy usage.
These problems and the proliferation of LCD (liquid-crystal) and LED displays began to spell an end for plasma almost as quickly as it rose. Many of plasma's former headline-features such as deep blacks and bright, vibrant colours have been met or surpassed by developments in LCD and LED technology. Plasma never experienced the same price drops as LCD and LED have, leading to its quick fall in popularity from around 2010. Figures at the time put global shipments at a healthy 18.2 million units but just four years later plasma was all but gone.
The beginning of the end came in 2013 when Panasonic, one of the former advocates of plasma technology, announced it would end production from April 2014. Plasma's fate was sealed by the end of the year as world-leading manufacturers LG and Samsung both followed Panasonic and discontinued their plasma ranges.
Plasma's downfall ultimately came about as a consequence of the success of emerging panel types LCD and LED, leading to a swing in public favour away from plasma. LCD and LED screens are thinner and lighter, usually cheaper, available in smaller sizes and more energy efficient. As consumers bought more of them, companies increasingly prioritised investment in developing them, improving image quality sufficiently that no reason remained to buy a plasma panel. Going into 2016, the technology is already largely forgotten and even LED is beginning to be superseded by OLED.
3D — an extra dimension
The idea of adding a sense of depth to a 2D image is nothing new. Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the first stereoscope in 1838, a device that shows two slightly different images to the left and right eye, tricking the brain into combining them into a three-dimensional scene.
The technique is still used today for 3D televisions and films. The viewer wears a set of special glasses that split the on-screen image into separate components for the left and right eye. Other forms of 3D display include a polarization system that superimposes two images onto the same screen and autostereoscopy, more commonly referred to as "glasses-free 3D."
An LG 3D TV with  3D World  content discovery platform
An LG 3D TV with '3D World' content discovery platform
LG
Viewing TV in 3D began to take off from around 2010. In that year, total shipments were just 2.26 million, a figure that rapidly increased to 41.45 million units by 2012. The technology failed to capture the attention of most consumers though and was already in decline by 2013.
Major broadcasters began to cancel their plans to broadcast in 3D as it became apparent that the third dimension wasn't what TV manufacturers claimed. In July 2013, the BBC indefinitely suspended all its 3D broadcasting due to a "lack of public appetite" for the content.
A month earlier, ESPN had discontinued its dedicated 3D channel which let viewers watch select live sports events in 3D. In a statement at the time, ESPN was clear about why it had cancelled one of its flagship products, saying "we will be ready to provide the service to fans if or when 3D does take off." Over two years later, that still hasn't happened.
Sony s 2012 HX8 3D television with its  sharpest ever picture
Sony's 2012 HX8 3D television with its "sharpest ever picture"
Sony
Similar lack of take-up has been experienced in the film industry. Revenue has declined as people have failed to adopt 3D movies in the way Hollywood had expected. A 2013 study concluded less than 48 percent of people would opt to watch a film in 3D if given the choice of formats. In a separate poll, 41 percent of people described it as a simple gimmick. Income from 3D showings has fallen steadily by 1 percent a year since 2009 and the pioneering 3D release of Avatar.
Back in the home, at the CES technology show last January, 3D TVs were all but non-existent. Leading manufacturer Samsung was one of few vendors to unveil new 3D models in 2014 but this year it too abandoned the technology. Instead, it launched a new range of ultra-HD 4K models, none of which support 3D. Second-largest manufacturer LG followed suit and most other major brands had already stopped releasing new models.
In a 2013 Digital Trends article, Gartner analyst Paul O'Donovan suggested 3D's failure came about as the novelty of the technology wore off and people became annoyed at having to wear glasses to watch TV. He said: "The glasses are a significant factor. For example, it was one size fits all, (adults and children) and people wearing prescription glasses had to wear two pairs of glasses, plus deal with the reduced brightness level of the screen, so it didn't take long for the novelty factor to wear off."
He added: "The total number of pairs of glasses that shipped with any 3D TV was always limited, which meant that sharing the content with friends and family became limited if you didn't have enough to go round."
Unlike other failed TV technologies, 3D's downfall came not as a consequence of a superior system being developed but rather due to consumer rejection of its capabilities. 3D TVs gained a reputation for causing eyestrain, dizziness, headaches and, in severe cases, even seizures. Warnings were issued against their use, particularly for at-risk groups such as the elderly and young children.
Further problems arose from the way in which humans perceive 3D. One experiment found that 30 percent of people have very weak stereoscopic vision and so find it hard to see any difference between a 2D and 3D TV. Around 12 percent of the population are unable to resolve stereoscopic images at all.
Faced with the prospect of paying a premium to watch TV while wearing glasses and feeling faint and dizzy, most consumers just skipped 3D entirely. What began as something billed as the first true innovation in TV viewing for years turned out to be a fad in the eyes of many, proving that early adopter opinion still plays an important role in deciding which new technologies become a true "must-have."
4K — four times the pixels
In the same way as "Full HD" was a headline specification to have just a few years ago, 4K looks set to replace the now commonplace standard over the next few years. 4K may sound like a complex acronym but it actually means "four times the resolution of Full HD." This creates a display with a resolution of 3860x2140 pixels, 8,260,000 in total, up from 2,073,600 for full HD.
Sony 4K Ultra HD TV event
Sony 4K Ultra HD TV event
John Karakatsanis
With four times the pixels in the same area of a screen, 4K panels are capable of producing much finer details than most televisions today. Arranging the pixels on the display requires minute precision though, a problem which has so far prevented 4K TVs from falling into the general consumer price ranges. Guide prices have only recently dropped below $500 for basic models. Entry costs are falling though and it is now possible to get a capable 4K display for less than $1,000, a figure that looks set to drop further by the end of 2016.
The other issue with buying a 4K TV today is more fundamental. Broadcasters have yet to adapt and there is hardly any 4K content available to watch today. Netflix, YouTube and a handful of other on-demand providers all support streaming in 4K but this requires a capable Internet connection of around 25Mbps.
Most people simply don't have the necessary pre-requisites for an enjoyable 4K streaming experience. With few other content sources currently available, ultra-HD remains in the future for the majority of the population.
Industry watchers agree. Chris Green, principal technology analyst at consultancy firm Davies Murphy Group, described the lack of content as a major deterrent for people considering buying a 4K TV in a BBC article published August 2014.
He said: "There's a lack of a compelling reason for you to go out to buy one tomorrow. And in most of the world the broadband isn't there to deliver a 4K stream to many people's TVs. Other firms aren't going to want to commit to tooling up a line to build a TV that they're not going to be able to shift in enough volume to make viable."
4K is still an emerging technology and as such is yet to deliver many benefits for most people. Eventually, we're all likely to own 4K TVs but today prices are high and content is scarce. There's no point in spending hundreds of pounds on a television if no video is available to watch on it, an issue that will need to be fixed before the technology becomes universally accepted.
Curved displays — comfortable or only cosmetic?
Curved TVs began to be introduced in 2013. Since then, the market has begun to increase but the technology is still far from going mainstream. Only 800,000 units were shipped last year, although figures are expected to grow to six million before 2018.
Supporters of curved displays claim they experience increased immersion with the image on screen, a heightened sense of "depth" that can feel like 3D and wider perceived viewing angles. The technology has failed to catch on though and has been generally portrayed by the media as nothing more than another fad phase in TV's history.
Panasonic's 4K curved OLED televisions are displayed at the Panasonic booth  at the Internation...
Panasonic's 4K curved OLED televisions are displayed at the Panasonic booth, at the International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center, in Nevada, on January 7, 2014
David Becker, Getty/AFP/File
In an article titled "Curved televisions: Worth the money or an expensive gimmick?", the International Business Time's Alistair Charlton opted for the latter, concluding "TV makers are killing time until they can give us the real Next Big Thing." CNET's review of one of Samsung's 2014 curved models opened with the telling sub-heading "Great picture quality, but the curved screen is a flat-out gimmick."
With a largely unmoved press response and slow consumer uptake, curved TVs don't look to be so healthy as manufacturers would have you believe. What's more, the usually-cited advantages of the curved display are dismissed by some who argue it doesn't add any extra sense of immersion after all. The claim of increased viewing angles also backfires; reviews often note curved TVs are uncomfortable to watch unless you are right in front of the screen because otherwise you may not be able to see the picture on the side curving towards you.
Samsung Introduced world’s first curved OLED TV at CES 2013
Samsung Introduced world’s first curved OLED TV at CES 2013
samsungtomorrow
There's more negatives too. A curved TV doesn't look so good if hung on a wall and, as with all new tech, pricing is still prohibitive for most people. Costs are starting to fall in the same way as 4K but with disputed benefits it remains unlikely that curved screens will become commonplace for some time to come.
There's more negatives too. A curved TV doesn't look so good if hung on a wall and, as with all new tech, pricing is still prohibitive for most people, starting at around $1,500 for an OLED panel. The majority of curved displays use this new technology as few manufacturers have released LCD and LED models with curves.
Attendees and images from other 4K TVs are reflected in the curved 4K 3D Cinema display at LG's...
Attendees and images from other 4K TVs are reflected in the curved 4K 3D Cinema display at LG's booth at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on January 10, 2014 in Las Vegas
Robyn Beck, AFP
A curved TV typically carries a price increase of 30 to 40 percent over its flat counterpart, often adding upwards of $1,000 to the bill at the checkout. Costs are starting to fall in the same way as 4K but with disputed benefits it remains unlikely that curved screens will become commonplace for some time to come.
Samsung's global TV president said last year that "all TVs will be curved" in the future but so far there's little evidence to support this claim. Some have speculated that curves could go the same way as 3D and be gone within the next few years.
Conclusion: The Next Big Thing is yet to appear
Watching television at the end of a long working day is an experience enjoyed by millions worldwide. However, despite the best efforts of TV manufacturers to add "next-generation" features to the screens that adorn our homes, many consumers have simply shunned recent developments in favour of the basic flat-screen LCD or LED panels that have become popular since their introduction.
Other technologies have either been made redundant by newer ones and forced out of the market, or rejected altogether by customers. Plasma had to give way to thinner and cheaper modern alternatives and 3D was over-hyped by manufacturers desperate to restart sales in the wake of the global financial crisis.
In the near future, new innovations such as 4K and curved screens hope to convince sceptical consumers to consider buying into technologies still widely viewed as emerging and niche. The latter has already been faced by a barrage of media criticism while the former remains limited by a lack of readily available ultra HD content.
A Samsung comparison of LED and OLED televisions
A Samsung comparison of LED and OLED televisions
Samsung
Another key emerging panel type, OLED, is facing similar roadblocks. The technology creates self-illuminating displays that don't require a backlight, reducing thickness and creating thinner screens.
OLED displays have greater contrast ratios and more vivid brightness than their LCD and LED counterparts but are complex to produce. Development is currently largely stalled at most major manufacturers as brands struggle to optimise manufacturing methods and lower costs from their current mark in the thousands.
Paul Gagnon, an analyst at industry watcher NPD DisplaySearch, said to TechRadar after the IFA trade show in Berlin last year: "OLED panel production is still very difficult. Samsung has pulled back from large-format OLED — though it's still very much in the small OLED market — but LG continues to press forward, and is the only brand to have ramped up commercial production of large OLED displays … For OLED to emerge as a significant technology in the high-end TV market, and later the mainstream, it needs to come down in price to a level comparable with the best LCD TVs."
Going into 2016, television manufacturers remain largely at odds with their customers. Industry leaders Samsung and LG are keen to push the advantages of 4K curves but have to contend with the refusal of the market to adopt these new technologies. After the over-selling of plasma and 3D in the last decade, many still don't trust the promises of TV makers, restricting development and sales.
Over the next few years, it's inevitable that emerging technologies such as 4K, curved displays and "smart" integration will begin to gain ground. What remains less clear is whether they will become true essentials like Full HD or just more one-time wonders to go to the history books with 3D and plasma.
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