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The 3-D IPTV Digital Mobile Future...or Not

Personal video recorders (PVRs, like TiVo units) will destroy advertiser-supported television. Internet-delivered programs will wipe out cable and satellite. Viewers will watch TV on cell phones. Or maybe none of the above will happen.

This much is certain: Nothing is known about the future. Even that is wrong; it’s a safe bet that the earth will continue to spin—at least for a while.

Consider PVRs. A recent report from Leichtman Research indicates that 88% of PVR users do, in fact, skip commercials. It also says most of them skipped commercials (presumably with VCRs) before becoming PVR users. A different study showed comparable commercial retention for PVR users and non-users.

Then there are competitors to TV programming: the Internet, video games, music downloads, etc. But Nielsen’s latest data on household TV viewing shows it at a record high of 8 hours 11 minutes per day. Individual daily home viewing is at a 15-year high of 4 hours 32 minutes.

What’s going on? It’s simply impossible to predict the future.

In this age of HDTV, LCD, plasma and DLP TVs (and other advanced display technologies not yet on the market), it may be worth noting that the vast majority of TVs sold today are still plain, analog, 4:3, standard definition models with picture tubes (cathode-ray tubes, CRTs). That wasn’t always the case.

Most television-engineering historians consider John Logie Baird the first person to achieve a video image of a recognizable human face. In 1940, he said, “Cathode-ray tubes are the most important items in a television receiver.” Nine years earlier, he said, “There is no hope for television by means of cathode-ray tubes.”

Baird made that 1931 statement because he had already demonstrated broadcast television, videophones, theatrical television, home video recording, and even see-in-the-dark television using mechanical contraptions with spinning disks at a time when CRT technology was in its infancy. By 1937, mechanical TV was all but dead, and CRTs made home TV sets possible.

Philo T. Farnsworth was the first person to achieve all-electronic television. But he wasn’t the first to conceive of it. That honor belongs to the British electrical engineer A. A. Campbell Swinton, who published a remarkably accurate and detailed description—complete with drawings—in 1908. His prescience, however, was purely technological.

In 1912, he wrote that “such an apparatus will never be built following these principles.” He followed in 1924 with a statement that television “is probably scarcely worth anyone’s while to pursue it.”

In 1927, the president of AT&T said, “The elaborateness of the equipment required by the very nature of the undertaking precludes any possibility of television being available in homes and offices generally.” A year later, Television magazine offered “Some new uses for television: For the toilet—enabling the televisioner to see the back of his head when brushing his hair.”

“There can be no doubt that high definition television is one of the most remarkable technical achievements of our times,” said the director of London’s Science Museum in 1937. An influential magazine editor said in 1936, “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.”

In 1939, a New York Times editorial said, “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” In 1956, the advent of the videotape recorder led the same paper’s TV critic to predict picking up a home-video movie at the local drugstore.

RCA’s David Sarnoff was noted for his accurate predictions. He told a colleague the secret was predicting everything and only pointing out what came true. In 1935, he said, “All that can be done with television... has been done.” In 1955, he predicted the color videotape recorder; he also predicted nuclear-powered flashlights.

TV-engineering pioneer Renville McMann told our sister magazine Videography in 1982 that HDTV would enter homes “within five years, but if you asked me five years ago, I’d probably have said then, ‘within five years.’”

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.