The year is 1967. A robust television set sits in the middle of a living room in an English town house. Gathered around it is a large family, craning their necks to see the BBC’s first ever colour broadcast on the 20-inch screen. Wimbledon is on, and Great Britain’s Roger Taylor is playing South Africa’s Cliff Drysdale. The telly cost them a few hundred bob, and it weighs 90 pounds, but it was worth it.
(Bonus points if you can actually see the ball in this clip.)
What would this family have said if they knew that in less than 50 years’ time, not only would you actually be able to see the ball, but that your television would pick up every blade of grass, every bead of sweat? That you could watch the match in 360-degree virtual reality, or that the TV that once took up most of the room would now be thinner than a picture frame?
TV technology has come a long way in the past half century, but that’s nothing compared to where it’s going. What can we expect from the next 10 years in front of the box?
However, Nick Roos, Home Entertainment Specialist at Sony, says we shouldn’t be so quick to move the big telly out of the living room.
“There will always be a place for the television,” he says. “If you imagine an entire family watching the same programme, all with their VR headsets on, then the social aspect of watching TV together is completely gone.”
Live events, from the Rio Olympics to The X Factor, live and breathe only when you’re watching TV together. Where’s the joy in screaming at the telly to encourage Jason Kenny to the finish line, unless you can grin at the person next to you on the sofa when he wins after a nail-biting two false starts? You can’t do that when you’re wearing a virtual reality headset.
Shows like Gogglebox, too, have shown the importance of the social commentary that television inspires.
The Malone family pile onto the couch in the Gogglebox Brexit Special
That is not to say that VR isn’t an exciting concept for the future of TV. According to research by CCS Insight, the VR industry is set to grow by 168% this year, and there are more than one million active users of Samsung’s Gear VR headset in the United States.
What’s more, earlier this year the virtual reality series Defrost premiered at the Sundance Festival, a show that would never have been made if it wasn’t for 360-degree cameras and VR hardware bringing it to life. Randal Kleiser – best known for directing Grease – had written the script for Defrost decades ago, but it was only with the arrival of virtual reality that he felt the story could really be told.
The series is filmed from the perspective of Joan Garrison, a woman who has just woken up from a 30-year “frozen state” in 2045. Her reunion with her family is bittersweet, as the passage of time has caused them to become strangers to her.
Andy Anderson, deputy chief technology officer at Airbus, has said that virtual reality content from streaming sites like Netflix will be the future of in-flight entertainment, replacing screens on the back of chairs.
Netflix have launched a virtual reality app, although CEO Reed Hastings isn’t as convinced that it’s the technology for them. “You’re exhausted after 20 minutes,” he told PC World. “We are more focused on a lean-back, relaxing experience.”
However, Samsung Vice President Conor Pierce believes that we’re only just scratching the surface of what virtual reality is capable of: “It [VR] can also have a role to play in filming and broadcasting live events… We’ve just shot a series of 360 interviews with the Team GB athletes where viewers can experience what it’s like to be in the Olympic village in Rio – seeing it in a VR headset really feels like you are there with them.”
Click and drag your cursor on the video to see a 360-degree view of the British House in Rio
Until recently, VR has been something typically associated with the world of gaming. Samsung Gear, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are the usual suspects, but Sony has also just developed VR hardware for PlayStation 4.
Roos says that VR could be as successful for TV and film, because it takes up very little room and makes no sound: “Some people don’t have the physical space for a really big screen size or a wall big enough for a projector. So they don’t have space for the cinema experience that modern TVs can bring. Also, if the kids are in bed and you want to watch a movie by yourself, then it’s a great solution to use a VR headset, put on a good pair of headphones and get your full cinematic experience without disturbing the neighbours and without the need for a massive living room.”
How much better can TV resolution get?
For now, though, Sony is focusing on actual televisions for its home entertainment developments. HD, Ultra HD, 4K… these have all essentially tried to create more detail using what we have already.
But Nick Roos argues that the future won’t be about any of these things. The next big thing he claims is HDR – High Dynamic Range.
HDR content is produced using more advanced camera technology to capture footage, resulting in an image with more light contrast and therefore more detail. For example, whereas on a standard display of a camp fire, everything in the flame’s shadow might be the same shade of black, an HDR display’s range allows you to really see the different shades and outlines of objects that are barely lit in the gloomy surroundings.
“The difference versus regular television is like night and day,” says Nick Roos. “HDR has so much more detail, more colour, more brightness. It’s a huge step forward. If you see the same clips shot side by side, one in regular 4K and one in HDR on exactly the same TV, you can hardly believe they are the same TV.”
If HDR is going to be adopted, it will need TV and filmmakers on board. The process requires people to shoot specifically for HDR – Netflix series such as Marvel’s Daredevil and Marco Polo already are available in HDR, while the BBC is also playing with the technology.
The hope is that better picture quality will mean more ambitious content. More intimate shots, more drama, more carnage. Roos explains: “We will see movies that are more immersive. Given that TVs are getting bigger and bigger, you might see movies with bigger explosions or faster car chases, where you’re a bit closer to the action instead of having a zoomed-out view. It gives you the ‘being there in the moment’ kind of experience.”
Reimagining the remote
Android TVs are another innovation that is growing in popularity, and they are really where we begin to see mobile viewing and traditional television viewing overlap. Gone are the days of endlessly scrolling through the TV guide to find the 234th channel which might be screening your favourite show – now you can just bark a command at the telly (a bit like iPhones and Siri), and your choice will come up.
The blue circle in the top left corner indicates the voice control function
Another aspect of these TVs is that your mobile phone doubles up as a remote control. An actual remote control is also included with the television meaning that in theory, a dozen people could be in the same living room having a “remote-off” with various smart phones and remotes all controlling the same TV. It sounds like absolute hell.
Making TV invisible
So, the TVs of the future may have impressive functionality, but what will they look like? Wave goodbye to a tangle of wires so knotted it hurts your feelings. And bid adieu to television sets that mean sacrificing your Christmas tree this year. TVs of the future are invisible. Sort of.
Televisions are already being disguised as art work hanging on the wall, and Sony is making projectors as small as a packet of crisps. This reflects the growing desire among consumers for tech in the home to look much more subtle, and fit into people’s living spaces without being obtrusive.
The Sony ZD9
Sony’s Ultra Short Throw Projector prioritises discretion. It has a 4K resolution and, unlike in the good old days, it is not mounted on the ceiling projecting light across the room, with people walking in front of it at the most tense moment of the film. Instead, it is the size of a side plate and sits at bottom of the wall, projecting content upwards with lasers rather than lightbulbs.
This trend of understated tech extends to the exterior of people’s homes too. Before, whole houses seemed to be covered in TV aerials, but in 10 years there may be no need for them whatsoever. If people continue to opt for on demand and online streaming at the rate they’re going – a recent survey from Deloitte found that millennials aged 14-25 value streaming services more than live TV – then aerials might soon be unnecessary. Even now, live BBC TV can easily be streamed over the internet, with connected boxes allowing you to watch live via BBC iPlayer.
It’s beginning to look a lot like aerial TV might not have a place at all in this clearer, brighter future that awaits.