Japan's Hdtv: What's Wrong With This Picture?

It's hard to miss the pessimism these days among Japanese TV makers when the talk turns to high-definition television. That's right, pessimism. True, the first HDTV sets for consumers appeared in Japan late last year, with wide screens and movie-quality images. But the prices are astronomical--$15,000 or more. And HDTV broadcasts are limited to one hour a day, mostly of Sumo wrestling and baseball. What's more, rental videos are nonexistent, since manufacturers have yet to agree on standards for consumer equipment such as high-definition VCRs. Thus, only a few Japanese households have HDTV sets.

Worse than all that, the Japanese system, designed mainly for satellite broadcasts, may become obsolete before it takes off. American engineers are developing more advanced HDTV that will transmit images digitally, the same way computers handle data. If this approach works, it could leapfrog Japan's older analog transmission system. Japanese TV Goliaths are thus scrambling to catch up. "We, too, are looking into an all-digital system," says Masao Sugimoto, director general of the Science & Technical Research Laboratories at Japan Broadcasting Corp. (known as NHK from its Japanese name), which created the Japanese standard.

TANTALIZING. So if their technology is outdated and costs as much as a car, what do the Japanese have to show for the 20 years and more than $1 billion they've spent on developing HDTV? Plenty, it turns out. With the consumer market stalled, giants such as Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. are trying to recoup by turning to industrial markets. New niches for HDTV gear range from electronic publishing and teleconferencing to medical training systems and supercomputer graphics used by scientists. "We're seeing steady growth in professional approaches," says Sony Deputy President Ken Iwaki.

The most promising such market for HDTV is as a scientific and engineering tool. Until now, scientists have relied on costly workstations from such companies as Silicon Graphics Inc. to translate reams of computer data into images of weather patterns, atomic structures, and other complex phenomena. Workstations provide much sharper pictures than ordinary TV, but their images are dark and weren't meant for viewing by large audiences. The only way to project a workstation-generated image on a large screen, while maintaining high resolution, is to convert it to 35mm film. And once that's done, the image is frozen. You can't manipulate it by computer.

HDTV provides a tantalizing alternative. Unlike workstations, which weren't designed to capture or display real images, HDTV combines camera, recording, and display technologies. For supercomputer researchers, HDTV's chief attraction is increased size and brightness of the display. At Hitachi Ltd., researcher Ken Yamaguchi used HDTV in combination with a supercomputer to produce dazzling simulations of silicon crystal growth. "You can screen the results for a large audience on a 110-inch display, or air them over a closed-circuit network," says Yamaguchi. His colleague, Ryotaro Irie, created the world's first HDTV renderings of chlorofluorocarbons attacking ozone molecules. "Viewing it in HD gives you a deeper sense of three-dimensionality and movement," he says.

But that's just the beginning. Designers of automobiles and other products are now using HDTV together with computer-aided design (CAD) tools to speed up product development. Explains Junji Nagasaka, general manager of information systems at Toyota Motor Corp: "HDTV lets you take a realistic, computer-generated rendering of an automobile and weave it together with real images so that it appears to be driving through a desert, or down a crowded city street." He adds: "The ability to mix computational and real images is critical in evaluating automobile renderings."

Last summer, Ford Europe came to the same conclusion and plunked down $10 million for Sony HDTV equipment. Ford managers now hope to cut the design cycle for a new car from 64 months to 48 months and to reduce the number of clay models from more than 40 to just 2 or 3. Engineers make a 3-D computer model of a car, then project the model to lifesize dimensions on a 5-meter HDTV screen. Ford now uses the system in Cologne, Germany, for exterior designs, and in Dunton, England, for interiors. The next step is to combine the two applications, so the engineers can show how a car looks when the hood or a passenger door is opened--which should help the engineers make decisions on design details.

What's slowing Japan in such efforts is a late start in computer graphics. To catch up, most major Japanese players have set up HDTV research and development facilities in the U. S. NHK and four other Japanese companies, for example, are cooperating with Carnegie Mellon University to develop HDTV animation. Ultimately, "HDTV capability will help Japanese companies win customers for their high-end workstation products," says Laurin Herr, a computer-graphics consultant and president of New York-based Pacific Interface. In unit sales, the Japanese have just 7.6% of that market worldwide, according to Dataquest Inc. But, adds Herr, HDTV "is a significant threat to America's dominance."

DOMINANCE ISN'T ALL. Nobody expects Japanese-style HDTV systems to replace conventional workstations entirely. For one thing, their resolution isn't good enough for many CAD uses. But HDTV may well become a standard interface for a wide range of computer equipment. In Japan, Sony and Sun Microsystems workstations are already being fitted with special circuit boards that store HDTV images. Canon, Hitachi, and Fuji Film have all developed high-end printers that handle still HD pictures. And a half-dozen companies have optical filing systems that can archive high-definition material.

As Japan has proven, moreover, it isn't necessary to dominate a market for finished systems in order to achieve success. Japan remains only a minor presence in the worldwide computer-systems market. But it managed to export $18 billion worth of computer-related products in 1989, some 85% of that in parts and peripherals.

So even if American engineers surge into the lead with their all-digital HDTV scheme, they may still have to turn to Japan for many key components. Japanese companies are the chief suppliers of image-capturing charge-coupled devices, digital recording systems, and most high-resolution and flat-panel displays. "Japan's 20-year investment in HDTV has already had a massive impact on technology," says Hajime Yamada, Toshiba Corp.'s senior manager for HDTV systems.

Still, that's a far cry from Japan's original vision of a new television in every home--a market that Tokyo once predicted would be worth $22 billion by the year 2000. Japan would hate to see that dream shattered. But if it is, conquering new computer niches will help take away the sting.

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