A Wide Screen Wall Hugger


Walk into any consumer electronics store and you are assailed by what television makers call the "wall of eyes," a floor-to-ceiling display of indistinguishable, boxy TV sets. Even large-screen rear-projection sets don't escape this design tyranny. They're big, all right, but they're just boxes. And the styling choice? Wood grain or plastic finish.

Determined to jazz up RCA's square image, Thomson Consumer Electronics took a decidedly different approach in designing RCA's new 52-inch rear-projection television. First, it junked the box. The screen, flanked by stereo speakers covered in gray cloth and framed in ultrathin matching gray plastic, almost seems to float above the pedestal base. The design's lightness is a sharp contrast to the impression of enormous bulkiness of most projection sets.

SLIM AND SIMPLE. The deliberate use of industrial design has helped establish Thomson's identity in the fast-growing big-screen niche, one of the most profitable in the TV business. In 1990, the French company brought in-house the development and manufacture of projection sets after customers and retailers complained about the sets that Hitachi Ltd. was making for the RCA label.

Since then, shipments of its RCA, General Electric, and ProScan brand projection television sets have tripled, but Thomson still has less than a quarter of the big-screen market, projected at 400,000 units this year. The new model lists for $2,899 and is in the mid-dle of Thomson's range, which extends from 46-inch sets for $2,299 toa 60-inch model for $3,299.

Richard Bourgerie, the 52-inch set's chief designer, created the TV to work as either a free-standing or built-in unit--it can be constructed into a wall with just the screen and speakers exposed. The Thomson team of designers, engineers, and manufacturing and marketing hands also built as compact a set as possible. The group pushed the chassis forward and took out about four inches of air space between the chassis and frame, letting the slimmer TV fit easily through 28-inch doorways.

HIGHER-FI. The IDEA jurors agreed that this slimming plus the simplicity of the elements surrounding the screen gave the TV a sense of lightness as opposed to the gigantism of most 52-inch sets.

Intent on achieving a wide-screen look, Bourgerie also tried a first for projection sets--placing the speakers on each side of the picture tube, rather than below it. As it turns out, that approach also gives the set much better stereo sound.

The team designed in lower production costs, too. The speakers are mounted on wood baffles, but their frames are plastic. That halves the cost, to $10 per set. The designers also opted for a pressure-formed back cover that looks like expensive injection-molded plastic but is made with low-cost aluminum tooling. In total, the cabinet costs 30% less than the preceding model.

To get those savings to Thomson's bottom line, however, the 52-inch RCA sets have to sell. That will be the test of whether the team's design does stand out in the rows upon rows of boxy TVs.

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