Could TV Really Die? What Would We Lose?

Gary Kayye recently wrote about the death of TV, which could be going the way of the AV system. The question this brings to me is that of, ‘What do we lose in both experience and community?’ As a professional, of course, I also think of what this means in the commercial world. Can we be better off without TV? Are there any size screens safe from replacement by the devices in our pockets and backpacks? These are great questions; come join me in exploring them!

Experience, Viewing Angles and Content

The most obvious difference between a phone, a tablet and a flat-panel is size. Even an unreasonally large phone is between five and six inches diagonal, tablets have standardized around seven and ten inches, and TVs can be numerous sizes from 36″ all the way up into the ’80s. Size is often limited by room configuration as well as cost. If you expected that, as an AV professional, I’d have a terrific home theater setup in my domicile, you’ll be sadly disappointed. My better TV is a 36″ Samsung LCD in the bedroom. My less-better TV is a 36″ Vizio in the living room which, due to an apparent dead backlight, no longer works (at least not for video — audio comes through fine, albeit blind and this is the opposite of useful). The problem is that viewers would be — at a minimum — nine feet away, filling about nine degrees of one’s field of vision, measured vertically. Compare that to a 10″ tablet held comfortably just closer than arm’s length, at nearly 18 degrees. Not only is there a bigger perceived picture, but any viewing angle problems completely vanish! If you look at the living room layout, you’ll see that there’s not a great bit of wall to hang a display from which everyone can see it (you’ll also see that I have some cleaning to do, but that’s another topic). Personal viewing is always on-axis because one holds the device that way.

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The biggest thing that makes this worthwhile is content, and the biggest change in that is not the moving away from TV in the sense of the large-format monitor, but moving away from the CATV set-top box. If one wants to watch broadcasts from ones cable provider then using personal devices might create a challenge, but with quite a bit of our content available for streaming mobile devices have actually become the more convenience viewing devices. It’s easy to watch the baseball game on MLB’s streaming service, Game of Thrones on HBO Online, Orange is the New Black on Netflix, etc.

The same issues hold true for commercial installations. Imagine, for example, a thirty seat meeting room. Sufficiently large LCD panels, rear-projection, or direct-view LEDs could cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alternatively, one could purchase thirty iPads for about 15,000 and pass them out at the start of meetings for supplemental viewing. It not only gives everyone who needs it their own display with  a perfect viewing angle, but is a technology that can be completely hidden when not in use. There are no architectural concerns at all involved with using portable devices, no aesthetic issues, no need for dedicated power or a rear projection room or special mounting. Just secure storage with charging stations.

TV is Communal. Can Personal Viewing Be?

One perceived issue with personal viewing as opposed to a shared, large-format display is that it can be isolating; if my wife and I are watching TV together, we’re watching the same content at the same time and can experience it together. This works if we’re watching a movie, or sharing a mutual guilty pleasure. (Mine happens to be Project Runway. Don’t tell anyone!) The problem comes when I want to watch a baseball game and she wants to… well, her  desire would not be to watch a baseball game. A large shared display pushes one viewer’s choice of content into an entire space where it is, at best, a distraction to those not interested in watching.

gamethread-rollcall-0815This isn’t to say that communal experiences don’t exist; just that streaming and small-screen viewing can break them away from narrow geographic confines. I could stream the game on my PC, log into a discussion site in another window, and spend the entire game socially engaged. During last night’s Mets game, for example, literally dozens of people participated in a discussion thread over 2,000 comments deep. “Social” doesn’t always mean “in the same room.” These days, it more often does not.

In the Commercial World

I’m working now on an operations center with very minimal shared displays. I was ready to design a large video wall, and was told by the client that it wasn’t what fit for them; most of the content requires reading, making viewing on a far-away display challenging. Different people might be working on different items at once, and if they did want to see the same thing they could send it simultaneously to separate desktop displays. Discussion went from large-scale architecturally integrated displays to in-depth work with furniture vendors on console layouts involving various displays of different sizes, all of which would be driven by a PC. Shared experiences will be created with off-the-shelf collaboration tools and good old fashion face-to-face discussion. It’s noteworthy that removing the architecturally-integrated video elements freed the space-planning by no longer requiring “classroom” style placement of consoles oriented towards a single wall. Careful placement of monitors to allow voids in the field of view and thoughtful furniture placement will, we hope, create a more collaborative, connected environment.

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Are Large Displays Dead?

Is this the end? I certainly hope not! The one thing a large display still does is create a “wow factor” — large architectural displays can still create a major visual impact which personal and portable devices don’t. For the in-between sizes, though, personal devices are an increasingly popular and viable option. They’re devices we already own for other reasons and which can now replace the “entertainment viewing” of a large TV as well as they replaced the functions of point-and-shoot cameras. Like higher-quality cameras, large displays will still have their place, but this will be increasingly specialized.

I’ll close with the warning that technology moves fast enough that this very well may be wrong; next year we could, for example, be reading about VR or augmented reality glasses as the new viewing paradigm. Or continuing to follow this trend. Or large, architectural displays make a “retro” kind of comeback, perhaps in ’50s-style wood cases. One thing for certain: I’d not bet too much money on tomorrow’s TV market looking at all like last year’s.