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Fri, 06 Apr 2007

HDTV: confusing, yes?

More than two years since Microsoft's erstwhile gaming evangelist, J Allard, announced that the next generation of consoles would arrive at the head of a technology and media transition he termed the "HD Era", you might be forgiven for thinking that the transition is a done deal.

HDTV sets fill the windows of electronics retailers around the world, enticing customers with their sleek, shiny looks. Consumers on web forums debate the relative merits not of HD versus SD screens, but of different HD resolutions. And the press is sold on the concept, throwing around formerly alien phrases like HDMI, HDCP and 1080p with wild abandon.

The HD transition, you might think, is in full swing. What seemed like a risky gamble two years ago - betting the farm on the idea that consumers would be prepared to upgrade their TV equipment - has been gradually turned around to look like a well-informed choice. 2007, we are told, is the Year of High Definition - the year that Xbox 360 and PS3, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, 720p and 1080p, will become the basic standards for the content we eyeball on a daily basis.

It's a lovely piece of spin, and I'm sure that PR bosses around the globe have been burning the midnight oil on that one - but the real picture, I suspect, is very different. For a vast number of consumers - almost certainly a majority - HD remains an almost meaningless buzzword, a confusing high-end technology whose purpose, requirements and cost have been badly communicated.

The real-world example of a friend whose apartment I visited last week is a useful eye-opener. He's in his mid-20s, professional and fairly affluent - a perfect example, actually, of the casual gamer demographic most games firms are so keen on winning over.

He's also the proud owner of a 46-inch Samsung high definition TV, which takes pride of place in his living room. It wasn't cheap; he's perfectly happy to spend on his home entertainment kit. As a consumer, he is slap bang in the middle of the road along which the HD juggernaut is supposedly steaming.

Here's the catch. In the five months since acquiring his delightful, shiny Samsung HDTV, he has not watched one single second of high definition content on the set - and he had absolutely no idea that this was the case. He knew that he had a "HD" television; he knew, quite specifically, that they have sharper pictures, and thus he wanted a "HD" set. What he didn't know, and what the HD lobby completely failed to educate him about, was that having acquired a HD set, he also needed HD content and HD players and receivers for the experience to actually work.

The conversation with him on this matter was almost farcical - and this was only an attempt to explain the need for a fully HD throughput from start to finish to actually take advantage of his kit, never mind messing around with geeky technical nonsense like 720p or 1080p.

The press and the hardcore consumers can pretend all they like that multiple HD resolutions are a perfectly simple matter; to the average consumer still struggling to get his head around what's "HD" and what isn't (mentioning that even a HD TV and a HD-DVD player connected up with an old-fashioned SCART cable won't actually give you a HD picture got a particularly long-suffering look), such points are utter gibberish.

This was, of course, an isolated incident - but a quick trawl of electronics retailers reveals that these scenes are repeated across the country, countless times each day. Consumers, frankly, don't know what HD is aside from being "a bit sharper". They plug their new HDTVs into existing, non-upscaling DVD players and standard definition game consoles, using old analogue video cables, and think that everything is working (albeit disappointing) because the picture looks a bit sharper than it did on their old CRT televisions.

Industry insiders, AV nuts and hardcore gamers can roll their eyes all they like at such behaviour; this is the reality of public uptake of HD right now, and it's not doing anyone trying to sell a product on the promise of high-definition wonder-visuals any good.

Of course, it's no surprise that consumers are so confused when the companies behind the HD lobby can't seem to get their message straight either. Sony threw a spanner into the works with the decision to start calling 1080p "True HD", and more than one electronics store employee I spoke to had tales to relate of consumers who had already bought a 720p television, coming into the store angry and annoyed at the idea of having to upgrade to 1080p so they would have "real" high definition... Despite not having a Blu-Ray player or any other kind of device actually capable of outputting HD, let alone 1080p HD.

Sony aren't solely to blame, though. Microsoft can't get its message straight either; it vacillates wildly from claiming that HD isn't really that important (mostly when downplaying the market for high definition movie discs) to claiming that it's absolutely vital (mostly when talking about high definition games, presumably keenly aware that most consumers still aren't convinced that their trusty PS2 needs an upgrade).

The HD disc format war doesn't help; consumer uncertainty over the desperately ill-conceived HDCP standards doesn't do much for the education of the masses about the joys of HD either. Under such confused circumstances, it's no surprise that Nintendo has found the lack of HD support in the Wii - lambasted as a disastrous decision by its critics - to be no barrier at all to selling consoles.

The HD juggernaut will, of course, roll onwards relentlessly. There is no doubt that standard definition will be replaced by high definition in time - but at present, serious questions need to be asked over how much time we're actually talking about.

Until consumers at large are much, much more educated about HD - and much more comfortable in their understanding of the benefits of the technology - then standard definition will continue to be incredibly common, even in homes which own a HD set. At a time when the videogames industry wants to sell its new range of products on the strength of stunning HD visuals, that's a worrying and unhealthy possibility.

After all, we all know how damaging a console hardware transition can be to the bottom lines of everyone involved. The prospect of adding a mismanaged display technology transition to the mix is not a pretty one; and if the roll-out of HD technology continues to be botched in this way, the public perception of the value of next-gen videogames will be one of the main victims.

The HD lobby needs to start scoring better grades in communication - or risk losing the fickle enthusiasm of consumers, and dragging this transition out for years longer than it needs to take.

(gamesindustry.biz)

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