The wide screen saga

Wide screen television sets were introduced in Europe around 1992. At that time, there were hardly any wide screen broadcasts, so in order to move these new wide TV sets, manufacturers included all kinds of artificial picture scaling technologies into their products, stretching out the image just so that the screen is “filled”, and no black bars are visible at the sides of the screen. Of course, even though anyone serious about viewing moving images “the way they are intended” shudders from the idea of sacrifising picture aspect ratio, I can understand that in those early days without any wide screen content available, such technologies were needed just to get the wide screen TV ball rolling.

Then came DVD in early 1997. The first mainstream video format to offer real, anamorphic, wide screen video. The DVD specification cleverly defines that a player must be capable of compressing and letterboxing a wide screen DVD when a traditional 4:3 is connected, while outputting the uncompressed, full frame wide screen image to a wide screen TV. Unfortunately, the type of TV set that is connected to the player needs to be manually selected by the user. Ususally, this setting is burried deep down into the player’s setup menu. And since outputting an uncompressed anamorphic image to a traditional TV would result in deeply distorted pictures, but outputting a compressed letterboxed image to a widescreen TV does no harm to the aspect ratio, all manufacturer’s decided to set the player to “4:3 TV” by default.

And here lies the current problem. In Europe, the majority of consumers own some sort of wide screen TV (either a traditional CRT, or a flat screen), and almost all of them have their set connected to a DVD player. However, most consumers are unable to set their DVD players output to “16:9 TV”, and most are even completely unaware of the possibility to change this setting. This means that these consumers are wachting DVDs on their wide screen TV in a letterboxed format, which is usually “zoomed” into by the TV filling up the entire screen, resulting in an image resolution approximately 33% less than what could be. Again, this is a shame. However, at least the image aspect ration keeps to be correct. As there is no standardized why by which a TV could identity itself as either a 4:3 or a wide screen TV to a player (at least when not connected via the new digital HDMI connector), the player can not act accordingly by itself. Some players force the user to go trough an initial setup wizard upon first connection, which is the best way to solve this problem and make the consumer set the correct options.

These days, there is a growing number of video equipment that can be set to either wide screen or 4:3. Think of modern video consoles (like the Nintendo Wii). Again: consumers owning such a device but who didn’t select the appropriate settings, are missing out on a significant amount of picture quality.

But things get really ugly when you consider this. Sometimes, I stumble upon people who own a playback device like a digital set top box, which has been set to 4:3 (hence outputting a compressed, letterbox image with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), while their TV has been set to an anamorphic full picture. On most TVs, this setting is called “wide” or “wide screen”, so I understand the confusion. After all, the consumer thinks that this is the optimal setting for their wide screen TV. The result is a letterboxed image that is stretched from side to side, including the black bars. So this not only completely distroys the image aspect ratio (with images looking extremely wide and “fat”), but also sacrifices a lot of screen real estate by wasting it with black bars. And please note: This is not a hypothetical story. I see this kind of set up more often that you can imagine.

The question is: Can the consumer be blamed? Of course he can’t. Things like picture aspect ratio are relatively new, and were completely unheard of in the 40 years of television that preceeded the introduction of wide screen TVs. People are simply not used to having to make these settings, and old habits die hard.  We can only hope that eventually this problem fades away, by the introduction of more flat screens with HDMI connectors, and more set top boxes, DVD players and game consoles offering this type of connection. As after all, HDMI is able to determine the screens aspect ratio. But given the life time of consumer electronics for a lot of consumers, it might take a decade or more before it has replaced the complete installed base of analogue connectors.

That’s about video. Now, let’s leave the discussion about how a consumer should figure out the difference between Dolby Pro-logic, Dolby Pro-logic II, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS HD, DTS Master Audio and PCM for another time.