Ever since television came to America in the late 1920s, it seems that we’ve all been on a quest to get bigger and wider screens into our living rooms. And yet, back when General Electric and RCA were cranking out 10 inch, wood-framed black and white screens, few could have imagined the monstrous LCD flat screens that would serve as proud centerpieces of personal home theater systems today.
With the advent of new screen technology, the last decade has witnessed an explosion in big screen television popularity and availability. So common are these wide wonders that owning the biggest television you can afford has become somewhat of a status symbol, an unspoken competition, with the winner in any circle of friends getting the privilege of hosting the annual “big game” party. With so many flat screen televisions flying off the shelves at electronic liquidators and curbside bodegas alike, one has to wonder when and where this craze really began. Below, we’ll take a look at the colorful history of the big screen television.
The hunger for bigger, prettier television screens really began in the mid 1950′s when TV manufacturers Capehart and Magnavox released brand new 24 inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) sets, which fired beams of electrons from cathode ray tubes to create the image the viewer sees. These new units were the biggest screens available yet, and cost between $250 and $300, which was roughly equal to $2000-$2400 today . In 1954, when these screens were released, most television sets still displayed a black and white picture, though this was very soon to change.
The invention of the color screen is arguably the biggest advancement in home entertainment since the television itself. This new development set the stage for the oncoming obsession with bigger, clearer screens and sharper pictures. At the time, screen sizes still could not match the 24″ black and white models discussed above, and usually measured somewhere between 15 and 21 inches. Another major drawback to these early color models was their price tag. Most color televisions cost around $500, but some ran into the thousands. A high end color television in 1956 cost roughly $8000 in today’s dollar.
In the 1970s, rear projection screen televisions came onto the scene. Unlike the standard CRT television, these units contained an internal projector that would shine the picture onto the back of a special screen. These screens then transferred the image to the front to allow the viewer to see the picture. The idea behind the projection television was creating the largest possible picture to compliment the invention of the video cassette. Soon, a VCR and a projection TV became the standard in home theater. At the time, the technology was not very advanced and many consumers rightfully felt that standard CRT televisions still offered superior picture quality. However, despite its immediate drawbacks, the projection TV was somewhat ahead of its time, as we will later see.
(1978 GE Performance Television)
A decade later, Sharp, a newcomer in screen manufacturing, shocked the world at the 1988 Japan Electronics Show with the release of the world’s first Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) television screen. The 14 inch screen measured 2.7 centimeters thick and displayed a crisp, bright picture that seemed to outshine standard CRT models. Though the LCD screen was impressive, it wouldn’t really catch on until the mid 2000′s when big screen technology began to explode.
The latter half of the ’90s was an important time for big screen televisions. CRT televisions dominated the market for the first half of the decade, but screen manufacturers had hit a road block. Because of the size of the cathode ray tubes, television screens diagonally larger than 40 inches were impractical. But consumers weren’t concerned with technical issues and the demand for bigger screens continued to grow.
(1992 Sharp 27-inch CRT)
To serve the increased interest in high quality big screen displays, companies worked on improving projection technology and LCD units. The newest technology being developed was the plasma, which used a mixture of noble gasses between sheets of glass to create a vivid, bright picture on a large screen. The first commercially available plasma television was released by Panasonic in 1997. The 42 inch screen boasted an 852 x 480 resolution and some of the sharpest picture quality yet seen from a consumer device. Available in only four Sears locations across America, this was truly a television built for kings, and nothing said that more than its astronomical $14,000 price tag.
(1997 42-inch Panasonic Plasma)
In 1998, Sony released the first ever flat screen CRT televisions with their FD Trinitron series. These units represented a major step forward in home flat screen technology, bringing high definition picture quality to a CRT television. But there was one drawback: the screen size was still not as big the American consumer was dreaming, topping out around 40 inches.
(1998 36-inch Sony FD Trinitron)
The late 90′s/early 2000′s also saw the return of the rear projection screen, this time bigger and clearer than ever before. Projection TVs were a great opportunity for those who wanted a big screen television but couldn’t afford the exorbitant prices many companies were charging for LCD and plasma models. They were also much bigger than CRT screens, making them an attractive buy for the budget-conscious home theater shopper.
(2000 58-Inch Runco Projection)
By 2001, the big screen TV craze was kicking into full swing. Screen manufacturers were beginning to churn out new models, and LCD was gearing up to make its glorious return to the big screen world. From 2001-2004 however, the high-end big screen market belonged to plasma screens. Plasmas were in the lead for picture definition, response time, color spectrum, and viewing angle. These units also substantially decreased in price, especially when compared to the outrageous $14,000 price tag seen several years prior. In the early part of the decade, a good plasma screen TV could be had for around $2000.
(2001 32-inch Hitachi Plasma)
Although spoken of since the early 90′s, High Definition Television (HDTV) only started becoming a standard in the TV world in the early part of the decade. In the mid 2000′s, HDTV also became a buzzword used by makers of DVDs, video games, cable packages, sound, and practically anything that could hook into a television.
(2007 50-Inch Samsung HDTV)
The year 2006 was the turning point for LCD screens. Previously, LCD s worked most reliably in smaller TVs but the latter half of the 2000′s saw a big improvement in VLSI fabrication technology (a crucial processing technology in LCD screens), which resulted in bigger, better LCD televisions that cost far less than their predecessors. With larger, sharper, and comparably-priced screens, LCD manufacturers were perfectly positioned to take on plasmas, and slowly but surely, LCD has come out on top as the leading big screen television technology.
(2008 82-inch Samsung Ultra-Definition LCD)
At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2007, Sharp unveiled the world’s largest LCD television. Featuring a monstrous 108 inch screen, the TV represented a huge landmark in big screen technology. The sheer size, brightness of color, and clarity of picture was enough to take any HDTV fan’s breath away.
(2007 108-inch Sharp LCD)
Much like the first commercially available plasma, the enormous Sharp television went on sale the following year for an equally enormous price, around $100,000. Recalling that the original plasma screen didn’t stay super expensive for too long, home theater lovers can only hope the same holds true for this pinnacle of high definition viewing.
In the past few years, we’ve seen 108 inch HDTVs, next-generation Blu-Ray disc players, and high definition video gaming consoles. With so much innovation behind us, one has to wonder where the big screen TV market is headed. In 2008, Sony released a new television set technology known as the XEL-1. This unit featured a razor thin screen built from a revolutionary new technology: Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLED), which directs light through an organic layer of film, resulting in sharper definition and more vibrant color.
(2008 Sony 11-inch XEL-1 OLED screen )
OLED has allowed screen manufacturees to reduce the thickness of their products to just 3 millimeters. Although these screens have technically been available for about a year now, manufacturers have only produced them in small quantities around the world, making them somewhat difficult to find. Experts predict that the rapidly improving technology will soon be ready to compete with (and likely overtake) LCD and plasma products.
An interesting feature of the OLED screen is that it’s made from the first ever flexible screen material. This quality is currently being researched and developed in an effort to create an HDTV that can be rolled up and carried around in your pocket.
(Sony FOLED Prototype)
OLED technology is gearing up to make the next decade a very exciting time for fans of home theater. Despite its current high price of +$2300, the OLED screens are expected to be much less expensive to produce than LCD or plasma units in the near future. These units are also much more environmentally friendly, using 40% less energy than the current HDTV models. Clearly, such products are several years from being commercially available; nevertheless, they certainly seem poised to redefine how we watch television.
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