Steven Minskoff, 28, a Manhattan real estate executive and a card-carrying member of the TV generation, thought he had seen and heard it all, from Moonlighting on a 35-in. screen to MTV in surround-sound stereo. Then he saw a store demonstration of Panasonic's new "picture in picture" VCR system, which lets viewers watch two or more programs on the same TV screen. As a salesman tapped on a remote control, new stations began appearing, one at a time, until the screen was filled with nine equal-size panels, each showing a different channel. "My mouth dropped," says Minskoff. "It totally blew me away."
Minskoff is not alone. Anyone who has shopped for a TV or VCR this season knows that television is going through some dramatic changes. The immediate effect is a flood of models endowed with high-tech conveniences, enormous screens and dazzling special effects. Waiting in the wings is a new generation of TV sets that are ready, once economic and political hurdles have been surmounted, to deliver images comparable in quality to those of a wide-screen motion picture. Says William Glenn, director of video research at the New York Institute of Technology: "This is the most exciting period in television history since the invention of color TV."
At the heart of the new features are computer circuits that change standard analog TV signals, which are broadcast as a series of undulating waves, into digital impulses -- strings of 0s and 1s. The digital signals can then be transformed by microprocessors -- tiny computers on silicon chips -- to achieve a variety of exotic effects. When the processing is complete, the signals are changed back to analog for display on an ordinary TV picture tube.
When video signals take numerical form, all sorts of manipulations become possible. In addition to displaying multiple channels, the circuits can freeze frames or zoom in for close-ups. Digital VCRs can repeat sequences in slow motion or fast-forward without the distortion that mars conventional machines. Standard broadcast images can also be improved, up to a point. One video recorder made by NEC reduces interference by using microprocessors to compare successive image frames. By subtracting random elements that appear on one frame but not the other, the circuitry removes snow before it shows up on the screen.
None of this comes without cost. VCRs with digital features sell for $700 to $1,400, up to $1,000 more than conventional models. Digital TVs run from $1,500 to $3,000, in contrast to $1,800 for a top-of-the-line nondigital set. Given these prices, sales have been understandably sluggish. Digital VCRs will account for less than 3% of the 15 million videocassette recorders sold this year, and the high-tech TVs are not expected to fare much better. Observes David Lachenbruch, editorial director of TV Digest: "Consumers are not prepared to pay twice as much for one set with two pictures. They would rather buy two sets with one picture each." That could change quickly, of course, as the cost of the electronic components falls. "In the future," says Shinichi Makino, an executive at Toshiba, "digital will be mainstream."