When we sit down in front of our TVs today, we increasingly want to do more than just watch — we want to feel like we’re in it, swallowed by sound and image, action and emotion. We want to be immersed.
If you trace the timeline of television technology, you can see we’ve been working up to this goal the whole time. The first commercially produced television, the Baird “Televisor,” debuted in the U.K. in 1930 and consisted of a radio and a postage stamp-sized, all-red image enlarged to twice its size with the help of a magnifying glass. Finally, you didn’t have to imagine what the voice on the radio sounded like — you could see it, even if it was all red and tiny. (If those first TV watchers could only see the 85” TVs on the market today.)
From the early days to our present, the television timeline is dotted with breakthrough moments in the immersive TV-watching experience. Let’s take a look at some of the breakthroughs that mattered most — and what’s coming up next.
The move from black-and-white to color TV is often thought of as an instant change — as if, suddenly, everyone upgraded like it was a new smartphone. In reality, the switch was gradual, starting with 15-inch models in 1954 that displayed color in the first FCC-approved color system known as NTSC.
Other manufacturers jumped in, but prices were steep. You could spend $1,000 for a 15-inch color set, or you could rent a set for $200 the first month and $75 every month after that. According to the Early Television Museum, newspaper headlines of the day reported that consumers wanted color, but they were waiting for larger screens and lower prices (sound familiar?) That didn’t start happening until technology improved in the mid-1960s, and it wasn’t until 1970 that sales of color TVs exceeded black-and-white sets.
That early NTSC color system? It remained the standard until June 12, 2009, when the FCC mandated that all U.S. television signals be transmitted digitally. According to Nielsen, 97.5 percent of U.S households were doing it already anyway, enjoying what some television history experts say is the tech breakthrough that has had the greatest impact on how we watch TV.
“In a flash, we went from fuzzy analog pictures to high-definition widescreen TV,” says Mark Fleischmann, author of Practical Home Theater. “The over-the-air standard became the forerunner of HD on disc (Blu-ray), streaming, cable, and satellite TV.”
Since then, we’ve seen 4K Ultra HDTV become the standard for top-of-the-line TVs, seemingly at the same time that 8K TVs — at a stunning 7,680 x 4,320 resolution, the standard recently certified by the Consumer Technology Association — made their market debut.
And while content providers and streaming services aren’t yet providing all their content at 4K and 8K, TV manufacturers are making it so you don’t have to wait. Samsung is using artificial intelligence to convert lower-resolution content to the high resolution their 8K TVs are created to deliver, while maintaining texture and keeping noise down. And as the AI develops new algorithms and new ways to convert the content, the firmware updates, meaning the TVs get better and better over time.
Immersive TV watching took a giant leap forward when projection allowed for a movie experience at home — in fact, the term “home theater” was coined in the 1980s by a projection system manufacturer.
“The reasons home theater took hold include the rise of McMansions and more accessible pricing of big flat panels and A/V receivers. As an old-timer, it amazes me what your money buys nowadays,” Fleischmann says.
As the picture got clearer, sound followed, and home theater aficionados could start designing true immersive experiences.
“We started with stereo and primitive four-channel surround on VHS tapes and analog broadcasts,” Fleischmann says. “Now we have Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which are digital, high-resolution, and have way more channels, including height, side surround, back surround, and dedicated subwoofer channels.”
With analog systems, sound was directionally vague and tonally amorphous. Surround for DVD took it a step up — additional channels meant sound could move from front to back, side to side, or diagonally. But that was all happening on a flat plane.
“Dolby Atmos and DTS:X add up-and-down information, turning the flat plane into a 360-degree surround bubble,” Fleischmann explains. “Any object in the soundfield can move in any direction and sound can come from all around you. This makes the best use of the three-dimensional way our ears actually hear. It’s the very definition of immersive.”
What does the future hold for immersive TV experiences? The good news is, current-day technology is so strong, it’s like we’re living in the future already.
“The technology is pretty well developed with high-end 4K OLED [Organic Light Emitting Diode] and quantum-dot displays and Atmos surround sound,” Fleischmann says.
But the newest screen in tech — Micro LED — has the potential to become the highest-end flat display technology.
“Micro LED, like OLED, works by making each pixel its own source of illumination,” Fleischmann says. “It’s also reportedly more robust, with less pixel decay.”
With technology so advanced right now, some experts are looking to the future by thinking outside the (TV) box.
“When I imagine the future of immersion, I don’t think it will look like a VR headset, but rather the opposite. Instead of being fully engrossed in extreme, short chunks of time, true immersion will mean always-on storytelling,” predicts Matt Klein, a cultural researcher and senior strategist at sparks & honey, a tech-led cultural consultancy. “Like how we may follow a sports game throughout the night thanks to push notifications, what does this dedication and captivation look like for fictional, or longer-form stories, beyond the screen or live airing?”
Klein also predicts TV watching will become more immersive through personalization, pointing to work being done by organizations like the BBC’s Visual Perceptive Media project.
“Imagine watching a show tailored just for you — color grading, music and even a narrative entirely customized based upon your personality or biofeedback,” Klein says.
Fleishman believes the future means accessibility. As prices fall and options abound, an immersive, home theater experience will be available to more TV lovers.
“The best way to increase immersiveness, if your living arrangements allow, is to dedicate a separate room to your system so that you can have the biggest screen, the most powerful surround sound, comfortable seating, and control over every aspect of the experience,” he says. “But you can also fit a home theater system into a multi-purpose room — I live in a one-bedroom apartment and I love my system.”
To learn more about the future of tech in everything from at-home health care to wearable technology, visit our What’s Next In Tech special section.
Marla Caceres is a writer for Onion Labs and Studio@Gizmodo.