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Ken Rockwell and
the History of HDTV
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June 2008      back to HDTV index

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Most people know me for my photography, which is funny because the way I've earned my living from the 1980s up until 2004 was in designing HDTV broadcast equipment and studios. I was working in standard-definition TV and radio engineering since the 1970s.

Feel free to skip this page and proceed to HDTV Source Material if you couldn't care less about my background.

I started learning about television broadcast engineering as a little kid, when my dad and uncle, both engineers, went on about it all the time. I helped my dad build the color Heathkit TV on which we watched the moon landings in 1969.

I had my commercial FCC 1st class license, allowing me to operate any TV, radio or other kind of station, while I was still in high school. I was already working and getting paid for on-air radio and TV broadcast engineering. I was already designing and building on-air broadcast hardware, and even had my first article published in the July 1980 edition of Radio World, while I was in high school.

I got a degree in Electronic Engineering, and did my first dedicated work in digital and analog HDTV broadcast studio equipment design was back in the 1980s at the company who invented the world's first video analog-to-digital converter chip, TRW. Before TRW invented the video flash converter, the only way to digitize video or still images in the 1970s was using very expensive circuit cards which required daily calibration. TRW's chips, cheap in the late 1970s at only $1,000 each, just worked. Without these converters we would have no digital video and we would have no digital cameras! TRW invented these for spacecraft, and they immediately found use commercially, spinning off TRW LSI Products at which I worked in La Jolla, California.

When I started at TRW in the 1980s, HDTV was still a laboratory curiosity. We engineers were still arguing amongst ourselves about the shape (aspect ratio) of the HDTV picture. 16:9 was merely one of many proposals. HDTV broadcast was still analog, and stuck since it would take three channels to broadcast one HDTV channel.

One day around 1990 another San Diego company, General Instrument, figured out a practical way to broadcast HDTV digitally. With this system, HDTV could be broadcast in a single channel. AHA! It took the FCC years until December 24th, 1996, to choose a variant of this system, and the first DTV broadcasts have been on the air since 1997. I was there, but no one had a TV. If you knew the engineers at the stations, you could phone them up and ask them to run your favorite HDTV program! I'm not kidding, people did this in Los Angeles up through the early 2000s. Those of us in TV engineering were having a blast, just like the 1940s all over again. (As a funny side note, the same uncle who gave me some of my first TV engineering books as a little kid also worked for General Instrument at their headquarters in Hatsboro, PA.)

Back to TRW, I worked every day with the Ph.D.s who taught me all about cubic convolutions versus bilinear interpolations and crazier things. Pixels were easy. We were worrying about subpixels and tiny fractions of a Q-step, the levels in-between one bit and the next. This is where I learned all the things that few people today, except for hardware and algorithm designers, know about digital imaging.

While at TRW I conceived the world's first color-space converter chip, the TMC2272, as well as coined the word "Gigacolors," or billions of colors, which these chips processed.

I warned about how pictures made in one shape, like 4:3 TV, couldn't look good on a screen of any other shape, like wider HDTV. To this day, the biggest problem in HDTV is that pictures no longer fit the screens. Most of the time in broadcast HDTV, half the screen area is either black, or just junk. More on this later.

In the 1990s I went from designing broadcast and special effects equipment at TRW to working for Tektronix in Hollywood, where I helped design parts of just about every studio and TV station and network, meaning anything you watch, buy or rent today invariably has passed though some circuitry, equipment or a studio that I helped design. I racked up two US Patents while at Tektronix.

In the process of my day job, I was in every TV network's headquarters and all the major post houses and movie lots, every day. Not only did I have to watch TV as it was being produced all day, more importantly, I was in post houses watching telecine transfers on $45,000 Sony BVM HDTV monitors.

Tektronix made the equipment all of these studios use to monitor the technical quality of their images and sound. Since I was Tektronix for Hollywood, I was the guy who got called when studios needed a referee to figure out weird technical quality problems. If a studio provided a program to a network, and they couldn't agree on the technical quality, my phone rang to go in and help them figure out why their measurements weren't agreeing. I was also training people on how to use our monitors, and my talent was that since I'm familiar with both the technical and artistic aspects, I was one of the very few people who could explain to artists things like why some colors are illegal (I kid you not!).

I share this background so that you might understand how I seem to know so much about this stuff. I've been familiar with every technical nuance of HDTV signals as we developed them. Digital still images and image processing are trivial to understand compared to doing it at 59.94 fields per second.

I personally don't watch TV because it makes me stupider. I do love to watch movies. As you read my HDTV pages, you'll see that I have a bias towards watching a movie in a darkened room over having a TV in the background showing sports.

 

Plug

This website site is how I support my growing family.

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy, please help me to continue helping everyone.

If you've gotten your gear through one of my links or helped otherwise, you're family, thank you!

This page is free to read, but copyrighted. If you haven't helped me yet, and wish to make a print of this page, please help me with a gift of $5.00.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

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