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In Japan, the TV Revolution Waits

The leader in high-definition television technology won't offer a consumer model for 5-10 more years

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1990


IF you have an impression from the nightly news that Japanese homes are filled with high-definition televisions (HDTV) - the sets with cinema-shaped screens and crystal-clear pictures, touted as the video revolution of the '90s - please adjust your mental screen. Japan is not awash in HDTV, not even a pixel's worth. In fact, no Japanese consumer can yet buy HDTV in a store, and it could well be into the 21st century before any sets are available to consumers here.

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Yet HDTV is more visible in this country than almost anywhere else: At the Toto, Ltd., showroom on the 27th floor of a spanking-new Tokyo high-rise, customers choose kitchen and bathroom fixtures displayed on an HDTV screen. The screen is linked to a computer that can show what a kitchen set would look like in, say, 28 different colors.

In the lobby of the Sezon Museum of Art across town, museumgoers sit before a 9-by-15-ft. projection screen, examining detailed images of the museum's collection of ceramics and a featured exhibit of works by Gustav Klimt. Visitors ``ooh'' and ``ahh'' at video enlargements as breathtakingly vivid as if seen through a window.

From 2 to 3 p.m. each weekday at Tokyo's downtown central post office, people can watch HDTV telecasts (known here as ``Hi-Vision'') from NHK, this country's public broadcasting system. A mixture of sports, nature films, dramas, and more are shown on the screen, while images from the nation's eight other stations flicker from a conventional TV nearby. Similar HDTV demonstrations are shown in about 90 public locations nationwide.

But walk into any of the booming, multistoried electronics outlets here, and you will get blank stares if you ask to purchase an HDTV set. Ask for printed information, and the salesman will tell you, ``We have no such thing.''

In-home use of HDTV here is still five to 10 years away, by most accounts. Even then, due to the $20,000 price of receiving sets, regular use may be far more limited than that of conventional TV. Apart from the HDTV sets placed by NHK in public locations for experiment and display, there are about 100 other sets in the industrial showrooms of such electronics giants as Sony, Matsushita, Sanyo, Hitachi, Sharp, and Toshiba.

In an interview in his office at the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MITI), Yoshiki Mikami, senior officer for visual industry planning, waxes enthusiastic about the industrial, medical, and educational uses of HDTV.

He mentions a hookup that offered Japanese buyers superior images of paintings in a recent two-continent auction conducted in France. He says local universities are using HDTV images in medical lectures and video libraries. He shows me a book of photographs, striking in detail, as evidence of the kind of image-processing HDTV can offer and suggests the technology may revolutionize publishing.

But HDTV in the home? ``That is secondary,'' he says. ``Not widespread until the 21st century.''

NHK has taken the lead in developing HDTV since 1970. Yutaka Masuko, spokesman for NHK, predicts that 1 million sets will be in use by 1995.

He mentions the one-hour daily demonstration programming as a catalyst for the industry to produce cheaper sets. A satellite to be launched next year will devote one channel to round-the-clock HDTV broadcasts.