Every year during the first week on June, it has been my custom to attend the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, which fills up McCormick Place fit to bursting with the latest home electronic gizmos. It's the kind of event so jammed with programmable remote-control devices that you have the suspicion you could bring the whole show to its knees with a garage-door opener set to the wrong frequency.
This year, however, there will be no report from the CES. I would like to offer instead my own Everyman's Consumer Electronics Show, in which I will sing the glories of three obscure gizmos that have been brought to my attention. These are gizmos without a lot of money behind them. Their inventors could not afford expensive floor space at McCormick Place. You will not see them trumpeted in ads. But let us lend an ear to the brave small voice of the independent inventor.
The inventions promise to bring low-priced giant-screen TV to Everyman's basement, to improve the picture of any existing television, and to turn any TV signal into a #-D image. I will consider them one at a time.
* A Giant Screen in Every Basement!
I have here a letter from Bill Bergfeldt of Kansas City, Mo., a former Hindu monk who is now the president of Expand-A-View TV Projection Systems. He says the 100-inch model of his large-screen TV projection system "exceeds the impact of some theaters, let alone ordinary big screen TV's." The product is called Expand-A-Scope, and it costs from $999 to $1,500 (depending on screen size), considerably less than your average big-screen rear-projection TV, although for that matter Expand-A-Scope doesn't include the TV itself. You use your own 13 or 14-inch set. First you adjust a switch to turn its picture upside down, then you attach Bergfeldt's lens assembly to it with Velcro straps, and then you project the image through the lens onto a 50, 60, 72 or even 100-inch screen that he supplies. How does it work? It blows up an ordinary TV picture in the same way that a slide projector enlarges your slides.
There are some excellent high-priced front-projection TVs that project a surprisingly good image onto screens of 10 to 20 feet in diameter. These models use three different lens to throw enough light on the screen. Bergfeldt's Expand-A-Scope uses only the light from the TV itself, but uses an aluminumized screen that bounces more light back at you.
I have not actually seen the Expand-A-Scope in action, although Bergfeldt proudly volunteered to drive up from Kansas City to demonstrate his baby for me. Of those who have seen it, Stephen A. Booth of Popular Mechanics says, "It isn't perfect, but it's amazingly good, especially when you consider the much greater cost of comparably-sized 3-tube front projection TVs."
Bergfeldt has gotten a little carried away with one refinement of his system, in my opinion. He includes a gizmo that allows you to make any movie into a wide-screen movie, even a movie like "Casablanca." You do it by trimming off the tops and bottoms of the projected image. The result is indeed admittedly a wide-screen picture, although a few foreheads and chins may be sliced off. What this feature is useful for is to blow up a letterboxed version of a widescreen movie so it fills the entire screen.
Bergfeldt has tried to license his system to the big boys like Pioneer, Sony and Mitsubishi. They aren't interested. He sent me a tape of himself being interviewed on a Kansas City TV station, where he explains that his original invention consisted of an upside-down TV, a two-pound coffee can, and a magnifying glass. Considering the millions that the Japanese spend on electronics technology, maybe they're just embarrassed to contemplate that a guy down in his basement in Kansas City could come up with a better gizmo. (Bill Bergfeldt is at 816-561-1896, and will send you his brochure.)
* Is the Super Shield for Real?
An intriguing article appeared in a spring issue of "BD Notebook," that invaluable laserdisk newsletter published by Barr Digital of Redmond, Washington. The editors claimed that at a video trade show, they saw a product demonstrated which seemed to noticeably improve the picture quality of any television set. It was a sheet of "optical grade Perspex," they said, which was being sold as a screen protector to keep grubby little handprints and pawprints off the delicate screens of rear-projection TVs. But the protector seemed to have a side benefit: Somehow, it improved the picture, making it seem more like a lustrous and smooth movie screen image, instead of a common ordinary video image with its scan lines and subtle crawl.
My trusted assistant Sally Sinden went on a search for "optical grade Perspex" in the Chicago video and art supply stores, only to discover that Perspex is a British trade name for Plexiglas, and that in any event no one knew what she was talking about. Finally, through Barr Digital, she was put in touch with Fred and John Ananian, of a company called Super Shield, in Laguna Niguel, California. They indeed sell a Plexiglas product that is custom-fitted to any size screen, is held in place by Velcro strips, and is sold to provide protection from dents, scratches and finger prints, the bane of all owners of big-screen rear-projection television sets. In their brochure, they go on to claim: "Super Shield also enhances the quality of the viewing picture by creating a tube-like effect."
What does it actually do? Barr Digital thought it made the TV image feel more like a projected movie. The Ananians believe it makes back-projection look more like a picture on a tube. Naturally I had to have this product for myself and in a few weeks a large package arrived containing a Super Shield for my 45-inch rear-projection Mitsubishi. I installed it, looked at the black and white laserdisk of "The Third Man" through it, and then experimented by covering only half of the screen with the Super Shield.
My subjective opinion is that Super Shield does in fact improve the quality of the viewed image. It's on the level. How it works, I have no idea. Perhaps optical qualities of the Plexiglas smooth out the video effect. Whatever is happening, the difference is noticeable. The big-screen picture looks smoother and more lustrous, and there is more of a "silver screen" feel to the image quality. The difference is not dramatic, but it can be seen--and of course at the same time the product is shielding your delicate big screen from damage. (Super Shield is at 1-800-888-4406, or in California 714-364-4396; the FAX is 714-364-5854.)
* Three-Dimensional Television?
A British inventor claimed a few weeks ago that he had developed a three-dimensional television system that would work on any set and did not require viewers to wear those funny glasses. James Ashbey's system, internationally patented under the name "Deep Vision," says his system works by "activating the brain's powers of depth perception." The invention was reported in a London newspaper, The Independent, which said, "The three-dimensional quality of the pictures is indisputable. It is marred by a loss of resolution which makes the viewer feel slightly dizzy, but Mr. Ashbey explains that this can be put right by more sophisticated engineering when the manufacturers take over."
Ashbey, like all inventors, remains confident that these slight flaws can be overcome. He was quoted: "The final picture will be just as sharp as an ordinary television image. The viewer will have the sensation of looking one mile into the picture."
According to the newspaper, "Existing film is transformed into three-dimensional pictures by identifying the focus points in each frame and processing them into what are called 'stereo cues.' If a digital decoder--in the form of a special screen--is added to an ordinary television set, these cues send slightly different images to each eye and create an illusion of depth."
Ashbey's prototype system, bankrolled by RCA-Columbia and Brent Walker, is cheap. The cost of the screen will be between $75 and $150. The good news about his invention is that all sorts of screen applications could be given the 3-D treatment, including X-rays, astronomical photographs, aerial photographs, and computer programs (imagine what a video game could look like!). The bad news is that Ted Turner may decide this is a better idea than colorization, and decide to make a 3-D version of "Citizen Kane."