The importance of June 1, 1990, might not automatically ring a bell for some readers, but it is recognized as the date digital TV was invented, by General Instrument (now part of Arris via its April 2013 acquisition of Motorola Home). To celebrate the 25th anniversary of that important milestone, Arris brought together five members of the design team that pioneered the original system for a rendezvous in San Diego, where it all came together.
Amid the celebration, which featured a set-up of the original equipment alongside a batch of technical Emmys that resulted from that work, The Wire caught up with the digital crew last week to reminisce.
Among their fondest memories? When the system worked as advertised during a demonstration to the Federal Communications Commission. But there were some anxious moments.
Donald Rumsfeld (yes, the former Defense Secretary), then the CEO of GI, warned the FCC, “You know, this thing may not work,” recalled Bob Rast. “And everyone gasped.”
It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, albeit temporarily, as the FCC was initially greeted with some dead air. Then, when it did come on, the commission was then presented with digital in standard-definition. Again, after a few more minutes of unease, it was switched over (by GI’s Dr. Woo Paik) to high-definition a few minutes later.
“And the room gasped again, because the difference going from SD to HD was so dramatic,” Rast recalled. “We had them won over at that moment.”
Keith Kelley remembered the “race” that followed to turn the invention into a commercially deployable product. Especially gratifying? “Beating DirecTV out by three months with the launch of the first consumer digital box after having to develop pretty much everything from the ground up,” Kelley said.
Others had fond memories of the “bug hunts” they undertook (this is how engineers have fun, after all) because they were working on a completely custom system — from video and security chips, down to the front-ends.
Paul Moroney, who is still with the company, remembered a particular “nasty bug” that would only appear on occasion — once a day or every half-day. “Tracking that one down gave me a lot of satisfaction,” he said.
And stamping that one out apparently saved the day, as some customers told GI that they’d go in a different direction if they didn’t solve it, Kelley said.
Woo said the process ranked as the most difficult in his career “by far.” All of the new systems and chips “caused it to be a major challenge.”
There were plenty of long nights, and about 18 months’ worth of “Digi-Dinners,” that GI would spring for to keep the team sustained. “We were trying to hire like mad, work like mad,” Kelley said.
DAWN OF DIGITAL
In Rast’s estimation, the transition from analog to digital was a bigger step than the move to color TV because it opened up a new era based on bits. “The societal impact of this work is hard to overestimate,” he said.
“We were beginning to see that using digital processing as a tool for driving an HDTV signal was going to give us so many advantages … it was almost a no-brainer,” Jerry Heller said.
So, what’s the next big thing for TV? For Marc Tayer, who recently authored the book Televisionaries: Inside the Chaos and Innovation of the Digital Revolution, it’s the move to 4K, alongside high dynamic range and enhanced color. “That’s going to be very attractive to the consumer and it’s going to be very competitive.”
Moroney said he thinks it could be virtual reality. “It’s about bringing a different experience to the consumer.”