17 Years of Tech: Measuring Progress in Cicada Terms

Seventeen years is an odd interval for measuring progress, but if you’d been sleeping under a pile of VHS cassettes and emerged as a flash mob of cicadas, you’d be impressed by how far home entertainment technology has come.

In 1996, when the cicadas were dancing the Macarena, the iPod didn’t exist, the DVD launch was on hold until a standard could be worked out, and HDTV was the future. The cathode ray tube ruled the nest with bulbous screens protruding from quarter-ton bodies. If you wanted a larger picture, you could opt for a rear-projection armoire in which three CRTs beamed separate colors that came together on the backside of a screen. The beams’ convergence had to be habitually readjusted, the lamp had to be regularly replaced, and you had to make sure to sit in the sweet spot for the best picture.

Say “supersize it” today, and you might be able to carry a flat-panel TV out of the store yourself or at least have it delivered in a slim carton. The display offers six times the resolution of the best TV set 1996 had to offer, and it can be hung on a wall. For much of the last century, the very idea of a wall-mounted TV was right up there with the flying car. But the former is no longer science fiction, and you don’t have to live in an apartment to appreciate the return on living space. When the cicadas weren’t looking, TVs slimmed down even as they widened to an aspect more in line with what our eyes take in.

Though thin-panel TVs were starting to appear in 1996, they were exceedingly expensive and the image quality paled in comparison to a state-of-the-art CRT. The goal of plasma manufacturers was to get the price down to under $100 per diagonal inch and, though no one was saying so at the time, gear up for high-definition TV in the decade to follow when most households would likely replace their sets.

A hot new product during the year Clinton was reelected was WebTV, a set-top box that arrived when slow dial-up was the norm and MIDI instrument simulation the best Internet-delivered audio you could expect. It was an early example of trying to retrofit a dumb TV with a keyboard and browser. The concept would catch on only when the cicadas reawakened—that is, when most living rooms had access to broadband and new TVs had their Web smarts embedded.

1996 was also a good year to observe products destined to dead-end. While the world awaited the DVD, videophiles continued their cult-like affair with the 12-inch Laserdisc, an analog format that put out 400 lines of resolution versus 240 on VHS. But the Laserdisc could only fit 30 minutes per side, resulting in viewers having a two-hour movie interrupted three times as someone swapped discs. Thanks to the 5-inch DVD with 480 lines of resolution and storage for an entire movie, the Laserdisc disappeared well before the arrival of an even superior format, the Blu-ray Disc.

In 1996, about the only place a cicada would find a hard drive was in a computer. (I once found a cricket chirping inside my PC, but that’s another story.) That’s why a circa-2013 cicada might find it curious that the fixed disc had migrated to the living room. With the arrival of the DVR just before the onset of millennial fever, the VCR generation could now marvel at being able to watch a program from the beginning while it was still being recorded, leapfrog a block of commercials in milliseconds, and save a series’ entire season with no loss in shelf space.

Still, thanks to the switch to HDTV, first- and second-generation recorders from TiVo and ReplayTV were made obsolete in just a few years. Compare that to the more than two-decade-long run of the original time-shifting technology, the VCR.

Cicada digerati might be most impressed by how convenient movie selection has become. Not only don’t you have to make before and after trips to Blockbuster, you don’t even have to budge from the couch to insert physical media. Just point the remote and stream or download almost any title you have the itch to watch.

With the advent of digital delivery by Internet, cable, satellite, and over-the-air, analog ghosting and snow are distant memories, replaced by buffering delays, pixilation, and the dreaded “cliff effect” to outliers who no longer could count on the fuzzy but forgiving degradation of analog signals. In any case, the cicadas wouldn’t have noticed the shutdown of analog broadcasting in 2009. They were either asleep or had cable.

By the time you read this, members of the Class of ’13 will have performed their hot boogie nights, spawned, and returned to their hibernating ways. Which raises the question about what the Rip Van Winkles of the animal kingdom should expect when they enter a home theater in 2030. Holographic decks? 4K displays moved to the kid’s room to make room for 16K in the main room? Rumors of a forthcoming Apple TV? TVs that watch you even when allegedly off? I can hardly wait.