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Video Killed The Game Star

As it approaches its centenary, the humble Television has earned the right to feel proud of its achievements.

Arguably the most ubiquitous piece of non-essential equipment in our homes, the TV has transformed our lives, our societies and our perceptions of the world around us in nothing short of a seismic manner. For gamers, it’s the portal of choice when coupled with the comfort of the couch and the relative simplicity of the console. Three years ago, it was widely reported that eight-out-of-ten UK households owned a console with that figure likely to be even higher today. It’s fair to say then that when choosing a TV, gaming habits now play a large role with many sets bought as second screens for bedrooms and hobby rooms or the desire for a quality gaming display driving the purchase of larger and more cutting-edge screens in the lounge.

But what major milestones have driven the evolution of TV since its inception and what developments are likely to drive sales in the future? Colour in the late 60’s and widescreen in the late 90’s undisputedly spurred the sale of  TVs in their respective eras as consumers felt compelled to experience the latest, greatest form of audio-visual pleasure. But what other developments, if any, have had a similarly profound effect?

The widespread consumer move to TFT and HD technologies in the mid 00’s was a significant time but many, arguably non-gamers or casual gamers, elected to stay with their trusty SD CRT sets until they were in real need of a replacement. Couple that with the high level of satisfaction that those that did switch seem to have displayed and the developments in TV over recent years, such as 3D and Smart, seem to have had little meaningful impact upon the market.

And yet CES 2013 is awash with fresh waves of display technology from Ultra HD to flexible screens, laser projectors and OLED. And whilst all of these are interesting technologies in their own right, I can’t help but feel that they will receive a similarly muted response from consumers, particularly in the current economic climate. So where do we look for our next major milestone in the development of TV?

To the past, I’d argue, for our constant desire to look over the horizon has lead us to overlook some of the most meaningful display technologies that are available today. You see, there is one TV manufacturer that has happily ploughed its own furrow over the last decade, quietly and confidently introducing two of the most revolutionary developments in TV since colour and widescreen that have seemingly gone unnoticed by the vast majority of consumers.

That manufacturer is Phillips.

Developed in 2002, Phillips Ambilight technology has transformed the lives of those lucky enough to have happened upon its quiet arrival. Analysing the predominant colours of on-screen content, an array of LEDs housed in the rear (and sometimes in the frame) of the TV mimic and adapt to these colour changes, creating the subtle yet striking effect of the image bleeding-out into the room. Part projector and part lava-lamp, this intriguing and beguiling development is something that I purchased completely by accident when hunting for my first HDTV in 2005. At the time, the Phillips set that I settled upon had some of the most impressive picture specs around and whilst I hadn’t fully appreciated what Ambilight was, it blew me away more than any other feature of the TV when it finally arrived. It was a true and rare “wow” moment, much more so than the much-trumpeted HD content itself.

Placing the screen against a lightly coloured wall and turning out the lights in the room resulted in a mesmerising atmosphere and brought real and tangible benefits to the gaming experience. I was more absorbed, more focused and as such more ‘in-the-moment’ than I had ever been before. And it wasn’t just me. Any friends or family that experienced it were similarly impressed. Seven years later and I’ve upgraded to a larger TV having moved to a bigger house but when it came to choosing a replacement the process was simple: it had to be Ambilight. As with colour and widescreen, it had become a ‘must have’ feature and seeing as Philips are the only manufacturer experimenting in this field, no-one else got so much as a look-in.

From time to time, my wife questions whether or not we still really appreciate Ambilight and if we have perhaps become numb to it. I reply by turning it off: the effect is striking and makes you realise how difficult it would be to adjust to life without it. In all my years as an owner, however, I’ve never come across anyone else that I’ve known personally that’s had one as they do carry a premium mark-up compared to similarly sized sets from other high-end manufacturers. It’s also an effect that doesn’t translate well to brightly-lit showrooms, further compounding the technology’s relative anonymity.

But despite these problems, Philips didn’t stop at Ambilight.

In 2009, as the world was encouraged to go mad over the 3D renaissance, Philips followed up their moderate leftfield success with another out-of-the-box genius design decision and released the world’s first 21:9 ratio TV. Shipping with a resolution of 2560 x 1080 to enable the viewing of 21:9 ratio films without the compromise of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, this monster was every videophile’s dream and a genuine wonder to behold. As with the shift in perception that Ambilight brought, you found yourself wondering how you’d managed to fully appreciate films with so much real-estate wasted on black bars. But whilst the effect was truly stunning, the eye-watering price of £4k was enough to deter even the most loyal of fans such as myself. And the technology is not without real drawbacks. Whilst the display of certain films is clearly enhanced, the fact is that the majority of content is either stretched to fit or vertical black bars are placed on either side of the TV to preserve the content’s natural ratio, which feels highly unnatural.

Philips 21_9 TV

But imagine what it would do for gaming if 21:9 were standard on all new TVs. Being able to sprint through the battlefield with a much wider view of the action; watching cut-scenes unfold in full, cinematic glory; using the extra space to feature permanent on-screen menus and read-outs whilst preserving the action; having the TV  half game and half film to keep more of the family happy. How amazing would that be? Granted, there are a million and one obstacles to such a vision but, boy: what a vision it would be.

Sadly, Philips announced in August 2012 that they were to discontinue their 21:9 TV range with immediate effect due to lack of demand. Whilst Ambilight seems to provide them with just enough of a viable financial angle, 21:9 was perhaps a niche to far.  Thankfully others have carried the torch, such as LG who plan to release 21:9 TVs and monitors in the near future. Here’s one gamer hoping that Ultra Widescreen will become more important to the masses than Ultra HD.

So as we sit back and digest the fallout from CES 2013 and question which TV technologies will grab a foothold and drive the medium forwards, spare a thought for Philips: arguably the bravest and boldest pioneers of contemporary TV design.

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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  1. On the subject of Phillips, who remembers this:

  2. One of the most underrated tech firms going. Bold as brass.

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