High definition video — HD — is now firmly established in television broadcasting and, as you may have heard, the future standard for DVDs in high definition is being worked out between the industry giants as I write this.

But where is HD used in the field the performing arts and events? The general conception is that there has not been a real breakthrough in its use. Is that really so? And if it is, why is that?

There is certainly plenty of HD equipment available from the manufacturers, so why are we not seeing it used more? Are we not quality conscious enough — are we accepting lesser image quality for shows than for our living rooms?

Let's just for a moment consider what HD is. High Definition, yes, but what does it mean in practice? Widescreen, 16:9 format? Yes, often, but not necessarily. More lines/pixels? Yes, but that's not all. High definition video is also a significant step forward in overall image quality such as improved color range, contrast range, etc. Quite a few broadcasters are using HD for SD transmission, and the difference is clearly visible on “old school” standard definition TV sets.

The main use for video displays in concerts is still the big screens for image magnification, commonly referred to as IMAG. Today, these are typically LED displays, and the resolution is generally lower than what one might think — lower than standard definition television; 400×300 pixels is common, and lower resolutions, such as 320×240 pixels, are also used. For conventional IMAG use, HD screens are not necessary.

But IMAG is evolving. No longer is IMAG only about close ups of performers. More and more, we have “art IMAG,” IMAG with an artistic twist. This can range from simple effects to complex layering, and as such, it can benefit from the higher resolution and image quality that HD permits.

In some venues, IMAG by means of projectors and screens works well, but for longer viewing distances and for outdoor shows, LED is the only viable solution. With the cost of LED displays directly proportional to the size and resolution of the screen, high-definition LED screens are not within everyone's budget.

Surprisingly, we are beginning to see LED as a viable display technology in the theatre, a market not famous for big production budgets. Several shows on Broadway use LED screens as scenic devices, and the results are encouraging, even though the resolution isn't high definition by anyone's standards. This is not universally applauded though, and there seems to be some resentment from those firmly established in conventional set design.

But an HD system is much more than the projector or screen. For touring video, a complete HD package is needed, and that involves cameras, switching units, recorders, etc. Fortunately, most of the fairly recently introduced switching and image processing equipment handles HD as well as SD.

HD may not be needed for IMAG in concerts, but concert DVDs are becoming a significant source of income for artists, and combining IMAG and recording footage for a future DVD is not uncommon.

It is also true that video content for artistic purposes are becoming a key element of shows. Artists are commissioning content specifically for their shows, to augment or even replace the onstage action. Does this sound absurd? Well, consider the English band Gorillaz, who perform as animated characters on a screen rather than in person; they're planning a major tour soon which could revolutionize the way concerts are both viewed and designed. Others may soon follow.

The creative usage of video, such as distributed pixel blocks (MiPIX for example) can sometimes require HD content. Low-resolution displays needing HD source material — what's that all about?

So are the video equipment rental companies gearing up for a high definition future? An informal survey indicated that, while the bulk of their current work and equipment is not HD, future investments are likely to be HD or HD compatible or possible to upgrade to HD.

Most of these video rental specialists expect 2007 and 2008 to be the breakthrough time for HD. At the moment, HD packages are outside mainstream budgets, but with the cost of “good enough” HD equipment falling, and a lot of SD equipment being retired, it may be sooner than you think.

Mats Karlsson is product manager for creative light imaging at Barco and can be reached at mats.karlsson@barco.com.