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End of the line for the tube

`TV as we know it will disappear by the year 2000'. And revolutionary products are on sale now. Janet Knight reports
That square black box sitting in the corner of your living-room is about to disappear. Soon you'll be watching the news, Panorama and EastEnders on huge plasma screens so thin that you can hang them on the wall.

Not only will they have unrivalled sound and picture quality; you'll even be able to interact with the characters in your favourite soap. Sounds far-fetched? Well, maybe joining in the milking at Emmerdale is pushing it, but the technology to do so is not far away.

To give us a glimpse of what the future holds, Bang & Olufsen have unveiled the BeoCenter AV5, which incorporates a flat-screen TV, a radio, a CD player and a powerful loudspeaker system.

With a flick of the remote control you can swivel the screen to wherever you want. When you're ready to watch, an electronic curtain unveils the screen. If your room becomes lighter or darker, the TV automatically adjusts the picture. The CD player has CD-I (interactive) technology, allowing you to use CD videos and photo CDs, where images are stored on disk rather than in an album.

Of course, all this comes at a price, and at pounds 4,650 it is a hefty one. Not everyone will be rushing out with a chequebook when the new BeoCenter goes on sale next month, but most of us will soon own or rent a slim and wide TV screen, because the cathode-ray tubes that make our sets so bulky are being replaced with sleek, 10cm-deep plasma gas screens.

Philips are at the cutting edge of design and technology with their wide- screen 32PW9763C TV (price pounds l,899). It has full surround sound, crystal- clear pictures, a split screen allowing you to watch two TV programmes side by side, and an electronic TV guide.

Wide screens may be expensive now, but they will get cheaper - just as colour TV sets did in the Fifties, when they began by costing as much as a family car. Already prices are tumbling. Last year, customers paid pounds 2,000 for a 32in Philips model which now costs pounds l,400.

As fast as the design is changing, so, too, is the technology. Not content with five terrestrial TV stations and myriad cable and satellite channels, next year we see the arrival of digital TV. This will give access to hundreds of programmes from around the world, via a little box in the living-room. Who will operate it, and how much it will cost, are issues yet to be finalised.

"The TV as we know it will disappear by the year 2000," says Simon Poulter, of Philips. "Instead of 21in-wide sets we will have a variety of "intelligent" screens up to 42in wide, which we'll use for watching TV, gathering information and accessing our e-mail."

Bang & Olufsen's Malcolm Savill has a clear vision of the future for TV technology. "It's going to be really interactive," he predicts. "The viewer will be able to choose the storyline for a drama and whether they want a sad or happy ending.

"An interactive disc would also give you more information about what you're watching. If it's a wildlife programme, you may want to ask some questions about the animals, or the country."

He also believes that: "The future is in linking the computer and TV, so that you can channel programmes from the Internet... making it an information and entertainment centre capable of gathering material from all over the world."

The only thing blocking interactive TV is a disagreement within the industry as to the type of technology to be adopted as the standard: CD-I or DVD (digital versatile disc format, which looks to be the current favourite).

It's all a far cry from the first flickering black-and-white screens that were switched on when BBC TV was born, at 3pm on 2 November 1936. At that time, fewer than 400 sets could receive the service, via a transmitter with a 30-mile radius. A year later, 2,000 families huddled around monster-sized mahogany sets with 10-inch screens, marvelling at history being made with the coronation of George VI.

One of the first sets was HMV's Television Autoradiogram, which cost 120 guineas. By today's standards it could hardly be called user-friendly. The picture was reflected on to a mirror on the TV's lid, while the radio and record player snapped, crackled and popped like a breakfast cereal.

It wasn't long before HMV and Philips were mass-producing them, joined in the Fifties by Bang & Olufsen, whose original sets have become design classics. Sales continued to rise as sets dropped in price, from pounds 60 to as little as pounds 25. And when Elizabeth was crowned Queen in 1953, 20 million people tuned in. Now 98 per cent of the UK population has a TV set, and one in four households has three.

With 4 million new sets being sold each year, it won't be long before we're all reaching for the popcorn, dimming the lights and spending a night in at the movies.