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Where’s that television? Welcome to the era of transparent TVs

Magic boxes: See-through models by LG and Samsung could change the status of television in our homes — again

The television licence fee inspector calls to your door and informs you they have the right to enter your home to check you don’t have a television set as claimed. Confidently, you let them in. They search around, but can’t find one. Nothing to see here. Once they leave, foiled, you turn your television back on.

Yours is see-through. When it’s off, it looks like a glass panel. Somehow you have got your hands on a prototype of a near-future generation of televisions that are not available to buy just yet, but are on track to make it into shops some time before the licence fee goes the way of the cathode ray tube.

Like curved-screen TVs, foldable TVs and wireless TVs before them, transparent TVs were the talk of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with leading South Korean manufacturers Samsung and LG both showing off their transparent wares in the Nevada desert.

In LG’s ‘transparent’ mode, the display can present digital art, weather updates and various other types of content without blocking your view of whatever lies behind the screen

Samsung demonstrated a transparent micro-OLED display with a frameless design that reportedly made the images on the screen resemble a floating hologram. LG unveiled a transparent wireless 4K set called the LG Signature OLED T scheduled to hit the market later this year. The price hasn’t been confirmed, though safe to say if you can afford it, you can afford to pay the TV licence fee.


In LG’s “transparent” mode, the display can present digital art, weather updates and various other types of content without blocking your view of whatever lies behind the screen, while viewers who prefer to watch the traditional way and are not too fussed about their television “harmonising” with their room can switch to “opaque” mode.

Wireless transparent TVs have another function that their non-transparent counterparts can’t pull off quite so stylishly: they can act as space dividers, ruling off a section of an open-plan room without eclipsing everything behind them. Or, as Park Hyoung-sei, president of the LG Home Entertainment Company, put it, LG’s transparent TV “gives customers greater freedom to curate their living spaces”.

The upshot is this: television used to be described as the window to the world, but now TV sets resemble actual windows. We are moving from the “what’s on TV?” age to the “where’s the TV?” one, in which the most expensive models are once again overtly keen on camouflaging themselves into their surroundings, almost as if having a big slab of shiny hardware in your sittingroom is déclassé or something.

I don’t ever have my TV off for long enough to care about the aesthetic drawbacks of a black rectangle confronting me from the other side of the rug

Indeed, much of the history of television sets has involved an unrelatable impetus to conceal them or disguise their presence in some manner, as I learned last year when I researched their role as a piece of furniture for our Home & Design supplement.

I don’t ever have my TV off for long enough to care about the aesthetic drawbacks of a black rectangle confronting me from the other side of the rug. Over the decades, however, more house-proud people have been consistently unsettled enough by the perceived ugliness of an off-TV set to respond positively to manufacturers’ suggestions that they can make their TVs blend into their rooms.

The electronics of early televisions were housed in wood-effect boxes that were often, in turn, nestled within wooden cabinets. A sliding or folding door on the cabinet could then make the “telly-box” disappear. The thinking was that this softened the impact of a communications technology’s intrusion into what had been people’s private sanctuaries. Before the proliferation of TV sets, radio had gone through the same process, with sets marketed as beautifully crafted pieces of furniture blessed with oak and walnut finishings.

Then, in the 1980s, televisions left their “brown good” origins and became showy “black goods”. The grey, thick, almost globular screens of old became dark voids of increasing size, with hefty scart cables connecting sets to mammoth video players that, like most technology, didn’t seem clunky at the time.

This happily conspicuous phase extended into the flatscreen era, though the retreat to wall-mounted sets was perhaps a forerunner of a more recent vogue to hide the TV.

Interior designers have found ways to cover screens with movable prints, while manufacturers have devoted years to glare reduction so that off sets can morph into art. Samsung even has a range called The Frame that trumpets the matt finish of the display on the basis that “masterpieces shouldn’t hide behind reflections”. When Sky got into the hardware game with Sky Glass, meanwhile, it included an optional feature called Glance — motion technology that prompts the screen to spring into life when you wander into the room. The big black hole is banished.

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As much as I like the idea of using TV wallpaper to pretend I’ve got a fish tank in my flat, my philosophy on television sets is to keep using the one I have until it’s dead. I’m no more uneasy about ageing audiovisual paraphernalia than any other kind — transparent TVs, to me, will only make it harder to avoid staring at the rest of my chaotic clutter.

I won’t be alone in thinking “why?” here. Indeed, the most likely early adopters are budget-rich organisations installing screens in public spaces, on corporate premises or anywhere where there’s a premium on technology being at one with its environment.

Still, the possibility of transparent TVs spreading as a concept seems like an intriguing inflection point, if only because the almost holographic-like quality of their images points to a future without screens at all. That future might be something to consider if you’re still, like me, busy amassing a DVD collection to beat the whims and limitations of streaming services.

Not every Consumer Electronics Show innovation makes it out of Vegas. But if nothing else, we have some fun new lingo — opaque TVs — to instantly distinguish and date the sets we own now. These next ones are magic boxes: now you see them, now you don’t.