4k In The Desert
- Published on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 12:12
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
I’m writing this while sitting in the Day 2 session of the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat, which has become one of the leading cutting-edge technology conferences for those working in movie and TV production.
From its humble beginnings at the turn of the century, the Tech Retreat has outgrown two hotels and now attracts over 500 attendees each year. This year’s edition is being held at the Hyatt Resort in Indian Wells and featured a full-day super session on high frame rate / high dynamic range / high resolution imaging, followed by two and a half days of presentations on everything from file-based workflows to consumer TV viewing preferences, the next generation of ATSC (3.0), and a behind the scenes look at NHK’s operations center for their 8K coverage of the 2012 Olympics.
Did you know the adaptive dynamic range of the human eye is 1014, or about 46 stops of light? (I learned this on Day 1.) I also discovered that the fire department in Paris played an integral role in the Lumiere demonstration of 60mm projected images on a 30 meter-wide screen in 1898. (More on that later!)
And I also heard about viewer preferences for high dynamic range displays, along with the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of the UltraViolet online “locker” system for viewing movies and TV shows across a wide range of devices.
As might be expected, there is a lot of interest among attendees in the emerging crop of 4K TVs and displays. 4K has already made significant inroads to the post-production industry, but the end game remains uncertain: Is the best use of 4K to make better 2K digital files for movies, and improved 2K video for broadcasts? Do 4K displays beg for greater color bit depths, as opposed to the barely-adequate 8-bit system used for Blu-ray and digital TV? What are the challenges in building an end-to-end 4K production ecosystem?
How about displays that can harness the wide dynamic range that the newest high-end 4K cameras can reproduce? And what display technology shows the most promise for reference-grade 4K monitoring in post-production and color grading facilities? It’s clear that plasma is on the way out, based on sales trends for the past three years. Yet, LCDs still face major challenges in assuming the “reference” mantle. And OLEDs remain tantalizingly out of reach, due to continued yield issues.
And then there’s the “gotcha!” – delivering 4K content to the consumer. The MPEG4 H.264 codec can work miracles, but isn’t able to pack down 4K files small enough for existing terrestrial, satellite, and cable “pipes.” However, the emerging H.265 codec promises a further bit rate reduction of 50% over H.264. Will H.265 make 4K delivery feasible?
And what will we play 4K content from? Blu-ray discs? There’s certainly enough capacity in dual-layer blue laser discs, but there’s that 8-bit color limitation. How about hard drive or solid-state memory solutions, such as RED’s $1,500 4K media player? Streaming 4K seems out of the question for now, and digital downloads of 4K movies would certainly tax even the fastest broadband service providers.
In an informal poll of attendees after Day 1, a majority (at least 80%) indicated they believed that 4K TV was just another attempt by CE manufacturers to sell TVs, while a much smaller group (perhaps 20%) thought that 4K was a legitimate next step in the progression of content production. (HPA attendees also largely agree that 3D TV is dead and that “smart TVs” are yet another misfire on the part of Japan, Korea, and China.)
In my morning breakfast roundtable that focused on the struggles of the consumer TV industry, one comment was made that perhaps Apple’s long-rumored television product might use a 4K display (along with advanced gesture and voice control.) We also talked about the rapid decline in LCD panel and TV prices, and observed that some Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturers (Westinghouse, Hisense, and TCL) are already floating aggressive prices on 4K TVs; about $50 – $60 per diagonal inch in sizes up to 65 inches.
Clearly, 4K is coming. Just how fast and in what forms isn’t immediately obvious. There is talk of a need for standardization beyond what is happening in SMPTE and EBU groups, specifically focusing on high dynamic range 4K video with a wide color gamut that will display consistently both on cinema-grade projectors and across multiple brands of 4K consumer TVs.
In other words, it’s past time to stop worrying about being “backwards compatible” with legacy format and imaging standards developed for CRT displays, and blaze new trails for acquisition, post-production, distribution, and delivery of HDR UHD visual content.
Only then will the transition to 4K TV be worthwhile. And you can be certain that Tech Retreat presenters and attendees will be on the cutting edge as it happens…
(I almost forgot: The Paris fire department sprayed water on the Lumiere screen to make it translucent so that it could be viewed on both sides.)
In The Wake of CES 2013: Thoughts and Afterthoughts
- Published on Thursday, 14 February 2013 18:39
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
It’s just over a month since the International CES, otherwise known as the world’s largest orgy of consumer electronics. Some folks are even jokingly calling it the “Chinese Electronics Show,” after the strong showing by mainland Chinese manufacturers.
I can tell you that, after sorting through over 1,200 photos and videos, I’m still discovering things I photographed in the Las Vegas Convention Center. And there have been plenty of product announcements since the show, not to mention some shifts in power among CE manufacturers.
Each year, I present on future trends in technology at InfoComm. I also travel around and offer a condensed version of this talk for dealer and distributor line shows, professional society meetings, and even for a local amateur radio club.
As you might imagine, the content of the talk is updated frequently. What I present in two weeks at the local chapter meeting of SCTE will look and sound quite a bit different by the time I get to Orlando in mid-June. But that’s the nature of the beast – there is nothing so constant in the world of electronics as change.
Even so, there are a few clear trends that aren’t likely to change in the near future. And the most important trend, one which underlies everything else, is this: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
Think about it – you can buy a 60-inch plasma TV for less than $1,000, and that’s an everyday price. Want a nice Android tablet? You can pick them up for under $300. Blu-ray players with WiFi connectivity are now available for $70. And Roku’s XD Internet video set-top box (HD playback) is also ticketed at the same price.
Heck, you can buy an 80-inch LCD TV for less than $4,000. And that size and price combination has put a good portion of the front projector market in jeopardy. I won’t rehash previous columns here; suffice it to say that consultants, dealers, and systems integrators are putting these big screens in everywhere, and tearing out a lot of perfectly-good projector/screen combinations along the way.
But the low prices on the 80-inch Sharp TV are due to (a) excess fab capacity at Sharp’s Gen 10 Sakai LCD plant in Japan, and (b) the fact that Sharp is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Hence; the company is pushing the daylights out of large LCD TV and monitor sales at unbelievably low prices (less than $50 per diagonal inch).
Sharp also has a 90-inch product in their line, and anecdotal evidence shows that dealers are buying them for about $8,000 a pop. The 80-inch and 90-inch products are quite popular in two-up, side-by-side installations for videoconferencing and graphics display. And now China is getting into the game, showing 110-inch glass cuts made in Shenzen and resold by (among other brands) Samsung and Westinghouse. No one could have forseen nor desired this rapid drop in prices for LCD displays, particularly when the worldwide market for TVs is in decline.
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
The other day, I was shopping in Best Buy and came across a special on USB flash drives (also known as “thumb” drives). SanDisk, celebrating its 25th year in business, was offering 8 gigabyte (GB) flash drives for $6 a pop – no coupons or rebates necessary. 16 GB models had a price tag of $10, and 32 GB drives could be scooped up for $20 apiece.
Believe it or now, flash drive capacity has blown past actual demand. With more and more people storing photos and documents “in the cloud,” there’s less of a need for portable flash memory.
Even so, it will take a long time to fill up a 32 GB flash drive. My 1,200+ photos and videos from CES needed about 3 GB of space on the 32 GB SD card installed in my Nikon CoolPix 8200 camera.
I bought a Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ tablet in December, and fitted it with a 32 GB Micro SD card. That is a LONG way from filling up – the only files that take up any sizable room are HD movies I download for rentals (about 6 – 7 GB per movie).
You can buy 64 GB and even 128 GB flash drives now at reasonable prices. For those crazy enough to want one, you can pick up a 500 GB thumb drive for about $300 now. Of course, you can also purchase a 1 TB Western Digital MyBook for backups at a cost of just $129.95, or a Toshiba 2 TB portable HDD for less than $200.
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
The trend towards multifunction CE devices has also put a few product categories on the endangered species list. Shipments of point-and-shoot and DSLR camera declined markedly in 2011 when compared to 2010, a trend that is expected to repeat when 2012’s numbers are tallied.
The culprit? Mobile phones and tablets. Sure, they don’t have optical zoom lenses. And their image resolution still isn’t on a par with the best DSLRs and point-and-shoots. But that makes no difference to the average consumer, who is often pleasantly surprised to see just how well his or her smart phone takes HD-resolution pictures.
Last year, Canon and Nikon even introduced several models of DSLRs and pocket cameras with built-in WiFi and the Android operating system, just so people could take photos and instantly share them with friends. As far as I can tell, these products aren’t doing much to stem the decline in camera sales. After all, you can’t make phone calls or send texts with these cameras.
Nonetheless, prices for cameras have dropped to all-time lows. A nice compact point-and-shoot can be yours for less than $100, while a 16 megapixel model with 14x optical zoom and the ability to shoot 1080p/30 videos will run about $200. (As a point of reference, Canon’s first 5D-series DSLRs could shoot 3 frames per second in 2005 and cost $3,300.)
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
Even though consumers haven’t swarmed to “smart” TV functions, they do like their streaming – and Netflix is now the largest pay TV system operator in the United States, with over 25 million subscribers (yes, more than Comcast). With an ever-increasing number of viewers watching video on tablets, notebooks, and through Internet connectivity boxes like Apple TV, Boxee, and Roku, we’re seeing the leading edge of a shift in how TV shows and movies are accessed.
The phenomenon of “cord-cutting” is not new – mainstream publications have been following it for some time. But there’s evidence that the trend is accelerating, driven by ever-higher costs for pay TV subscriptions that are running above the annual rate of inflation.
And it’s Generation Y that is taking the lead here, preferring to watch episodes of popular TV shows after they become available for download or streaming at Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Netflix, and on network Web sites. That is carrying time-shifting to an extreme, but it’s all in the name of economy.
Now, the traditional pay TV systems will tell you that cord-cutting is an aberration; a short-lived phenomenon that will run its course once younger people get married, form households, have children, and change to more traditional cable or satellite service.
Except that doesn’t appear to be happening. Just as Generation X and Y have all but pushed traditional landline telephone service into oblivion in favor of 24/7 mobile phone use, so too will they force the Comcasts, Time Warners, and DirecTVs of the world to finally offer some type of a la carte programming at lower prices.
And Gen X and Y will succeed because they’re already watching a la carte, streaming or downloading selected shows and movies at $2 – $5 a pop when it suits them. Many are supplementing Internet TV viewing with free, over-the-air broadcast HDTV services to hold the line on their entertainment budgets.
Many people buy WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players solely for the purpose of streaming. Yes, they can pop in a BD or DVD now and then, but the majority of their viewing is through that streaming port. And that is one reason why Blu-ray player prices have dropped so far and so fast.
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
When you stop and think about it, the cost of consumer electronic devices compared to the power and functionality they offer is simply mind-boggling. With a $40 Bluetooth keyboard and $60 micro mouse, my Nook HD+ is transformed into a super-compact notebook computer. I can surf the Web, watch movies and TV shows, send and receive emails, and even make a PowerPoint presentation. And all of that cost me less than $400.
Televisions with screens smaller than 50 inches can often be purchased for less than $10 per diagonal inch. For that matter, I’ve seen 26-inch and 32-inch LCD TVs for about $8 per diagonal inch, a price point at which virtually no one is making any money. This means your next TV purchase is basically amortized in less than a year, and if it breaks, you simply recycle it and buy a new one.
The glut of LCD TVs in all sizes and the resulting TV price wars are claiming one casualty – plasma. Plasma TVs were once the Rolls-Royce of TVs and commanded comparable pricing. They still have the advantage in image quality all over LCDs, particularly at wide viewing angles. Maybe they aren’t quite as bright, but they do have excellent dynamic range and deep blacks.
So what? In the third quarter of 2012, 88% of all TV shipments worldwide were LCDs. 5.5% were plasma. In fact, more CRT TVs were shipped worldwide in Q3 2012 than plasma TVs! (You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say.)
Clearly, price and convenience are trumping quality, adding plasma to the endangered species list. Samsung, Panasonic, and LG will continue to manufacture plasma TVs as long as there is reasonable demand, but have been shuttering factories and fabs along the way as demand drops.
More importantly, they’re not investing any more capital in upgrading or enhancing plasma technology – not while TV prices are hovering in the range of $8 – $12 per diagonal inches, LCDs account for nearly 9 out of every 10 TVs sold currently, and the Chinese are breathing down the necks of Korean and Japanese TV brands with even lower-priced models.
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.
I’ll close this essay with a look to the future of TV – specifically, 4K TV. You can shrug your shoulders, smirk, or make fun of 4K. But there’s no denying that it’s coming whether or not there is enough 4K content to watch.
4K went from being highly-anticipated at CES to “ho hum” in a single day. That’s because so many companies had 4K TVs on display, and many of those were located in China. Brands like Hisense, TCL, Skyworth, and Haier showed fully-loaded 4K TV products that were every bit as impressive as the latest “smart” TV offerings from Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp.
Not only that, the Chinese brands had multiple models of 4K TVs. While Sony and LG got some “oohs!” and “aahs!” for their 84-inch LCD offerings, Hisense had 50-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 84-inch, and 100-inch models flickering away in the aisles. Westinghouse Digital showed a similar portfolio in their LVH suite. Skyworth’s small booth was dominated by an 84-inch 4K set, while TCL pulled off a sensational marketing and PR coup; getting the producers of the upcoming Iron Man 3 release (May) to showcase their 110-inch 4K set in the movie. (Guess Samsung and Sharp were asleep when that happened?)
The fact is, most TV manufacturing is inexorably moving to China. Some will remain in Korea, but it’s hard to see how the Japanese can hang on, seeing as they are getting clobbered by an unfavorable exchange rate on the yen and the emergence of large LCD fabs in Taiwan and China that can make big sheets of inexpensive, good-quality LCD glass – glass that can be used in everything from tablets and phones to televisions. It’s just not a fair fight.
Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it…
ISE 2013: Oh, It’s ON!
- Published on Friday, 01 February 2013 12:03
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
ISE is a joint venture between InfoComm and CEDIA – and drew a sizable crowd, even with cold, wet weather.
Much has been made of the rapid price drops in the LCD TV market; specifically, LCD TVs that measure 65 inches and up. Ever since Sharp rolled out its 70-inch and 80-inch 1080p LCD TV products in 2011, consultants and systems integrators have been switching over to these projection screen-sized displays instead of traditional front projectors and separate screens.
There are many reasons for this trend, not the least of which is the low prices on the 70-inch, 80-inch, and 90-inch Sharp products – about $2,000, $3700, and $8000, respectively. When compared to a ceiling-mounted projector and motorized screen, it’s just not a fair fight. Add in the additional labor and wiring of power and class 2 control and video signals, and the big LCDs come out clearly ahead.
There are other reasons why investment banks and universities are making the switch away from projection. One in particular is the need to replace lamps every few thousand hours (if they last that long). Another is the need with certain projectors to clean dust out and replace air filters. Neither of these maintenance issues are factors with large LCD TVs, which also come with extended warranties if installed by an authorized dealer/integrator.
And of course, there’s the ambient lighting issue. Clients can legitimately ask, “What is the point of a nice conference room with plenty of windows if you have to keep closing them every time you make a presentation?” With LCD displays, you don’t need to, unless you have a glare problem.
From my perspective, the market for 2000- to 3000-lumens projectors that are ceiling-mounted in classrooms and meeting rooms has turned irreversibly towards self-contained flat screen displays. This trend will only accelerate as these screens continue to drop in price and more competitors jostle for a share of the pie.
But projector manufacturers aren’t ready to fold up shop and cry, “uncle!” At ISE 2013, more than a few “lampless” projectors made their debut, and they’re aimed at stemming the tide of mongo LCDs.
I can’t tell what’s more amazing: That Sony harnessed a laser light engine to a 3LCD projector, or that they started with 4000 lumens and 1920×1200 resolution.
Perhaps the most intriguing product was found in the Sony booth, where an installation-sized 3LCD chassis was up and running. This product, which doesn’t have a model number or price yet, uses a 100% laser light illumination engine to project Wide UXGA (1920×1200) images.
It wasn’t a static demo, either. The projector was sequencing through a series of full-color graphics and photos (no video, though) and the color was impressive. What was even more impressive was the use of WUXGA 3LCD panels (not LCoS or DLP). This is the first publicly-shown 3LCD projector to use lasers – even Epson, who is the dominant player in HTPS LCD fabrication and one of the top brands of LCD projectors – hasn’t shown one yet.
Sony’s prototype, which will be officially launched at InfoComm this coming June, is rated at 4000 lumens of brightness, both in white and color light output. It has interchangeable lenses and supports image warping and soft-edge blending.
When it came to discuss the workings of the laser light engine, “mum” was the word. I suspect the laser light engine is being used to stimulate phosphors to get red, green, and blue light. The only thing that has me wondering is the light output, which is on the high side for a laser/phosphor system. Well, all will be revealed in about five months…
Mitsubishi’s also mixing it up with three models of LaserVue projectors.
Not far away, Mitsubishi took the wraps off a new line of LaserVue DLP projectors. These “hybrid” models build on the same projection technology that Mits developed for its erstwhile LaserVUE rear projection TV sets; employing a red LED, numerous blue laser diodes, and a single-segment green phosphor color wheel.
Unlike Sony, Mits opted to go with three different models for its coming-out party. The NW31U-EST WXGA (1280 x 800 resolution, 2500 lumens) extreme short throw model will arrive in April, followed shortly by two standard throw models: the NW30U WXGA (1280 x 800, 3000 lumens) and the NF32U (1920×1080, 3000 lumens).
The Mits projectors are also notable in that they are part of the new “cloud” lineup – these projectors can connect quickly and easily to the Internet to download and stream files. (We’ve come a long way from those slow, tedious and unreliable “wireless projector” demos of the late 1990s!) And they can mirror any Android or iOS tablet that would be used to control that remote computer or server.
So – how long are the lasers supposed to last in these new projectors? The stock response is 20,000 to 30,000 hours. In reality, it’s the power supply that often craps out before the lasers, a problem that popped up more than a few times with the LaserVUE TVs. I’d assume that both Sony and Mitsubishi have since gathered much useful data on power supply lifetimes and de-rating to ensure reliable service.
BenQ expanded their line of laser DLP projectors…
…while Panasonic made their hybrids the centerpiece of a nice energy conservation demo.
BenQ also showed laser-engined DLP projectors at the show, while nearby, Casio had a full line of LED/laser hybrids. The color on most models I saw was considerably better than the first crop that came out in 2010 and 2011 – obviously, engineers are taming the excessively-saturated shades of red and blue that LEDs and lasers create. (BenQ uses lasers exclusively; Casio uses both lasers and LEDs.)
Although Epson didn’t show a laser 3LCD product, I’m quite sure one is in the works at the Matsumoto labs. And you can be sure that other projector manufacturers will have lampless models of their own to show in Orlando later this year.
Samsung’s got a 95-inch LCD (and a 75-inch version, too) to make the projector guys uncomfortable.
Is the use of a laser, LED, or hybrid light engine enough to stem the tide to big LCDs? Only a handful of projector marketing guys I spoke to at the show were optimistic that the onrush of LCDs could be stopped or delayed.
While lasers and LEDs make replacement lamps go away, the issues with ambient light and the costs of installing a separate screen and projector mount remain. And the soon-to-be-available crop of 4K LCD displays in sizes from 50 to 100 inches will just raise the stakes even higher.
Still; it’s good to see that projector manufacturers are fighting back and innovating some cool designs along the way. (And if they still need motivation, all they had to do was check out the 75-inch and 95-inch edge-lit LCD displays in the Samsung booth…)
Ebook Readers At The Crossroads
- Published on Friday, 01 February 2013 11:58
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
In an article published right before Christmas, the Times points out that a widely-anticipated ebook price war never happened, and that most ebooks continue to sell at slight discounts to hardcover versions. One reason for this “non-event” is that the prices of dedicated e-readers and tablets have dropped so low that it’s impossible to make any money from them.
Amazon’s Kindle can now be purchased for as little as $69, while Barnes & Noble’s cheapest Nook is tagged at $79. The Nook Glowlight is available for about $129, while full-color Nook tablets are in the $269 to $299 price range.
And there’s the rub: Tablets are in; dedicated e-readers are on the decline. Research firm IHS stated that dedicated eBook readers “…will go the way of the dinosaur…sent reeling by more nimble tablet devices that have gained the ardent patronage of consumers.” IHS’s most recent research predicted that ebook reader sales, which peaked at 23 million units in 2011, will have fallen to 14.9 million units by the end of 2012 when the final numbers are tallied.
And the future doesn’t look too rosy, either. The IHS report forecast ebook reader sales falling to 7 million units annually by 2016, which would represent a decline of 66% from the 2011 numbers. To quote from IHS, “The stunning rise and then blazing flameout of ebooks perfectly encapsulate what has become an axiomatic truth in the industry: Single-task devices like the ebook are being replaced without remorse in the lives of consumers by their multifunction equivalents, in this case by media tablets.”
How about the declining sales of ebook titles? Tablets are more than adequate replacements for readers, so that can’t be the problem. No, according to the Times article, it’s the continued shuttering of retail bookstores that is the problem – and many of those stores are leased and operated by Barnes & Noble.
Michael Norris, a Samba Information analyst who follows the publishing industry, was quoted in the Times article as saying, “We have found that at any given time about a third of e-book users haven’t bought a single title in the last 12 months. I have a feeling it is the digital equivalent of the ‘overloaded night stand’ effect; someone isn’t going to buy any more books until they make a dent in reading the ones they have already acquired.”
According to Norris; the 2011 demise of Borders, the second-biggest chain of bookstores, actually hurt the e-book industry. Prospective customers were using Borders to “showroom” various titles, and then would go home and order them online from Amazon.
In his blog, Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson points out that Barnes & Noble has been closing stores left and right since Thanksgiving; many of which are located in or near major cities. He goes on to state that as many as 1362 bookstores of all kinds have closed their doors for good, less than two years after Borders went into bankruptcy.
According to statistics compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, Barnes & Noble store sales declined 11% year-to-year, while sales of Nook devices (presumably including the new tablets) were off by 12.6% from 2011. Morningstar analyst Peter Wahlstrom was quoted in the blog post as saying, “…you’d have expected that Barnes & Noble would have been able to maintain its share because it introduced two new color tablets during the quarter. They aren’t behind on the tablet front in the sense that their devices compare well with others, but they are behind in terms of marketing, awareness and adoption. And that’s critical.”
The ascent of tablets over ebook readers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Tablets can do so many more things, and as I showed in a post last December, really function more like ultrabooks on steroids (which is why ultrabooks have become extinct). So they aren’t just devices for reading newspapers and books, looking at photos, watching movies, or listening to music.
No, the Nook and Kindle products are actually portals into retail commerce for B&N and Amazon. Jordan Selburn of HIS made that point succinctly in the Times article: “Amazon does not make much off the hardware,” he said. “Its goal is to sell you content. When they sell you a Kindle Fire tablet, they are not just selling you books but movies, diapers, and garden hose. It’s a portal into their entire store.”
At ISE 2013 next week, I will be showing a concept demo of a wireless Nook HD+ playing back videos and PowerPoint slides, using AMIMON’s WHDI technology to make a wireless HDMI connection to the room projector. Although the demo requires a kit-bashed Nook hardcover, a large iGo battery, and WHDI stick; the whole thing works remarkably well.
And yes, I’ll be using that same Nook HD+ to read a few books and watch some movies on the flights to and from Europe…something my Glowlight ebook reader just can’t do. Maybe it will be a museum piece in another year or two?
This article originally appeared in Display Daily.
CES 2013: From Hype to Ho-Hum in Minutes
- Published on Monday, 14 January 2013 10:20
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
Here we go again ! (Sigh…)
Things are booming in the world of consumer electronics, regardless of the state of the world’s economy. You needed no additional proof beyond the enormous turnout at last week’s International CES, which was in excess of 150,000, according to official press releases. Even if you apply the Kell factor, that’s still a huge turnout – at least 120,000.
I’ve used an easy rule to determine attendance: How long it takes to catch a cab at the end of the first two days of the show. 10 minutes? Light turnout. 20 minutes? Respectable turnout. 40 minutes or more? Now, that’s a crowd!
I spent the equivalent of three full days at the show, scrambling back and forth between strip hotels and the convention center, capturing over 1200 videos and photos along the way. After a while, it all started to blur together. I mean; how many 110-inch TVs do you have to see before the “awe” wears off? How many tablets will you run across before you swear never to touch another one?
This year’s edition of show was characterized by a level playing field across many technologies. No longer do the Japanese and Koreans have an exclusive right to “first to market.” Their neighbors across the sea are now just as technically competent, if not more so.
Hisense’s “Big Bertha” uses the same glass as TVs shown by TCL, Samsung, and Westinghouse Digital.
Everybody (and their brother) had an 84-inch 4K TV at the show. (Yawn…)
Case in point: The 110-inch 4K LCD TVs shown at CES (I counted four of them, including one in the Samsung booth) all use glass from a Chinese LCD fab known as China Star Optoelectronics Technology, which is a three-year old joint venture between TCL, Samsung, and the local government of Shenzen.
Never heard of them? You will. What’s even more amazing is that their Gen 8.5 LCD fab is (according to an industry insider I spoke to) more efficiently used when cutting two 98-inch LCD panels at the same time. Those are huge cuts, and given China’s predilection for market dominance, we may see rapid price drops in 4K TVs across all sizes by the end of 2013.
Speaking of 4K (UHDTV); everyone had it. And I mean everyone! Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp, Westinghouse, Skyworth, TCL, Hisense, Haier – wait! You never heard of those last four companies? The last three had enormous booths at the show, and Hisense showed five different models of 4K TVs – 50, 58, 65, 84, and 100 inches. That’s more than anyone else had.
In a significant marketing and PR coup, TCL managed to get their 110-inch 4K TV featured in Iron Man III, which debuts in May. That’s the sort of promotional genius that Sony and Panasonic used to pull off. But there are new guys on the block now, and they’re playing for keeps. The steady decline of the Japanese TV industry and continuing financial woes of its major players are all the proof you need.
So – who was REALLY “first” to show a 4K 56-inch OLED TV? Sony, or…
…Panasonic, who also claimed they were the “first?” (Maybe it was a matter of minutes?)
Interestingly, Sony’s booth signs identified this display as the “world’s first and largest OLED TV.” Puzzling, as it clearly wasn’t the first OLED TV ever shown, and just down the hall, Panasonic was showing its 56-inch OLED TV, the “world’s largest 4K OLED created by printing technology.” Both companies need to get out of their booths more often!
Panasonic, who emphatically renewed their commitment to plasma at CES (despite a continued decline in plasma TV sales worldwide), clearly wanted to show they had a second act ready when plasma eventually bites the bullet. The company is also a major player in IPS LCD, manufacturing LCD TVs in sizes to 65 inches that are every bit as good anything LG cranks out.
Speaking of LG…the heavy emphasis on 3D found in last year’s booth was all but gone this year. Yes, the enormous passive 3DTV wall that greeted visitors at the entrance was still there. And there were a few passive 3D demos scattered throughout the booth. But the more impressive exhibit featured a wall of curved 55-inch OLED TVs. (Why would anyone need a curved TV? You’re probably asking. Well, why would anyone need most of the stuff you see at CES?)
LG also showcased a unique product – a 100” projector screen illuminated by an ultra-short-throw laser projector. LG billed it as the world’s largest wall-mount TV (for now) and it’s known as “Hecto.” The projector uses laser diodes (presumably with DLP technology; that wasn’t mentioned) to illuminate that screen at a distance of just 22 inches.
It’s bad enough that LG shows 55-inch OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. Now, they have curved OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. (Drool…)
Got two people who want to watch two different 3D TV programs at the same time? No problem for Samsung!
Back down the hall, LG’s neighbor Samsung also showed a 55-inch curved OLED TV (just one) and a couple of company representatives were surprised to hear that LG had a bevy of them. (I repeat my observation about booth personnel who need to get out more.) Samsung did have a clever demo of an OLED TV showing simultaneous 2K programming – simply change a setting on the 3D glasses and you could watch one or the other show. (TI showed this same trick years ago with DLP RPTVs by switching left eye and right information.)
Samsung did have an 85-inch 4K LCD TV that wasn’t duplicated anywhere else on the show floor, and as far as I can tell, it’s a home-grown product. But given the company’s investment in China Star and its shifting emphasis on AM OLED production, I would not be surprised to see Samsung sourcing more of its LCD glass from China in the near future.
Sharp’s booth intrigued me. Here’s a company on the verge of bankruptcy that was showing a full line of new Quattron LCD TVs, along with “Moth Eye” anti-glare first surface glass. Moth Eye glass preserves high contrast and color saturation, but minimizes reflections in a similar way to a moth’s eye; hence the name. Sharp also had impressive demos of flexible OLEDs and a gorgeous 32-inch 4K LCD monitor.
IGZO was also heralded all around the booth. Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide is a new type of semiconductor layer for switching LCD pixels that consumes less power, passes more light, and switches at faster speeds. Many LCD manufacturers (and OLED manufacturers, too) are working on IGZO, but Sharp is closer to the finish line than anyone else – and that may be the salvation of the company, along with an almost-inevitable orderly bankruptcy.
IGZO is why Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industries, wants to buy a piece of Sharp – about 10%, to be exact. He’s looking for a source of VA glass for Apple’s tablets and phones (Hon Hai owns Foxconn, who manufactures these products.) And if Sharp can’t get its financial house in order, he might wind up making a bid for the entire company. (“Never happen!” you say. “The Japanese government wouldn’t allow it.” Well, these are different times we live in, so never say “never!”)
Sharp may not be able to balance their books, but they still know how to manufacture some beautiful displays.
It goes without saying that Tony Stark would have a 110-inch TV, right?
On to the Chinese. They showed 4K, 84-inch and 110-inch LCD glass cuts, gesture recognition, clever LED illumination systems, 3D, smart TVs – basically, everything the Japanese and Koreans were showing. Hisense had a spectacular demo of a transparent 3D LCD TV, along with something called U-LED TV. The explanation of this by the booth representative was so ambiguous that I’ll leave it at an enhanced method of controlling the backlight for improved contrast.
I had heard from an industry colleague that Hisense’s XT880-series 4K TV would have rock-bottom retail prices, but couldn’t confirm this from booth personnel. (Think of $2,000 for a 50-inch 4K TV.) The company’s gesture recognition demo wasn’t nearly as impressive – it’s powered by Israel-based EyeSight – but clearly shows that Hisense is just as far along in refining this feature as anyone else.
TCL had demonstrations of high-contrast 4K TVs with amazingly deep blacks; as good as anything I’ve seen from LG and Samsung. They also had a demonstration of autostereo 3D at the back of their booth, very close to Toshiba (who was showing the same thing). Haier had that now-ubiquitous 4K LCD TV prominently featured in their booth, along with smart TVs and what must have been several dozen tablets. Meanwhile, Skyworth’s booth in the lower south hall showcased yet another 84-inch 4K TV.
RCA’s got the first tablet with an integrated ATSC/MH tuner, and it runs Windows 8.
TV antennas are passe? NOT!
Celluon’s laser-powered virtual keyboard works on any surface. TI had a pair connected to picoprojectors in their suite.
Vizio’s suite at the Wynn featured 80-inch, 70-inch, and 60-inch LCD TVs using the Sharp Gen 10 glass, and they looked impressive. One version of the 70-inch set is already selling below $2,000, and the 80-incher will come in (for now) at just under $4,500. Vizio also had three new 4K TVs in 55-inch, 65-inch, and 70-inch sizes, but no pricing was announced yet. (Everyone is sitting on their hands waiting for the other guy to price his 4K TVs!)
There was obviously a lot more to CES than televisions. Vizio has a new 11.6” tablet with 1920×1080 resolution that runs Windows 8 with a AMD Z-60 processor. Panasonic showed a prototype 20-inch 4K (3840×2560) tablet using IPS-alpha glass. It also runs Windows 8 with an Intel Corei5 CPU and has multi-touch and stylus input. And RCA had a cool 8-inch tablet (Win 8 OS) that incorporates an ATSC receiver and small antenna. It can play back both conventional 8VSB and MH broadcasts.
Silicon Image had a kit-bashed 7” Kindle tablet running their new UltraGig 6400 60 GHz transmitter, delivering 2K video to a bevy of LCD TVs. They also showed a new image scaling chip to convert 2K to 4K, along with the latest version of InstaPrevue. The latter technology lets you see what’s on any connected HDMI input with I-frame thumbnails of video and still images.
Silicon Image’s new UltraGig 6400 TX chip connects this full HD Kindle tablet to an HDTV at 60 GHz.
Conexant’s powerful speech processing chips can filter out any background noise while you “command” your smart TV.
Omek’s gesture control demo was easily the most impressive at the show.
Over in the LV Hotel, Conexant dazzled with a demonstration of adaptive background noise filtering to improve the reliability of voice control systems for televisions. The demo consisted of a nearby loudspeaker playing back an art lecture while commands for TV operation were spoken. A graphical representation showed how effectively the background noise was filtered out completely. The second demo had a Skype conversation running with a TV on in the background and the remote caller walking around the room. I never heard one peep from the TV, and the remote caller was always intelligible.
A few floors down, Omek (yet another Israel-based gesture recognition startup) had perhaps the best demo of gesture control at the show. Their system captures 22 points of reference along your hands, allowing complex gesture control using simple, intuitive finger and wrist movement. (No flailing of arms was necessary). I watched as an operator at a small computer monitor pulled a virtual book from a shelf and flipped through its pages, and also selected a record album, removed the record from its sleeve, and placed it on a virtual turntable. I was even treated to a small marionette show!
At the Renaissance, Prime Sense had numerous exhibits that all revolved around their new, ultra-compact 3D camera design. One demo by Shopperception involved boxes of cereal on a shelf. As you picked one up, the sensors would flash a coupon offer for that cereal to your tablet or phone, or suggest you buy a larger, more economical size instead of two boxes.
Nearby, Covii had one of those “You Are Here” shopping mall locator maps that operated with touchless sensing to expand and provide more detail about any store you were interested in, including sales and promotions. And Matterport had a nifty 3D 360-degree camera that could scan and provide a 3D representation of any room in about one minute. You could then rotate and turn the views in any direction.
Do not – repeat, DO NOT try this at home with your tablet!
A hybrid low rider? With a 500-watt sound system? Who’d a thunk it?
Wear this Garmin GPS watch and nobody can ever tell you to “get lost!”
HzO was back with another amazing demo of their WaterBlock waterproofing system. They had a tablet computer sitting in a continuous shower, and also dunked it in a fish tank. Additional demos included dropping smart phones in a bowl of beer and other mysterious liquids. The water infiltrates all spaces but has no effect on operation – you just drip-dry the device once extracted from water. (How do you get rid of the beer smell, though?)
There was an HDMI pavilion at the show, but I was more interested in the goings-on at the DisplayPort exhibit. VESA representatives showed me a single-channel DP connection from a smart phone to a TV for gaming and playing back video, all over a super-thin connecting cable. The powers that be at VESA are also talking about upping the data rates for DisplayPort (currently about 18 Gb/s) to accommodate higher-resolution TVs.
Right now, DP uses an uncompressed data coding method. But there is now discussion of applying a light compression algorithm (tentatively called DisplayStream) that would enable data rates to go much higher – more like 25 Gb/s. (DisplayPort can currently handle 3840×2160 pixels with 10-bit color and a 60-Hz refresh rate.)
I was surprised at the number of devices at the show that support HDMI, and expected more support for DP given its ability to handle higher data rates and its Thunderbolt data layer overlay. It may still be early in the game – the venerable VGA connector is on its way out starting this year, and manufacturers of laptops, tablets, and phones are still debating which digital interface to hitch their horses to.
No, this is not a typical CES attendee. But it’s how all of us feel after three days at the show.
Panasonic’s 20-inch 4K offering is the Rolls-Royce of tablets. (So who needs a notebook!)
Suffice it to say that this was a VERY popular booth at CES…
…as was this one. Sealy lets you control your mattress settings from your iPad. (Hey, it’s CES!)
Let’s wrap things up with a discussion of ultrabooks. Intel’s booth prominently featured a full line of these next-gen notebooks, although several of the models on display weren’t nearly as thin as I’d expect an ultrabook to be. Shipments of “ultras” in 2012 were only about half of what was forecast.
The reason? Tablets. Vizio’s new tablet is one of the larger models at nearly 12 inches, but Panasonic showed you can go even larger and make it work. At that point, why would you need a notebook? I left mine at home this time and used a Nook HD+ instead. Fitted with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and loaded with Office-compatible programs, it did everything I needed it to do while in Vegas.
Needless to say, the Intel booth representative wasn’t too happy when I pointed this out to him. But that’s the thing about CES: There’s always some other guy at the show that has the same or better product than you. There’s always a better mousetrap or waffle-maker lurking in the South Hall. Very few companies have much of an edge in technology these days (the Chinese brands proved that in spades), and so many of these “wow, gotta have it!” items become commodities in rapid order.
The plethora of 4K and ultra-large LCD TVs found at CES proved this conclusively, as they went from hype to ho-hum in a matter of minutes. So did tablets, smart phones, and other connectivity gadgets. What CES 2013 was really about was the shift in manufacturing prowess and power to China from Japan and Korea; a shift that will only accelerate with time. And that is definitely NOT ho-hum!
Editor’s note: Many thanks and a tip of the hat to Nikon booth personnel, who were apparently charging and swapping out batteries for journalists who (like me) inadvertently ran out of power during the show. They saved me more than once!
Marilyn says, “Gentlemen prefer 4K 3D curved wireless multi-touch OLED IGZO cloud-based voice controlled tablets!” (See you next year…)