Category: The Front Line

The Amazing, Shrinking LED Pixel Pitch

Not many years ago, if you went out to buy an LED sign you could choose between a pixel pitch of 6 mm (for viewing at large distances) and a pixel pitch of 12 mm (for viewing at very large distances).

But over the the last few years, as seen at trades shows such as Infocomm and Digital Signage Expo (DSE), the minimum pixel pitch has been shrinking steadily. At the latest DSE, held March 11-12 in Las Vegas, Panasonic was showing signage modules with a pixel pitch of 1.1 mm, and other leading manufacturers were not far behind. For perspective, when plasma television sets first came on the market they had this same pixel pitch: 1.1 mm. LED signs are now suitable for a widely expanded range of applications — and viewing distances far less than half the length of a football field.

Most manufacturers build up signs from seamless or near-seamless modules measuring measuring between 12 and 24 inches on a side, although they are not necessarily square. Depending on size, pixel pitch, and manufacturer, modules cost between $2000 and $6000 each. These are expensive signs, but all of the manufacturers I spoke to at DSE said there is substantial early demand from high-end retailers.

At DSE 2015, Planar used its seamless DirectLight LED modules, each containing 240x180 pixels at a 1.6mm pitch, to fabricate this large, attention-getting display. (Photo: Ken Werner)

At DSE 2015, Planar used its seamless DirectLight LED modules, each containing 240×180 pixels at a 1.6mm pitch, to fabricate this large, attention-getting display. (Photo: Ken Werner)

As attractive as the current products are, it’s clear that lower cost and/or even smaller pixel pitches would greatly increase market size. Is this possible? LED chip-maker Osram Opto Semiconductors thinks so. Osram Opto recently announced it will be coordinating the new InteGreat Project, whose other participants are Osram GmbH, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, LayTecAG, Würth Elektronik GmbH, and Mühlbauer GmbH. The project is supported by the German Ministry for Education and Research.

The project’s objective is to develop new production processes for high-efficiency LEDs that “remove the boundaries between the individual value-added stages….” Project coordinator Jürgen Moosburger said “We will be researching completely new concepts for LED production and questioning the traditional paradigms of the manufacturing process. …With new production concepts, we expect to be in a position to develop both low-cost miniturized LEDs and highly itegrated modules.”

Those are goals that seem to include micro-LED displays as well as more conventional signage and lighting applications.

I hereby make a very safe prediction: LED pixel pitches will continue to amaze us and will continue to shrink.

Ultra HD Blu-ray: Getting Closer

On May 12, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had completed the specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and concurrently released a new logo to go with the format. UHD BD supports a maximum image resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, refreshed at a variety of frame rates (including 60 Hz) with a maximum of 10 bits per pixel coding.

The move to Ultra HD (or Quad HD) resolution is a big step forward for this optical disc format, which has been fighting to hold its place in the media landscape against video streaming and digital movie downloads, both of which can also handle 1080p/60 video with 8-bit color.

UHD+BD+Logo+JPG MR

One key component of the new format is support for high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, being touted as the next big thing by the likes of Dolby and Vizio. HDR imaging represents about 15 stops of light from deep shadows to bright white, and is an impressive tool in the arsenal of next-generation television – which is essentially what Ultra HD (and beyond) represent.

Audio is getting a workout too, with the addition of object-oriented, multi-spatial playback formats that go far beyond Dolby and DTS 7.1 formats. (Anyone for NHK’s 22.2 surround format?)

Of course, all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players must be backward-compatible with older Blu-ray Discs. What’s not mentioned in the Blu-ray Disc Association press release is that your UHDTV must be compatible with HDCP (copy protection) version 2.2 to play back UHD content as it becomes available.

And if you do the math, you’ll realize that you’ll also need at least an HDMI version 2.0 interface (or DisplayPort 1.2, or superMHL) on your TV or projector to handle the much higher interface data rates that will result from 10-bit color played back from UHD Blu-ray discs. Every Ultra HDTV I’ve seen so far has at least one HDMI 2.0 input, and some are also including DisplayPort 1.2.

Here's Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

Here’s Panasonic’s prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

There’s another possible catch. The UHD Blu-ray standard supports HEVC H.265, a new video codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264 AVC, the current Blu-ray codec. H.265 is really a key part of the specification, considering there’s four times the image resolution in each frame of UHD video. So your UHD TV should also recognize and decode H.265 content, which may also arrive over streaming connections.

And “streaming” is the wild card here. There’s no question that Blu-ray provides the best at-home, near-cinematic experience of any playback format. However, the trend over the past half decade clearly shows more consumer dollars shifting toward streaming and downloads, often on smaller handheld devices like tablets which don’t need 2160p resolution. And with companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and Cablevision worried about losing customers, more emphasis is being put on increasing broadband speeds to the home as a competitive marketing edge.

Add in a growing catalog of HEVC-compatible devices (TVs, set-top boxes, computers, gaming consoles) and it will be easier than ever to deliver UHD content to the home “on demand.” Maybe not next week, or even this year.

But it will happen: The blue laser optical disc format wars concluded about seven years ago, while video streaming was in its infancy. Today, we can stream 1080p video to just about any media device. Look at how many passengers on flights, trains, and buses now watch movies and TV shows on tablets and even smartphones. For the vast majority of consumers, the story is all about convenience and price in accessing and watching movies, and not so much about quality.

So – a new BD standard is a good thing, if for no other reason than to keep up with the shift to next-generation television. It will be a great format for those who simply have to own a movie, or who still want to rent one on disc. (I’m looking forward to finally seeing the burial and and reading the epitaph for 8-bit color!)

But the disc-focused segment of the market is becoming a smaller piece of the revenue pie for Hollywood with each passing year, and it’s not clear if the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard will have any impact on that trend. How fast will consumers embrace this format? What will movies cost, compared to today’s Blu-ray disc packages? How about the Ultra Violet registry, and cross-platform access to purchased content? Do we even need physical media any more?

Stay tuned!

OLED TV: Second Wind?

A combination of company announcements, seemingly reliable reporting, and just plain rumors make it reasonable to believe that OLED Television is finally getting its second wind.

The reliable reporting centers on LG Display increasing its panel production, with LG Electronics modestly decreasing some set prices. The rumors center on Samsung re-entering the OLED-TV business, but the rumors are well founded — and I have recently received confirmation from a very reliable industry source. Let’s see if we can sort through some of this.

LG Display (LGD) CEO Han Sang-Beom has said his company plans to ship 600,00 TV-sized OLED panels in 2015, going up to 1.5 million in 2016. LGD estimates the global high-end TV market at 4 million sets, which means that if LGD actually makes and sells those 1.5 million panels next year, OLED-TV will be grabbing more than a third of the high-end market. Although that sounds like an excess of enthusiasm, at least a portion of the enthusiasm has a solid foundation.

LGD has increased the capacity at its Gen 8 fab to 14,000 substrates per month, which translates to the 600,000 panels projected for 2015. To support the predicted 1.5 million sets in 2016, input capacity will grow to 34,000 substrates per month by the end of 2015.

An LG representative recently told CNet that LG can’t meet the demand for OLED TVs and “cannot build OLED TVs fast enough.”

LG's flat UHD 55-inch OLED TV.  At this screen size and pixel density, flat is beautiful.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

LG’s flat UHD 55-inch OLED TV. At this screen size and pixel density, flat is beautiful. (Photo: Ken Werner)

LG seems focused on maintaining its own OLED-TVs as premium products, with the emphasis on 4K. A carryover flat, FHD 55-inch model is selling for $1999, while the new curved, 4K 55-inch will carry an MSRP of $5499. My personal favorite of the OLED-TV screens LGD showed in their suite at CES was a lovely flat 4K 55-inch. No set price was given, but $3500 to $4000 would be a good guess.

Until the recent confirmation, the stories concerning Samsung seemed more speculative.  But even then, there was no question that Samsung is separating its LCD and OLED business (which it merged in 2012). The move was seen as a positive for the re-birth of large-screen OLED at Samsung, since the OLED team will now be able to manage its own affairs without keeping an eye on what is good for the much larger LCD segment. (Samsung’s OLED group could not have been happy to see the Samsung exhibit at CES extolling quantum-dot-enchanced LCD-TV as superior to OLED-TV.)

It was shortly before Samsung’s announcement of the LCD/OLED split that the rumors of the company planning to resume OLED-TV manufacturing erupted. The rumors went on to predict that when Samsung does re-enter the market, it would do so using a version of the Kodak-LG color-by-white technology used by LG rather than its own RGB technology that has been so successful in small and medium displays.

Both ends of this rumor have now been confirmed.  Samsung is developing both IGZO backplanes and color-by-white OLED front planes, and does not seem at all deterred that LG’s purchase of the Kodak IP and its own subsequent patent activity give them a very strong patent portfolio for the color-by-white approach.

But Samsung’s interest in color-by-white OLED is nothing new.  At the Nomura Pan-Asia Technology Conference in Hong Kong in May of 2011, it was revealed that Samsung was planning that its first Gen 8 OLED fab would use RGB OLED technology, but that subsequent Gen 8 fabs to use color-by-white. And there have been other indications that senior Samsung display execs believe color-by-white with oxide backplanes represent the future of large-screen OLED.

So, that Samsung is committing itself to color-by-white for its return to OLED-TV manufacturing should not surprise observant industry watchers. And now we know that Samsung is returning.

NAB In The Rear View Mirror

It’s been over a week since I got back from Las Vegas and edited all of my photos and videos. But once again, NAB scored big numbers with attendance and there were enough goodies to be found in all three exhibit halls, if you were willing to put in the time to pound the pavement. Over 100,000 folks made their way to the Las Vegas Convention Center to see endless demos of streaming, drones, 4K cameras and post-production, and H.265 encoders.

We were also treated to a rare haboob, or dust storm, which blew through town late Tuesday afternoon and blotted out the sun, leaving a fine dusting of sand particles on everything (and in everyone’s hair, ears, and eyes.)  While most of the conferences and presentations tend to be somewhat predictable, the third day of the show featured the notorious John McAfee (yes, THAT John McAfee) as the keynote speaker at the NAB Technology Luncheon. Escorted by a security detail, McAfee walked up on stage and proceeded to warn everyone about the security risks inherent in loading apps onto phones and tablets. (Come to think of it, why does a flashlight app for my phone need permission to access my contact list and my camera?)

Some readers may remember the Streaming Video pavilion in the Central Hall at this show back in 1999. There, dozens of small start-up companies had booths showing how they could push 320×240-resolution video (“dancing postage stamps”) over 10 megabit and 100 megabit Ethernet connections, and not always reliably. (And not surprisingly, most of those companies were gone a year later.)

Today, companies like Harmonic, Elemental, Ericsson, Ateme, and the Fraunhofer Institute routinely demonstrate 4K (3840×2160) video through 1GigE networks at a data rate of 15 Mb/s, using 65-inch and 84-inch 4K video screens to demonstrate the picture quality. 4K file storage and editing “solutions” are everywhere, as are the first crop of reference-quality 4K displays using LCD and OLED technology.

In some ways, the NAB show resembles InfoComm. Many of the exhibitors at NAB have also set up shop at InfoComm, waiting for the pro AV channel to embrace digital video over IP networks. (It’ll happen, guys. Just be patient.) In the NAB world, video transport over IP using optical fiber backbones is quite the common occurrence, although it’s still a novelty to our world. (Haven’t you heard? Fiber is good for you!)

I spent three and a half days wandering around the aisles in a daze, but managed to find some gems among the crowds. Here were some highlights:

Blackmagic Design drew a crowd to see its Micro Cinema Camera, and it is indeed tiny. The sensor size is Super 16 (mm) and is capable of capturing 13 stops of light. RAW and Apple ProRes recording formats are native, and Blackmagic has also included an expansion port “…featuring PWM and S.Bus inputs for airplane remote control.” (Can you say “drone?”) And all of this for just $995…

RED’s booth showed the prototype of a new 8K (7680×4320) camera body that will capture video at 6K resolution from 1 to 100 frames per second. In 4K (3840×2160) mode, the Dragon can record footage as fast as 150 frames per second. (Both of these are in RAW mode.) Data transfer (writing speeds) was listed at 300 Mb/s, and the camera has built-in wireless connectivity.

Akamai had a cool demo of UHDTV over 4G LTE networks (you know, the network your smartphone uses!).

Akamai had a cool demo of UHDTV over 4G LTE networks (you know, the network your smartphone uses!).

Vitec showed what they claimed to be the first portable hardware-based H.265 encoder for field production.

Vitec showed what they claimed to be the first portable hardware-based H.265 encoder for field production.

Arri showed a 65mm digital camera, resurrecting a format that goes back to the 1950s. The actual resolution of the camera sensor is 5120×2880, or “5K” as Arri calls it. This sensor size is analogous to the old 6 cm x 6 cm box cameras made by Rollei and Yashica, and there is quite a bit of data flowing from this camera when it records! (Can you say “terabytes” of storage?”)

Drones dominated the show, with powerhouse DJI setting up in the central hall and an entire section of the rear south hall devoted to a drone “fly-off” competition. Nearby, a pavilion featured nothing but drones, cameras, accessories, and even wireless camera links such as Amimon’s Connex 5 GHz system. (You may recognize this as a variant of the company’s WHDI wireless HDMI product.)

Even Ford goes to NAB!

Even Ford goes to NAB!

Flanders Scientific showed this impressive prototype HDR reference monitor.

Flanders Scientific showed this impressive prototype HDR reference monitor.

Sony had side-by-side comparisons of standard dynamic range (SDR) and high dynamic range (HDR) footage using their new BVM-X300 30-inch HDR OLED display. This is the 3rd generation of OLED reference monitor products to come out of the Sony labs, and it’s a doozy with 4096×2160 resolution (3G-SDI Quad-link up to 4096 x 2160/48p/50p/60p) and coverage of the DCI P3 minimum color space. The monitor can also reproduce about 80% of the new BT.2020 color gamut. Peak brightness (scene to scene) is about 800 nits, and color reproduction is very accurate with respect to flesh tones and pastels.

Canon also took the wraps off a new reference monitor. The DP-V2410 4K reference display has 4096×2160 pixels of resolution (the DCI 4K standard) and uses an IPS LCD panel that is capable to showing high dynamic range (HDR), usually defined as at least 15 stops of light. It supports the ITU BT.2020 color space, can upscale 2K content to 4K, and will run off 24 volts DC for field use.

Panasonic's 3-chip DLP projector gets 10,000 lumens out of a laser light engine.

Panasonic’s 3-chip DLP projector gets 12,000 lumens out of a laser light engine.

Korea's ETRI lab had this clever demo of mobile and fixed 3D Ultra HD.

Korea’s ETRI lab had this clever demo of mobile and fixed 3D Ultra HD.

Panasonic unveiled their first laser-powered 3-chip DLP projector, and it’s a doozy. Using a short-throw lens, the Panasonic guys lit up a 10-foot diagonal screen with 12,000 lumens at WUXGA (1920×1200) resolution from the PT-RZ12KU. It uses a blue laser to excite a yellow-green color wheel and create white light, which is then refracted into red, green, and blue light for imaging. The projector weighs just 95 pounds, and the demo used an ultra-short-throw lens positioned about 12” – 16” in front of the screen.

Fine-pitch indoor and outdoor LED displays are a growing market. Both Leyard and Panasonic showed large LED displays with 1.6mm dot pitch, which isn’t much larger than what you would have found on a 768p-resolution plasma display from 15 years ago. The color quality and contrast on these displays was quite impressive and you have to stand pretty close to notice the pixel structure, unlike the more commonly-used 6mm and 10mm pitch for outdoor LED displays. Brightness on these displays is in the thousands of nits (talk about high-dynamic range!).

Chromavisiuon's fine-pitch 4K videowall was one of several fine-pitch LED displays at the show - perfect for indoor use.

Chromavisiuon’s fine-pitch 4K videowall was one of several fine-pitch LED displays at the show – perfect for indoor use.

 

65mm production is back, thanks to Arri.

65mm production is back, thanks to Arri.

Speaking of HDR, Dolby had a demonstration in its booth of new UHDTVs from Vizio that incorporate Dolby’s version of high dynamic range. Vizio showed a prototype product a year ago at CES and it now appears close to delivery. The target brightness for peak white will be well over 1000 nits, but the challenge for any LCD panel is being able to show extremely low levels of gray – near black.

Vitec had what may be the world’s first portable HEVC H.265 encoder, the MGW Ace. Unlike most of the H.265 demos at the show, this product does everything in hardware with a dedicated H.265 compression chip (most likely from Broadcom). And it is small, at about ¾ of a rack wide. Inputs include 3G/SDI, composite video (yep, that’s still around), HDMI, and DVI, with support for embedded and serial digital audio. Two Ethernet ports complete the I/O complement.

Over in the NTT booth, a demonstration was being made of “the first H.265 HEVC encoder ever to perform 4K 4:2:2 encoding in real time.” I’m not sure if that was true, but it was a cool demo: NTT (a/k/a Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) researchers developed the NARA processor to reduce power consumption and save space over existing software/hardware based encoders. And it comes with extension interfaces to encode video with even higher resolution.

NTT had this compact virtual reality theater, showing a ping-pong game to tiny dolls.

NTT had this compact virtual reality theater, showing a ping-pong game to tiny dolls.

If you ever wondered what live 8K/210p footage looked like, NHK showed it.

If you ever wondered what live 8K/210p footage looked like, NHK had the answer.

NHK was back again with their extension demo area of 8K acquisition, image processing, and broadcasting. (Yes, NHK IS broadcasting 8K in Tokyo, and has been doing so for a few years.) Among the cooler things in their booth was a 13-inch 8K OLED display – which almost seems like an oxymoron – and an impressive demonstration of 8K/60 and 8K/120 shooting and playback. On the 120Hz side of the screen, there was no blur whatsoever of footage taken during a soccer match.

This is just scratching the surface, and I’ll have more information during my annual “Future Trends” presentation at InfoComm in June. For now, I’ll let one of my colleagues sum up the show as being about “wireless 4K drones over IP.” (Okay, that’s a bit of a simplification…)

The Cruelest Month, Indeed…

In T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, he opens with this verse: “April is the cruelest month…” For many Japanese manufacturers, those words couldn’t ring more true.

One in particular is Sharp, who has been struggling with profitability ever since the Great Recession. In a recent news story from TWICE, the company confirmed it will be laying off as many as 6,000 employees worldwide, with 1/3 of those cuts possibly to come from Sharp’s U.S. operations.

Sharp’s market share has dwindled considerably over the years. At the start of 2006, the company held a 21% worldwide market share in in the LCD television business, but that was the high water mark – it’s all been downhill since, as Sharp and other Japanese brands had to deal with aggressive marketing and pricing from Samsung and LG, and now Chinese brands are entering the fray.

Sharp isn’t like any other CE manufacturer. Only a handful of them operate their own LCD panel fabrication lines, and Sharp has the world’s largest in Sakai, Japan. This Gen 10 plant rolls out LCD motherglass that’s used in everything from televisions and laptops to dashboard displays, mobile phones, and tablets.

The Gen 10 facility had the misfortune to open during the depths of the recession, and Sharp was forced to sell some of the plant’s idle capacity for twenty cents on the dollar to Hon Hai Industries (Foxcon – Apple products) to raise cash. (Hon Hai recently offered to buy more shares of Sharp in return for a seat on the company’s board.)

Although Sharp can make larger cuts of 2K and 4K (and even 8K) LCD glass at very competitive prices, consumers just aren’t buying enough Sharp Aquos TVs – even the Quattron models with the extra yellow pixel. And that’s not helping things, as Sharp reported a $190M quarterly loss and a $250M loss for the entire fiscal year.

According to a story on the Asia.Nikkei Web site, “The company plans to re-engineer operations in unprofitable businesses, at home and abroad. The television business in North America could be on the chopping block. Management apparently concluded that cutting jobs is an unavoidable step toward reforming the company’s high-cost culture.”

It’s likely too late to turn things around at Sharp’s TV operations, especially with TV prices in free-fall. And things aren’t much better at competitors Toshiba and Sony, both of whom have yet to announce their final earnings for 2015. Both companies have seen a major drag on earnings caused by television operations and Toshiba has already pulled out of the North American TV market, retreating to  Japan.

Cruelest month, indeed!