Category: The Front Line

CES 2018 In The Rear View Mirror (Or, what a difference a decade makes…)

BACK IN THE DAY…

I’ve lost track of how many Consumer Electronic Shows I’ve been to over the years. While recently going through my photo archives, I found images from the 2008 show, and what an eye opener! Prominent TV brands from back then that are no longer with us included Mitsubishi, who had just launched their premium Laser DLP rear-projection TV sets, and Hitachi, who had the good sense to read the writing on the wall and bail out on the TV business shortly after.

Pioneer was another brand about to pull the plug on televisions, but they continued to showcase their ultra-thin Kuro plasma sets. Panasonic also featured plasma TVs in their booth, claiming their picture quality was every bit as good as Pioneer (it was) and dazzling visitors with a one-off 150-inch 4K (3840×2160) plasma monitor. No one could have predicted at the time that plasma display technology would disappear just five years later.

Over in the Samsung booth, there was a small tower of small OLED TVs out for inspection, along with a full array of plasma and LCD TVs, the latter featuring Full HD (1920×1080) resolution – a big deal at the time! JVC showed what they claimed to be the world’s thinnest LCD TV (about 2 inches thick) and Sony was offering an 11-inch AM OLED monitor for sale, the XEL-1 a/k/a “the torch.” It didn’t run very long before the brightness fell off dramatically.

FLASHBACK: Remember Mitsubishi’s Laser DLP rear projection TV? It was launched in 2008. Today, Mitsubishi is out of the TV business.

 

FLASHBACK: Ten years ago, OLED TVs were expensive, cutting edge (and small) displays. Today? A mainstream product.

Dolby was taking its first steps into high dynamic range imaging by its acquisition of Canadian tech startup Brightside Technologies. The latter pioneered and patented a technique for LCD local area dimming with white LEDs, ostensibly to improve LCD contrast and also to obtain much lower black levels. LG Philips (today’s LG Display) was demonstrating smooth motion on LCDs and reducing blur on fast-moving objects.

The first iPhone had just made its appearance and tablets didn’t exist yet. Netflix had just started a streaming service, while a company called Vudu launched at Pepcom’s Digital Experience and promised smooth downloads of HD movies and TV shows to the home. And of course, 2008 as the year that the HD DVD – Blu-ray wars came to an end as Warner Brothers was apparently convinced by Sony to go all in with the BD format. That was to prove the coup de grade for HD DVD – Toshiba pulled the plug on this format a couple years later. (I still have a player and about 20 HD DVD movies, many still in their shrink wrap.)

Televisions were of course the big news for most of us at the show, and they dominated the booths of Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba (remember Toshiba?), Sharp, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Philips, JVC, and a bunch of smaller brands – not to mention a handful of Chinese companies no one had ever heard of. Today, many of those manufacturers are out of the TV business altogether or have licensed their names to Japanese, Korean, or Chinese TV manufacturers. A notable example would be Hisense, which controls the Sharp and Toshiba TV brands (even though Hon Hai Precision Industries now owns Sharp).

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

LG will offer Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in its 2018 TVs, like other manufacturers.

 

Samsung claims all of their products will be interconnected by 2020 – and 5G will be a key to making that happen.

This little detour down memory lane showed me just how much the show has changed in a decade. Perhaps the biggest change is the diminished importance of televisions: A quick check at Best Buy’s pre-Super Bowl TV sales shows that you can pick up a first-tier 55-inch 4K (Ultra HD) TV with “smart” functionality for about $500, and about $100 less for a 2nd-tier brand. Want high dynamic range? Add around $300 – $400 to the price. Compared to what a 1080 Kuro plasma cost back in 2008 (about $3,000 to $5,000, if my memory serves me correctly), that is an incomprehensible decline in pricing. And we’re talking about Ultra HDTVs here, not Full HD sets that can be had in the same screen size for as little as $399!

Sure, there were plenty of televisions to look at in Las Vegas. But the fact is that they just don’t matter that much anymore in the grand scheme of things. For perspective, my daughter’s brand-new Google Pixel 2 smartphone costs about as much money as a Sony XBR49X800E 49-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR and Dolby Digital Plus audio. (I don’t know if I’m more surprised that Sony would offer such a discount or that smartphones are still grossly overpriced!)

Sony demonstrated an 8K LCD monitor with micro LED backlighting that they claim can achieve a peak (specular) brightness level of 10,000 nits.

 

TCL has fully embraced quantum dot illumination for high dynamic range.

In any case, I spent three days at the show, wandering the LVCC and seeing a few surprises here and there (and getting caught in the Wednesday noontime blackout while in the Samsung booth). And the overwhelming emphasis was not on “what you got” but “what you do with it.” Being connected with voice commands is the thing nowadays. So is faster WiFi and 5G cellular, along with smart, connected appliances and smart, connected cars.

Think about this interesting paradox. Auto manufacturers, along with display giants Samsung and LG Display, are showing sophisticated dashboards and center consoles with audio, navigation, contacts, and adaptive machine learning. The goal is to provide an unparalleled, immersive driving experience, or as Samsung put it during their press conference, “to do anything in your car you can do with your TV.”

On the other hand, we’re seeing big advances in autonomous cars that wouldn’t need any of that stuff built into the dashboard and center console because there isn’t a driver to begin with. So, which is it? Immersive AI consoles, or smart self-driving cars? (I couldn’t get a feel one way or the other during the show.)

The Mercedes AMG Project 1 car mixes a conventional gas engine with multiple electric motors to achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph.

 

Talk about connecting everything: Continental showed a “smart” tire that can provide real-time performance data to drivers.

One thing I did notice was the proliferation of Amazon and Google voice command systems across everything from televisions to cars. If you had a bullhorn and walked through the convention center yelling “Hi, Alexa!” you’d have been a very unpopular person in short order. Speech recognition and control has come a long way since I first saw it implemented at the turn of this decade, and it works. And it’s cheap. And you can use it to control just about everything in your home, and likely your office.

In no particular order, here are ten products, trends, and/or demos I spotted in Vegas that are worth paying attention to over the next 12 months.

AI / Speech Recognition – Every TV manufacturer had at least one model at CES that supports Amazon, Google Home, or Google Assistant. (Some support both!) You can link your TV to your refrigerator, washer, dryer, and other appliances in your home and control just about anything or get status updates. Or you can just ask your assistant general questions, and depending on the question, the system can anticipate what you’re about to do and activate or deactivate devices.

LG has this feature in their 2018 TVs (ThinQ with Cloi), while Samsung claims that every product they make will be interconnected by 2020 and voice controlled using their Bixby system. While the Chinese brands are not quite up that level, they did show sample rooms with interconnected devices that all respond to voice prompts. (My personal favorite was Haier’s “conscious bathroom.” No idea what that means…)

Panasonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and emphasized design concepts and integrated projects in its booth over individual products.

 

LG Display pulled another surprise from its bag of tricks with this 65-inch rollable 4K OLED display.

Samsung’s purchase of Harman in 2016 gives them entry to the multi-billion-dollar car audio market, which appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much. And by extension, they can support voice recognition and control in cars, linking them back to homes and offices. On the TV side, both TiVo and Comcast have had voice control and search features for some time, using adaptive intelligence to hunt down and locate programs. (Who needs TV Guide, anyway?)

Flexible displays: LG Display stole part of the show by exhibiting a 65-inch roll-up 4K OLED TV in their technology suite. They also impressed with stacked 55-inch transparent OLEDs and p-OLED dashboards. But the fact that plastic displays have arrived means that just about any surface can be covered with a display. Need proof? Look at the latest crop of smartphones with wrap-around displays where a frame used to be.

And all of those hopped-up dashboards and center consoles I mentioned earlier are likely to take advantage of flexible OLEDs and even LCDs. (Yes, those are being developed now.) The key is to minimize the effects of vibration and G-forces, two things that can be fatal to displays. One big advantage of this approach is the use of virtual gauges and indicators: You’ll be able to create and recall multiple custom looks for your dashboard. (That would be helpful for those of us who need reading glasses.)

Canadian chip manufacturer Peraso showed how you can play an immersive VR game without any cables to the console.

 

Call up a recipe using Whirlpool’s Yummly app and it will turn on your oven and set it to the correct temperature automatically.

“Smart” refrigerators: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen products like this, but they appear to be mainstream now. Just like the days of old where we taped or used magnets to attach every important piece of paper in our lives to the fridge, we can now access everything from recipes to personal schedules using a built-in touchscreen. On some models, it can even turn transparent so you can see what’s on the shelves.

Samsung and LG both demoed technology that would scan in food items and determine their useful shelf life, tell you that you needed to use up said items soon, and even suggest recipes to use up those items. You could even access your fridge from your television, and with some appliances shown by Whirlpool, have the oven set itself while the recipe was being called up. (George Jetson would be envious!)

Autonomous delivery vehicles: Understandably, there has been some pushback on unmanned cars by people who just can’t bring themselves to trust the technology. But the adoption curve could be a lot faster for autonomous delivery vehicles. Ford is testing just that in a partnership with Dominoes Pizza, with an unmanned car pulling up your driveway no long after you order that piping-hot 16” pie with sausage and peppers. (Who would care if a pizza gets hurt in a crash?)

Yes, Ford is testing autonomous delivery of Domino’s pizza.

 

Ethertronics is developing steerable TV antennas for off-air TV reception, something we’ve seen in the past. It may catch on this time.

Cutting the cord: No, not dropping cable TV, although some developments at the show may hasten that trend. I’m talking about cutting the cord for virtual reality game players by using a high-speed 60 GHz WiFi link. Peraso showed just how this would work in their Westgate suite, sending video and audio to a headset while back-channeling control signals from joysticks. The FCC opened up two more channels in the 60 GHz band last year and each channel is about 2 GHz wide – 100 times the width of 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi channels.

This opens up a wealth of possibilities, such as wireless hard drives or SSDs connected by 802.11ad links. While millimeter-wave technology has not exactly burned up the marketplace, it is a practical solution for short-range, high-bandwidth video and audio links. Plus, the radio waves are so small that beam-steering antennas would allow multiple TX/RX links in the same room, on the same channel, with zero interference. Pretty cool!

Self-configuring IoT gadgets: We’ve been hearing a lot about the Internet of Things for several years, but it seemed like the dam broke this year. More and more CE gadgets come with some form of network interface and a WiFi connection, and large manufacturers like LG and Samsung claim that in the very near future, all you’ll have to do is plug ‘em in and turn ‘em on to link everything together.

This is a relatively new trend on the world of home theater and commercial AV, but make no mistake – it is the next wave. And this level of connectivity and control will require faster WiFi connections, most likely using dual-band WiFi routers to boot traffic to the 5 GHz band when coping with interference. Perhaps the most significant part of the trend is just how inexpensive the hardware will be. After all, you can buy the full-sized Echo for $100 and the stubby Dot for $50 – and those are basically your control interfaces.

Robots have gotten very good at smiling and blinking!

 

Bell Helicopter showed an autonomous chopper for city commuters.

High dynamic range TV – I haven’t talked about TVs very much, mostly because there isn’t much to say right now. The exception is HDR and its companion, wide color gamut (WCG), which were the main attraction in most TV exhibits. On the one hand, you have the current “hot” technology, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs from LG that can probably squeeze out 600 – 800 nits small area white, but oh! Those black levels!

On the other hand, you have LCD panels married to backlights that use quantum dot (QD) particles to generate intense, saturated greens and reds with blue LEDs filling in the rest.  Samsung is probably best known for using QDs in their premium LCD TVs (a/k/a Q-LEDS), but TCL and Hisense have them, too. LG goes a different route to get to HDR with their Nano Cell technology, and Sony has been experimenting with LED backlights to get more “oomph!” out of 4K images.

At the show, Samsung showed “The Wall,” a 146-inch modular display using micro LED emissive technology to achieve HDR and wider colors. Micro LEDs are a relatively new technology and can create red, green, and blue light, so it is possible (but expensive) to build an emissive display with them. Sony showed a similar prototype several years ago, and it looked amazing – but was hand-wired and probably cost over a hundred grand to build.

Samsung’s 146-inch micro LED “wall” attracted a ton of viewers…

 

…that is, until the power went out in the Central Hall just before noon on Wednesday! (Ooops…)

Speaking of Sony, they had an impressive if somewhat confusing demo of an 8K LCD TV that could supposedly hit a brightness level of 10,000 nits with intense specular highlights. But they weren’t discussing how that was actually happening, only to say that “there are hundreds of LED arrays” in the backlight. The claim was that a true HDR 10,000 video image could be viewed without clipping, although most of what I saw was in the 200 – 400 nits range.

Robots and drones: There were plenty of them in Vegas, but the vast majority are only capable of simple functions like blinking (this is something all robots do constantly) and responding to your voice commands. LG showed valet, guide, and shopping robots that can roll around and talk to you. Other exhibitors had robots that can sing, read to your kids, and wave their arms a lot (something else robots are really good at).

But it’s still early in the game. Keep in mind an autonomous car is a robot, after all. Yamaha took that concept a step further and created a robotic motorcycle rider, putting it on a test track against one of the world’s fastest (human) riders. Needless to say, Yamaha’s robot didn’t crash, nor did it set any speed records. An extension of that research is a motorcycle that rolls up to or away from you, depending on your hand gesture. (Shades of the Twilight Zone.)

As for drones, they were everywhere like a cloud of annoying mosquitoes. Surprisingly, Bell Helicopter showed a prototype of an autonomous drone copter for intra-city commuting. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to test fly it, but the concept is solid and not far off.

Panasonic announced a new line of OLED TVs in 55-inch and 65-inch sizes for the U.S. market.

 

Canon demonstrated an inventory scanning robot.

Steerable TV antennas: The statistics don’t lie. More and more people are dumping pay TV channel packages in favor of streaming, adding free off-air television along the way. I’ve been a big advocate for this going back to the DTV transition almost 20 years ago, but it’s easy for me – my house has two outdoor TV antennas and one indoor to feed all of my sets.

But the average homeowner doesn’t have an antenna, nor do they know much about installing one. Ethertronics showed a prototype steerable antenna for window or wall mounting that’s based on their steerable technology for WiFi. You install the flat antenna, connect power to it, and push a button on the housing. The antenna then scans for channels several times, trying different antenna patterns. The pattern that results in the most signals is then set as the default (it can be overridden). This is another great example of artificial intelligence and machine learning at work.

Analog is back: Okay, a weird one, but Polaroid and Kodak both showed instant print cameras as the show. Polaroid went so far as to bring back their 40+ year-old One Step as the One Step 2 (that’s confusing). Apparently, Millennials and Generations Y and Z love instant prints, and why not? While you can easily share digital photos via Instagram and Facebook, there’s just something different about having a physical print in your hand.

Polaroid has resurrected the OneStep instant camera – and it’s wildly popular (although not really this big)!

Add that to the list of “retro” things like vinyl records, Kodak’s 8mm movie camera (didn’t see that this year), and even audiocassettes that have come back from the grave. Some of this desire for the past may be a reaction to the blinding speed of technological change: I know people that prefer older wristwatches to the “connected” models that monitor everything about you. (And yes, some of us still write checks to pay our bills, putting them in stamped envelopes and mailing them. Imagine that.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the welcome fact that Panasonic is fully back in the U.S. TV game, introducing two new 4K OLED TV models (FZ 950 and FZ 800) at the show. They also announced a new line of Blu-ray players and it will be considerably easier to sell those if they have a TV to add to the package. (LG Display is happy too, since they make the OLED panels for both Sony and Panasonic.)  Yes, we’ll all miss those beautiful Viera plasma TVs (but we won’t miss those high electricity bills!)…

 

 

 

 

On China, IoT, AI, and Trade Shows

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s worth stepping off the technology express for a moment to consider some of the changes we’re seeing in our industry, in parallel industries, and in everyday life – changes that have been wrought by a combination of geographical, economical, and political factors.

It’s no secret that most of the electronics manufacturing (semiconductors, televisions, mobile phones, computers, tablets, appliances, wireless gear) in the world is moving to or has moved to mainland China and Taiwan, along with several southeastern Asia countries. Just 25 years ago, it was common to spot the words “Made in Japan” on your table radio, television, camera, and even your car.

Nowadays, “China” has been substituted for “Japan,” even for many products manufactured and sold by Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia. That’s because labor costs are so much lower and the Chinese government as a so-called “silent” partner can easily clear land for (and even build) state-of-the-art factories. They also provide a large labor pool to fill the positions in those factories.

And the Chinese have made major investments of their own in new technology. One of the largest manufacturers of LCD panels in the world is TCL, who has a partnership with Samsung in a large LCD plant known as China Star Optoelectronic Technologies. Not only that, TCL manufactures and sells their own brand of televisions in the U.S. Both TCL and Hisense (another Chinese brand who also owns the Sharp brand name) have been selling 55-inch 4K (yes, 4K!) televisions for as little as $500, with some specials dropping below $400.

The Skyworth OLED TV booth at CES 2017.

The result of this shift to the Far East has been a dramatic drop in the price of not only televisions, but a host of other electronic gadgets. I recently bought a new Lenovo laptop with solid-state drive, 15” screen, a fast i7 Intel processor, tons of RAM for both the PC and video card, and the latest in 802.11ac channel-bonding WiFi tech. My cost was a just under $1300 with shipping and tax.

Because the world of professional electronics (including AV gear) is largely driven by the world of consumer electronics, we’re now seeing those same dramatic price drops in everything from HDMI switchers to pan/tilt/zoom cameras. And the U.S., Japanese, Korean, and European brands that sell that stuff have had to cut their prices as well.

Now, we’ve got the Internet of Things in town. Anything that can be fitted with a Media Access Control (MAC) port and has a WiFi connection can now be accessed, configured, and controlled from an Internet connection just about anywhere in the world. All of the gear you’d install in a conference room or classroom can be set up and operated with nothing more than a tablet and software equipped with simple drag-and-drop GUIs. And the software doesn’t cost all that much.

Throw in artificial intelligence (AI) and you now have an AV installation that can configure itself once powered up. That’s right – all of the displays, lighting, screens, audio mixers, thermostats, amplifiers, and switching equipment can talk to the control software, load the appropriate drivers, and create a touchscreen display without you having to lift a finger. And you can talk to an assistant like Siri or Alexa to walk through the process.

Add it all together – lower manufacturing costs, an increasing percentage of CE products (equipped with IoT functionality) finding their way into commercial AV installations, and artificial intelligence to handle the once-tedious job of writing control code and commands. More power in the products at lower costs to you.

That last part is what’s causing major headaches for manufacturers. Instead of price tags with 3 or 4 zeros following the first integer, a majority of products are being sold with two or three zeros. That has a direct impact on profitability, one which cannot be simply fixed by increasing the volume of sales – the availability of cheap electronics has spawned too many competitors, which is great news for price-sensitive consumers.

And that brings me to trade shows. Alert readers will notice that the once-mammoth booths and stands of Japanese and Korean manufacturers at NAB and InfoComm have gotten noticeably smaller as the Chinese booths have gotten larger. No surprise – if you are selling hardware and software with smaller price tags, you have less money to put into a trade show booth. And some of these well-known brands are pushing more and more of their products through distribution, not traditional dealers. (It’s that margin/profitability thing again.)

What’s more; the lines between residential and commercial gear and installations have been steadily blurring for over a decade. (Admit it – you’ve been installing regular TVs instead of commercial monitors most of the time, right? Not that there’s any real difference between them.) Many residential dealers who were once shoveling in the cash have started bidding on commercial work, and vice-versa.

It’s not surprising to see some of the hardware on view at the annual CES in January make repeat appearances at ISE, NAB, InfoComm, and CEDIA Expo as the year winds on. In fact, one prominent Japanese manufacturer (begins with “P”) has focused more commercial product at CES recently, having dropped out of the TV business altogether.

We’ll probably see some consolidation of trade shows in the next few years as attendees come to realize there isn’t a whole lot of difference from one show to the next. The increasing use of CE products for installations, along with improved AI and support for IoT, will actually deliver the promise of ‘plug and play’ (along with a new set of headaches from hackers and malware) to our industry, reducing the purchasing decisions to best price and warranty/reliability.

Some questions to think about: How long before Amazon starts selling commercial AV gear? Is it now practical to view a manufacturer’s product line using VR technology? (Some companies have already tried this.) Just how much education do you need to learn how to configure a room full of IoT hardware?

And just how much of a difference is there between a video encoder made by “You never heard of us, we’re first-timers at this show” and “Buy from us, we’ve been selling into this industry for 40 years” – especially if both products are made in China, possibly at the same factory and using the same chip sets? (Not much, if any…)

LG Shows Off Its Commercial Displays and Systems

LG Business Solutions held its New York City Roadshow on November 2 in an event venue on 10th Avenue near 31st Street. The area is called Hudson Yards for the railroad yards that dominated the area for decades, an area that was otherwise an inaccessible backwater despite the proximity of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. But the recent extension of the Number 7 subway line and covering over the rail lines has opened the area to energetic luxury development, with many high-rise buildings under simultaneous construction. When you get to the construction cranes and the construction guys eating their lunches on the sidewalks, you know you’re there (Fig. 1).

Gary Kayye of rAVe Publlications and Kayye Consulting presented a morning keynote that was primarily an introductory tutorial on why 4K is good for AV and commercial displays. Kayye pushed the 4K Digital Canvas concept, which he defined as multiple screen covering the walls in a conference room, with some screens having static reference information and others dynamic imagery related to the ongoing presentation or discussion. One version of this is the “collaboration room.” There aren’t many installations now because of the scarcity of 4K material and distribution, but many more are coming in the next year, Kayye said.

If any of this was too basic to hold your interest, you were free to wander, look at the various business solutions, and discuss them with one of the many enthusiastic and well-trained LG representatives.

The most striking solution consisted of two flexible LG OLED displays mounted back to back and laminated between two sheets of glass. This assembly was demonstrated in a variety of configurations; perhaps the most striking was the 55EG5CD, in which the displays were suspended by wires and fed by a ribbon cable (Fig. 2). The unit has a three-year commercial warranty for 18 hrs/day, 7 days/week interior use. A rep said there has not much push-back from retail customers on 18 hours a day rather than 24. There is no problem with dynamic content, the rep said, but LG recommends against the use of static content. Suggested applications are boutiques, art galleries, and high-end retail.

I had an extensive interview with VP of Business Development Dan Smith, both of us standing on the exhibition floor and pointing at the different systems as we discussed them. I commented that the Roadshow seemed to be pushing OLED solutions since OLED was at the center of at least half of the demonstrations. Smith answered that LG Business Solutions is the only provider that offers OLED, LCD, LED, and outdoor LCD products, so they are free to offer the technology best suited for each customer’s application.

OLED-TV in high-end hospitality systems was prominently featured. Is there any push-back on cost? “Well, Smith said with a laugh, we don’t try to sell it to Motel 6.” But there is lots of interest from high-end hotel brands, he said.

Smith unknowingly repeated the comment of his rep that LG does not recommend static content on OLED signs, but they do have OLED way-finding signs in an airport with custom-created imagery that avoids static areas.

For 24/7 applications such as fast-food menu boards, they recommend LCD. MacDonalds is a major LG customer, Smith said.

Smith commented that burn-in is only one of the two major sources of OLED image sticking.  The other is residual charge in pixel switching circuits. LG deals with both, he said. In general, OLED performance has improved significantly over the last 2 years, Smith said, including greater accuracy of the transfer function. OLED lifetime is 30,000 hours, compared with 50,000 for LCD, Smith added, and there is no problem with lifetime in either TV or dynamic-signage applications.

Smith emphasized that the “wallpaper OLED” is flexible but is generally laminated onto or between glass. As a business-development person, he sees it is a powerful building block for making a variety of customer solutions.

A very high-aspect-ratio 86-inch and an even  wider 88-inch stretch display for columns are both resized from a 98-inch LCD. The 86 stretch is 84 x 13 inches with a resolution of 3840 x 600 pixels. The 88 stretch is 3840 x 1080 — one half of a 98-inch LCD.

My tour ended with a decorative LED display fabricated on transparent film. The electronics is contained in the strip on the edge of the display. (The strip is much narrower than the one in the photo, which had to serve a structural function.) Two films can be mounted side by side, with the electronic strips on outside. Smith said the transparent display is intended to be applied to shop windows to attract attention.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices, automotive, and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. He is the 2017 recipient of the Society for Information Display’s Lewis and Beatrice Winner Award. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

 

The Times They Are A-Changing: Hisense Buys Toshiba’s TV Business

This press release crossed my desk this afternoon. There’s not much to add to it. Hisense already owns the right to manufacture and sells televisions with the Sharp brand. Now, they’ve acquired Toshiba’s television business unit.

Toshiba, which had been rocked by an accounting scandal and red ink, and which is reeling under the costs of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, had basically given up on the TV marketplace a couple of years back.

Now, they’re out for good, and some analysts are wondering what future if any the company has “as a going concern.”

 

 

Hisense Purchases Toshiba Television Business

Hisense Electric Co., Ltd, a publicly listed subsidiary of Hisense Group announced the purchase of Toshiba TV production, brand, R&D & operation service 14th November, 2017.

With its 142-year rich history, Toshiba has a leading display technology in Japan with the brand ranked highly international global technology brand list’s.

Hisense will purchase 95% stock shares of Toshiba Visual Solutions Corporation (“TVS”), a wholly owned subsidiary of Toshiba Corporation for 12.9 billion Japanese Yen with Toshiba retaining 5% stock holding. Hisense will obtain the TVS businesses including production, research and development, and sales functions as well as license to use the Toshiba brand for a period of 40 years for visual solution partners operating in Europe, South East Asia and other markets.

TVS primarily operate in TV and variety of ancillary products, including commercial and advertisement display products. The TVS purchase also secures two factories in Japan and hundreds of talented Toshiba R&D employees as well as a significant IP portfolio relating to TV technology business patents for image quality and acoustics.

Mr. Liu Hongxin, the CEO of Hisense Group, said that Hisense would optimize TVS’s resources on R&D, supply chain or global sales channels, cooperate with and support each other in display technology, provide competitive content operation services for smart TVs for the global market and accomplish fast growth in Japanese market.

According to the IHS, sales of Toshiba TV ranked No.3 in Japanese market in 2016 with the Hisense TV market share in Japan the highest among all non-Japanese brands. Collectively both brands cumulative market share reaches over 20% after the transaction. Hisense’s TV business in 2016 ranked third in the world (IHS) and has held NO.1 market share in China for 13 consecutive years.

As Official Television Sponsor of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, Hisense is poised to continue to expand and implement its global brand vision and strategy. With the benefit of this acquisition, Hisense will develop and enlarge its international strategy of TV business in R&D, branding and marketing by operating under multiple brands. The cooperation between Hisense and Toshiba will drive changes to the new picture of TV business.

On LED Walls Versus Projectors and Who Ultimately Wins This Battle

It’s been a busy summer for me, travel-wise. In addition to jaunts through Quebec and Korea, I’ve been in Chicago and New York, meeting with manufacturers and checking out the latest in television, projection, and large screen display technology.

I wrote about my visit to LG Electronics last month and their deep dive into organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. As part of my visit, I saw some clever uses of OLED panels in super-large videowalls mounted conventionally, mounted overhead, and even warped around different surfaces.

My trips to Montreal and Chicago also led me to inspect numerous and more mainstream inorganic LED wall installations, ranging from the Montreal Jazz Festival to the new block of shops and entertainment venues in and around Rosemont, just east of O’Hare Airport.

What’s mind-boggling is how quickly LED signs have become the dominant display medium and how they’ve essentially booted high-brightness projectors to the sidelines. I can’t remember a concert I’ve seen this year that used video projection – either the area behind the stage was filled with an LED wall, or towers of LEDs were arrayed to either side of the stage.

It’s been like that for concerts I’ve attended in recent years by Paul McCartney (twice), The Moody Blues, Steely Dan, and Sting. The move to LEDs for image magnification has put a noticeable dent in the sales and rentals of projectors, as many of my colleagues in the industry have mentioned. While there are still tours that use some complex projection effects (Roger Water’s various “Wall” tours come to mind), it’s clear that LEDs are the new 800-pound gorillas.

For a festival like Montreal, LEDs make perfect sense. Multiple temporary stages are set up outdoors near the downtown area and performances run continuously from noon until late in the evening. Ambient light levels are all over the place and large crowds form around each stage, constraining the available footprint for AV support. Aside from rear projection, direct-view displays make the most sense.

In Rosemont, an area that was supposed to be a casino, nestled between I-294 and the hotels and convention center on River Road, has instead become a vibrant outdoor mall and concert space, surrounded by restaurants, a bowling alley, an indoor sky-diving attraction, a high-end AMC Muvico theater, and the headquarters of the Big Ten television network. Across nearby Balmoral Avenue lies the Fashion Outlets of Chicago Mall and Rosemont Theater – all replete with big LED signage.

Think about it. If you can stuff 4k worth of pixels into a screen this size AND support HDR and WCG, why would you use a projector?

This fascination with LEDs hasn’t gone unnoticed by the leading manufacturers of LED tiles, most of whom are based in China. I noticed at least a dozen LED tile/wall manufacturers at NAB in April and too many to count at InfoComm in June. The problem is that most of these companies are unknowns to folks in the rental and staging business, so the sharper minds are hiring American industry veterans to handle sales and marketing of their products, hoping to get a foot in the door.

I’m also hearing concerns about product reliability, which generally scares away R&S folks. The gear absolutely must work Monday morning at 8:00 AM as the meeting kicks off or 8:00 PM as the house lights go down– no excuses. With projection, stacking redundant projectors might be an expensive fail-safe, but it works. So does having extra lamps in the optical chain – if one fails, the projected images might be slightly dimmer, but the show goes on.

But how do you provide redundancy for LED displays? Granted, the manufacturer can include extra power supplies in case of a major failure. But what if a column or row driver goes out? Driving home last night along a major interstate, I noticed a prominent LED outdoor sign along the road that had a large, L-shaped black area on it – those tiles had failed completely. Whoops!

It’s rare that imagers fail in high brightness projectors – usually the lamp goes, or there’s an issue with the power supply. But projection technology is mature, compared to LEDs: The first solid-state high-brightness projectors made their appearance in the mid-1990s, over two decades ago, and there’s been ample time to work the bugs out. LED displays were around back then, but they had very coarse dot pitches, were extremely costly to install, and were limited to venues like stadiums and arenas.

Now, we can achieve 4K+ resolution with fine-pitch LED tiles that range from 1.8m down to .9mm. This, of course, increases pixel density, wiring complexity, and power requirements. The upside is a level of brightness on huge screens you’d be hard-pressed to match even with stacks of projectors. To equal a 2,000 cd/m2 16×9 LED wall measuring 24 feet x 13.5 feet (324 ft2), we would need a projector stack that could pour out 190,000 lumens. (And likely a separate power plant to operate it, too.)

If the history of the AV community has taught us anything, any new technology that represents a real breakthrough will win out in the end, failures or not. And that describes LED walls to a “T”. Industry veterans will recall continual headaches with the first high-brightness LCD and light-valve projectors (remember the temperamental image light amplifiers from the late 1990s?) that are now just distant memories. High-brightness projectors are very reliable nowadays, which is a great thing.

LED walls are becoming popular for set backdrops, especially for news broadcasts.

What’s not so great is that they’re falling out of favor for larger-than-life displays, and LED walls are rushing in to fill the void. High brightness, excellent contrast and color saturation, fine pixel pitches, small footprints, modular design and assembly, one-piece solutions – these are all substantial advantages over projection.

The sticking point remains product reliability, 24/7 manufacturer support (essential for staging), and customer service in general. And the Chinese LED wall manufacturers appear to be taking these challenges seriously, based on the flurry of press releases I’ve gotten this year that have announced key hires for their American offices.

If these three challenges can be overcome, I think we all know how this story will end. Projector manufacturers will have to be satisfied with a smaller slice of the pie, going forward. And it might even get smaller: Samsung has announced an initiative to place large, fine-pitch LED screens in movie theaters, promising a high dynamic range (HDR) viewing experience that they claim can’t be equaled with projection technology – even those equipped with lasers.

I’ve been in this industry long enough to remember when “state of the art” in staging meant 35mm slide projection, CRT video projection (with standard-definition video), and 16mm film here and there…and that was just three decades ago. Here we go again…