Category: The Front Line

CES 2016 In The Rear View Mirror

I’m a little less than a week back from one of the world’s largest trade shows, the 2016 International CES. According to press releases from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the new name for the Consumer Electronics Association, upwards of 170,000 people attended the show this year, which was spread out over several venues in Las Vegas.

Based on the crowds I saw, I’d say that number wasn’t far off. Walking through booths in the Las Vegas Convention Center gave me the feeling of strolling along the beach, unaware that a tidal wave was sneaking up on you – one minute you had a particular exhibit all to yourself, and the next, you were swamped by a sea of bodies adorned with CES badges.

Trying to predict which trends in electronics will be “hot” each year is basically a fool’s errand. Going into the show, I was deluged with press releases about “Internet of Things” gadgets, and the show didn’t disappoint – I saw everything from connected thermostats and body sensors to pet food dispensers and shower heads that monitor how much water each member of your family uses – and record that data, too.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

 

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

Last year, the show was all about Ultra HDTV, with some unusual video aspect ratios and pixel counts thrown in. This year, I figured high dynamic range (HDR) would be the “hot” item in every booth. Surprisingly, it wasn’t generating all that much buzz, even though it was featured in the Sony, Samsung, LG, and Chinese TV booths. Instead, there seemed to me much more interest in virtual reality (VR); examples of which were to be found everywhere in the LVCC and also over at the Sands Expo Center.

What was an eye-opener (although not entirely unexpected) was the reduction in booth space devoted to televisions in the Samsung, Panasonic, and LG booths. Sony chose to use Ultra HDTVs to illustrate HDR, wide color gamut, and local area dimming concepts, while Panasonic largely ignored TVs altogether, featuring just a 65-inch UHD OLED TV in one part of their booth and a 55-inch 8K LCD set in another; primarily to demonstrate 8K signal transport over optical fiber.

LG and Samsung devoted more real estate than ever before to connected and “smart” appliances, tablets, smartphones, and personal electronics like smart watches, subtly pushing TVs (of which there were still plenty, believe me) to a secondary role with less square footage. The fact is; appliances are more profitable than TVs these days…WAY more profitable. And Samsung and LG had plenty of refrigerators, ovens, washers, and even dryers out for inspection.

For LG, CES was a big “coming out” party for their expanding line of OLED Ultra HDTVs – they were everywhere, dazzling with their deep blacks and saturated colors. But LCD still plays a part in the LG ecosystem: The 98-inch 8K LCD panel that blew us away last year made a return appearance, as did the 105-inch 21:9 5K (5120×2160) model.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

 

Samsung showed the

Samsung showed the “World’s largest 170-inch TV.” Apparently there are smaller ones I didn’t know about.

Over in the Samsung booth, they kept the “mine’s bigger than yours” contest going with a 170-inch Ultra HDTV based on a LCD panel fabbed at CSOT in China and equipped with quantum dots. (Last year, Samsung insisted their quantum dot illumination technology was to be called “nanocrystals.” This year, they did a 180-degree turn, and are now calling them quantum dots.) A curved 8K TV and some demos of live broadcast Ultra HD with HDR were also showcased alongside the company’s new Ultra HD Blu-ray player ($399 when it ships in the spring).

The “towers” and stacks of LG and Samsung televisions we used to marvel at a decade ago have now found their way into the ever-expanding booths of Chinese TV brands like Hisense, TCL, Changhong, Haier, Konka, and Skyworth. (Not familiar names? Don’t worry, you’ll get to know them soon enough.) And notable by its absence was Sharp Electronics, whose US TV business and assembly plant in Mexico were acquired by Hisense last year. That’s quite a change from ten years ago, when the company held a 21% worldwide market share in LCD TV shipments.

To be sure, there was a Sharp meeting room w-a-y in the back of the Hisense booth, which was enormous – almost as big as TCL’s behemoth in the middle of the Central Hall. And the Konka, Changhong, and Skyworth booths weren’t far behind in size. If you needed to see the writing on the wall regarding the future of television manufacturing, it couldn’t have been more clear – everything is slowly and inexorably moving to China. (It’s a good bet that the LCD panel in your current TV came out of a Chinese or Taiwanese assembly plant!)

TVs were just part of the story in Las Vegas. I had been waiting a few years to see which companies would finally pick up the baton and start manufacturing 802.11ad Wi-Fi chipsets. For those readers who haven’t heard of it before, 802.11ad – or its more common names, “Wireless Gigabit” and “Certified Wireless Gigabit” is a standard that uses the 60 GHz millimeter-wave band to transmit high-speed data over 2 GHz-wide channels.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm's chipset.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm’s chipset.

 

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone...)

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone…)

Considering that the current channels in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band are only 20 MHz wide, and that the 802.11ac channel bonding protocol can only combine enough of them to create a 160 MHz channel, that’s quite a leap in bandwidth! The catch? 60 GHz signals are reflected by just about solid object, limiting their use to inside rooms. But with high-power operation and steerable antennas, those signals can travel a pretty good distance.

In-room, high-bandwidth operation is perfect for streaming video – even at 4K resolution – from phones, tablets, set-top boxes, and even Blu-ray players to TVs, projectors, AV receivers, and switching and distribution gear. Qualcomm had demos of numerous ready-to-manufacture tri-band modems (2.4/5/60 GHz), along with LETV’s latest smart phone with a built-in 60 GHz radio chip. And SiBEAM, a part of Lattice Semiconductor, showed 4K streaming through their WiHD technology, along with close-proximity interface coupling using SNAP to download images and video from a waterproofed GoPro camera.

Lattice had some other tricks up their sleeve in their meeting room. One of those was using a Windows 10 phone with a MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) connection through USB Type-C to create a virtual desktop PC. All that needed to be added was a mouse, a keyboard, and monitor. In another area, they showed a scheme to compress Ultra HD signals before transmitting them over an HDBaseT link, with decompression at the far end. This, presumably to overcome the 18 Gb/s speed limit of HDMI 2.0.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That's the chipset under that enormous fan.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That’s the chipset under that enormous fan.

 

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Not far away, the “funny car” guys at the MHL Consortium showed their superMHL interface linking video to another LG 98-inch 8K LCD display. Converting what was once a tiny, 5-pin interface designed for 1080p/60 streaming off phones and tablets to a 32-pin, full-size symmetrical connector that can hit speeds of 36 Gb/s seems like putting Caterpillar truck tires and a big-block Chevy engine in a Smart Car to me…but they did it anyway, and added support for USB Type-C Alternate mode. Now, they’re ready for 8K, or so they keep telling me. (That’s fine, but the immediate need is for faster interfaces to accommodate Ultra HD with 10-bit and 12-bit RGB color at high frame rates. Let’s hear about some design wins!)

At the nearby VESA/DisplayPort booth, there were numerous demonstrations of video streaming over USB Type-C connections in Alternate mode, with one lash-up supporting two 1920x1080p monitors AND a 2550×1536 monitor, all at the same time. DP got somewhat faster with version 1.3 (32 Gb/s) and now a new version (1.4) will be announced by the end of January. The VESA guys also had a nice exhibit of Display Stream Compression (DSC), which can pack down a display signal by a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio with essentially no loss or latency (a few microseconds). If we’re going to keep pushing clock speeds higher and higher, compression is inevitable.

The world of display interfacing appears to becoming more disjointed, what with the majority of consumer devices still supporting HDMI 1.4 and 2.0, while an increasing number of computer and video card manufacturers are jumping on the DisplayPort bandwagon (Apple, HP, and Lenovo, among others). How superMHL will fit into this is anyone’s guess: The format is TMDS-based, like HDMI, but outstrips it in every way (HDMI 2.0 does not support DSC or USB Type-C operation). Do we really need two TMDS-based interfaces, going forward?

Speaking of USB Type-C, everybody and their brother/sister at CES had Type-C hubs, adapters, and even extenders out for inspection. If any connector is going to force the competing display interface standards to get in line, it will be this one. Apple, Intel, Lenovo, and several phone/tablet manufacturers are already casting their lots with Type-C, and it looks to be the next “sure thing” as we head toward a universal data/video/audio/power interface. I even came home with a credit card-sized press kit with a reversible USB 2.0 / 3.0 Type-C plug built-in!

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

 

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

So – how about HDR? Yes, a few companies showed it, and there were spirited discussions over dinner whether OLEDs could actually show signals with high dynamic range (they most assuredly can, as they can reproduce 15 stops of light from just above black to full white without clipping) and whether you actually need thousands of cd/m2 to qualify as an HDR display (I’m not in that camp; displays that bright can be painful to look at).

For LCDs, quantum dots (QDs) will lead the way to HDR. Both QD Vision and 3M had demos of quantum dot illuminants, with QD Vision focusing on light pipes for now and 3M partnering with Nanosys to manufacture a quantum dot enhancement film. Both work very well and provide a much larger color gamut than our current ITU Rec.709 color space, which looks positively washed-out compared to the more expansive Rec.2020 color gamut associated with UHD and HDR. QD Vision also showed the reduction in power consumption over OLEDs when using QDs. However, you won’t get the deep blacks and wide viewing angles out of an LCD in any case, so a few more watts may not matter to the videophiles.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray format had its formal debut at CES with Panasonic and Samsung both showing players. The latter can be pre-ordered for $399 and will ship in the spring. (Remember when Samsung’s first-ever Blu-ray player sold for nearly $2,000 almost a decade ago?) To support HDR – which requires 10-bit encoding – the HDMI interface must be type 2.0a to correctly read the metadata. That can be in the DolbyVision format, or the Technicolor format, but the baseline definition is HDR-10.

LG Display's flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

LG Display’s flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

 

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

I saved the best for last. Every year, LG Display invites a few journalists up to what we call the “candy store” to see the latest in display technology. And this year didn’t disappoint: How about dual-side 55-inch flexible OLED TVs just millimeters thick? Or a 25-inch waterfall (curved) display that could form the entire center console in a car, with flexible OLEDs in the dashboard creating bright, colorful, and contrasty gauges?

LGD has WAY too much fun coming up with demos for this suite. I saw four 65-inch OLED panels stacked on end, edge to edge, and bent into an S-curve to create a 2.2:1 ratio widescreen UHD+ display. And it also had video playing on both sides. In another location, I saw a jaw-dropping 31.5” 8K LCD monitor with almost perfect uniformity, and an 82-inch “pillar” LCD display.

How about a 55-inch UHD OLED display rolled into a half-pipe, with you standing at the center, playing a video game? Talk about filling your field of view! Next to it was a convex 55-inch display, wrapped around a ceiling support pole. And next to that, a 55-inch transparent OLED display with graphics and text floating over real jewelry, arranged on tiers. The actual transparency index is about 40% and the concept worked great.

Toyota's Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year's sidecar-shaped model.

Toyota’s Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year’s sidecar-shaped model.

 

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

The icing on the cake was an 18-inch flexible OLED with 800×1200 resolution that could be rolled up into a tube or a cone-like shape while showing HD video. This was one of those “I gotta get me one of these!” moments, but significantly, it shows how OLED technology has matured to the point where it can be manufactured on flexible substrates. And what is the largest market in the world or displays? Transportation, where G-forces and vibration eventually crack rigid substrates, like LCD glass.

That’s just a snapshot of what I saw, and I haven’t even mentioned drones (buzzing all over the place), fold-up scooters and hoverboards, smart appliances, pet cams, alarms that alert you when an alarm goes off (really!), wooden smartphones (really!), talking spoons and forks (really!), toothbrushes linked to video games (would I kid you?), and 4K action cams with built-in solar cell chargers.

Gotta run now. My phone just sent me a Wi-Fi alarm that a Bluetooth-connected doorbell camera spotted the UPS guy delivering a package I was already alerted about via email to my desktop that signaled a buzzer via ZigBee in my virtual desktop PC that was connected wirelessly to my smartphone, currently streaming 4K video over a 60 GHz link to my “smart” TV that is also…also…also…

Oh, great. Now I’ve forgotten what I was talking about…Does anyone make an iRemember app? (Look for my “second thoughts” column later this month…)

2016 – A Turning Point For Television

In a few short weeks, I (and hundreds of my colleagues in the press) will dutifully board planes for Las Vegas to once again spend a week walking the show floor at International CES. We’ll listen to PR pitches, grab fast-food meals on the fly, show up late for appointments, have numerous ad hoc discussions in hallways and cabs, and try to make sense of all the new technologies unveiled in the Las Vegas Convention Center and nearby hotels.

As usual, many of us will want to focus on televisions – or more specifically, what televisions are becoming. TVs have always been an important product category at CES, and that was particularly true with the introduction of digital, high definition TV in the late 1990s, followed by plasma and then LCD display technologies in the early to mid-2000s.

Today, the bloom is largely off the rose. TVs have become commodities, thanks to aggressive pricing and distribution by Korean manufacturers that have largely driven the Japanese brands out of the business. And we’re seeing that cycle repeat itself as China becomes the nexus for TV manufacturing and prices for 1080p sets continue in free fall.

But something new is here – Ultra HD (a/k/a 4K). And the transition is happening at a breathtaking pace: The first 4K / UHD sets appeared on these shores in 2012 with astronomically high price tags. Four years later, you can buy a 55-inch Ultra HDTV with “smart” wireless functions for less than $800, a price point that has forced same-size 1080p sets below $500.

And it’s not just more pixels. High dynamic range (HDR) is coming to market, as are new illumination technologies that will provide much larger color gamuts. LCD and OLED panel manufacturers are now able to address at 10 bits per pixel, breaking past the now-inadequate 8-bit standard that has held back displays of all kinds for over a decade.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Screen sizes are getting larger, too. Ten years ago, a 42-inch TV was considered “big” and anything larger was a home theater installation. Today? Consumers are routinely buying 50-inch, 55-inch, and even 60-inch sets as prices have fallen. That same 42-inch set is often consigned to a bedroom or kid’s room, or maybe a summer home.

Back in September of 2008, I bought a Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma TV for about $1,100. It had two HDMI 1.3 connections, three analog composite/component video inputs, and no network connectivity of any kind. But wow, did it make great pictures!

Seven years later, that TV sits in my basement, unused. It was replaced by a price-comparable, more energy-efficient 46-inch LCD model after Hurricane Sandy killed our power for several days and I did a whole-house energy audit. (And no, the LCD picture quality doesn’t compare to the plasma.)

But that’s not all that changed. I picked up four HDMI 1.4 inputs along the way (yep, it was set up for 3D), plus built-in Wi-Fi and “smart” functions. And I added a sound bar to make up for the awful quality of the built-in speakers. Plus, I added a Blu-ray player to round out the package, although it hardly sees any discs these days – it’s mostly used for streaming.

So – let’s say I’d like to replace that TV in 2016, just five years later. What would my options be?

To start with, I’d be able to buy a lot more screen. Right now, I could pick up a Samsung or LG 65-inch smart 1080p set for what I spent in 2011. Or, I could bite the bullet and make the move to Ultra HD with a 55-inch or 60-inch screen, complete with four HDMI inputs (one or two would be version 2.0, with HDCP 2.2 support), Wi-Fi, Netflix streaming (very important these days), and possibly a quantum dot backlight for HDR and WCG support.

My new set should support the HEVC H.265 codec, of course. That will make it possible to stream UHD content into my TV at 12 – 18 Mb/s from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vimeo, Vudu, and any other company that jumps on the 4K content bandwagon. I could even go out and buy a brand-new Ultra HD Blu-ray player to complement it. But it’s more likely I’d opt to stream UHD content over my new, fast 30 Mb/s Internet connection from Comcast.

Now, it might pay to wait until later in 2016, when I could be sure of purchasing an Ultra HDTV that would support one or more of the proposed HDR delivery standards for disc-based and streaming UHD movies. And maybe I’d have more “fast” inputs, like DisplayPort 1.2 or even 1.3 to go along with HDMI 2.0 (and quite possibly, superMHL).

And I might even swing back over to an emissive display, to replace the picture quality I got from my old plasma set. That would mean purchasing an OLED Ultra HDTV, which would also support HDR and WCG, plus all of the usual bells and whistles (Wi-Fi, multiple HDMI/DP inputs, streaming, apps).

My point? We’re going to see some amazing technology in the next generation of televisions at ICES. And consumers are apparently warming up to Ultra HD – while sales of 1080p sets continue to decline, Ultra HD sales are climbing by double-digit percentages. I expect that number to accelerate as we near the Super Bowl, even though it won’t be broadcast in 4K (yet!).

If you are thinking about upgrading your main TV, 2016 could give you plenty of reasons to do it. My advice? Wait until all the puzzle pieces are in place for delivery of HDR and WCG to your home, and look into upgrading your Internet connections – streaming 4K will be here faster than you realize. And if you can live with your 1080p set until the fall of 2016, you’ll be amazed and likely very pleased at the upgrade…

More Pixels + Bigger Screens = More Power Consumption

I don’t often hear the words “National Resource Defense Council” and “Ultra HDTV” in the same sentence. But the NRDC just released a report stating that power consumption in Ultra HD (4K) TVs is about 30% higher than same-size 1080p TV sets.

The NRDC report goes on to say that one-third of all new TV purchases are for screens 50 inches and larger, which should come as no surprise given how dramatically TV prices have dropped in the past three years. And the NRDC calculates that, if Americans were to replace their older 1080p sets with Ultra HDTVs in screens sizes from 36 inches and up (who has a 36-inch TV??), the additional power consumption could amount to $1 billion dollars annually, equivalent to three times the annual residential power consumption of San Francisco. (I love it when press releases come up with offbeat statistics like that one.)

The substance of this argument should come as no surprise to anyone: An Ultra HDTV has four times as many pixels as a 1080p set (which is why it was originally called Quad HD). So it stands to reason that an Ultra HDTV would use more power, although a 30% increase seems on the low side.

The NRDC apparently tested a few models of TVs and found “…there were dramatic differences in the power consumption among UHD models of the same size, indicating the technology already exists to make energy-saving improvements to the most inefficient UHD televisions.”

The report went on to state that “Consumers can cut several hundred dollars off the lifetime energy costs of a new UHD TV by a) buying models with the ENERGY STAR® label, b) ensuring Automatic Brightness Control is enabled, and c) avoiding the quick start feature on Internet-connected televisions that results in significant amounts of wasted standby power.”

Graphic from NRDC report

Graphic from NRDC report

Most LCD TVs use amorphous silicon (a-Si) or low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) thin-film transistors to switch the pixels on and off. These technologies have been around for some time, and they have their disadvantages – high leakage current is one. But the yields are good and predictable.

A solution to the power consumption issue us waiting in the wings. Oxide TFTs, or more accurately, indium gallium zinc oxide TFTs, look like the logical replacement for a-Si and LTPS. IGZO, in development for over 30 years and first commercialized by Sharp, promises low leakage current, a smaller size (more light passes through the pixel as a result), faster on/off switching times, and lower power consumption.

That last attribute alone makes IGZO attractive as we move into the worlds of 4K / UHDTV, 5K, 6K, and even 8K displays and TVs. My guess is that most of that 30% power consumption increase would be rolled back by moving to IGZO TFT arrays.

The catch is cost – IGZO is expensive to implement in a consumer television that might sell for all of $700 – $800. Right now, Sharp is implementing IGZO in their line of Ultra HD desktop monitors, small multipurpose displays, and possibly their large (104” and 120”) Ultra HD commercial monitors.

They’re not alone. I was told by LG Display at CES a couple years ago that their OLED TVs also used IGZO TFTs to switch pixels. Given the price of those sets, the added cost of IGZO isn’t as much of a problem: LG’s 55-inch Ultra HD OLED TV currently retails for about $3,000.

The NRDC report didn’t state which models they tested. Were these conventional edge-lit, or full array LED models? Were any quantum dot Ultra HDTVs tested? How about Samsung’s S-series UHDTVs? What picture mode was tested – Dynamic? Standard? Movie/Cinema?

As for the NRDC’s recommendations; all TVs come with Energy Star ratings, so it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out which models are the best penny-pinchers. However, turning on ambient light sensors to dim the screen depending on room light does funny things to picture quality, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Instead, simply set the contrast to about 80, brightness to 40 – 50, and color temperature to “warm.” (This presumes you’ve already taken the TV out of “dynamic” mode). If you can adjust the backlight levels, crank them back to about 60 – 70 and see if they are bright enough for everyday viewing. (Turn OFF all of the other image/picture enhancements found in basic and advanced picture menus, too.)

Granted; turning off the quick start feature will reduce power consumption when you’re not watching. I don’t mind waiting a few seconds for my 46-inch 1080p set to turn on, but it only uses 160 watts to begin with.

Here’s one last recommendation: Don’t buy a new TV on Black Friday, or even before Christmas. Wait instead until the two – three week period before Super Bowl 50 (Sunday, February 7, 2016) to make your purchase, and you should score a great deal on a new Ultra HDTV. (And don’t forget to check the Energy Star tag!)

How to Make a TV Look Better

It is a retailing insight that dates back to an ancient time, the time of CRT TV sets: “The way to make a TV look better is to connect it to a really good loudspeaker.” Sounds like a recipe for an analog, standard-def, monophonic home-theater system, doesn’t it? Some of those old TV salesmen may have been rough around the edges but they weren’t dumb.

A small, highly unscientific survey I performed recently — it was yesterday — indicates there still quite a few people who are only dimly aware of the advanced audio technology that is (or soon will be) our version of that “really good loudspeaker.” The technology is “immersive sound,” and it goes considerably beyond the 5.1-channel surround sound with which we are all familiar.

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

An immersive or 3D sound system adds one or two layers of height speakers above the ear-level speakers of 5.1 or 7.1 to create a three-dimensional sound field, but it can do even more. Like conventional 2-channel stereo, 5.1 surround sound is channel-based. That is, each source is assigned to a channel by the audio engineer, each channel is assigned to a specific speaker in the listening room, and that is what determines the source’s apparent location. That means that for the audio engineer’s intentions to be realized, the integrator or user must place the speakers where the engineer anticipates they will be placed.

Dolby Atmos, the most widely implemented immersive system for consumers, adds an object-based technology that uses metadata to place a sound anywhere in the sonic field independent of speaker location. These sonic objects are placed top of the 5.1 “bed channels,” which still perform their traditional function. Let us note that DTS MDA (Multi-Dimensional Audio) and the soon-to-appear DTS-X also use object-based technologies, although Dolby and DTS use different coordinate systems for defining the sound fields.

If you are able to precisely locate the speakers in the listening space, the object-based technology is not necessary. AURO technologies offers a high-end (that is, very expensive) approach that creates a very convincing 3D sound field with 11.1 channels in 3 levels: the base ear-level, the elevated level, and a speaker in the ceiling that AURO calls the
“god speaker” — because it is well-suited for deleivering “the voice of god.” I auditioned an AURO 3D system at CE Week in New York last June. The mandatory sonic demonstration of an airliner approaching from your rear and flying low over your head to land in front of you had some people ducking, but more subtle demonstrations were actually more impressive.

The playback of Bach organ pieces recorded in a cathedral convincingly reproduced the sense of soaring space, and the AURO 3D sound track that accompanied an urban street scene produced precise sonic placements of many simultaneous conversations and activities. As is true in life, you could consciously change your focus of attention and listen in to one conversational fragment or another. The sense of place was remarkable.

 

Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were disigned by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones' first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were designed by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones’s first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks externally very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

When Dolby, DTS, or AURO equips a cinema for 3D audio, many speakers are used at different levels. The largest of these installations can support 128 simultaneous objects and 64 speaker channels, according to Film Journal International. Dolby, which has the largest presence in cinemas with immersive systems, was first into the consumer space last year. Clearly, most consumers would not be interested in installing a dozen (or even four) ceiling mounted speakers. So, although an Atmos system can be implemented with ceiling speakers, several manufacturers are making upward-facing speakers intended to be placed on top of the left and right front channel speakers and also (optionally) on top of the surround or rear speakers. Dolby says that such add-on speakers can be very effective for ceiling heights from 8 to 12 feet. A small but increasing number of manufacturers are also incorporating the upward-facing speakers into otherwise traditional left-right speakers.

So, of what does a consumer Atmos system consist? Minimally, you need an A/V receiver that contains an Atmos decoder and supports 7.1 channels, the traditional 5.1 plus two height channels. Dolby designates such a system as 5.1.2, and says such a system can provide an impressive 3D audio effects. But for maximum drama (such as helicopter flyovers), you need two more ceiling or add-on speakers to go on top of your surround or rear speakers. That is, you need a 9.1 (5.1.4), Atmos-enabled receiver.

All of this comes in at substantially less than a small OLED-TV. If you already have a 5.1 system, you only need two more speakers and a 7.1-channel (5.1.2) Atmos receiver, which begin at less than $500. Receivers are available from the usual suspects, including Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, and Pioneer. There are already discontinued models for bargain-hunters, but newer models are more likely to have DTS-X decoding as well as Dolby Atmos.

I’ve just written a very few words on a very large subject, and I’ve just scratched the surface. But there’s one question I know I’d better answer: Is Atmos media available? Yes. Blu-ray.com list roughly 60 English-language BRDs that are currently available, and Dolby has a list of more than 50 movies that will be (or have been) released in 2015 and 2016, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Martian, Sicario, The Peanuts Movie, and American Sniper. Standard BRD players support the Atmos coding, so there’s no new investment there.

Regular readers know of my deep skepticism concerning 3D television images. But 3D audio is something else entirely. It draws you into the story — and it does make the picture look better.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies using displays in their products.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

By The Numbers – Or Maybe Not

Several news stories crossed my desk this morning that are each worth closer scrutiny. The first one comes from Reuters and says that Dish Network’s quarterly revenue missed forecasts as more customers disconnected their satellite antennas.

Dish stated that they had lost 23,000 subscribers on a net basis for the quarter ending September 30. In the same time period a year earlier, the net loss was 12,000 subs, almost half as many. And apparently the company’s new $20/month streaming service, Sling TV, isn’t proving to be as popular as expected.

The combination of DirecTV with AT&T also puts Dish at a competitive advantage, since AT&T can offer bundles of service (including mobile telephone) at competitive prices. Satellite TV has always been at a disadvantage to cable and fiber optic services due to issues with reception during inclement weather and the inability of some home and apartment sites to “see” the satellites, ruling out installations.

In my neighborhood, several folks canceled service from Comcast in recent years and picked up Dish and DirecTV as a cost-saving measure, only to drop both when Verizon laid fiber optic cables for FiOS and offered some low-cost, triple-play bundles that Dish and DirecTV couldn’t beat. (Internet service via satellite isn’t exactly fast and reliable.)

Right now, Dish’s most valuable asset is the UHF frequency spectrum acquired in FCC auctions- but it looks like that spectrum may go back for re-auction next February. And the DirecTV / AT&T juggernaut may force Dish into a merger to stay alive – or perhaps an outright sale.

So things aren’t looking too good for pay TV service providers? Not according to TDG Research. In a story on the Multichannel News site, TDG claims that “the percentage of adult broadband users (ADUs) who were moderately or highly likely to cancel their pay TV service in the next six months dropped 20% since last year.”

TDG went on to say that the group of consumers saying they “definitely will cancel” their pay TV service in the next six months has been cut in half — down from 2.9% in early 2014 to 1.4% in early 2015.” They cite the fact that Comcast only lost 48,000 video subscribers in Q3 2015, as opposed to 81,000 in the same quarter a year ago.

The problem with opinion surveys vs. market trends is that opinions can change abruptly. After a series of mishaps with Comcast’s Xfinity platform earlier this year (and well-documented on this site), I was about ready to throw in the towel and switch over to FiOS myself! But after my original complaint was resolved (replacing the buried cable from the drop to my house) and I wound up with a new modem (802.11ac 2.4/5 GHz), plus much faster Internet speeds and new Xfinity set-top boxes, I decided to stay with the devil I know – for now.

So the TDG data may reflect consumer preferences right now, but what will actually happen remains to be seen when the next set of quarterly data becomes available in January or February of next year.

There’s no arguing with numbers, however. From the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) comes a report that consumers spent more money on digital video downloads and video streaming through the first nine months of 2015 than on rentals and purchases of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

According to a story on the TWICE Web site, consumers forked over almost $6.5 billion on downloaded and streamed videos. The “digital” category includes subscription streaming and video-on-demand (VOD), plus digital downloads such as movies to tablets and smartphones. (Like I do when I fly cross-country).

In contrast, the dollar amount spent on rentals and purchases of optical disc media amounted to $6.3 billion – close, but still in 2nd place. From January through September, revenue from downloads and streaming rose by almost 16% Y-Y, while revenue from DVD/BD purchases declined by 14% and disc rentals dropped 7.1%.

Within the streaming/downloads category, the lion’s share of revenue (3.65B, or 57%) went to subscription streaming, while digital downloads captured 21% or $1.34B. The rest went to subscription video-on-demand ($1.41B, or 22%).

What’s interesting is that in 2014, the DEG states that “consumers spent more on physical media, about $6.93 billion, compared with $7.53 billion spent on digital downloads and streaming.” Overall, that means that in 2014, consumers whipped out their credit cards to the tune of $14.46B, or about $1.2B per month. Through September of 2015, that number is $12.74B total, or $1.42B per month – an increase of about 15%.

So there you have it. Cord-cutting (or “dish dumping”) is on the rise. Or maybe it isn’t, if we are to believe the preferences of consumers. Or maybe it’s the HDMI cable we’re cutting, preferring to stream and download videos as opposed to playing them back from optical discs.

One statistic I wish the DEG would delve deeper into concerns the installed base of Blu-ray players – almost 80 million households own one now, according to DEG. But how often are they used for playing movies, as opposed to streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other services? We just don’t know.