Category: The Front Line

Smart Watches Have Not Excited Consumers — But They’re About To

Smart-watch makers are trying to find the right combination of design, functionality, interface, and price that will galvanize a customer population that is curious, but not yet motivated to open their wallets in large numbers. Probably the best-selling smart watch is Samsung’s first-generation Galaxy Gear, which Samsung says sold about a million units through the first quarter of this year despite a $299 price and generally unfavorable reviews. Supply-chain analyst David Barnes (db@bizwitz.com) has told me privately that he is skeptical and believes that if Samsung made a million Gears, at least half of them are sitting in warehouses.

The second-generation Gears (there are versions with and without a camera, and for both the Galaxy moniker has been dropped) are have physical designs that is a bit more refined. Still, they look devices made made by a consumer electronics company, not by a watch company.

As Richard Windsor noted in a recent Radio Free Mobile newsletter, nearly all smart watches look like objects only a nerd could love. What is required for

Motorola Mobility's Moto 360 Smart Watch, here looking like a classically designed upscale watch.  (Photo:  Motorola Mobility)

Motorola Mobility’s Moto 360 Smart Watch, here looking like a classically designed upscale watch. (Photo: Motorola Mobility)

major success is a product that looks like an attractive, upscale watch. Motorola’s Moto 360, which is powered by Google’s new Android Wear OS, could be such a watch. And Motorola Mobility, still under Google’s managerial hand, spent a lot of time and effort on the physical design of the product, including the design of the images displayed. If the price is about right, which I would judge to be $250 or less, this could be a breakout product. Motorola says the watch is coming this summer “in a selection of styles.”

It is encouraging that watch and fashion company Fossil is also working with Google and is likely to be producing watches incorporating Android Wear later this year.

LG and Samsung are also on board with Android Wear, and the LG G smart watch is getting high-level support. “The opportunity to work with Google on LG G Watch was the perfect chance for LG to really pull out all stops in both design and engineering,” said Dr. Jong-seok Park, president and CEO of LG Electronics Mobile Communications Co., in a March 19 press release. Photographs of a prototype show a rectangular, plastic-bodied watch in consumer-electronics-company — rather than watch-maker — style. There’s plenty of time for that to change, though, since LG is saying further details will be released over a period of months.

Moto 360 with turn-by-turn directions on a now smart-watch-looking screen.  (Photo:  Motorola Mobility)

Moto 360 with turn-by-turn directions on a now smart-watch-looking screen. (Photo: Motorola Mobility)

The baseline performance of newly designed smart watches will be established by Android Wear. A highly polished iWatch with a great UI could be a formidable competitor, but in Apple’s post-Steve Jobs era, there is less confidence that the company can pull off anything better than what it’s competitors are already developing. And, despite the endless rumors, Apple has made no iWatch announcements.

If, as is very possible, Android Wear becomes to watches what Windows once was (and to a significant degree still is) to PCs, Google will command the attention of application developers and chipmakers, which will make it even more difficult for others to establish other watch OSs that will take significant market share. In this context, it will be interesting to see if Samsung abandons the Tizen OS for its third Gear generation.

The confined spaces and small battery size inherent in a smart-watch design obviously create interesting problems for the display and display sub-system designers. Motorola Mobility is seeming going with a round full-color LCD. The current generation of smart watches and prototypes use LCD, OLED, and Qualcomm mirasol. E Ink electrophoretic displays have been used successfully in

The LG G Smart Watch prototype, which looks like it was designed by a consumer electronics -- rather than a wristwatch -- company.  (Photo:  LG)

The LG G Smart Watch prototype, which looks like it was designed by a consumer electronics — rather than a wristwatch — company. (Photo: LG)

commercial watches made by Phosphor Watch and other companies, and have also appeared in smart-watch prototypes. Qualcomm’s Pixtronix MEMS

display technology, which I predict will soon eclipse the problematic mirasol, could also be a candidate. But the first commercial Pixtronix-based displays will be in a larger size.

Currently, the most exciting project for me is the Moto 360. For the larger market, I’m very interested in seeing what

Fossil produces. And technically, the LG G might expand the envelope. This is a fascinating new industry, crying its birth cries as we watch.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves industries related to displays and the products that use them. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Samsung Has No Trouble With The Curve

Yesterday, Samsung held its annual home entertainment press event to show off its 2014 line of televisions. Not surprisingly, the emphasis was on curved screens, so Samsung chose an appropriate venue for the event – the striking, spiraling Guggenheim Museum on 88th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York.

At the International CES a few months ago, curved 4K televisions were all the rage. And Samsung wants to lead this category, based on what I saw at the press event. There will be two series of curved 4K LCD televisions in this year’s line – the HU9000 series (55”, 65”, and 78”) and the HU8700 series (55” and 65”).

Prices range from $4,000 to $8,000 for the 9000-series models, while no pricing has been announced yet for the H8700 line.  In addition, Samsung will start shipping the yet-unnumbered 105” curved widescreen LCD (also seen at CES) later this year. And there will be a line of curved 2K sets, numbered H8000 (48”, 55”, and 65”).

Samsung's Ultra HD "tree" it right in the Guggenheim lobby.

Samsung’s Ultra HD “tree” was right at home in the Guggenheim lobby.

There are also some “in your face” models for 2014. The current 85S9 UHD TV (85”) will be joined by the 110S9 (110”). Aside from Vizio’s 120-inch behemoth shown at CES, the 110-inch offering is the largest television ever offered to consumers – and it comes at a dear price of $150,000!

Two of the more interesting products shown at this event weren’t televisions. Samsung’s SEK-2500V UHD Evolution Kit is designed to add some degree of future-proofing to all of the Ultra HD sets in the line. It comes with a Quad Core processor, supports HDCP 2.2 and has HDMI 2.0 interfaces, and is intended to update features of the operating systems on these TVs as needed. (They are, after all, just computers with really big displays.)

Samsung also unveiled a UHD Video Pack (CY-SUC105H), not unlike Sony’s 4K media player. The Video Pack is loaded with five 4K movies, three documentaries, and an assortment of short subjects and costs $300. Supposedly, another UHD Video Pack is on the way later this year.

Samsung's Joe Stinziano and Fox's Mike Dunn discuss the details of the two company's 4K content partnership.

Samsung’s Joe Stinziano and Fox’s Mike Dunn discuss the details of the two company’s 4K content partnership.

A partnership with 20th Century Fox was also announced at the press event to “…establish a secure and sustainable next-generation UHD content ecosystem.” Samsung wants to deliver 4K movies and television programming directly to viewers through its Smart Hub platform (which also got a redesign).

There wasn’t much meat in this announcement, but with television sales continuing to decline worldwide (down by 3% for 2013, according to NPD DisplaySearch) and retail prices for television in free fall, there will be more opportunities for profit in software than in hardware, going forward. And although Samsung continues to sit atop the heap (27% worldwide market share in TV sales revenue), they must be wondering where to go from there.

Conspicuously missing from the Guggenheim show was the company’s 55-inch curved 2K OLED TV. Whether that was intentional or not, Samsung’s focus clearly was on LCD technology and all of the ways it can be manipulated. In the Lewis Theater below the main lobby, Samsung demonstrated its PurColor image processing, along with a new dynamic contrast engine and 4K scaling demos. There was even a side-by-side comparison of 4K and 2K LCD panels displaying standard eye charts to show how much more detail could be resolved in a 4K display.

Members of the press get up close and personal with Samsung's Ultra HD technology demos.

Members of the press get up close and personal with Samsung’s Ultra HD technology demos.

I’ve written previously about the HDMI 2.0 interface and how it is barely fast enough to support 4K RGB images with 8-bit rendering, and have wondered on more than on occasion why more TV manufacturers don’t incorporate the faster, royalty-free DisplayPort interface. Well, I spotted one on the back panel of the Samsung Ultra HD TV used for the PurColor demo, although it was marked “TV One Connect” and no one seemed to know much about its function. (A subsequent follow-up with a Samsung executive clarified that this port is designated for an “evolution” hardware/software connection.)

Almost lost in all of the hype was the fact that Samsung will have a pair of 75-inch flat screen 2K LCD TVs in the lineup for this year. The H7150 version will carry a price tag of $3,999, while the “entry level” H6350 will be tagged at $3,299. These prices are competitive with Sharp’s 70-inch and 80-inch Aquos 2K sets that are wildly popular for commercial and educational installations, and I suspect Samsung wants to grab a piece of that action for itself.

They jury’s still out on the benefits of curved screens. Yes, Samsung did talk about everyone having a great viewing angle and how curved screens make viewing a more immersive experience. That’s certainly true for the 105-inch 21:9 screen, but I don’t see the advantage for 55-inch 16:9 TVs. And if there are any sources of glare, the curved screen doesn’t eliminate them – it just moves them to some other viewer’s disadvantage.

I will admit, though, that curved TVs do look cooler than flat screen sets. And the choice of the curved, soaring Guggenheim (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1959) as a showcase was inspired.

Now, let’s see if consumers are similarly inspired to purchase a curved TV…

Aereo And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

For readers who aren’t up to speed, Aereo is a new service that receives terrestrial digital TV broadcasts in major markets and re-transmits them over the Internet, using AVC coding with IP headers. The concept is to provide local reception for those who can’t pick up these signals for one reason or another on their regular TV.

Now, the devil in the details: Ever since Aereo launched a couple of years ago, it has been in court, fighting off challenges by the major broadcast networks who are crying “foul!” and saying that Aereo’s retransmission is a violation of copyright laws. They also claim that Aereo owes them retransmission fees.

Aereo’s rebuttal and defense centers around a flimsy (to me) technical argument: Each subscriber gains access to an individual antenna about the size of a dime, which then is connected to an individual receiver, decoder, DVR, and encoder. It’s as if the subscriber built his or her own TV antenna system, which is certainly within their rights.

I remain skeptical because the cost of actually setting up thousands of individual antennas, terrestrial receivers, video decoders, and video encoders would be prohibitively expensive and never be recovered by the $8 monthly subscriber fee (for 20 hours of recording time, $12 for 40 hours).

And anyone who has ever taken a modicum of courses in electrical physics and RF theory knows that (a) the tiny antennas Aereo assigns to each subscriber can’t possibly have enough gain to work for high band VHF reception, let along UHF reception, and (b) the close spacing of those antennas – as seen from earlier PR photos released by the service – means they interact with each other to form a larger array, based on the principles of inductive and capacitive coupling. That, in essence, is a master antenna TV system – delivering TV channels to many viewers, not one.

Thanks to a sub-par presentation by expert witnesses called by broadcasters at the first hearing, the 2nd Circuit Court (New York City) ruled 2-1 that Aereo didn’t infringe on copyrights and cited the earlier Cablevision “cloud” DVR decision as precedent. Aereo’s right to operate was subsequently upheld in the 1st Circuit (Boston). Service is active in both cities now.

However; two weeks ago, Aereo was rebuffed by a 10th Circuit judge in Salt Lake City, who unequivocally stated that “The plain language of the 1976 Copyright Act supports the plaintiffs’ position. Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” As a result, Aereo had to shut down its service in Salt Lake City and Denver for the time being.

While this case winds its way on to the Supreme Court, another twist in the story has surfaced. Apparently subscribers in New York City had massive problems with the Aereo stream of the Oscars telecast on WABC-TV a week ago Sunday. Consequently, the company’s Twitter feed was lit up with complaints about “buffering” and “locked-up pictures.”

Here are some of the dozens of tweets I found: “Awful service, bad image quality & not recording scheduled shows but it sad you treat ORIGINAL customers the way you do.” “It goes out now and then requiring me to select Oscars all over again. Common? I have it on auto quality.”  “Thanks for doing work on the site tonight. It’s not like I wanted to watch the Oscars. No big deal.” (Gotta LOVE that sarcasm!)

And more: “C’mon Aereo. Get your s–t together.” “Anyone else watching the Oscars using Aereo like me? S–t keeps buffering every 30 seconds. Frustrating the hell out of me.” “Hmm is Aereo down for anyone else? Is it just an East Village or Roku thing? #CordCutting fail during the Oscars” “@Aereo Support I keep getting the message “The Oscars has ended.” A total of 8 seconds recorded. Worst. Oscars. Ever.”

This one was my personal favorite: “@Aereo I don’t have time to run to Best Buy and buy some rabbit ears right now.” Well, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.

A couple of observations are in order. First, I don’t know how exactly Aereo has its front end configured, but if they’ve actually tried to keep every single subscriber’s hardware separate by various technical tricks to pass legal review, then they might have run out of server capacity and brought this service failure on themselves. (Apparently this also happened during the Golden Globes, according to a story on the Quartz Web site.)

There is a reason why cable and satellite companies use a single receiver for each broadcast and premium channel they carry, and multiplex (copy and repeat) those channels on their outgoing RF and IP channels: It’s WAY more cost-effective and less troublesome! So they have to pay a retransmission fee: Big deal! What will the cost be now to Aereo in dropped subscriptions, not to mention bad publicity from these service problems?

Second, I’ll bet that more than a few Aereo subscribers could actually pick up the HD broadcasts from New York City stations if they tried. Over the years, I’ve tested numerous indoor TV antennas and there have been some real winners out there like the Mohu Leaf Ultimate series and Winegard’s amplified FlatWave antenna.

Both are reasonably priced and perform adequately on VHF channels and very well on UHF channels, which in New York City means you can also use them to watch WNBC, WCBS, and WNYW among the major networks. (By the way, those are the three networks that carry NFL games in the New York City metro area.)

Third; if you can pick up local TV broadcasts with one of the aforementioned antennas, there are terrestrial DVR products that will let you record those channels, like Channel Master’s new DVR+. It has dual tuners, built-in capacity for about 2 hours of HD recording (expandable with any external hard drives or solid state drives through USB ports), plus Wi-Fi connectivity and support for Internet video services like Vudu.

Or you can pick up one of Hauppauge’s WinTV receivers that plug directly into a USB port on your computer and provide terrestrial digital TV reception, letting you use your hard drive as a DVR. I carry around a few of the Hauppauge Aero-M stick receivers and a Mohu Leaf for reception on the road, and they work great.

We’ll never know the actual reason for Aereo’s system failures during the Golden Globes and Oscars, but it’s entirely possible that the company was too clever for its own good by engineering and building a system that was designed to neatly parse and side-step copyright laws.

It’s funny how the law of unintended consequences works, isn’t it?

January’s TV is February’s Digital Sign

A lot of the display-related excitement at January’s CES 2014 related to 4K, multi-touch panels, and gesture-related system control. A month later, and those same technologies were being featured in digital signage at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE), also in Las Vegas. It’s impressive how quickly 4K migrated from television to signage.

LG’s 105-inch Ultra HD TV set was an Ultra HD Display at DSE, and the company also showed its 55-inch “Gallery” OLED-TV. This is the TV that is matted and framed like a picture, and it does look very good when showing fine art. It may not be a “sign,” but museums are major customers for digital signage.

Transparent LCD from LG-MRI in a commercial refrigerator door. (Photo:  Ken Werner)

Transparent LCD from LG-MRI in a commercial refrigerator door. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Although somebody has shown a transparent TV at CES in each of the last couple of years, it’s hard to see how the idea makes sense. The most interesting argument comes from Bobs Raikes (MEKO Ltd.), who notes that some people with a hypersensitivity to interior design issues are offended by the “black hole” on the wall when their TV set is turned off. If the set were transparent when turned off, the wall would show through and the whole lash-up would be more aesthetically pleasing. Give me a break, Bob!

But in the signage world, there are places where transparent displays make a great deal of sense: retail windows, retail display boxes, vending machines and kiosks, and commercial refrigerator doors for supermarkets. Several vendors were showing transparent displays at DSE, including LG-MRI (a marketing JV between LG and Atlanta-based MRI), VER, 4YouSee, and GDS. In general the transparent displays seemed more transparent where they were supposed to be transparent and significantly more saturated where they were supposed to be saturated.

There were also examples of custom-sized displays from LG-MRI, BSI, Tannas Electronic Displays, and others.

LG was showing its 100-inch HECTO “truly cinematic, ultra sort throw” laser display. It was a TV at CES but a sign at DSE. NEC showed a startling round display inside a round frame, which turned out to be a projected image.

In the consumer world, touch displays only make sense for small and medium-size displays. Nobody is going to walk across the room to use a touch interface on his large-screen TV set. But it makes a great deal of sense for many signs, where customers can be very close to large displays. Touch and multi-touch are already important in signage, but the vigorous movement toward increased interactivity also incorporates gesture, customer analytics (which Intel is pushing hard), virtual fitting rooms, and systems that respond (say by showing you an appropriate video) when you touch a product on a display shelf.

Horizontal table-top displays were being shown by several vendors, including Planar, D3, and Multi-Taction. Multi-Taction’s table presented a digital version of air hockey.

E Ink was pushing hard to demonstrate the benefits of both passive and active-matrix electrophoretic technology for small and large signs. E Ink has established an alliance with sign company GDS to move the technology for ward more rapidly.

The display panel is only a part of any signage solution. A new wrinkle in distributing content to the signs in your network is to get it from the cloud.

DSE has been names as one of the 50 fastest-growing trade shows in the country. This year, there were just over 4000 verified attendees, plus 1813 exhibitors personnel for a total attendance of over 5800. There were a few more than 200 exhibiting companies, which occupied just over 70,000 net square feet. That’s 13% more than 2013, said the organizers. For next year, the show has reserved 6,000 square feet more than that. The dismal weather in the mid-west and northeast kept some registrants away from the show. Next year DSE will be in early March instead of early February, which should help unless our seemingly endless winter becomes truly endless.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Thursday Evening at a Sony Store

After the close of Digital Signage Expo, my colleague Steve Sechrist and I had a dinner of expensive (but excellent) Las Vegas hamburgers and talked as we wandered around the Forum Shops. We wound up at the Sony Store, nearly deserted late on a Thursday evening in early February.

We had leisurely conversations with the two young staffers, both of whom were pleasant, intelligent, and knowledgeable. We talked about the fact that the extensive exhibits of Sony Vaio computers would soon be gone, since Sony had just announced the sale of its PC business. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a comfortable couch watching a beautiful Sony 84-inch, 4K TV that still carries an MSRP of $25,000. The staffer changed the programming for us as we discussed what we were watching. Then, the other staffer gave such a convincing sales pitch for a set of high-end, noise-cancelling headphones that I subsequently ordered a pair (from Costco at about 60% the price I would have paid at the Sony Store).

On Wednesday, February 26, Sony announced it would close 20 of its 31 remaining Sony Stores, including the one in the Forum Shops. It looks like our two young friends will be unemployed, along with 1000 of their Sony colleagues in the U.S. If this had happened a month earlier, I would still be using my 20-year-old Koss headphones.

Of more significance, did Sony make the right call in selling off its PC business? As financial analyst Richard Windsor (www.radiofreemobile.com) says at every reasonable opportunity, the future of consumer tech is in the media ecosystem, not in hardware that is commodizing rapidly, even at the high end. Richard’s question is, can you create a viable ecosystem around smart phones and TV sets without having support in the middle from tablets and PCs? Is this kind of segmentation possible, or is it necessary to provide a continuum of platforms to make an ecosystem viable?  We will soon see if Sony has chosen the right answer to Richard’s question.

Last year, Sony got a leg up on the competition in offering quantum-dot enhanced LCD-TV sets — which offer a significantly expanded color gamut and little additional cost — before the competition.  This year, Sony will have lots of company from competitors using the Color IQ element from QD Vision (as Sony does) and the quantum dot enhancement film (QDEF) made by 3M from quantum dots made by Nanosys.  It’s very hard to establish a hardware advantage in consumer electronics that lasts very long.

We’ll see if Sharp is an exception to that rule of modern consumer electronics.  Sharp is preparing a major promotion of their Q+ technology (until very recently known as Quattron+), which provides picture definition that is very close to 4K at about half the price.  The technology requires a pixel with at least four differently colored subpixels, and among consumer TV makers only Sharp offers that.  And, of course, Sharp has patent protection for its approach.  But there is more than one way to skin that particular multi-primary cat, and I’m told somebody has already done so.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.