Category: The Front Line

CES 2014 In The Rear-View Mirror

Once again, CES has come and gone. It sneaks up on us right after a relaxing Christmas / New Year holiday. We’re jolted out of a quiet reverie and it’s back to the rush to board at the airport gate, walking the serpentine lines for taxis at McCarran Airport, and “late to bed, early to rise” as we scramble to make our booth and off-site appointments in Las Vegas.

We don’t make them all on time. Some we miss completely. But there’s a serendipity angle to it all: We might find, in our haste to get from one meeting to another, some amazing new gadget we didn’t know about as we take shortcuts through booths in the North, South, and Central Halls.

Or a colleague sends us a text or leaves a voicemail, emphatically stating “you have to see this!” Or a chance meeting leads to an ad hoc meeting, often off-site or over a hasty lunch in the convention center.

My point is this: You “find” as many cool things at the show as you “lose.” For every must-see product that you don’t see, there’s another one you trip over. Granted; many “must-see” products are yawners – you’ve figured it out 30 seconds into your carefully-staged meeting with PR people and company executives, and you’re getting fidgety.

LS Samsung Booth MCU 600p

My best CES discoveries involve products or demos where I can observe them anonymously, without PR folks hovering at my side or staring at my badge before they pounce like hungry mountain lions.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the consumer electronics press, I don’t need to break stories the instant I hear about them. There are already too many people doing that. What’s missing is the filter of analysis – some time spent to digest the significance of a press release, product demo, or concept demo.

And that’s what I enjoy the most: Waiting a few days – or even a week – after the show to think about what I saw and ultimately explain the significance of it all. What follows is my analysis of the 2014 International CES (as we are instructed to call it) and which products and demos I thought had real significance, as opposed to those which served no apparent purpose beyond generating daily headlines and “buzz.”

Curved TV screens: OK, I had to start with this one, since every TV manufacturer at the show (save Panasonic and Toshiba) exhibited one or more curved-screen OLED and LCD televisions. Is there something to the curved-screen concept? On first blush, you’d think so, given all of the PR hype that accompanied these products.

The truth is; really big TV screens do benefit a little from a curved surface, particularly if they are UHDTV models and you are sitting close to them. The effect is not unlike Cinerama movie screens from the 1950s and 1960s. (That’s how I saw Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the day.)

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having “5K” resolution – and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

Bear in mind I’m talking about BIG screens here – in the range of 80 inches and up. The super-widescreen (21:9 aspect ratio) LCD TVs shown by Samsung, LG, and Toshiba used the curve to great effect. But conventional 16:9 TVs didn’t seem to benefit as much, especially in side-by-side demos.

The facts show that worldwide TV shipments and sales have declined for two straight years, except in China where they grew by double digits each year. TV prices are also collapsing – you can buy a first-tier 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV now for $600, and 60-inch “smart” sets are well under $800 – so manufacturers will try anything to stimulate sales.

Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many UHDTV (4K) TVs all of a sudden? Partially. Unfortunately, there’s just no money in manufacturing and selling 2K TVs anymore (ask the Japanese manufacturers how that’s been working for them), and the incremental cost to crank out 4K LCD panels isn’t that much.

Chinese panel and TV manufacturers have already figured this out and are shifting production to 4K in large panels while simultaneously dropping prices. You can already buy a 50-inch 4K LCD TV from TCL for $999. Vizio, who is a contract buyer much like Apple, announced at the show that they’d have a 55-inch 4K LCD TV for $1299 and a 65-inch model for well under $2,000.

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Vizio's 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Vizio’s 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Consider that the going price for a 55-inch 4K “smart” LCD TV from Samsung, LG, and Sony is sitting at $2,999 as of this writing and you can see where the industry is heading. My prediction is that all LCD TV screens 60 inches or larger will use 4K panels exclusively within three years. (4K scaling engines work much better than you might think!)

And don’t make the popular mistake of conflating 4K with 3D as ‘failed’ technologies. The latter was basically doomed from the start: Who wants to wear glasses to watch television? Not many people I know. Unfortunately, glasses-free (autostereo) TV is still not ready for prime time, so 3D (for now) is basically a freebie add-on to certain models of televisions.

4K, on the other hand, has legs. And those legs will get stronger and faster as the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) chips start showing up in televisions and video encoders. HEVC, or H.265 encoding, can cut the required bit rate for 2K content delivery in half. That means it can also deliver 4K at the old 2K rates, somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 20 Mb/s.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265  encoding and decoding into their products.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding into their products.

Nanotech's Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

Nanotech’s Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

While consumer demand for 4K is slowly ramping up, there is plenty of interest in UHDTV from the commercial AV sector. And Panasonic focused in on that sector almost exclusively in their CES booth. I’m not sure why – there are plenty of inferences here; most significantly, it would appear that Panasonic is exiting the money-losing television business entirely. (Ditto nearby Toshiba, which had similar 4K “applications” showcased and which also did not exhibit a line of 2014 televisions.)

Long story short; you may be buying 4K televisions in the near future whether you want ‘em or not. It’s a manufacturing and plant utilization issue, and if commercial demand for 4K picks up as expected, that will drive the changeover even faster.

As for sources of 4K content; Samsung announced a partnership with Paramount and Fox to get it into the home via the M-Go platform. Comcast had an Xfinity demo for connected set-top-boxes to stream 4K, and of course Netflix plans to roll out 4K delivery this year direct to subscribers.

I’m not sure how they’ll pull that off. My broadband speeds vary widely, depending on time of day: I’m writing this at noontime and according to CNET’s Broadband Speed Test, my downstream bit rate is about 22 megabits per second (Mb/s). Yet, I’ve seen that drop to as low as 2 – 3 Mb/s during late evening hours, when many neighbors are no doubt streaming Netflix movies.

Even so, HEVC will definitely help that problem. I spoke to a couple of Comcast folks on my flights out to and back from CES, and they’re all focused on the bandwidth and bit rate challenges of 2K streaming, let alone 4K. More 4K streaming interface products are needed, such as Nanotech’s $300 Nuvola NP-H1, which is about the size of an Apple TV box and ridiculously simple to connect and operate.

LG's got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don't know...)

LG’s got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don’t know…)

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays earlier. There were lots of OLED displays at CES, ranging from the cool, curved 6-inch OLED screen used in the new LG G-Flex curved smartphone to prototype 30-inch OLED TVs and workstation monitors in the TCL booth and on to the 55-inch, 65-iunch, and even 77-inch OLED TVs seen around the floor. (LG’s 77-inch offering is current the world’s largest OLED TV, and of course, it’s curved.)

OLEDs are tricky beasts to manufacture. Yields are usually on the low side (less than 25% per manufacturing run) and that number goes down as screen sizes increase, which explains the high prices for these TVs.

And there’s the unresolved issue of differential color aging, most notably in dark blue emitters. With current OLED science, you can expect dark blue emitters to reach half-brightness at about 5,000 hours of operation with a maximum brightness of 200 nits. Samsung addresses this quandary by employing two blue emitters for every red and green pixel on their OLED TVs, while LG has the more difficult task of managing blue aging in their white OLED emitters.

Several studies over the past three years consistently show people hanging on to their flat screen TVs for 5 to 7 years, which is likely to be a lot longer than 5,000 hours of operation. Will differential color aging rear its ugly head as early adopters shell out close to $10K for a 55-inch OLED TV? Bet on it.

Turns out, there’s another way to get wide color gamuts and saturated colors: Quantum dots. QDs, as we call them, are inorganic compounds that exhibit piezoelectric behavior when bombarded with photons. They emit stable, narrow-bandwidth colors with no drift, and can do so for long periods of time – long enough to work in a consumer television.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

QDs are manufactured by numerous companies, most notably Nanosys and QD Vision in the United States.  The former company has partnered with 3M to manufacture an optical film that goes on the backside of LCD panels, while the latter offers Color IQ optical components that interface with the entire LED illumination system in edge-lit TVs.

Sony is already selling 55-inch and 65-inch 4K LCD TVs using the Color IQ technology, and I can tell you that the difference in color is remarkable. Red – perhaps the most difficult color to reproduce accurately in any flat-screen TV – really looks like red when viewed with a QD backlight. And it’s possible to show many subtle shades of red with this technology.

All you need is a QD film or emitter with arrays of red and green dots, plus a backlight made up of blue LEDs. The blue passes through, while the blue photons “tickle” the red and green dots, causing them to emit their respective colors. It’s also possible to build a direct-illumination display out of quantum dots that would rival OLED TVs.

How about 4K display interfaces? By now, you’ve probably heard that HDMI has “upgraded” to version 2.0 and can support a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).  Practically speaking; because of the way display data is transmitted, only 16 Gb/s of that is really available for a display connection. Still, that’s fast enough to show 4K content (3840×2160, or Quad HD) with a 60 Hz frame rate, using 8-bit color.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here's an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here’s an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

Epson's Moverio glasses aren't as sexy as Google Glass - but then, they can do more things.

Epson’s Moverio glasses aren’t as sexy as Google Glass – but then, they can do more things.

Over at the DisplayPort booth, I heard stories of version 1.3 looming later this spring. DisplayPort 1.2, unlike HDMI, uses a packet structure to stream display, audio, and other data across four scalable lanes, and has a maximum rate of 21.6 Gb/s – much faster than HDMI. Applying the “20 percent” rule, that leaves about 17.3 Gb/s to actually carry 4K signals. And the extra bits over HDMI means that DP can transport 3840×2160 video with a frame rate of 60 Hz, but with 10-bit color.

Don’t underestimate the value of higher data rates: 4K could turn out to be a revolutionary shift in the way we watch TV, adding much wide color gamuts, higher frame rates, and high dynamic range (HDR) to the equation. HDMI clearly isn’t fast enough to play on that field; DP barely is. Both interfaces still have a long way to go.

So – why not make a wireless 4K connection? There were plenty of demos of wireless connectivity at the show, and I’m not just talking about Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most impressive was in the Silicon Image meeting room, all the way at the back of the lower South Hall, near the Arizona border.

SI, which bought out wireless manufacturer SiBEAM a few years ago, demonstrated super-compact 60 GHz wireless HDMI and MHL links using their UltraGig silicon. A variety of prototype cradles for phones and tablets were available for the demo: Simply plug in your handheld device and start streaming 1080p/60 video to a nearby 55-inch LCD TV screen.

Granted, the 60 GHz tech is a bit exotic. But it works quite well in small rooms and can take advantage of signal multipath “bounces” by using multiple, steerable antenna arrays built-in to each chip. And it can handle 4K, too – as long as the bit rate doesn’t exceed the HDMI 2.0 specification, the resolution, color bit depth, and frame rate are irrelevant.

This sort of product is a “holy grail” item for meeting rooms and education. Indeed; I field numerous questions every year during my InfoComm wireless AV classes along these lines: “Where can I buy a wireless tablet dongle?” Patience, my friends. Patience…

LG was one of many companies showing

LG was one of many companies showing “digital health” products, like these LifeBand monitors.

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But I don't think you'll see any of these in the near future...

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But you won’t see any of these in the near future…

The decline in TV shipments and sales seems to be offset by a boom in connected personal lifestyle and health gadgets, most notably wristbands that monitor your pulse and workouts. There were plenty of these trinkets at the show and an entire booth in the lower South Hall devoted to “digital health.”

Of course, the big name brands had these products – LG’s LifeBand was a good example. But so did the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. “Digital health” was like tablets a few years back – so many products were introduced at the show that they went from “wow!” to “ho-hum” in one day.

This boom in personal connectivity extends to appliances, beds (Sleep Number had a model that can elevate the head of the bed automatically with a voice command), cars (BMW’s i3 connected electric car was ubiquitous), and even your home. Combine it with short-range Bluetooth or ZigBee wireless connectivity and you can control and monitor just about anything on your smartphone and tablet.

Granted; there isn’t the money in these small products like there used to be in televisions. But consumers do want to connect, monitor, and control everything in their lives, and their refrigerators, cars, beds, televisions, percolators, and toasters will be able to comply. (And in 4K resolution, too!)

PointGrab can mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

PointGrab lets you mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Obviously, I didn’t visit the subjects of gesture and voice control. There were several good demos at the show of each, and two of the leading companies I showcased last year – Omek and Prime Sense – have been subsequently acquired by Intel and Apple. Hillcrest Labs, PointGrab, and other had compelling demos of gesture control in Las Vegas – a subject for a later time.

Summing up, let’s first revisit my mantra: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it. Televisions and optical disc media storage are clearly on the decline, while streaming, 4K, health monitoring, and wireless are hot. The television manufacturing business is slowly and inexorably moving to China as prices continue their free-fall.

The consumer is shifting his and her focus to all the devices in the home they use every days; not just television. Connectivity is everything, and the television is evolving from an entertainment device into a control center or “hub” of connectivity. The more those connections are made with wireless, the better – and that includes high-definition video from tablets and phones.

It’s going to be an interesting year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At CES, Sharp Calls Its Quattron+ Almost-4K TV a “Game Changer”

At Sharp’s pre-CES press conference, held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on the morning of January 6, Sharp announced a television technology that John Herrington, president of the Sharp Marketing Company of America, called a “game changer.”

Unlike many of the products announced at CES, Quattron+ is a solution to a problem that actually exists. It enables an almost-4K viewing experience at prices that are roughly half those charged for true 4K TVs, according to Jim Sandusky, Sharp’s senior VP for U.S. product marketing. Sharp is calling the technique by which Quattron+ does this “Revelation Technology.”

Although no serious attempt was made at the press conference to explain how Revelation Technology allows an FHD Quattron screen to produce a near-4K image, Sharp’s Yoshida Yasuhiro and colleagues explained the underlying technology in detail at the LatinDisplay/IDRC 2010 conference held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where their presentation won the Best Paper Award sponsored by the Brazilian Association for Informatics (ABINFO). Briefly, because a Quattron pixel contains four colored sub-pixels (red, green, blue, and yellow) it can produce any color by mixing the sub-pixel colors in two or more ways. This redundancy can be used to produce two luminance peaks per pixel instead of one, as is the case with typical LCDs for television, which use only three sub-pixels (red, green, and blue) per pixel.

Sharp's Quattron+ TV delivers a nearly 4Kx2K image from a 2Kx1K Quattron panel.  The result what is essentially an Ultra HD at half the price of premium 4K TV sets.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

Sharp’s Quattron+ TV delivers a nearly 4Kx2K image from a 2Kx1K Quattron panel. The result is essentially an Ultra HD experience at half of a premium 4K-TV’s price. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The traditional Quattron pixel structure is a sequence of red, green, blue, and yellow vertical stripes. Last year at CES, Sharp showed a panel with this structure that produced two peaks per pixel in the horizontal direction, which allowed a 1920×1080-pixel panel to produce an effective resolution of 3840×1080 pixels. The image was considerably sharper than that on an adjacent, conventional FHD panel, but the demonstration was tucked away in the booth. If you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t have seen it or understood what you were seeing.

This year, it’s a different story, both from the technical and marketing perspectives. In addition to generating the two luminance peaks per pixel horizontally, the Revelation Technology splits each R,G,B, and Y sub-pixel vertically and addresses them such that the image is now essentially 3840×2160 pixels, or 4K. Quattron+ TV sets were prominently featured in Sharp’s booth on the CES show floor, and will be availailable later this year as part of the company’s 2014 line-up. Let’s be clear. These sets look very, very good, and it would take educated eyes to tell the difference between Quattron+ and true 4K, especially at typical living-room viewing distances.

Can Sharp do more with Quattron+ ? They can. Sources tell me that at CES 2015 we should look for 4K panels that use Revelation Technology to deliver 8Kx4K images.

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

CES 2014: First Impressions (4K, Curved Screens, OLEDs, and All That)

2013 was an interesting year for television technology. LG’s long-awaited 55-inch OLED television started shipping, albeit with a curved screen. Not long after, Samsung announced their 55-inch curved OLED TV, but at a $6,000 discount to LG. Later in the year, Sony announced a curved 4K LCD TV, and rumors started that we’d see more such products in Las Vegas.

Did we ever! Not only did LG and Samsung showcase curved LCDs and OLEDs, so did Toshiba, Sony, Konka, Changhong, Hisense, and TCL. And three companies (LG, Samsung, and Toshiba) unveiled 21:9 aspect ratio curved 4K LCD TVs (there’s a mouthful!), all in a 105-inch diagonal size. (No word on where the LCD panel or panels come from).

We also were treated to newer, bigger sizes. 84 inches used to impress; now we have 95 inches, 98 inches, 105 inches, 110 inches, and even 120 inches. Yep, Vizio (of all people) exhibited a 120-inch LCD TV in their suite at the Wynn, and it uses ASV glass from Sharp’s Gen 10 in Sakai, Japan.

Sharp’s CES press conference emphasized big 4K TVs.

Want high dynamic range? Dolby was there to promote it, and we also saw it in the Vizio and Sharp booths. How about big OLEDs? LG has a 77-inch curved cut with 4K resolution that is currently the world’s largest OLED TV. (Wait a few months; that’ll change.) Quantum dots? Sony’s had them for a year, but now several Chinese manufacturers are buying in, as I saw in the QD Vision suite.

Just like tablets a few years back, large and curved TVs went from “Wow!” to “So what?” in the matter of a few hours at the show. What really amazed me is that almost every breakthrough TV product unveiled by Samsung and LG was also found in the booths of the Chinese TV manufacturers – and they didn’t nearly make as much noise about it.

Some TV manufacturers made more of an impression by what they didn’t show. Panasonic’s emphasis this year was clearly on commercial applications of display technology. We know that Panasonic shut down plasma panel and TV production at the end of December. What we don’t know are Panasonic’s plans for consumer television in general, as they didn’t show a formal line-up of LCD TVs in Las Vegas – just applications for 4K displays.

The significance of this omission can’t be understated. Panasonic finally reversed years of losses in 2013, losses that were largely attributed to television operations. While Panasonic had decent worldwide TV market share in 2013 (about 6%), they may have finally seen the writing on the wall. That would explain their emphasis on battery and energy technologies, automotive tech, and white goods / appliances at the show.

Toshiba has struggled with substantial losses in both computers and television. As has been documented in Display Daily, the company is finally addressing profitability in a more hard-nosed fashion. And if they needed any convincing, the enormous booths of Chinese TV manufacturers that were stuffed full of 4K product probably did the trick.

Samsung had the “first 105-inch curved 4K LCD TV.” So did LG and Toshiba…

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former had a rather pedestrian booth at the show, focusing more on applications and smaller electronics (including gaming) than televisions. There weren’t any ground-breaking tech demos in Sony land this year, aside from curved 4K LCDs. Aside from one barely profitable quarter earlier last year, Sony continues to pile up losses in consumer TV sales and veteran financial analysts ramp up their call for the company to cut its losses and get out.

Sharp, on the other hand, may have more lives than a cat. The company has set record for financial losses the past few years and required cash infusions from Qualcomm and Samsung to keep their doors open in 2013. Yet, they managed to eke out a small profit in consumer televisions midway through the year.

While not out of the woods yet, Sharp is plowing forward with an emphasis on big TVs (60 inches and up). They unveiled four new lines – Aquos 2K, Quattron, Quattron+, and Aquos Ultra HD. We’ve heard the Quattron story before, but Quattron+ is something new and intriguing: Multiple addressing of horizontal and vertical sub pixels to achieve higher resolution than 2K, even though the Quattron RGBY matrix is still a 2K array.

Sharp is also making a big deal out of mastering IGZO manufacturing. (LG also uses IGZO in its 4K OLED TVs.) While IGZO yields are still challenging, the technology does offer many advantages over amorphous silicon and low-temperature polysilicon – not the least of which is reduced power consumption.

Vizio’s 120-inch 4K LCD TV is now the world’s largest.

So I left Las Vegas after 3.5 days with the following insights. (1) If we haven’t seen the sunset of the Japanese television industry, we’re very close to S-Day. (2) There really isn’t anything new under the sun, television-wise, that the Chinese brands don’t also have. (3) Large LCDs will migrate exclusively to 4K panel resolution within 2-3 years.

Finally, (4): Televisions just don’t generate much buzz anymore, particularly when you look at all of the tablets, smartphones, and personal electronic displays that were showcased at CES.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for more coverage of CES shortly.

Smartphones vs. Digital Cameras: The Death Knell?

For those of us who focus on trends in display technology, trends in digital photography seem to be happening in another, parallel universe. Yet, what happens in that universe has a very real impact in ours.

For the third year in a row, shipments and sales of digital cameras have declined worldwide – and the decline is accelerating, based on the latest numbers I’ve been able to find.

Canon, a venerable, 80-year-old Japanese company who has successfully weathered recent downturns in CE sales that have brought its competitors to their knees, announced a couple of months ago that sales of single-lens reflex digital cameras with interchangeable lenses fell for the first time in 2013 and would be off by at least 10% by year’s end, having a direct negative impact on the company’s bottom line.

According to a story on the Bloomberg News site, Canon said net income would likely total 240 billion yen ($2.5 billion) for the year ending December, cutting its earlier forecast of 260 billion yen. According to the Camera & Imaging Products Association in Tokyo, the value of worldwide camera shipments dropped 19 percent in August from a year earlier, representing a ninth consecutive monthly decline.

The final tally for 2013 won’t be available until late January, but you can already see the effects of this slide in sales, which started in 2011. The year-to-year data compiled by CIPA in December of 2012 revealed that worldwide shipments of point-and-shoot digital cameras had plummeted by an astounding 40%. Still, it was assumed that higher-priced, fully-featured digital SLRs would be immune from the onslaught of smartphones with improved cameras and lenses.

Now, we know that’s not the case. And you needn’t look any further for proof than your Sunday newspaper. Last weekend’s Philadelphia Inquirer featured a slick, eight-page flier from Nikon, printed on bright yellow glossy stock. The supposed beneficiary of this flier was Jack’s Cameras, a once-large regional chain of camera stores in the Delaware Valley that has been shuttering locations due to declining sales of cameras and photo printing/finishing orders.

This flier extolled the virtues of Nikon digital cameras and prominently featured Nikon’s role as “The Official Walt Disney World Camera.” Aside from the massive shrugging of shoulders and yawns that statement instigated, there were some revealing lines of copy in the flier. Several pages had a bold banner that read, “Superior Image Quality Your Smartphone Can’t Match1.” The footnote (1) read, “Based on digital SLR cameras with DX-format or FX-format sensor versus smartphones without DX-format or FX-format sensor.”

Well, DUHHH! There aren’t any smartphones with full-sized CMOS sensors available. (Yet?) But that’s not the point: Smartphones do have pretty good cameras. And they’re getting better with each passing year. Although the limitations of this Web site limit me to 600 pixel resolution for photos, you can see the photo (below) of La Spezia Harbor in Italy below looks awfully darn good – and I took it with my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD smartphone (3264×1836 resolution).

The scenic harbor of La Spezia, Italy.

The scenic harbor of La Spezia, Italy.

Read the flier in more detail, and you will see just how desperate camera manufacturers are becoming. Nikon’s showcase deal is for a D3200 D-SLR with 18-55mm zoom lens for $497, after a $100 instant rebate. Add a 55-200mm Nikkor zoom lens for just $147.

I should mention that the D3200 has a 24.2 megapixel sensor, can shoot up to four frames per second, records 1080p/60 video, and offers an optional WU-1a mobile Wi-Fi adapter, so you can upload and share your photos.  (Aside from the Wi-Fi adapter, that level of performance in a digital SLR was a $2,000 investment just a few years ago.)

The problem for Nikon is; I can already do most of those things with my smartphone. No, it doesn’t have anywhere near the resolution of the D3200, but I’ll bet I can still get some pretty good-looking photos with it anyway at Disney World – and I can instantly post them to Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. Plus, make phone calls, sent and receive texts and emails, check sports scores, and waste hours playing Candy Crush. Can the D3200 do that?

OK, let’s check out the Nikon specials on point-and-shoots. In early 2012, I bought a CoolPix 8200 for about $250 to use at trade shows and when traveling. It had 16 MP of resolution and a 14x zoom lens. I shot thousands of photos with it during the year, and discovered back in February that the lens had a scratch in it.

So, I took it to the nearby Jack’s Camera (since closed back in August), where I was promptly told (a) it would cost at least $200 to repair and replace the lens, (b) the camera was only worth about $30 anyway, and (c) I could get a $100 instant rebate on a new CoolPix P310 which had a much better lens, a 16 MP sensor, 4.2x optical zoom, and would wind up costing me all of $229.

Flash forward twelve months: There is only one camera store remaining in my town, out of four in 1993. My CoolPix P310 has performed yeoman duty and will serve me faithfully again at CES in two weeks. The updated model is the P330, which has only 12 MP resolution but extends the zoom range to 5x and includes a GPS function. Or, I could pick up a shiny new CoolPix S9500 with 18 MP resolution, 22x optical zoom, and built-in Wi-Fi and GPS for all of $247.

As a former professional photographer, I fully understand and appreciate the benefits of a digital SLR. (I still have a six-year-old Olympus D-SLR sitting in a camera bag somewhere around the house.)  As a pragmatist, I see no point in dragging a D-SLR to a trade show when my P310 pocket camera does the job just as well and takes up little room.

And as an analyst, I completely understand why digital cameras are in full retreat. Smartphones may not take the best pictures or have the best light sensitivity, but they are doggone good at what they do, and getting better with each year. And they’re small, portable, and convenient.

One of my economics professors told me years ago that everyone weighs three factors when making a purchase decision – price, quality, and convenience. And price and convenience win out more times than you’d think.

Need proof? Just look at what’s happening to the digital camera marketplace…

 

There’s a New QD Maker in Town

Quantum Materials is the new quantum dot (QD) company in town. It needs to play catch-up with the established players, but it is offering something different.

The two established players — QD Vision of Lexington, Massachusetts and Nanosys Inc. of Milpitas, California — dominate the consciousness of those who spend time thinking about the application of QDs to electronic displays. QD Vision currently incorporates its QDs in an optical component it calls Color IQ, which sits in front of the LEDs in an LED edge-light. The component is being used in several models of Sony Bravia TV sets.

Nanosys has partnered with 3M’s Optical Systems Division, which is applying Nanosys QDs to a polymer film and passivating it with a 3M moisture blocking film. 3M calls the finished product Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF). In contrast to QD Vision’s Color IQ, QDEF is applied parallel to the entire surface of an LCD. Indeed, it substitutes for the diffusing film in the LCD’s backlight.

QDs absorb photons of light and re-emit the energy at longer wavelengths with a very narrow emission spectrum. The specific color emitted depends on the size of the QD’s core, which ranges from roughly 2.0 to 4.2 nanometers for the visible spectrum.  For displays, QDs are used to modify the backlight unit of an LCD.  Instead of using white LEDs, QD-enhanced backlights use less expensive blue LEDs, and two sizes of QD convert some of the blue light into red and some into green.  The red and green can have particular wavelength desired, and can contribute to a wider color gamut than traditional LCDs with conventional backlights.  This combination of wide gamut and narrow emission peaks can give LCDs an appearance that is surprisingly similar to that of an OLED, and the cost increase over conventional LCDs is slight.

For all of their differences, the QDs made by QD Vision and Nanosys have two things in common: They are roughly spherical, and they are made with a colloidal batch process.

And that’s where Quantum Materials Corp. (QMC) enters the story. With technology based on Rice University patents, QMC is producing QDs that have a tetrapod-like, rather than spherical, geometry. In a recent conference call, R&D VP David Doderer told me that tetrapods have a variety of advantages in different applications. For displays, there is a degree of self-assembly when the tetrapods are deposited on a substrate, which produces a layer in which the QDs are separated from each other by their appendages, which avoids the use of excessive material and also avoids quenching of the re-emission, resulting in better efficiency. Also, the emission spectrum has a width that, at 20nm full width at half maximum (FWHM), is roughly half that of spherical QDs, Doderer said.

Although, in other applications, the core and the appendages can be separately engineered to produce different wavelengths of light, a single narrow wavelength is selected for displays.

QMC’s competitors produce their QDs in a colloidal batch process, which means that the chemical precursors are mixed together and heated in a container until the temperature is reached at which the precursors are converted into the QDs. The approach is effective but slow, said Doderer, and would probably not supply enough material to support large-scale TV manufacturing.

QMC has patented a continuous manufacturing approach using a microfluidic reactor. One small reactor can produce 100 kg of tetrapod QDs per day, or 30,000 kg per year. If you want more, add reactors. And the tetrapodal QDs made by the Rice University method is extremely uniform, with 90% of the QDs having a full tetrapodal shape, and more than 90% emission uniformity.

QMC got a later start than its competitors. QD Vision is already in a shipping product, and 3M’s QDEF is being manufactured in quantity. I will guess that 3M will announce at least one design win at CES. QMC is still in the development phase but, says Doderer, “We believe our current trajectory will enable a recognized commercial electronics product launch in 2014 using Quantum Material tetrapod quantum dots.”

Ken Werner is the founder and principal of Nutmeg Consultants.  He can be reached at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.