Category: The Front Line

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

As I write this, it is the morning of Day 2 at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat. This annual conference brings together the top minds across a wide range of disciplines in the media production business. Cameras, lenses, codecs, displays, file formats and exchanges, content protection, archiving – they’re all here, as are representatives from the major studios, TV networks, software companies, colleges, universities, government agencies, and standards organizations.

Many of the sessions over the past few days have focused on next-generation television – specifically, capturing, editing, and finishing 4K images. Hand-in-hand with these additional pixels comes high dynamic range (HDR), which was prominently featured at CES in January. There’s also a new, wider color space (ITU BT.2020) to deal with, along with higher frame rates (how does 120 Hz grab you?).

I present a review of the Consumer Electronics Show every year at HPA (which now stands for the Hollywood Professional Alliance), and try my best to cram as much as I can in half an hour. Obviously, HDR was a big part of my presentation. And the overemphasis on HDR at CES provided a nice contrast to the presentations at HPA – at CES, it’s all about marketing hype, while at HPA, it’s all about engineering and making things work.

It was a full house for this year's Tech Retreat - as usual!

It was a full house for this year’s Tech Retreat – as usual!

The average Joe may not understand much about “4K TV” or Ultra HD, but there is definitely more than meets the eye. At CES, an announcement was made about the new UHD Alliance, a partnership of TV manufacturers (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic), Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox), and other interested parties that include Netflix, Dolby, DirecTV, and Technicolor.

All well and good, but you need to understand the primary function of this Alliance is to promote the sale of Ultra HD televisions. And right now, television sales haven’t been as strong as they were five years ago. (The introduction of Ultra HD did boost sales a bit in 2014, which may have provided the impetus for the UHD Alliance.)

So here are a few of the problems with transitioning to Ultra HD. First off, not all of the pieces are in place for implementing add-ons like HDR, wider color gamuts, deeper color, and higher frame rates. It’s nice to talk about these features in conjunction with Ultra HD, but the mastering and delivery standards for HDR 4K movies and TV programs haven’t even been finalized yet.

Color is a particularly tricky issue, as LCD TVs with LED backlights render colors differently than LCD TVs equipped with quantum dot backlights. And OLED TVs require their own look-up tables as they are emissive displays, not transmissive. As far as frame rates go, consumer TVs generally can’t handle anything faster than 60 Hz and in fact prefer incoming signals to match up to one of four harmonically-related clock rates.

Next, there is a new version of copy protection coming to your television in the near future. It’s known as HDCP 2.2, and will ride along on an HDMI 2.0 connector. It is not backward-compatible with current versions, and you may be surprised to learn that early models of 4K TVs don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. So there is a real compatibility problem lurking in the shadows if you are an early adopter.

You may be wondering where 4K Blu-ray content will come from. The first Ultra HD BD player was shown at CES, and you can expect those to show up late in the 4th quarter of this year. Suffice it to say that they will be running HDCP 2.2 on their HDMI outputs! Media players will also have to adopt version 2.2 if they are to access movies and other protected content.

Getting back to HDMI: Although version 2.0 was announced in September 2013, it’s pretty scarce on Ultra HDTVs. Most current-model sets I’ve seen have one or two HDMI 2.0 inputs, and as I just mentioned, many of those don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. HDMI 2.0 is also speed challenged; with a maximum clock rate, it can’t support signals beyond 3840x2160p/60 with 8-bit RGB color.

Because of that, some UHDTV manufacturers are quietly adding DisplayPort 1.2 inputs to their products. Some of these interfaces are intended for connections to proprietary media players, but others are available for connections to set-top boxes, computers, and laptops. DP 1.2 can support 3840x2160p/60 with 10-bit RGB color as it has a much higher clock rate.

In summary, it’s all well and good that UHDTV is here, and initial sales are encouraging. But the plane isn’t finished yet, even though some of us want to fly it. The HPA presentations I’ve heard and seen the past two days clearly point out all of the back room details that have to be addressed before the media production, editing, mastering, and delivery ecosystem for UHDTV is ready to roll…

CES 2015: Upon Further Review…

There’s so much to take in at the International CES every year that you need a few weeks for it all to sink it. I posted my recap of the show earlier this month. Now, I want to expound on a couple of trends I saw in Las Vegas you need to watch. (Let’s move over to the referee’s TV to look at a reply.)

First and foremost is Ultra HDTV. No matter what you think of this next step in television viewing, it is coming, and nothing will stop it. The vast number of Ultra HD models shown at CES by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese manufacturers is all the proof you need. So is the aggressive discounting we’re now seeing on Ultra HDTVs, leading up to the Super Bowl.

Doubting Thomases like to drag out 3D TV as an example of a paradigm that never shifted anything. Not the same thing! 3D was beset by high buy-in costs, competing viewing systems, and a lack of compelling content. (Plus the fact that over 20% of the population can’t even see 3D correctly.) Eventually, Joe Six-Pack judged 3DTV to be an expensive, overpriced, and overhyped gimmick. And he was right.

Ultra HD is different. There are no competing standards for viewing 4K content. You can watch 4K on an LG or Vizio 65-inch TV just as easily as on a Sony or Samsung 65-inch TV. And so many manufacturers are in the 4K game that prices are falling like a stone. You can now buy 48-inch and 50-inch Ultra HD sets for less than $1,000, and 55-inch sets aren’t much more expensive.

Big screens. High dynamic range. More colors. Is this your next TV?

Big screens. High dynamic range. More colors. Is this your next TV?

Hand-in-hand with 4K came some new wrinkles. High dynamic range (HDR) was a topic much bandied about at CES, and now we are seeing multiple TV brands supporting it, usually by incorporating quantum dot (QD) backlight technology or modifying the pixel structure of LCD panels to add more white pixels.

QDs also bring with them expanded color gamut rendering, pushing way beyond the CRT-based ITU BT.709 color space in use today. (OLED TVs, like LG’s new lineup, can also display billions of colors.) Now, we can approximate what’s shown in movie theaters by covering the minimum DCI P3 color space – and more.

High frame rate (HFR) technology is also an integral part of UHDTV. It can refer to rates as low as 48 Hz and as high as 120 Hz. The higher rates would come into play with televised sports and concerts, not to mention virtual reality and gaming. At the lower end of things, 48 Hz could be used to master movies, a la “The Hobbit.”

Finally, the cost of making LCD panels has dropped so low for a myriad of reasons that the incremental difference between fabricating and cutting 2K (1080p) and 4K versions of a 65-inch panel is insignificant. Given the low profit margins – or zero profit margins – in making large 2K glass, it makes more sense to abandon 2K and focus on 4K entirely. And this is exactly what large Chinese panel manufacturers like TCL decided to do over a year ago.

When you see Ultra HD content displayed with full color sampling at high frame rates, you know this is a totally different experience than HDTV. The latter is limited by the BT.709 color space and a handful of frame rates, plus 4:2:0 color encoding. And many HDTVs use 8-bit LCD panels.

Not only that; a display equipped with just 1280 horizontal and 720 vertical pixels is still considered “HD.” Not so with Ultra HD. If it doesn’t have at least 3840 horizontal and 2160 vertical pixels, it ain’t Ultra HD. And that’s why we really should think of Ultra HD as “next-generation television,” and not just “4K.”

Make no mistake about it; Ultra HD will be in wide use very quickly as people begin to understand the benefits it brings to the table. The rapid decreases in retail prices brought along by slower TV sales and competition from the Chinese will only hasten this process.

Like Toyota says: "Let's Go Places!"

Like Toyota says: “Let’s Go Places!”

Now, the other trend: At CES, the UHD Alliance was announced. This is a consortium of TV manufacturers (Panasonic, Sony, Samsung), content producers (Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney, Netflix, and DirecTV), and technology companies (Dolby and Technicolor).

Each has substantial skin in the 4K game: The first three obviously want to sell more televisions, while the studios are looking for more outlets for digital content. And Dolby wants more companies to adopt its high dynamic range Dolby Vision technology, while Technicolor is a player in mastering and distribution.

All well and good, except that not all of the pieces of the 4K “puzzle” are in place yet. SMPTE is still debating, discussing, and moving to adopt a wide range of standards for UHD-1 (up to 3840×2160) and UHD-2 (4096×2160 and above) televisions that touch on data rates, interfaces, frame rates, and color spaces. Similar work is also happening at the ITU.

Without standards in place, anyone can write their own rules for authoring and distributing 4K movies and TV shows, and incompatibility becomes a problem. We don’t even have a 4K Blu-ray player yet – the standards for that format were just adopted and announced at CES, but we won’t see the players and discs until much later this year.

Right now, the most logical path for 4K content distribution is through digital downloads and streaming, although you’d need sustained 15 Mb/s data rates on your Internet connection to make that happen. But Netflix is streaming several shows in 4K. Comcast is getting ready to launch a 4K channel. Other providers such as M-Go and UltraFlix are also providing movies and TV shows via streaming service to Sony, Samsung, and Vizio Ultra HDTVs, plus Nanotech’s Nuvola media player.

Ultra HD also brings along a new version of copy protection, HDCP 2.0. It’s ever more rigorous than 1.4, because it wants to see a secure key exchange in about 20 milliseconds – or it shuts down. (The pro AV dealers and installers are going to LOVE that!) By extension, HDCP 2.0 is incompatible with older versions of HDCP. So that may create a problem for consumers who buy a new 4K TV.

I’ve often said that CES wouldn’t be complete with a raft of announcements about associations, alliances, and consortiums. They’re all well and good, but many are motivated simply to kick up sales of a particular technology or product. The UHD Alliance would be wise to move slowly as standards bodies complete their work so that Ultra HD will be a success. No reason to rush here!

Okay, you can restart the game clock…

Attention, TV Buyers – Your Time Has Come!

You may not have noticed it, but the U.S. economy is doing quite well right now. Unemployment continues to fall; the Dow and S&P 500 recently hit all-time highs, and the price of oil has gone into free fall lately.

For many consumers, that means more money in their wallets. And with the conclusion of the college football playoffs and the Super Bowl looming in a couple of weeks, now – and I mean NOW – is the absolute best time to buy a new television.

Not on Black Friday, or Cyber Monday. Not right before Christmas. NOW.

It’s been well-documented that TV sales spike upward right as the pro football playoffs start and hit their peak the week before the Super Bowl. That’s partly because obsessed fans want a big-screen HD experience to see the Seahawks and Patriots slug it out. But it’s also because TV retailers see slow months looming immediately after the game, and don’t want to sit on large quantities of unsold inventory.

To drive the point home, brick-and-mortar store chains like Best Buy and HH Gregg are circulating fliers in the Sunday papers that showcase these big screens with generic football scenes. Gregg’s flier for this past Sunday (1/18) calls it their “Annual Super Sale.” Best Buy trumpets your chance to “Get a Game-Changer at a Great Price.”

Sunday 1-19-2015 Fliers 1024

So, just how good are the deals? BB’s flier features deals on LG sets, offering a 55-inch Ultra HD smart TV (55UB8200) for $1200 and a 65-inch model (65UB9200) for $2000. Don’t need 4K? You can grab a 55-inch 1080p set (55LB5550) for $500 or a 65-inch version (65LB5200) for $800. Pick up an LG soundbar for $200, a $100 discount off full retail.

Across the street, Gregg has an LG 60-inch Ultra HD set (60UB8200) for $1800 and a 49-inch (yes, 49-inch!) 49UB8200 for $900. Not big enough? Sharp’s 70-inch LC70LE660U 1080p TV is tagged at $1400, and Gregg will throw in a $50 gift card with it. LG’s also got a 79-inch Ultra HD model (79UB9800) for $6000 – not exactly a bargain, but that is a HUGE TV with 4K resolution.

Aside from the LG behemoth, these are Vizio-like prices. Speaking of Vizio, they’ve got a 55-inch 1080p set (E5501-B2) at Best Buy for $600 and a 50-inch loaded “smart” model (M5021-B1) for the same price. You’ll also find a 65-inch 1080p set (D6501-C3) for $900 and a 70-inch 1080p version (E7001-B3) for $1300. Vizio’s in the Ultra HD game, too – their 65-inch P652UI model is yours for just $1500.

How about Samsung? The 55-inch UN55HU6950 Ultra HD smart TV has been discounted to $1300 at Best Buy, while Gregg has the 65-inch UN65H6203 1080p smart TV for $1200. And if you need a basic 32-inch set for a bedroom or vacation home, the Samsung UN32EH4003 will set you back just $219. (Of course, you can also buy a ProScan PLDED3273A 720p 32-inch TV at Gregg for just $160.)

Let’s turn our attention away from specific models and prices and look at the big picture. Until last year, the biggest TV you could buy for less than $500 was around 42 inches. For less than $1,000, it was 60 inches. Now the bar has been lowered – you can routinely find 55-inch sets for $500 (Haier has a 55-inch model for $400), and 65-inch 1080p sets for $800 to $900.

And Ultra HD set prices, which flirted with the $1,000 level several times last year, are getting very close to those of 1080p sets. In some cases, loaded 3D “smart” 1080p sets sell for about the same price as basic Ultra HDTVs. Case in point: Samsung’s UN55HU8550 55-inch Ultra HD model (smart 3D) sells for only $200 more ($1700) than their 60-inch UN60H7150 (smart 3D) 1080p TV ($1500).

Aside from a spike in Ultra HDTV sales last year, there’s not a lot of motivation for consumers to upgrade their televisions unless they can score a real deal on a much bigger screen. 55 inches for $500 will do it; so will 65 inches for $800. And some will take the plunge into 4K as the price of 55-inch sets drops closer to a grand.

Best Buy hopes you’ll do this sooner than later: In a news story from January 15, the company’s financial guidance stated that domestic sales would be flat to negative for the first half of the year. At the same time, Best Buy also said profitability will take a hit as it plans to spend heavily on store improvements.

Expect further discounts as we get closer to the big game. You’ll probably see at least one or more 55-inch Ultra HD models dip below $1,000 in next Sunday’s fliers, and you might also see 65-inch 2K sets pushed for $700. There might even be more crazy discounts the day of the game as brick-and-mortar retailers try to push more black ink onto their ledgers.

Happy hunting!

Looking for Consumer Electronics at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show 2015 was the biggest in history — again — but the show feels increasingly strange. For a show that is nominally about consumer electronic products, a surprising number are either not consumer products or not electronic.

A significant portion of Panasonic’s booth was devoted to a men’s grooming salon where male attendees were being barbered for free, with the barbers using Panasonic grooming devices. Not far away was a beauty salon, where female attendees were being beautified, again with Panasonic beauty products. I saw a beautician using a Panasonic hair dryer with great enthusiasm.DSC_8477_medres

Samsung, LG, and others showed stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers. I mentioned to one LG representative that she reminded me of Betty Furness operning a refrigerator door in ancient TV commercials. The rep enthusiastically did her best Betty Furness imitation and opened the nearest appliance door, which belonged to a clothes dryer.

Panasonic also emphasized commercial products, including batteries, and promoted the huge battery plant it is building near Reno with Tesla Motors. Also in Panasonic’s booth was the new Tesla Model X crossover SUV, which has a 0-60 acceleration time of 5 seconds.

Continuing the trend of several years, the Las Vegas Convention Center’s North Hall looked more like an auto show than an automotive electronics show, which CEA claims it is. To be sure, most of the manufacturers were emphasizing electronic controls, navigation, or infotainment systems, but Toyota’s large booth was devoted almost entirely to its new hydrogen fuel-cell-powered Mirai (“future” in Japanese). Don’t get me wrong, Toyota’s in-depth exhibit was fascinating , but where is the consumer electronics product?

Of course, there are still lots of consumer electronic products at CES. A major trend in TV this year is the increasing commoditization of UHD (4K) TV. The speed with which 4K has gone from expensive to cheap continues to surpirse many people in the industry. If last year was the year of UHD-TV’s breakout, this year will surely be the breakout year for quantum-dot-enhanced TV. Many major manufacturers announced QD-enhanced TVs for release this year, including Samsung, LG, and TCL. Unfortunately, they will probably be called “QD-TVs.” But if we can survive “LED TV,” we can probably survive “QD-TV”, too.

Viewed side by side with conventional LCD-TVs, the increased color saturation and gamut produced by QDs provide an obvious improvement in image quality and allow TV makers to exceed 90% of REC.2020. Combined with 4K, QDs produce really compelling images. Samsung whent so far as to say that QD enhancement provides image quality that is superior to OLED.  Side-by-side comparisons in a quantum-dot maker’s suite made credible case for that.  The OLED display had blacker blacks, but the QD-enhanced LCD was brighter and had a larger color gamut.

When LG announced their line of QD-enanced TVs, it’s marketing people were forced to walk the top of a very narrow fence. They said the new QD-enchanced TVs offered a huge improvement over tradional LCDs, that the new sets are beautiful and that everybody should buy one — but the sets are not as good as OLED!  That’s a really tough balancing act to pull off.

This year QD will be for premium sets, with TCL saying they will have a UHD 65-inch with QD for $3000 later in the year. Next year, these sets will enter the pricing mainstream.  Even I may be tempted to open my wallet.

CES 2015 In The Rearview Mirror

After all the PR hype and anticipation, the 2015 International CES has come and gone, leaving me to edit over 1500 photos and a bunch of videos and sift through stacks of press releases to see what was really significant about the show…and what was just fluff.

Before I drill down to make my top picks, I should point out some trends that have been building for a few years. We all know that the majority of our electronic gadgets (phones, tablets, home alarm systems, televisions, computers, cordless phones, and so on) are manufactured in China and Southeast Asia.

Still, the expanding CES footprint of Chinese brands (Haier, TCL, Hisense, Changhong, Konka, Skyworth) takes some getting used to. So does the shrinking footprint of former Japanese powerhouses like Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba. There is a profound shift in power happening in the CE world as the center of gravity moves farther away from Tokyo and Osaka past Seoul to Shenzen and Shanghai.

Another unmistakable trend is the decline in prices for a wide range of CE products. “Connected health” was a big deal at least year’s show, but is there really any news to be found in $60 Fitbits? Or $149 home security systems? Or $125 32-inch televisions?

Speaking of televisions, they are becoming less important in the overall scheme of things with each passing year. 4K Ultra HD was all the rage last year – this year, everyone had 4K televisions, and many models were equipped with quantum dot backlights for high dynamic range. Of course, there was no shortage of curved televisions in all sizes.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung's booth.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung’s booth.

 

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

 

The facts are these: Changhong and TCL can make a large, curved 4K LCD TV with high dynamic range just as easily as Sharp, Samsung, and Panasonic. In some cases, the LCD panels used in these TVs are all coming from the same factory.

Samsung made a big splash this year with their S UHD television line, but they’re using quantum dots just like anyone else. LG showed both quantum dots and their new M+ technology that adds white pixels to an LCD matrix to boost brightness. TCL is selling QD-equipped TVs in China and expects to launch them on these shores this year.

Perhaps surprisingly, LG decided to make a big push for OLED technology, unveiling five new Ultra HD models at the show. While the Chinese also showed OLEDs (as did Panasonic), LG appears to be “all in” with their white OLED technology, claiming manufacturing yields as high as 70%. Well, someone’s got to pick up the torch that plasma dropped in 2013.

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood - flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you're feeling warped!).

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood – flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you’re feeling warped!).

 

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

 

For many of these manufacturers, appliances and white goods are taking on a more important role in contributing to the bottom line. The margins are better on high-end refrigerators and washer-dryer sets for the likes of Samsung and LG, even though consumers don’t turn them over as often as televisions. For Panasonic, beauty products are an important income stream.

Cameras and camcorders are still holding their own against mobile phones, surprisingly. I entered the CES arena equipped with both a new Samsung Galaxy 5 phone and a Panasonic Lumix ZS40 camera. While the Galaxy 5 does take some great pictures under ideal conditions, it was no match for the 30:1 optical zoom lens (Leica glass) on the Lumix – the latter allowed me to shoot under, around, and over people to get the photos I needed.

Speaking of mobile phones and tablets, there wasn’t much news to be had at the show. LG showed its updated LG G-Flex 2 and Samsung had a crowd around its Galaxy family of phones and tablets, but there just wasn’t the “BYOD buzz” we’ve seen in previous years. The 5” to 5.5” screen size seems to be a sweet spot for phones now – 6-inch models were scarce in Vegas.

LG's G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5" screen.

LG’s G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5″ screen.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

 

Connecting all of this stuff together made for a more compelling story from my perspective, especially as far as wireless technology goes. I saw more demos of wireless video streaming, wireless appliance control, wireless security systems, and wireless display connectivity at CES than at previous shows.

The 802.11ac channel bonding protocol is becoming increasingly important for making this stuff work in the 5 GHz band. And the wide-open spaces at 60 GHz are starting to attract everyone’s attention – having 2 GHz channels to play with is a lot more appealing for making high bitrate connections than fighting the congestion at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

Display interfaces are getting fast – a lot faster – and relying on compression for the first time. And now we’re starting to see the boundaries blur between small, high-performance mobile display interfaces and full-sized versions, which leads me to wonder why we need so many versions of HDMI and DisplayPort in the first place.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing number of automobile manufacturers who set up shop in the North Hall every year. It reminds me of the New York Auto Show, with the likes of Hyundai, VW, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Audi showing off their latest high-tech “connected” automobiles that can do everything from mirror your smartphone’s display to recognize speech commands, navigate flawlessly, and even drive themselves.

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn't even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn’t even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way...)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way…)

 

And there were plenty of alternatives to gasoline-powered engines to seen, from BMW’s i3 electric car to Toshiba’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. All equipped with Bluetooth, 802.11, Sirius, and in some cases, user-customizable dashboard displays using flexible displays (important to survive vibration and G-forces).

Quite a bit to take in over three and a half days! What follows is my list (in no particular order) of significant products and trends I spotted in Vegas. Let’s see if they hold up as the year progresses:

High Dynamic Range – as usual, a hot new technology makes its appearance at the show and quickly becomes a buzzword. HDR Ultra HDTVs were shown by numerous manufacturers at CES; none more prominently as Samsung, who made HDR the centerpiece of their Monday press conference with their S UHD line. Virtually all of these TVs use quantum dot technology to boost image brightness and color saturation, and only one (LG) had an alternative path to HDR with M+ technology.

HDR is a key part of the transition to next-generation television. So are wider color spaces, high frame rates, and increasing resolution. Looks like everyone’s getting into the game, including the Chinese. Interestingly, I saw only one demo of Dolby’s HDR technology in the TCL booth (Vizio also has it), so it appears many homegrown solutions are in the works for HDR displays.

LG Display's 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

LG Display’s 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

 

OLEDS Are Back – at least as far as LG is concerned. Seven new Ultra HD OLED TVs were rolled out at CES with sizes ranging from 55 inches to 77 inches, and one of them can flex back and forth from flat to curved surface mode. A partnership with Harman-Kardon should ensure better audio quality than you hear from typical super-thin televisions. (There were even two models featuring bases made from Swarovski crystal!)

With the demise of plasma, videophiles are still looking for displays that can give them the magic combination of deep blacks, saturated colors, and wide viewing angles. Right now, OLEDs are the only game in town, but they’ve proven to be tricky to manufacture with acceptable yields. LG Display seems to have overcome that barrier with these models (which use IGZO TFTs for pixel switching, by the way) and it will be interesting to see the uptake as 2015 winds on.

Super MHL Is Here: The battle for fastest display interface shifts back and forth between Silicon Image and VESA. DisplayPort fired the first salvo with their introduction of version 1.3, raising the maximum data rate to 32 Gb/s and introducing Display Stream compression for the first time. Now, the MHL Consortium has fired back with Super MHL. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and in its first iteration, allowed transport of 1080p/60 video over the 5-pin micro USB connector found on smartphones and tablets.

But Super MHL is different – it is a full-sized connector with 32 pins and matches the data rate of DP 1.3. The CES demo showed a Samsung 8K display being driven through Super MHL. How would anyone fit this on a mobile device? Does it replace HDMI 2.0? (It’s a LOT faster and uses DS compression, too.) So many questions to be answered…

Wait - isn't MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Wait – isn’t MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Hmmm...apparently they did give MHL "the juice."

Hmmm…apparently they did give MHL “the juice.”

 

Talk To Me: Conexant showed a demo of voice control for TV set-top boxes (change channels, bring up program guide, set DVR recordings) that was leap years ahead of their demo from 2013. This system works exceptionally well in noisy environments and can be used to control other devices, such as room lighting, thermostats, and security systems.

Conexant is looking to sell their technology as a system on chip (SoC) to a wide cross section of manufacturers. The trick had been reliable speech recognition in all kinds of high and low noise environments, something that doomed Samsung’s voice control TVs back in 2012. It appears they’ve finally pulled it off, but the focus has shifted away from TVs to set-top boxes this time around.

I’ll Be Watching You: The EyeTribe of Denmark showed an amazing eye tracking and control system at ShowStoppers that can operate tablets and phones and costs all of $99. Yep, you read that right! While Tobii’s impressive demos have focused on laptops and gaming systems, EyeTribe has gone after potentially the biggest market for eye tracking. How many times have you wished you could operate your mobile phone while your hands were full?

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It...)

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It…)

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! Available without a prescription.

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! (Available without a prescription.)

 

Faster Video For All: Giraffic had an intriguing demo of optimizing and speeding up video streaming rates over conventional TCP/IP networks. And it had nothing to do with adaptive bitrate streaming, using H.265 encoding, or AVB protocols. What Giraffic is doing is changing the nature and frequency of HTTP requests. This is the best way I can explain it: Imagine you just sat down with a big piece of chocolate cake and want to eat it as quickly as possible. If you take big bites, you’ll be chewing for a while and some pieces may get stuck in your throat.

But if you start with very small bites (like crumbs) and keep shoveling them in quickly, you’ll finish the cake just as fast – or perhaps faster – than the conventional way of eating. And that’s what Giraffic does – it keeps nibbling at the video stream to ensure continuous delivery, even with 4K content. The company claims they can achieve streaming throughput 200% to 300% faster than conventional video streaming, with no freeze-ups and annoying “buffering” warnings.

4K Blu-ray: Okay, we’ve been waiting for this for some time now. And 4K video streaming has already begun at Netflix and Amazon. But Ultra HD BD is finally out of the gate, although you won’t see it until the fourth quarter of this year. Streaming rates will be on the high side of 100 Mb/s with single and dual-layer discs available. (And yes, high dynamic range will be a part of the equation!) Panasonic showed their prototype of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player at the show. The question is; with all the enhancements coming to streaming, does optical disc matter anymore? Time will tell…

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

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

 

Now THERE'S an LCD shape you don't see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth...)

Now THERE’S an LCD shape you don’t see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth…)

Circular LCD Displays: This was a breakout year for oddball sizes of LCDs, particularly in the Sharp booth where automotive displays were shown. (LG Display also exhibited circular and curved LCD displays.) Given the drop in TV prices and Sharp’s ever-dwindling market share in TVs, the market for automotive and transportation displays may be a better bet, long-term. Especially given the company’s leadership in implementing IGZO TFTs, which are important for brighter displays with lower power consumption and higher pixel density.

USB Type-C Connectors: VESA had an excellent demo of this game-changing connector, which has a symmetrical design (no need to worry about which way you’ve plugged it in) and can multiplex DisplayPort 1.3 video with high-speed data. USB 3.1 Type-C is seen as the next generation of USB connectors for mobile and portable devices, and by itself, it can move serial data at 10 Gb/s.

SiBEAM Snap Wireless Connectivity: Silicon Image has revived the SiBEAM name (they bought the company in 2011) and implemented their 60 GHz wireless display connectivity into a close-proximity variant. You simply bring two Snap-equipped devices together (like a smartphone or tablet and a matching cradle), and voila – you’ve established a full bandwidth data and display connection that can run up to 12 Gb/s. Plus, the connector can be used for wireless charging.

SI is showing integrated Snap transmitter and receiver chips that would replace USB 2.0 or 3.0 connections. Clearly, they are also targeting USB interfaces that support DisplayPort 1.3 (see USB 3.1 Type-C) and trying to move away from physical display connections. (This was one argument against using MHL to connect to televisions.) But if they’re successful, what happens to MHL? And now that Super MHL has been shown, what happens to conventional HDMI? Stay tuned..

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

It's 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive....

It’s 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive….

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

 

Super-wide, high resolution desktop monitors: Seems like everybody had one of these at the show. HP, Dell, LG Display, Samsung, and others showed 27-inch widescreen displays with “5K” resolution (5120×2880 pixels). These monitors also support wider color gamuts and use 10-bit panels (a necessity, given all the 10-bit RGB images they’ll be asked to display). What’s surprising is how inexpensive these monitors are – HP’s Z27Q version will be available in March for just $1300.

Toshiba Glass: The jury’s still out on whether Google Glass is a hit or a bust (I’m leaning toward the latter). But Toshiba, who recently retrenched their television operations to Japan, is all-in with a line of enhanced glasses that employ a tiny projection module to show images on the lens surface. This has been tried before – Epson’s Moverio VR glasses have tiny QHD LCD panels embedded in them – and it remains to be seen if the public will buy into the idea. They do look stylish, though. (And there’s even a pair of safety goggles in the line.)

I’ll close out this report with a few passing thoughts. First, it’s impossible to miss the trends of mass-produced, cheap consumer electronics that are increasingly showing up at CES.  Next, there is hardly any new technology debuting at the show that multiple manufacturers have in short order (and that includes the Chinese).

Whereas voice recognition was big a few years ago, gesture control took its place the past couple of years. But now that Omek (bought by Intel) and PrimeSense (bought by Apple) are absent from the scene, voice recognition has come back. My new Galaxy 5 phone has Samsung voice on it and it works reasonably well. However, it appears that consumers just haven’t jumped on the gesture recognition bandwagon yet.

Remember 3D? I almost got all the way through this report without mentioning it. A few companies still showed it, such as LG, Toshiba, HP, Hisense, Changhong, Ultra D (digital signage), Panasonic, and some gaming companies. Likewise, Google TV was gone this year, replaced by Android TV in such places as the Sony booth. Aside from program guide searches, I’m not convinced that the average TV viewer needs a Google search engine or Android OS on their TV. But I could be wrong.

Cute little guy, isn't he? (Where's my fly swatter...)

Cute little guy, isn’t he? (Where’s my fly swatter…)

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

 

Remember drones? I almost managed to skip them as well. There were so many at the show, ranging from behemoths that idled in place overhead while we visited tables at Digital Experience to pocket-sized models with built-in cameras that could zip unobtrusively over a crowd under the control of your smartphone. (I’m waiting for the first pocket-sized EMP generators to appear next year – like electronic bug-zappers.)

Finally, after a day full of press conferences during which there was only about 30 minutes of actual, usable news, I’d like to see a temporary moratorium placed on the words “innovation,” “big data,” “stunning,” “cloud,” “ultra” anything, and in the Chinese booths, “happiness.”

The only thing stunning about Vegas is how expensive cab rides have become. True happiness can only be found at Big Daddy’s Barbecue outside the Central Hall (dee-lish!). “Big Data” should be the name of a blues band, or at least the harmonica player. (Maybe Big Data and The Cloud?)

And I’m sorry, but a floor-mounted pet camera and toothbrushes that sync up to video games are not “innovation.” Cute, yes, but no innovative. (Although the self-powered skateboard I saw that can run up to 16 miles might fall into that category…)