Category: The Front Line

Who ARE Those Guys?

A recent article on the Reuters Web site details how Chinese LCD TV manufacturers are quickly gaining ground on Korean TV heavyweights LG and Samsung – and they’ve used UHDTV, a barely-hatched technology, to do it.

According to the Reuters story, LG and Samsung were so focused on one-upping each other in the still-gestating OLED TV business that mainland brands like BOE Technology and TCL and Taiwan-based Innolux and AU Optronics managed to sneak into the party and capture significant sales of 4K UHDTV sets using conventional  LCD technology.

Until last year, a paltry 33,000 UHDTV sets had been sold worldwide (200M 2K and 720p LCD TVs were sold during the same time period). But shipments of 4K TVs have since multiplied by 20 times, based on data from IHS. And the Chinese are a big reason why.

In a rare moment of candor, LG Display’s CEO Han Sang-beom was quoted as saying, “…I have to admit that we hadn’t fully appreciated the potential of the UHD market. We assumed it’ll be too early for this type of display to take off, and thus didn’t think much of having diverse UHD product line-ups, especially in the low end. But I think we are not late just yet and we are working hard to lead the market here.”

In Q2 ‘13, BOE Technology reported an 8.9 percent operating profit margin, while China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT), a unit of TCL Corp, achieved a 9.6 percent margin. LG Display, the world’s No.1 LCD maker, posted a 5.6 percent margin, while Samsung Display, a unit of Samsung Electronics, had a whopping margin of 13 percent. But take out the OLED business and Samsung’s LCD margin drops to somewhere between 3 and 7 percent.

To show you just how severely the winds have changed against Japanese TV manufacturers, Sharp Corporation – the company that basically invented the LCD TV – reported a 0.5 percent profit margin for Q2 ’13, after several quarters of red ink.

Can the Chinese do to Korea what the Koreans did to the Japanese? It’s entirely possible: During the same Q1 ’13, global TV shipments grew by 4% Y-Y, according to NPD DisplaySearch. But all of that growth was in mainland China, where TV shipments ramped up an astonishing 28% Y-Y. Take out those numbers from the overall worldwide shipments total, and LCD TV shipments actually declined almost 4% Y-Y.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a flurry of 4K and UHDTV announcements from Panasonic, Sony, and now Sharp. The latter, which unveiled a 70-inch 4K set (LC-70UD1U) at CE Week back in June, is now shipping it and the SRP (so far) is $7,500. Keep in mind that Sony brought out its LGD-manufactured 84-inch 4K LCD TV for $25K a year ago; LG dropped that price by $5K not to long after, and JVC’s 4K monitor version (also using the same LGD panel) is available for $15K.

Samsung and Sony both have 4K LCD TVs in the 55″ – 65″ range that are retailing for about $90 – $100 per diagonal inch. That’s quite a drop from the nearly $300/diagonal inch that Sony started out with in 2012!

There’s no question that everyone is jumping the gun on pricing, and it’s most likely due to worries about the new crop of UHDTVs from from what is becoming the world’s fastest-growing market for consumer electronics devices.

It took over a decade for 2K HDTV to really get established in the market. Then, prices collapsed, and with them, operating margins. Will 4K follow that same timetable, or will it make even faster inroads?

Fans of the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will recall how those two fled the U.S. for supposedly safer quarters in South America. And yet, their pursuers stayed doggedly on their trail, following them all the way to Bolivia. “Who ARE those guys?” asked Robert Redford, over and over as they were flushed from yet another supposedly-secure hiding place.

Now, Samsung, LG, and Japan Inc. may very well be asking the same thing…

 

E Ink Raises the Electrophoretic Bar

E Ink recently announced the availability of Carta, its new electrophoretic imaging film, which will be the face of Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite eReader. The Paperwhite can be pre-ordered now and will ship on September 30.

What Carta does, said E Ink Product Management Director Giovanni Mancini in an exclusive phone conversation on September 10, is replace both the black and white pigmented particles used in Pearl, the company’s previous top-of-the-line display film, with new pigments. These pigments offer a blacker black and a whiter white. Combined with some processing changes, the result is an increase in reflectivity to 50% from Pearl’s 41%. The contrast ratio jumps to 15:1 from 10:1. Mechanically, said Mancini, Carta is similar to Pearl.

Carta does not replace Pearl, which will still be available at its existing price. E Ink’s intention is for Carta to be sold at 10% to 30% premium of Pearl, and expects first-tier eReader brands to migrate to Carta over the next year or so.

CoverReader

PocketBook’s PocketCover integrates a 4.3-inch E Ink display in a slim smart cover. The first model will be for the Samsung Galaxy S4. (Photo: PocketBook)

Although the pigments are the biggest factor in the improved performance, it turns out that changing the order in which some assembly processes are performed and improve the film’s reflectivity. Previously, for example, E Ink applied adhesive the previously assembled display layers and then applied the ITO electrode layer to it. Now, the company applies the adhesive to the ITO layer and then lays the ITO layer, and sees an improvement in the brightness of the white state.

Another recent announcement is for E-Ink Regal, a new driving waveform. When a signal changes the state of a portion of the display from black to white, or from one gray level to another, the pigmented particles are accelerated to their new positions. Although the particles have very little mass, they must still be actively decelerated to maintain precise levels and sharp character edges. Regal is a new, more complicated waveform for doing this more precisely. Regal can be applied to both Carta and Pearl, controls edge artifacts on bothe imaging films. In addition, Regal allows full-page refreshes, which some readers find annoying, to be performed much less frequently. A Pearl display without Regal must receive a full-page refresh every five pages. With Regal, that becomes every 100 pages, which means that in many cases there won’t be a refresh in an entire reading session.

Regal is available to customers as an option for both Carta and Pearl. Tuning Regal waveforms is more complex and time-consuming than tuning the simpler standard waveform, and constitutes a one-time cost for each product model to which it is applied. So, the unit cost for incorporating Regal depends strongly on the quantity of panels to be produced. By making Regal an option, product managers are free to tailor their products to individual market profiles. The new Kobo 6-inch eReader, said Mancini, uses Pearl with the Regal waveform, and Kobo advertises “smoother page transitions.”

The eReader market is mature and is stabilizing at 12 to 15 million units a year. That’s not a bad business, but E Ink is working on other applications and is encouraged to find customers developing new product, said Mancini. Among these products are snap-on covers for the Samsung Galazy S4 smart phone that integrate 4.3-inch E Ink displays. Samsung itself makes hinged covers (without the display) that snap on to the back of the handset in place of the existing battery cover and then wrap around to provide a very slim and lightweight cover. The display covers follow the same pattern, but include the E Ink display, which is very thin. The user can then choose to read either from the E Ink display or from the handset’s own OLED display. The E Ink display would be the obvous choice in bright sunlight, and one manufacturer has said that missed-call and SMS information would also apper on the E Ink display.

Covers have been developed by PocketBook and TCL-Alcatel. The electrical connection for PocketBook’s PocketCover is through the phone’s micro-USB port. TCL-Alcatel connects through the side of the phone. Both companies plan to start volume product in October, beginning with the European market. PocketBook Readers Sales Manager Enrico Muller, said this is a highly anticipated product and that the company plans to produce models for other smart phones, such as Sony and HTC, as quickly as possible. Apparently, the product’s introduction at IFA supported the company’s enthusiasm.

In a less-than-clear press release, Plastic Logic seemed to say that it would be producing the subsequent generation of E Ink display for PocketBook, and that the size of that second-generation display would be 4.8 inches on the diagonal.

Smart covers appear to be an ideal application for electrophoretic displays. With significant electrophoretic technical improvements already here, with the introduction of new eReader models, and with new applications on the way, it seems the comments of electrophoretic pessimists are overwrought. My interview with Giovanni Mancini closed with his cheerfully adapting a quote from Mark Twain: “The news of our death has been greatly exaggerated.”

 

Samsung and LG Offer Curved OLED TVs — but Why?

Samsung and LG have both started shipping 55-inch curved-screen TV sets. The volumes are low and the prices are high, but they are shipping. In the US, you can buy Samsung’s offering from Amazon for $8999. LG’s version is $14,999 in the US, but the company has cut its price for the Korean market to $9800, so expect the US price to drop, too.

But why do a curved OLED-TV screen at all, other than to prove that you can? My own guess is that it’s a ploy to distract us — and by “us” I mean the technology press, analysts, retailers, and consumers — from focusing on the obvious fact that the two manufacturers do not yet have a robust manufacturing process that can make appreciable volumes of large OLED panels at high yield and moderate cost.

Recently, LG issued a press release making strong claims for their curved-screen OLED-TV, including a broader angle of view, and greater color fidelity from center to edge. Now, there is presumably no difference between the flat 55-inch and the curved one, so, if these claims are true, it must be because the curved screen geometry makes them true.

Assuming the viewing distance and the radius of curvature are the same, what can we say about LG’s claim that the angle of view is improved? (Please note that even if our assumption about the radius of curvature is true, only one viewer’s head can be at the center of curvature at a given time.)

For some of you, high school geometry and trigonometry may be a few years (or decades) in the past, so let’s take a moment to review. If the screen has a constant radius of curvature, which I will bet it does, its long edge, looking down from above, forms a portion of a circle. Extend the curve around to make a complete circle, and the radius of the circle is the screen’s radius of curvature. Now, if the radius of curvature is equal to the typical viewing distance for a 55-inch screen (roughly 8 feet), at least one of LG’s claims will be true. As the viewer’s eyes sweep across the screen at eye level, his or her direction of view will always be perpendicular to the screen surface, and he will enjoy optimal brightness, contrast, and color. Even when he or she looks upward or downward from eye level, the total difference of the direction of view from perpendicular to the screen will generally be less than with a flat screen. In addition, the viewer’s eyes will be equidistant from all points on the screen that are at eye level. So far, so good, IF the radius of curvature equals the typical viewing distance.

My intuition tells me that a curved display really will provide a greater included horizontal angle of view from center to either side than a flat display of the same size whose center is placed at the same viewing distance. Doing the trigonometry convinced me this is correct, and that a flat display would have to be about one inch larger horizontally to match the included viewing angle of the 55-inch curved display. So this claim is also true, even if the difference is not great.

But here is a trickier significant question. Assuming you are not a hermit and that friends come over to watch TV with you, what will their curved-screen experience be? At some angle of view that is offset from yours, my geometrical intuition tells me that (if your friend is sitting on your right), he will see the left side of the screen with less extreme viewing angles than he would if the two of you were watching a flat screen, but all points on the right side of the screen will be viewed at more extreme angles. If you are watching not with a friend but with a significant other, and you are watching cheek to cheek, there is probably some angle of separation within which all or most of the right side of the screen will have smaller viewing angles than a flat screen for your partner. As they used to say in physics textbooks (and perhaps still do), “the demonstration is left to the reader.”

Now, you may have noticed that I have written this entire article without actually telling you what the radius of curvature for the LG curved screen actually is, and the reason is that I didn’t know. If the information exists anywhere on the Web, very diligent Googling did not find it.

However, Jean Lee, Manager of LG Display’s PR Team in Seoul has now come to my (actually our) rescue. The radius of curvature is 5000 mm, which is 5 meters or 16.4 feet., so a viewer sitting at typical viewing distance will be well within the radius of curvature. As a result, the benefits in viewing angle to any point on the screen will better than they would be for a flat screen, but not nearly as good as they would be if the viewer were sitting at the center of curvature.

The angles can certainly be calculated, and we could determine whether the improvements in color, contrast, and brightness relative to a flat screen would be significant. Let’s do that calculation now. Oh, sorry. I’ve run out of space.

To conclude, I’m inclined to say that as far as the viewer is concerned, LG’s claims for a superior viewing experience with the curved-screen display are justified, but the differences are probably not significant. For both LG and Samsung, this looks like more of a marketing and public relations ploy than a genuine improvement in the art and science of display design.

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

HDMI 2.0 Is Here…And It’s Not Fast Enough?

This morning, the HDMI Forum announced the release of HDMI 2.0, which was almost two years in the making. The impetus for this new standard was and continues to be 4K, which requires such increases in data rates that the older 1.4 version can’t support it, except at slow frame rates.

Now, HDMI 2.0 has a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (Gb/s), slightly faster than DisplayPort’s 17.2 Gb/s. If you do the math, this should be fast enough to transport 3840×2160 video with frame rates of 50 and 60 Hz, using 8-bit and 10-bit color (at 60 Hz, the clock rate for 8-bit 4K is about 14.9 Gb/s; with 10-bit color, about 17.9 Gb/s).

Here are the highlights from the official press release:

“HDMI 2.0, which is backwards compatible with earlier versions of the HDMI specifications, significantly increases bandwidth up to 18Gb/s and adds key enhancements to support continuing market requirements for enhancing the consumer video and audio experience. New functionality includes:

– Support for 4k@50/60, (2160p: 4 times the clarity of 1080p/60 video resolution)

– Up to 32 audio channels for a multi-dimensional immersive audio experience

– Up to 1536kHz audio sample frequency for the highest audio fidelity

– Simultaneous delivery of dual video streams to multiple users on the same screen

– Simultaneous delivery of multi-stream audio to multiple users (up to 4)

– Support for the wide-angle theatrical 21:9 video aspect ratio

– Dynamic synchronization of video and audio streams

– CEC extensions provides expanded command and control of consumer electronics devices through a single control point

HDMI 2.0 does not define new cables or new connectors. Current High Speed cables (Category 2 cables) are capable of carrying the increased bandwidth.”

After reviewing the specifications, it appears to me that the HDMI Forum was trying to squeeze every last drop of speed out of the existing connector/interface architecture without having to re-engineer the standard. There’s no mention of locking connectors (a bugaboo of the broadcast and AV industries). Nor is there any discussion of speeding up HDCP key exchanges beyond what’s already been accomplished with InstaPort. But an HDMI 2.0 standard should eliminate the need for two or even four separate HDMI ports to playback 4K content (several TV and projector manufacturers currently use this approach).

Adding multiple channels of audio and increasing the sampling frequency is relatively simple stuff, as the bit rates for audio are a small fraction of those needed for 2K and 4K video. And you can already deliver two separate video streams through one HDMI connector – it’s only a bandwidth issue; the new standard just establishes a protocol for doing so. Supporting 21:9 isn’t all that big a deal, either.

I’m not sure what “dynamic synchronization of video and audio streams” means yet and will have to talk to the folks at HDMI Licensing to get a better explanation. As for CEC, it appears that control functionality has been souped-up beyond the basic command sets used to operate AV receivers and Blu-ray players.

What’s clear now is that HDMI 2.0 is NOT going to be the big breakthrough many of us analysts and writers expected, and that it will NOT be able to transport 10-bit and 12-bit 4K video running at higher frame rates (>60 Hz). Both of these specifications are necessary to develop high dynamic range (HDR) video and movie content.

Nor is there any indication of supporting a high-speed data bus overlay like Thunderbolt, which is becoming more important with the growth in popularity of tablets and smart phones, not to mention ultrabooks. These devices are leading the industry changeover to single, dense, multifunction interfaces across all sorts of CE products.

In contrast; over at VESA, they’ve already commenced development of Display Stream, a new interface that will use “light” JPEG compression to push data rates up to 25 Gb/s and beyond over conventional DisplayPort connections. This is a more “future-proof” approach to display connectivity and reflects the current state of 4K and UHDTV product and content development, what with all of the 4K television announcements that have been made this year.

But the reality is that HDMI dominates the CE marketplace and is making major inroads to commercial AV and broadcast installations. The market has largely ignored DisplayPort, despite the facts that (a) there are currently no royalties associated with its use, (b) its connectors come in many different flavors, including support for mobile and fiber optic interfaces, and (c) it already supports a high-speed data bus overlay – the 20 Gb/s Thunderbolt layer.

Maybe they’ll get it right next time..

Technicolor’s and THX’s 4K Certification: No Competition

Both Technicolor and THX have introduced and demonstrated 4K certification systems for consumer television. At first glance, you might think these certifications are addressing the same issues and are therefore competitive. However, interviews with the THX and Technicolor development teams , as reported in my previous two posts, revealed just the opposite.

THX’s approach will be the most familiar to people in the display and TV communities. Their approach is to certify that the TV set displays the 2K and 4K signals as faithfully as possible, so that the creator’s intent is realized. To do this, they apply high standards for black-and-white uniformity, off-axis consistency, light leakage, motion artifacts, jaggies, and blotchiness (which display people would call mura). When testing reveals deficiencies, they can usually be corrected by modifying the set’s software, although hardware improvements are occasionally required.

Most non-THX-certified TV sets would probably not pass the THX requirements for motion artifacts and jaggies, said THX Senior Systems Engineer Jon Cielo. Cielo added, “It’s difficult to make a TV work as precisely as we would like it to.”

Upconverted 4K content looks very good on Sharp’s THX-certified 70-inch 4K TV, which indicates how important a highly specified display and TV is to image quality.

Technicolor’s self-appointed mission could not be more different. Technicolor does not look at the TV set at all. Instead, they have developed a series of algorithms that produces an upconverted 4K signal that produces an image that is perceptually very close to a native 4K image. The Technicolor process first removes noise from the original 2K signal because one effect of upconversion, which synthesize 3 pixels for every 1 pixel in the original signal, is to magnify the effect of noise. The additional pixels are then synthesized and inserted, and the algorithms resotor texture, including film grain. Additional algorithms perform line sharpening and removal of jaggies.

A lot of tuning of the algorithms has to be done because processing that works well for some images on some backgrounds creates artifacts in others. In the end, the algorithms are tested on a wide variety of 2K images, which are compared to native 4K images.

Tests with groups of viewers “are surprisingly reliable in sorting out the algorithms. Our algorithms come in very close to [native 4K images],” said Kirk Barker, Senior VP of Development and Strategy in the Technology Licensing Division of Technicolor Thomson and VP of Technology Licensing at Technicolor. Technicolor 4K Certification assures that products embodying the algorithms implement them correctly.

The first product to receive this certification is the VTV-122X family of video processing chips from Marseille Networks. A side-by-side demonstration of Marseille-upconverted 2K vs. 4K this June produced images that were indistinguishable from a few feet away. The first consumer product is the Toshiba BDX 6400 media box and Blue-ray player, which contains a Marseille chip.

To sum up, THX certifies the TV set. Technicolor focuses on the image itself. “We look at the HDMI output from the Blu-ray Disk player,” says Technicolor’s Barker. “Hook up the TV set and you get into set issue. We don’t get into that layer.”

So there is no competition here. Indeed, the ideal upconverting 4K system would incorporate both certifications: Technicolor for signal; THX for the set.

 

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