Category: The Front Line

January’s TV is February’s Digital Sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday Evening at a Sony Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Digital In The Desert: The 2014 HPA Tech Retreat

I’m writing this while sitting in the third day of the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat, which is one of the top technology conferences anywhere and which attracted well over 500 attendees this year to the Hyatt Indian Wells Resort in the Palm Springs area.

I’ve been attending the Retreat since 2002, and it has grown by leaps and bounds since then. In addition to a rich, 3 ½ -day program of technical presentations, there is a mammoth demo room where manufacturers can show off the latest in video compression, camera, editing, post, color correction, storage, display, and interfacing products. Some products that are introduced at the NAB Show actually have their “sneak previews” here!

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

Presenters and attendees come from all walks of life and from around the world. We’ve had representatives of U.S. Canadian, and British TV networks, IT companies like Cisco and Google, Hollywood studios (Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony Pictures), and well-known hardware and software manufacturers including Sony, Canon, Dolby, Adobe, Miranda, Belden, and NVIDIA. NHK, IBC, the EBU, SMPTE, and a host of domestic and international technology and professional associations are all well represented here.

The informal, ad hoc approach of the Tech Retreat contrasts with more structured and traditional technology conferences, and there are numerous opportunities for sidebar conversations, meeting, and networking. If you have a question about technology, there’s a very good chance someone at the Retreat has the answer.

There were several hot topics this year. UHDTV (4K) was one of them; so was the next-generation of file distribution and storage systems (clouds) and the move to IP-based facility interconnects instead of traditional copper serial digital interfaces.  This is a hot-button issue right now for post facilities and on Thursday morning, we heard about different ways to do it from Axon (AV Bridging), Evertz, Belden, and Cisco, along with the BBC. (Belden’s Steve Lampen pointed out in a humorous talk that coaxial cable is still faster than most people think and rumors of its demise are premature.)

A Tuesday panel focused exclusively on “second screen” trends and generational differences in how media is accessed and consumed – and how broadcasters and studios need to adapt their business models to satisfy the demand that Gen Ys have for anywhere & anytime content delivery. The “I want it when I want it, where I want it” paradigm was supported and contradicted by metrics from SAP, Nielsen, and (believe it or not) a representative from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Of course, the issue of video compression came up. A presentation on YouTube streaming proved a bit controversial when the presenters hinted that Google’s “free” VP9 codec might actually work as well if not better than the emerging HEVC H.265 platform, an assertion that was immediately challenged by Matt Goldman of Ericsson, an industry veteran who is well-versed in codec science and who later called for an independent, non-biased comparison test of both codecs.

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to "drink from the fire hose."

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to “drink from the fire hose.”

I took the stage twice on Wednesday. First out of the gate was my annual review of the Consumer Electronics Show, which covers a lot of ground in 30 minutes including Ultra HD TVs, curved displays, curved phones, HDMI 2.0, DockPort, 4K streaming products, gesture control, wireless, body sensors, and near-to-eye displays. (Plus 4K washers and dryers, Bluetooth underwear, connected cars, and grumpy cats.)

I followed that with an in-depth look at the new generation of small, fast, and dense signal interfaces found on tablets, phones, cameras, and ultrabooks. Examples included Mini and Mobility DisplayPort, Mobile High-definition Link (MHL), Micro HDMI, SlimPort, and DockPort. I also discussed the HDBaseT standard for multiplexed signals over structured wire,  and showed a few interesting applications for these connections including smartphone game controllers and smartphones that dock into notebook computers and provide CPU and video card functions.

Another unique feature of the Tech Retreat is the breakfast roundtables. These are held on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings before the main program kicks off. Banquet roundtables are set up with a number that corresponds to a list of topics outside the room. Show up, grab some breakfast, and enjoy an ad hoc, moderated discussion about that topic – or change the topic.

The scope of topics will amaze you. Here are a few examples of the 34 breakfast roundtables that were conducted on Thursday:

On-Set Workflows: Faster, Better, Cheaper  

4K = Four Times the Measurement Opportunities

Next-Generation Display Interfaces: the Conversation Continues

Cloud-Enabled Workflows: What Works, What Doesn’t

Should ITU-R Add 119.88 (Hz) as a Frame Rate to BT.2020?

Performance and System Requirements for a Reference Display

Deep Color Encoding: 12-bit Equivalent with Just 8 Bits

Conference organizer and industry veteran Mark Schubin likens the Tech Retreat to “drinking from a fire hose.” That’s how much information is available to attendees. You can absorb as much or as little as you want, and see some cool demos along the way.

There’s still a day left of the conference, but I’m writing this during the “Better Pixels: Best Bang for the Buck?” session, featuring speakers from Dolby, ETC, NHK, and the American Society of Cinematographers, along with Schubin. The question is this – do we really need more pixels on the screen (i.e. 4K or Ultra HD), or is a combination of high dynamic range and wider color gamuts a better approach to improving high-resolution displays and ultimately televisions?

Dolby, which bought Brightside Technologies’ high-dynamic range IP some years ago, is aggressively pushing for high dynamic range and the higher color saturation that comes along with it. Their argument is that HDR is a better fit to human visual systems, and a discussion has repeatedly come up about the interest of consumers in HDR TVs. (They’re talking about thousands of nits of brightness.)

I’d posit that the real challenge to selling HDR is the plummeting cost of large TVs. You can readily buy 55-inch LCD TVs with quite a few bells and whistles for less than $600, so just how much of a premium are consumers willing to pay to add high dynamic range? (Needless to say, such TVs would also be equipped with next-generation illumination systems, like quantum dots.)

My guess is that consumers would only tolerate a slight price increase to get HDR, as the benefit would be lost on most of them. Numerous studies have shown that consumers (at least, in the U.S.) prefer big, cheap televisions. They don’t care about 3D, and are ambivalent about “smart” TV functions for the most part. Both of these features have either become standard or seen a dramatic drop in price in the past four years.

If the Tech Retreat sounds intriguing, you should pencil it in on your calendar. Next year’s Retreat will be held from February 9 to February 13, and registration closes out very quickly – within a couple of weeks. For more information, go to http://hollywoodpostalliance.org/?page_id=5978.

QD Vision Co-Founder Predicts Death of OLED-TV

On February 8, in his presentation entitled “Are Quantum Dots Closing the Window of Opportunity for OLED-TV?” at the SID Los Angeles Chapter’s One-Day Conference on Technologies for Advanced Television, held in Costa Mesa, CA, Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, made a well-argued case that OLED-TV would become irrelevant in five years. At that time, conventional LCD-TVs with white-LED backlights will still be going strong, and LCD-TVs with quantum-dot-enhanced backlights using blue LEDs will have become be a major force.

Coe-Sullivan based his argument on the ability of quantum-dot-enhanced LCDs to provide better color gamut than OLEDs and to reduce power consumption, all at a minimal increase in cost. He systematically countered all but one of the arguments made in OLED’s favor.

Argument 1: OLED has response spead 1000 times that of LCD.
Coe-Sullivan’s counter-argument: The combinatin of faster-switchng LC materials, new LC modes, and thinner cell gaps give LCDs speeds up o 240Hz. The factors limiting speed is jitter and other optical effects, not LC response. “OLEDs offer no benefit in response speed over LCDs.”

Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, created a stir by predicting the demise of OLED-TV.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, created a stir by predicting the demise of OLED-TV. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Argument 2: OLED has twice the viewing angle of LCD.
Counter-argument: The combination of new LC modes, thinner LC cell gaps, and new optical control films gives LCD-TVs viewing angles that are “good enough.” OLEDs offer little practical viewing angle benefit over LCDs.

Argument 3: OLEDs will have a thickness 1/25 that of LCDs.
Counter-argument: The LED-BLU edge-lit designs that became established in 2008/2009 result in OLEDs offering only a minimal thinness benefit over LCD TVs.

Argument 4: OLEDs will offer a 10x power efficiency increase.
Counter-argument: The combination of LED BLUs, light-control films, and that fact that OLEDs have not delivered the promised power savings, has resulted in OLED-TVs consuming more power than LCDs when displaying a white screen, and the situation is worse for higher resolutions and larger screens. In short, it is LCDs that have a significant power efficiency advantage over OLEDs — not the other way around.

Argument 5: OLEDs will offer a bill of materials (BoM) cost one half that of LCDs.
Counter-argument: The combination of reductions in the cost of LED BLUs, incremental improvements in LCDs,
and the persistance of low volumes in OLED manufacturing have resulted in OLED’s BoM being no less or greater than that of LCDs. And that is before the significantly lower yield of OLEDs compared to LCDs is taken into account.

Argument 6: New OLED manufacturing processes will further reduce costs.
Counter-argument: Fine metal masks waste material and generate dust. The anticipated new low-cost processes — such as ink-jet printing, laser transfer, nozzle jet, and OVJP — are harder than we thought, and roll-to-roll isn’t amenable to high-resolution displays. In short, “OLED manufacturing is a yield and cost negative compared to mature LCD fabs.”

Argument 7: New OLED display modes will further increase the attractiveness and utility of displays.
Counter-argument: Since this argument was first put forth, LCD technology has demonstrated transparent and curved displays. If these new display modes ever get past the gimmick phase, they are equally possible with
LCDs.

Argument 8: OLED color gamut can be 50% greater than LCD.
Counter-argument: Quantum-dot enhancement of LED backlights can produce a better color gamut than OLED-TVs.

The only argument for OLED-TVs that Coe-Sullivan acknowledged is their much greater contrast (in a dark room).

One of OLED’s problems is cost, which has kept market penetration low. Although not widely recognized by the general public, quantum dots appeared in major products in 2013: three models of Sony television (in the U.S.), which use QD Vision’s Color IQ rail, and, one of Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HDX models, which uses 3M’s quantum dot enhancement film (QDEF). Coe-Sullivan, 3M’s Erik Jostes, and Touch Display Research’s Jennifer Colegrove all predicted a rapid growth in design wins for quantum dots in 2014, with increasingly rapid growth coming in 2015 and following years.

That doesn’t mean that any of the other speakers at the conference — including 3M’s Jostes — echoed Coe-Sullivan’s position that OLED was fated for early extinction. The consensus is for a slow but steady increase in OLED-TV penetration. Market Intelligence company IHS has predicted a 3.9% penetration in panels for OLED-TV in 2018.

Ken Werner is the founder and principal of Nutmeg Consultants, and was the program chair and moderator for the one-day conference.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

“Antenna” Digital TV: When All Else Fails…

Got free digital TV?

As I write this, it’s Saturday afternoon, and four days since a big ice storm hammered southeastern Pennsylvania, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes in the dark – no electricity, no cable, no Internet – and a real mess for PECO (our electric utility) to clean up.

We awoke last Tuesday morning to see a coating of ice over several inches of snow that fell two days before. Roads were largely impassable, snapped tree limbs were laying everywhere, and the sound of generators created a racket not unlike the crickets of late summer.

Our power went out for 18 hours, starting at noon Tuesday. (Some nearby tree finally gave up the good fight and toppled into the adjacent 34 kV power lines.) Fortunately, I had pre-wired selected circuits in the house with a transfer switch after Hurricane Sandy, and quickly fired up my 6,500 watt Honda generator. It ran out of a second tank of gas just as the power came back on Wednesday morning.

Mother Nature can be deadly and beautiful at the same time.

But that’s not the real story. Our cable and Internet service come from Comcast, and it was dead as a doornail when we arose Wednesday morning. Verizon’s mobile phone service wasn’t much better; it could pass calls and texts, but data wouldn’t move, nor could I load any Web pages.

As many readers know, I’m a big proponent of terrestrial digital TV. So my home system has three different TV antennas – one on a rotator atop the roof, one below it that is aimed permanently at Philadelphia, and one in my attic, also aimed at Phily. It’s a nice complement to our cable service, especially if I want to watch TV stations from New York City (about 65 miles away).

Thanks to those rigs, we were able to get uninterrupted TV service and catch up on the latest weather, traffic conditions, and power outage updates. All I had to do was switch over to the RF inputs on each TV, and I was in business. And apparently, I was the only one of my neighbors in this subdivision able to do so. (And I could keep using my TiVo HD DVR, as it also has a terrestrial DTV tuner.)

So – here we are on a beautiful but chilly Saturday morning with no Internet, no cable, and no VoIP telephone service. I can’t get any emails or data through my mobile phone. But I can watch as much TV as I want, on as many channels as I want (about 55 minor channels here in the metro Philly market).

Why is this important? The FCC has been planning a spectrum auction for some time to free up more UHF TV channels for mobile phone and Internet service. This auction, the rules of which are still being developed and vetted, will rely on broadcasters “willingly” giving up channels in exchange for cash, presumably to be paid by the likes of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

But there are some flies in the ointment. So far, there hasn’t been much of a positive response to the idea from broadcasters, the majority of whom seem content to hang onto their licenses – licenses that they paid plenty of cash to get in the first place, in case you didn’t know.

The CTIA (aka The Wireless Association) and other broadband advocacy groups like to talk about how broadcasters got their spectrum “for free.” Hogwash. They had to pay millions of dollars for licenses, construction permits, and related costs to light up transmitters and keep them on the air 24/7.  A recent analysis by analyst Jeffery Eisenach of Navigant Economics illustrated in detail that broadcasters had to pay their way – and plenty – to use the airwaves, just like anyone else.

In the meantime, Verizon and AT&T are sitting on chunks of unused spectrum that they’ve had for several years. Numerous studies over the past three years have illustrated that there is no “wireless broadband crisis,” as former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski insisted. (There have been plenty of new ideas for more efficient ways to use exiting wireless spectrum, though.) And locally, we’ve found out several times in the past two years that cellular networks are notoriously unreliable when there is a natural disaster, as they are easily overwhelmed with traffic.

Meanwhile, the terrestrial “one serving many” digital TV broadcast model continues to chug along reliably, providing timely news and weather updates and helping us feel like we’re not cut off from the rest of the world. Yes, I do miss my Internet connection, and shudder to think about how many emails I’ll have to plow through when it comes back.

But I don’t miss the telemarketing calls. And I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how dogged (and perhaps crazy) local reporters are from Philly TV stations KYW, WCAU, WPVI, and WTXF as they drive through dark neighborhoods, sliding on ice and dodging downed power lines to keep us updated on the progress of PECO crews. And what’s happening on the local roads . And which sections of which towns are still dark. And what to expect from the next storm system heading our way. (No, not more snow!)

When all else fails…