Category: The Front Line

Epson Goes Reflective

Perhaps it was inevitable, but Epson has jumped on the reflective LCD imaging bandwagon. Joining liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) panel manufacturers Sony and JVC, Epson has come out with a new reflective high-temperature polysilicon (HTPS) LCD chip for home theater projection.

This device (pictured below) measures .74 inches diagonally, and offers full 1920×1080 pixel resolution. Two new projectors have already been shown at the IFA show in Berlin that incorporate these panels.

Epson’s new .74″ 1080p reflective LCD chip.

How is this new technology different from conventional HTPS LCD? What’s changed is that polarized light rays do not pass through the panel, but are reflected back out the way they came in, albeit at a different angle. This is the same way that LCoS imaging works – the light enters and exits the panel at different angles.

While this approach makes for a more complex polarized beam splitter to combine the individual red, green, and blue images, it also places the controlling semiconductors out of the optical path, behind the individual pixels. That, in turn, means each pixel’s aperture, or available imaging area, is enlarged.

As a result, the portion of each pixel actually used for imaging – its fill factor – also increases. Indeed, the ‘pitch’ of each pixel on these new chips is about 8.5 um (micrometers), larger than that found on the company’s latest D7 HTPS chips. In fact, Epson is claiming an improvement of 40% in fill factor with this new technology, which is also supposed to handle fast motion with less blurring.

Here’s how reflective HTPS LCD works. A conventional HTPS LCD chip is shown on the left. (Image courtesy Seiko Epson)

Home theater enthusiasts generally prefer the look of LCoS projection because it most resembles film in the way the liquid crystals respond over a grayscale ramp with changes in driving voltages.

While DLP also does an excellent job here, it can appear noisy at times when showing filmed content. (Stand close to a screen with projected DLP images on it, and you’ll see what I mean.) Liquid crystal response is very much analog, while DLP is a pulse-width modulated (PWM) digital imaging process.

The new projectors rolled out at IFA are the EH-R2000 (about $4,600 USD) and EH-R4000 (about $7,600 USD). Both use three-panel (RGB) engines with these reflective HTPS panels, and both are scheduled to ship in November of 2010.

Epson’s RH-2000 is one of two new home theater projectors that will use reflective LCD imaging technology.

Is LCoS going to be a bigger player in home theater projection? Probably, although it still commands a significant price premium over single-chip DLP and conventional 3LCD. You can buy some pretty good 3LCD boxes for $1,300 now, and single-chip DLP HT projectors have slipped under the $1,000 barrier.

The fourth Japanese manufacturer of LCoS – Canon – so far hasn’t tipped their hand with any plans to enter the 1080p front projection arena. But I wouldn’t rule them out.

HDTVexpert in Toyland

Yesterday, I trekked into Manhattan to check out an invite from Canon. The subject was their once-every-five-years Imaging Expo, and the venue was the Jacob Javits Center.

Honestly, I didn’t expect much. I make numerous trips into Manhattan on a regular basis for this and that press event, product launch, tabletop show, and special announcement. Most of those take up a small ballroom at most, or a compact studio or loft.

Welcome to tomorrowland…

I was truly not prepared for what I saw when I went upstairs at Javits. Here was a single company exhibiting in a space that was nearly as large as a small trade show (think HD World and SatCon, held in the same building every October).

Canon went whole-hog here, with a dramatic entryway light by colored lights and decorated with large banners. Inside, a ‘hub and spoke’ layout featured a large central courtyard with numerous walk-through exhibits branching off in all directions.

Cameras. Printers. Color management systems. Office equipment. Lenses. You name it; Canon had it on display in a room someplace!

And your first stop is Spaceship Canon!

I was there for two reasons. One was to check out the new HD camcorders and front projection systems. The other was an invitation for a private, non-disclosure demonstration of a product category that alone made the trip worthwhile. (Sorry, can’t say any more than that!)

There were other surprises. Canon had a ‘hall of technology’ exhibit where they showed the latest gadgets to come from Canon’s labs. Among those were a 128-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 360-degree camera, a 50-megapixel sensor, and a wafer-side CMOS sensor that has more resolution than the human eye can use.

Imagine a wall-sized image that has so much detail it looks real. Now, imagine being able to extract numerous 2K HD video segments from small parts of that image, and you’ll get some idea of just how much resolution this sensor has. (Did I mention that the video clips reside in the same file as the master still photographic image?)

On the left, a 300 millimeter CMOS sensor. On the right, a standard SLR (full frame) CMOS sensor.

Canon also had a dome projection system measuring nine feet in diameter that captivated the audience relaxing in lounge chairs below it. Next door, you could see a tiled 4K (4x 1920×1200) projected image, using soft-edge blending. The seams weren’t as clean as they could be, but the projected images still impressed.

Canon also showed a 3D demo, using passive shutter glasses and a pair of ReaLis WUXGA LCoS projectors. For readers who don’t know, Canon manufactures not only cameras and lenses, but the CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Silicon) sensors used in those cameras as well. And they also fabricate liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) imaging panels, just like JVC’s D-ILA and Sony’s SXRD offerings.

Canon’s 3D projection demo uses a pair of ReaLis projectors and passive glasses.

Canon also has its own proprietary compression codecs. In short, they make most of the parts found in cameras and projectors, which gives them a great deal of leeway to improvise and innovate, something we don’t see nearly as much of these days from Japan, Inc.

The dome projection demo was very cool.

Yes, this is the same Canon that huffed and puffed, but just couldn’t push the SED over the hilltop to a successful life. You can’t win them all. C’est la vie!

Did I also mention that Canon is profitable? And has been so for many years? Yes, the company is quite conservative in the way it does business and services its market segments. But it continues to make money (being the top guy in the lens business helps a lot!). And it has a strong brand name that is recognized worldwide.

12 megapixels just not enough? Hmmm…OK, how does ten times that much work for you?

While the other guy (that big Japanese company with four letters in its name) also has similar market cache, it has been struggling with red ink for several years. And struggling with market forces that have turned its traditional broadcast and business models upside down. And getting used to the fact that it cannot dictate and control new media formats like it used to.

Keep an eye on Canon. We’re going to be hearing a lot more from them in the near future…particularly in the world of displays.

Blockbuster: A Real-life Cliffhanger!

How the mighty have fallen.

Blockbuster, once the dominant name in brick-and-mortar store DVD rentals and sales, just missed a bond repayment to junior debtholders and still owes over $40 million to senior debtholders, according to an article at TheStreet.com.

The company, whose stock is  now trading at about 13 cents a share, is also in talks with major Hollywood studios to get approval on a so-called prepackaged bankruptcy. Support of the studios is crucial to ensure a pipeline of movies on DVD if the company is to continue operations.

Blockbuster’s plan is to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy through a speedy court process and buy some time to reorganize, not to mention obtain relief from many of its debts. Among those are leases on anywhere from 500 to 800 retail stores that are underperforming.

The company is also in the midst of an ad campaign touting its 28-day head start on new releases as a way to differentiate it from competition like Amazon, Netflix, and Redbox.

Problem is, Blockbuster has barely enough cash to mount such a campaign, according to Advertising Age. So it’s not certain how much exposure the ads will get in major markets – nor will they be enough to turn the tide, which now favors everything from $1-per-night checkout counter DVD rentals to streaming and digital downloads.

The perspective from here is that the old Blockbuster model is dead and buried. DVD kiosks work because they offer convenience and an unbeatable low price, plus they do not require personnel to stand behind a counter and ring up purchases and rentals. For Blockbuster to assert otherwise is just whistling past the graveyard…particularly after both Wal-Mart and Best Buy said last year that they do not see DVDs and Blu-ray discs as being significant sales drivers going forward.

In 2009, Best Buy launched CinemaNow, an in-store digital download service for movies and TV programs. And Wal-Mart recently purchased Vudu as a way to get into the digital streaming/download business.

Now, the new $99 Apple TV could emerge as a competitor to DVD rentals and sales, even though it doesn’t support the 1080p playback required for Blu-ray quality. But that apparently isn’t an issue for millions of Netflix subscribers who are quite happy watching standard-definition versions of movies on their HDTV sets.

Can Blockbuster survive at all? Probably as a streaming service, with a little ‘DVD-by-mail’ mixed in. NCR’s Blockbuster Express checkout rental kiosks are being deployed in 6,000 locations and should (in theory) do as well as Redbox, if pricing is competitive.

Either way, the outcome can’t be happy for Hollywood, who is seeing their DVD money-printing machine slowly grinding down. Without Blockbuster retail locations, there will be little incentive to maintain the 28-day exclusivity window on new movie releases (something Disney does not participate in, by the way).

3D: The Price Wars Have Started!

A story on today’s Bloomberg.com Web site says Panasonic has accused Samsung of starting a 3D TV price war…and that Panasonic can’t hope to compete.

According to Yoshiiku Miyata, the head of Panasonic’s TV business, “It’s become unclear whether we can reach our target” of selling one million 3-D sets in the fiscal year that ends March 31. Both Panasonic and Sony have stated that Japanese TV manufacturers are struggling to sell 3D TVs in the United States, and that any price war may have a negative effect on corporate earnings.

It’s clear that TV manufacturers expected 3D models to offset price declines for conventional 2D TVs. But that’s an unrealistic expectation, as 3D TV is clearly a niche product. Not everyone wants to watch 3D at home, and there have been more than a few objections raised by consumers to the concept of having to wear glasses to enjoy 3D. (That’s why several companies are working on autostereo 3D TV sets, most notably Toshiba.)

According to Yoshihisa Ishida, who heads Sony’s home-entertainment business, prices of 3D TVs are falling faster than anticipated. And Samsung is clearly leading the charge, offering their 720p-class PN50C490B3D 50-inch plasma 3D TV for $989.99 at Best Buy (no glasses included).

That price is substantially lower than Panasonic’s entry-level TC-P50VT20 1080p 3D plasma TV ($2,499 with one pair of active shutter glasses) and Sony’s KDL-46HX800 1080p LED LCD 3DTV ($2,299, no glasses). In fact, for a real apples-to-apples comparison, Samsung also has the 50-inch 1080p PN50C680G5F plasma 3DTV on sale for $1,339.99 (again, no glasses).

According to the Bloomberg story, Panasonic is counting on 3D TV sales in Japan and Europe to offset Samsung’s advantage in the U.S. market, quoting Miyata as saying “We don’t plan to follow Samsung in the U.S., it’s impossible. No one can keep up.”

So – why are we seeing prices wars this early in the game? There are a few reasons. First of all, we’re in a recession, and TV sales are far from robust. Secondly, only about 300,000 3D TVs had been sold worldwide through early June of 2010 – a drop in the bucket.

Contrast that with the nearly 1.4 million LCD TVs shipped stateside in the second quarter by Vizio! Even Panasonic shipped 270,000 LCD TVs to the United States in Q2, and they’re primarily a plasma TV manufacturer.

Another factor is the price premium charged for 3D sets over conventional TVs. You can buy a Panasonic TC-P50U2 50-inch 1080p plasma set for $899.99 at Best Buy. That’s $1,600 lower than the 3D model, and in these days of consumer frugality, that price differential just to pick up the 3D option won’t fly.

Realistically, manufacturers have to (and will) start building 3D compatibility into all sets that measure 50 inches and larger. And that will probably happen by 2012. 3D will be an option, like Internet connections and apps such as Skype, that consumers can use if they wish or disregard. Active shutter glasses will be sold separately, assuming the market hasn’t started moving towards passive 3D technology by then.

Sony 3D TV: Still Not Quite There

Yesterday, Sony put together a nice show of its current ‘hot’ CE products, including some new 3D digital cameras, three Blu-ray players, and three 3D LCD TVs.

The cameras were fun to play with, in particular the DSC-WX5 and DSC-TX9 Cyber-shot models. They were a bit complicated to figure out at first, particularly since both use Sony’s iSweep panoramic image mode and are not simply “point and shoot” 3D cameras.

But I was there mainly to take a look at the current 3D Bravia line-up, consisting of the 46-inch KDL-46NX810 ($2,700, September), the 55-inch KDL-55NX810 ($3,700, September), and the 60-inch KDL-60NX810 ($4,700, also September).

Sony’s KDL-60NX810 Bravia LCD TV is a looker, and their biggest 3D offering.

These are not inexpensive TVs. The KDL-46NX810 sells for about the same price as Samsung’s equivalent UN46C8000 3D LCD TV. Both use edge-lit LED backlights, both have dynamic local dimming, and both are 240Hz sets.

The main difference is that Sony’s 3D glasses use a single polarizer, and not two like Samsung and Panasonic. There are a couple of reasons why they adopted this approach (and these reasons were explained to me back in June by a non-Sony LCD industry veteran).

First, the single polarizer minimized a flicker problem with European sets that use a 50 Hz picture refresh rate. That’s also the power line frequency in European countries and a ‘beat’ occurred between the TV and ambient room lighting. The second reason was that a single polarizer lets more light energy pass through than two polarizers. (A single polarizing filter has to block 50% of the light – that’s elementary physics.)

The crosstalk problem I referenced in an earlier post was still evident on all three TVs, particularly when bright objects appeared on a medium-toned or dark background. That includes white letters, bright white uniforms, and even the white or light-colored edges of fins on tropical fish. All these demos were seen on the Bravia 3D sets.

Yep, the crosstalk problem is still there. And you only need to tilt the glasses about 15-20 degrees to spot it.

More than one CE industry journalist I spoke to at the showcase has also noticed the crosstalk problem, which can occur with just the slightest tilt of your head to the left or right. And it is VERY distracting when watching 3D content.

In an up-close-and-personal meeting with several Sony executives, I discussed the crosstalk issue at greater length. Suffice it to say that Sony is aware of the problem and is looking into it. I’d expect some sort of solution to appear this fall, hopefully not long after these TVs start shipping.

After all, Sony is branding itself as the expert in 3D from camera to TV, so we should expect a higher level of performance from them. Right?

In the meantime, you might want to wait things out before you buy a Bravia 3D setup. Another option –  I’ve tried the Bit Cauldron (Monster) 3D glasses, which do work with Sony Bravia 3D TVs and use dual polarizers. They are essentially free of crosstalk. But 3D images you watch through them will appear to be dimmer.

Note that Sony does provide different levels of brightness in the TV user menu for their own glasses, but for aftermarket eyewear, you’ll just have to turn up the brightness.

OK, I know this has nothing to do with the Sony story. But I passed this storefront while walking by Rockefeller Center. Put on your anaglyph cyan/red glasses and take a look!