Category: The Front Line

3DTV At Home: First Impressions

It’s taken a few months longer than planned, but I finally got a review sample of a 3D TV to test here at home. After a few requests to the major TV manufacturers, Samsung was the first to step up to the plate, and shipped me a 46-inch UN46C7000 LED LCD TV (the only 46-inch 3D set in their line), plus a 3D starter kit that included a 3D BD copy of Monsters vs. Aliens.

Because no Blu-ray players were available when I made my request for a review sample, I decided to bite the bullet and purchase my own 3D Blu-ray player. Not surprisingly, I got the best deal on Samsung’s BD-C6900 at Amazon.com ($244 plus shipping) and had it a day later.

Of course, right after I placed that order, Samsung’s PR agency emailed me that they had just gotten a shipment of BD-C6800s in stock and one was on its way to me. Figures! (Now I have four copies of Monsters – one that came with each player, one with the starter kit, and one I picked up at the company’s 3D Line Show earlier this year.)

Setting the TV up didn’t take very long. I had previously called Comcast and asked them to turn on channel 980 – ESPN 3D – a channel that shows a top+bottom barker graphic most of the time. My goal was to watch the Ohio State – Miami football game in 3D, using either my Pace 110-series set-top box (3D-compatible) or my TiVo HD (also 3D-compatible).

The Pace box won out. IO placed the TV, set-top box, and Blu-ray player on a mobile printer stand and wheeled it into my family room, opened up the 3D starter kit and verified both pairs of glasses were working, and waited for the game to start.

Yeah, I know. That’s the ‘other’ football.

IN OPERATION

In addition to the channel barker, ESPN has also been showing clips from an earlier Virginia Tech – Boise State 3D telecast and a Harlem Globetrotters game. When you first tune the channel in, you will see the distinctive top+bottom left and right eye images that are standard for the 1280×720 3D picture format. Top+bottom is used to preserve as much horizontal resolution as possible; otherwise, you’d wind up with a pair of 960×720 images side-by-side.

The UN46C7000’s menu will guide you quickly to 3D mode, which you then turn ON. After that, you need to tell the TV which delivery method is in use – side-by-side, or top+bottom. You’d think the TV could figure this out automatically, given the HD signal. But it doesn’t.

Once you have a pair of double full-frame images, you’re ready to watch. Hold down the power button on the glasses for a full second, and they will turn on, acquire the infrared sync signal from the TV, and start showing you a 3D image.

The game came on while there was still quite a bit of daylight. As a result, I saw a noticeable flicker when I looked out the window to my right. In fact, if any part of the window was in the field of view of the glasses, the flicker was evident.  Something to think about when you choose a position for a 3D TV!

As expected, the images are quite a bit darker with the glasses on. So I elected to watch in Standard and not Cinema mode. (The TV isn’t calibrated yet.) This gave me a brighter image with more color and contrast ‘pop.’

Note: I only lost sync once or twice during the first half of the game, and have no idea what caused the glasses to switch off.

OBSERVATIONS

Just for the fun of it, I turned on the ESPN HD (2D) telecast of the same game on my adjacent Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma set. The first thing I noticed right away was a drastic variation in camera angles. The 2D broadcast had numerous high-angle shots and cutaways so you could see the yard markers, while the 3D telecast was produced more from the perspective of a viewer in the lower grandstands and consequently didn’t show as much of the field.

It was actually harder to tell if a field goal attempt was good on the 3D screen because of this choice of angles. However, you could see the football clearly all the way to (and through) the goalposts on the 2D broadcast.  From my perspective, the 2D coverage won out in terms of keeping you informed of field position.

I also have to say that about half the 3D shots would have worked as well in 2D. Those shots included wide views of the field with all 22 players visible – what we would call a wide angle shot in the world of videography.

In real life, there are little in the way of depth cues at this viewing distance other than occlusion, interposition, and motion parallax. All of these visual cues help your brain interpret the relative distances between objects by the relationship between each other in space – objects that are closer to you move by your field of view more quickly than objects in the distance, which appear fixed or slow-moving.

Closeup shots had much more dramatic 3D effects, particularly those taken in the huddle, along the sideline, and in the end zone. Coaches, officials, and players walked in and out of the frame with an enhanced sense of depth, one that was more intense as I sat closer to the screen.  The 3D coverage won the day here.

There were also some negative parallax effects as out-of-focus players and other objects momentarily appeared in the foreground. You’ll know when you see those kinds of images right away, because your eyes will strain as they try to converge them. To your brain, negative parallax implies that objects are in positioned front of the screen (the surface of which represents zero parallax), but they also disappear behind the edges of the screen, implying they also are behind it. (Get out the Motrin!)

The ESPN announcers (Joe Tessitore and ex-NFL and Notre Dame star Tim Brown) were making a big deal about the 3D coverage, stating that certain plays could only be seen clearly in 3D. Balderdash! A spectacular Ohio State TD catch and a Miami kickoff return for another touchdown were just as amazing in 2D, and also benefited from the higher camera angles and pints of view. It’s hard to judge just how far down the field a player is when viewing a compressed telephone shot – 3D or 2D. And the 3D coverage was limited to almost field-level views.

At one point, an Ohio State pass was overthrown and bounced towards and then past the end zone point of view. Once again, Joe Tessitore marveled at the 3D effects as the ball careened perilously close to the camera, saying to Brown, “Wow, Tim – you could have reached out and caught it! Isn’t 3D amazing?” (Brown said nothing; I just shrugged my shoulders. Hey, it’s part of Joe’s job to get viewers pumped up about the coverage.)

At halftime, Ohio State was up 26-17 and I decided I had seen enough. The sun was going down and it was time to squeeze in an hour of sunset kayaking while the weather was still good. (Reality is amazing. 3D has nothing on it!)

POST-MORTEM

My initial viewing distance was seven feet, or 84 inches from the TV. That works out to about 1.8x the screen diagonal, which is too long a distance for such a small 3D screen. My recommendations are 1.3x to 1.5x, and that means I should have been using a 55-inch or 65-inch screen for a truly immersive 3D experience.

My ‘take’ after watching the Buckeyes – Hurricanes tilt is that today’s TV coverage of football benefits minimally from 3D. Directors, producers, and camera operators have spent years developing and mastering all kinds of unusual camera shots that help you see the action from just about every possible angle, even from a ‘bird’s eye view’ camera that zooms across the field.

Football, more than other sports, is defined by inches and yards. The multiple camera angles that show you how much yardage is needed for a first down, or whether the nose of the ball broke the plane of the goal line, are just as effective in 2D as they are in 3D. I watched several replays of kickoff runbacks and amazing catches on both TVs and found no advantage to the 3D coverage.

And the reality is that better than 70% of the camera shots in a football game are long shots or wide shots, which let you see a good chunk of the field and many of the players. That was one of the key selling points for HDTV coverage, which benefits all sports immensely. More image detail? Great! A wider screen? Perfect!

3D effects in wide and compressed telephoto shots? Eh…

My conclusion is that you can watch a football game in 2D and lose nothing in the experience. It’s just as exciting (or boring, if a rout), you have numerous angles to see every crucial play, and most importantly, you have those frequent high-angle views that let you see where the team is exactly on the playing field… and how many more yards are needed for that crucial first down.

Placing a 3D camera at that high an angle would be a waste – players and field are so compressed together that you’d see little in the way of 3D cues. 2D is just as effective here.

If anything, a bigger HDTV screen – maybe even one with 4K resolution – would produce a more intense, involved experience. Of course, if that picture resolution were widely available, more fans might stop going to games and simply watch at home.

Now, what WOULD be cool would be to install a 3D camera in a few of the player’s helmets. Or even in the football. Imagine the view as it tumbled over and over, speeding its way towards the goalposts.

On second thought, maybe not. I don’t think the country is ready for ‘Puke-o-vision’ yet..

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.