Category: The Front Line

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!

Is 3DTV Hazardous to Your Health?

According to a study just released by Boston, MA-based Strategy Analytics, seventeen percent of respondents “..believe that viewing 3DTV poses health risks to the eyes, and a further 55% aren’t sure.”

The study involved 2,000 respondents and the results were unveiled on August 24.

Here are a couple of interesting comments from the study. According to Ben Piper, Director of Strategy Analytics’ Multiplay Market Dynamics service, “…with 72% of the market either convinced of or unsure about potential 3DTV health and safety risks, the number one priority for 3DTV vendors and service providers needs to be messaging.”

Also, this: “While there is little published scientific evidence linking 3DTV and eye problems, anecdotal reports of eye strain, dizziness, headaches and nausea are common.”

Strategy Analytics will release more details of the study at the 2010 International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam.

Toshiba TVs: A Fade to Black? UPDATED

EDITOR’S UPDATE: Toshiba has indeed begun the process of moving its Wayne, NJ consumer products division to Irvine, California; integrating it with the company’s IT division. A press release detailing this move (which I missed, whoops!) came out on May 6, 2010.

Yes, Toshiba is following Samsung’s lead by consolidating the offices and operations of its consumer and professional divisions. But that’s only a sidebar to what is potentially a big (and perhaps insurmountable) problem facing the company, and that’s a slow and steady decline in market share among LCD TV brands.

According to an August 18th press release from industry analyst Riddhi Patel of iSuppli, Toshiba’s LCD TV market share in the United States has shrunken from 7.4% with 570,000 TVs shipped in the 2nd quarter of 2009 to 5.5% with 402,000 shipments in Q2 of 2010.

That’s not an insubstantial number. To put that into starker terms, Toshiba’s LCD TV shipments have dropped by almost 30% in one year, which should be sending up a huge red flag in the company’s executive offices…wherever they wind up next.

What is also alarming is that Toshiba’s market share has now fallen into Pioneer and Hitachi territory from 2007 and 2008. A few years ago, Pioneer had a 7% share among plasma TV shipments that dropped to about 5% within a two-year period (while the company was also hemorrhaging red ink). By late 2008, they had decided to throw in the towel and exited the plasma TV business in the spring of 2009.

Remember Hitachi? They once led the market in rear projection TVs and made some top-notch CRT sets, too. Hitachi was also a leader in plasma technology, building an enormous plasma fab on the island of Kyushu with partner Fujitsu in 1999.

Today, that plant is largely superfluous, as the company has withdrawn from selling plasma TVs. And you won’t find any Hitachi LCD TVs at Best Buy, or HH Gregg, or Wal-Mart, or Sears (they do have some nice Hitachi electric drills, though!).

Looking through the Amazon.com Web site, I found a handful of Hitachi sets that are either the last left in stock, or used models.  (And the company was conspicuous by its absence at CES 2010.)

The iSuppli report lists the current top five LCD TV brands as Samsung, Vizio, Sony, LG, and (surprise!) Sanyo, leaving Toshiba in the #6 slot. That’s quite a fall, as they were ranked #4 in Q2 of 2009. Panasonic showed up at #8 with a 3.1% market share, but their core business in plasma TVs.

Another shocker: Sharp, once the leader in LCD TV sales, brought up the rear with a 2.4% share, a decline from 4.7% in Q2 of 2009 and a drop in Y-Y shipments of 49%. Yikes! (Is Sharp on the LCD TV endangered species list, too? That’s another story for another time…)

Given all of the LCD fab capacity in Asia and indications of LCD TV oversupply in the channel, the logical result is another round of price wars. That’s a game that Toshiba can’t compete in, because they don’t manufacture LCD panels, and would have to do some serious shopping in Taiwan and China to keep manufacturing costs down.

However, three of the five brands ahead of them do make LCD panels  (Yep, Sanyo does make LCD panels, although they also buy glass on the open market), the exceptions being Vizio and Sony. But Sony is still sitting pretty because they are major investors in both the Korean S-LCD Gen 7 joint venture fab with Samsung and Sharp’s new Gen 10 LCD fab in Kameyama, Japan. (Sony owns about 34% of the Kameyama factory and a corresponding amount of the LCD panel output.)

Toshiba was one of the first companies to introduce LED backlights in their TVs. In fact, they were one of the first companies to use the term ‘LED TV,’ thereby creating instant consumer confusion about perceived differences between LCD and LED TVs.

The past decade hasn’t been kind to Toshiba. Their prized HD-DVD technology was vanquished by Sony’s Blu-ray format (supposedly with the help of a $400 million dollar payoff to Warner Home Media), and the crown jewel – the DVD format – is showing its age and in decline.

Toshiba was one of the few companies to show working 3D TV sets with active shutter technology at CES 2010. And their Cell TV architecture (co-developed with Sony) is a powerful platform on which to build next-gen TV designs that can stream multiple channels of HDTV programs and incorporate hand gesture recognition for operation and control.

But all of that may be for naught, if this negative market share trend continues.  It doesn’t help that Toshiba is perceived as a ‘mid range’ TV brand now, according to what an industry colleague heard when he recently visited several Best Buy stores in southern California and could find only two models of Toshiba LCD TVs for sale.

The marketplace is indeed a harsh mistress…

3D: Expect a Long Slog

3D: Expect a Long Slog

It took nearly seven years before HDTV really took off. So how can we expect 3D to launch in less time?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately in the trade and consumer press that 3D is at danger of falling back into a novelty entertainment category.

Several prominent movie directors (among them J. J. Abrams) have come out against the format. Christopher Nolan (Inception) said it was too dark. And sloppy 2D-to-3D conversions, such as Clash of the Titans, may scare some people away from the format.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that the initial fascination that movie audiences had with 3D is starting to wear off. The premium for a 3D ticket can be anywhere from $3 to $5, depending on the theater chain and location. And experiences like Titans will make consumers gun-shy about spending 25% to 40% more for a 3D presentation.

But that’s a movie theater issue. What CE manufacturers want is for 3D to take off like HDTV did, back in the late 1990s.

The only problem with that thinking is that HDTV did not take off in the late 1990s at all! As a matter of fact, it moved at a glacial pace for quite a few years.

I installed my first HDTV (Princeton Graphics AF3.0HD) in the fall of 1999, and connected it to a Panasonic TU-DST51W set-top box and antenna to watch a smattering of HD movies on Saturday nights (ABC) and a few sitcoms and hour-long dramas (CBS), along with Monday Night Football games (ABC again).

My TV market (Philadelphia) didn’t have a full slate of HD content available on the top four networks until 2003, five years after the first HDTV stations lit up. Remember NBC’s experimental HD coverage of the Winter Olympics in February of 2002? Remember the Fox network’s 480i ‘high-resolution digital TV?’ in 2000 and 2001?

The fact is; HDTV set sales didn’t hit their stride until the third and fourth quarters of 2005. That’s when the price wars began in earnest and the HD DVD – Blu-ray war was just starting up.  (Coincidentally or not, 2005 was also the high-water mark for DVD sales.)

Consider that HDTV turned the idea of TV viewing upside down. Gone was analog TV, replaced by digital bits and bytes. Gone too were big, bulky cathode-ray tubes, replaced by matrices of tiny pixels actuated by LCD and plasma technology.

Good-bye, VHS tapes – DVDs were well on their way to killing off this format by the start of 2005. And of course we were no longer limited to just 480 lines of picture resolution, but could enjoy programs with 1280×720 and 1920×1080 pixels of picture detail…win widescreen, no less!

Think about it. TV was literally re-invented from 1998 to 2005. And in 2009, we pulled the plug completely and analog TV broadcasts, completing the switch. But that was 11 years after the process started.

For most viewers, 3D is still an expensive novelty

So…manufacturers want people to buy into 3D. Currently, there are a limited number of 3DTV sets for sale, and they’re not as cheap as 2D sets. And there’s not much 3D content available on Blu-ray to watch right now. You can count the number of 3D TV networks on the fingers of one hand.

And the glasses! Depending on which model 3DTV you watch, you may see ghost images. Or, the picture may get darker as you tilt your head. (You may even get a headache after a few minutes.) And the glasses are expensive, and you need a separate pair for every viewer.

Did I mention that most 3D glasses will not work with other brands of 3D TVs? Hey, you could make anyone’s HDTV set-top box work with anyone’s DTV set. Ditto DVD players and Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes. But not 3D glasses.

It also doesn’t help that we’re in a nasty recession. People are reluctant to spend money now, especially with close to 10% unemployment.  So 3DTV winds up being an exotic luxury for now.

I return to my main point, and that is the long adoption curve I anticipate for 3D. The price premium is one drawback, and the other is the fact that millions of U.S. homes just bought one or more new HDTVs within the past three years.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, we are at or around 50% penetration for HDTV, meaning 50% of all homes have at least one HDTV set. I can guarantee that more than half of those sets were purchased after Q3 of 2005. So, where’s the impetus to buy a new 3DTV?

The good thing about a long adoption curve: Within two years, all models of HDTV sets 50 inches and larger will have the capability to play back 3D programming. (They’ll all have network connections too, but that’s another story.) So it won’t matter which set you buy – you’ll have the 3D playback built-in.

The same thing will happen with Blu-ray players and set-top boxes. They’ll be able to process 3D content as easily as 2D content. So you won’t have to buy an expensive special model just to watch 3D Blu-ray discs.

How long a curve are we looking at? I’d say about five years. By then, broadband speeds will have picked up considerably and we’ll be able to access 3D content through Internet TV channels, as well as from optical disc and video-on-demand.

Content drives demand, and there just isn’t enough of it in 3D right now. By 2015, the situation will have changed dramatically and we’ll have 3D movies, games, and TV programs coming out the wazoo.

Until then, expect 3D to penetrate the TV market slowly, in fits and starts…just like HDTV did.

Digital Downloads: The Great Gold Rush of ‘10

There’s something magical about the 99-cent price point. First, it was iTunes. Then Redbox followed. Now, Best Buy is joining the ‘dollar store’ crowd by offering selected movies at a per-night rental rate of 99 cents, through its CinemaNow service.

Information on this offer was in your Sunday newspaper Best Buy circular. (Did you toss it? Tsk, tsk…)

According to a story on the Home Media Web site, the selected titles will include The Bounty Hunter and Kick-Ass, two films that scored modest takes at the box office but certainly underperformed to studio’s expectations.

CinemaNow, of course, competes directly with Netflix’ ‘all you can eat’ flat monthly rate subscription service for streaming, and at equivalent picture quality. And BB isn’t the last to jump on this ship. It will be interesting to see if consumers prefer an ‘a la carte’ movie menu and pricing, or the buffet-style offerings from Netflix.