Category: The Front Line

Wal-Mart Buys VuDu. What does it mean?

On Monday, February 22, Wal-Mart announced it was buying the movie download service VUDU.

The announcement, which was a bit of a surprise, nevertheless makes sense in light of Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to downplay in-store sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Now, Wal-Mart can deliver HD-quality movies directly to a variety of compatible TVs and media players, including LG’s new BD590 player/DVR.

According to a Business Week story, a VUDU executive said he expects the VUDU platform to be integrated into more than 150 TVs and related AV products in 2010. This is significant because VUDU picture quality tends to be higher than iTunes and Netflix streaming video. In fact, many VUDU movies can be downloaded in the 1080p/24 format for true HD playback.

VUDU’s original set-top box

This move also pits Wal-Mart directly against Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as demand for digital downloads of TV shows and movies heats up.

So – what does that mean for packaged media sales? DVD sales continued their slide last year, falling off 13% from 2008, according to Adams Media Research. Even the Blu-ray format hasn’t proven compelling enough to reverse this trend, which many analysts still blame on the economy.

I’ve got three more sensible explanations. First off, DVD rentals are still hanging in there, which means more consumers have decided they really don’t need to buy every movie or TV show boxed set out there. Renting once is just fine, particularly if you have a $1-per-night Redbox DVD kiosk in your local grocery store.

Second, there just aren’t that many memorable movies out there from recent years that are worth owning. And if you’ve already accumulated RL or BD copies of the ‘classics’ plus some boxed sets here and there, why continue to fill up your shelves with more DVDs that will likely still be sitting in their original shrink wrap a year later?

Third, it’s pretty clear that the public is captivated by broadband video. That includes video-on-demand over cable, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Amazon digital downloads, and YouTube.  Granted, mailing Netflix and Blockbuster movies back and forth is pretty convenient (although Netflix spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make that happen!).

But pointing your remote at the TV and downloading a movie or TV show is even more convenient (and cheaper for Netflix). And if you have access to thousands of movie titles and TV shows at the click of a button, why do you need to fill up your shelves at home with DVDs you might watch one time, then consign to a garage sale or your local library?

Wal-Mart is betting that you don’t, and that direct downloads are what you crave. And they want a piece of that action.

Ten Steps To Set Up Your New HDTV Without A Calibration

Just bought a new LCD or plasma TV? Did the dealer try to talk you into a calibration? You may not need it.

The concept of calibrating TVs goes back to the early 1990s, when video guru Joe Kane began raising public awareness of just how bad a TV picture could look out of the box…and just how good it could look after some careful re-tuning of adjustments buried in each set’s service manual.

Over time, a new industry based on TV and projector calibration took hold and expanded, following the transition away from CRT-based TVs and projectors to fixed-pixel displays, including LCD and plasma TVs and LCD, DLP, and LCoS projectors. Installers took two-day classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) in setting up various TV and projector parameters, plus the AV components connected to those displays.

After passing these course, participants were certified as calibrators and went out into the world of home theater to tune up everything from stand-alone TVs to complete theaters equipped with multi-channel surround sound systems.

In recent years, THX has also gotten into the fray, offering their own series of classes on calibration. They offer training and certification in both display and audio system calibrations, going head-to-head with ISF.

So…do you need to pay for a calibration on your new flat screen TV? Chances are, you don’t. Given that most LCD and plasma TVs measuring 50 inches or less are now selling for about $16 to $17 per diagonal inch, it may not even make sense to spend several hundred dollars on a calibration.

Here’s why. TV manufacturers aren’t completely deaf, and after being hounded by calibrators for years, they have finally started adding pre-calibrated picture modes  to their TVs that are close in performance to what a calibration would produce.

These preset modes, which often go by the names “Movie” or “Cinema,” set the color temperature at about 6500 degrees Kelvin, produce a gamma between 2.2 and 2.4, and set peak brightness between 100 to 120 nits (29 to 35 foot-Lamberts).

If your new set has such a mode, selecting it will probably be all you’ll need to do. If not, you may be able to get ‘in the ballpark’ with these tweaks. They’re based on my own observations after calibrating and testing hundreds of TVs over the past two decades:

(1)   Set up your new LCD or plasma TV where you’ll watch it.

(2)   Reduce ambient light levels so that you don’t have excessive glare or outside light spilling onto the screen.

(3)   Turn on the TV. Connect an antenna, or your cable/DBS/FiOS box and tune in a TV program (preferably, an HD program).

(4)   Using the remote control, turn on the TV’s picture adjustment menu. Find and exit out of the factory “Dynamic” preset picture mode to the Movie or Cinema mode mentioned above. Can’t find it? Select another mode, such as Standard, Normal, or User. Make sure that mode lets you set color temperature and other tweaks.

(5)   Set the contrast control below 80 (this sets your white levels).

(6)   Then, set the brightness control between 50 and 60 (this sets your black levels).

(7)   Select WARM or LOW color temperature from the menu. (If more than one LOW setting is available, use the lower of the two.)

(8)   Turn the sharpness control to 0. If you see any white outlines or ‘ghost’ edges around objects or people, continue lowering the sharpness control until those outlines vanish. Cable news channels with fixed “tickers” and logos are great for spotting edge enhancement artifacts.

(9)   Locate and turn off any image enhancements in the picture adjust menu that carry names like “dynamic contrast,” “automatic black levels”, “black level enhance,” or “auto picture level.” If there are adjustments to play with colors (skin tones, etc) make sure they are also disabled.

(10)  If your TV has a memory function to save your settings, use it now to memorize the settings you’ve chosen. Repeat these steps for any other inputs on your TV, such as DVD and Blu-ray players.

You will notice a few things right away about your TV. First off, images won’t be nearly as bright and glary, but they will appear to have a more natural look. Image will also appear ‘warmer’ to your eye. Black levels will seem deeper, too. Zeroing out the ‘sharpness’ setting won’t make HD programs look soft, by the way. They’ll just look normal.

OK, you’re in the ballpark now…not ‘dead on’ accurate, but you’ve corrected most of the image quality problems on your new TV. You can sit back, relax, and watch.

If you’re a bit fussier, then pick up a calibration DVD and get even closer. There are numerous calibration DVDs offered for sale (Google them), but the best deal might be the GetGray DVD (http://www.calibrate.tv/). It sells for a donation of $25 and has the most useful grayscale and color test patterns you’ll need. (Note that this is not a HD disc, only SD. But it should get you where you want to go.)

3D Notes from the 2010 HPA Tech Retreat

It’s Wednesday morning, and I’ve presented two talks already at this year’s Retreat.

Attendance is strong, and the topics are compelling.

Perhaps the best session so far was yesterday’s 3D Super Session, which covered everything from 3D acquisition and editing and program distribution to human visual response and availability of 3D TVs (the subject of my presentation). The presenters came from Dolby, Panasonic, DirecTV, nVidia, the EBU, and Action 3D Productions.

Right now, 3D seems to be more of a solution in search of a problem, at least in the view of several attendees. There exits a perception among the CE industry that 3D will be the next grand slam, much like HDTV was. But there’s a flaw in that thinking.

The past decade was characterized by three distinct trends: First,  the transition from analog to digital video. Second, the transition from tape-based media to optical disc. And third, the transition from standard-definition TV to high-definition TV. (An argument could be made for a fourth trend, from CRT televisions to flat-panel TV technology.)

So the explosive growth in TV sales, combined with demand for HD content, was really a perfect storm – not one we’re likely to see again for some time. And 3D isn’t likely to solve the woes of TV manufacturers, who are dealing with the paradox of increasing TV sales (good news!) at ever-lower prices (bad news!).

Consider that most TVs up to 50 inches in screen size are selling for about $16 to $17 per diagonal inch. That’s not a lot of money, and there’s not a lot of margin in selling those TVs. And several research studies have shown that, while many consumers want 3D TV, they’re not willing to pay much of a premium for it.

Another big obstacle to rolling out 3D is all of those folks who have purchased an HDTV in the past  five years. None of these sets are capable of showing 3D content right now. They don’t have the right connections (HDMI 1.4 or Ethernet) and there’s no place to plug in an infrared emitter to synchronize active shutter 3D glasses.

I’m not saying that 3D won’t succeed. I am saying that after all of the 3D hype dies down, there should be a reality check on everyone’s part. 3D is an acquired taste, and doesn’t work for everyone – the Tech Retreat presentation on 3D perceptual issues by Marty Banks was quite clear in that regard.

3D must be done right, otherwise eyestrain and fatigue set in pretty quickly. And those active shutter glasses will be consigned to a dusty shelf.

Standards will help. Manufacturers should be proactive in explaining how 3D works and how best to view it in the home, which is the most problematic location. The dedicated 3D channels from DirecTV and others are nice, but they will lack for viewers initially until more TVs and affordable glasses come into the market.

So…don’t expect 3D to become the “Alaskan Gold Rush” that digital TV was in the late 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. There is a place for it – absolutely. But we should tread cautiously here and not over-inflate consumer expectations.

Otherwise, 3D will just become another fad…and we’ve already had plenty of those in the TV industry.

Reflections On a ‘Super’ Bowl

It’s the day after the biggest football game of the year, and the New Orleans Saints pulled off a miracle, beating the odds and those ‘smart’ talking heads to upset favored Indianapolis, 31-17.

Unlike past years, I had a small group of friends over to watch the game in HD. And unlike past years, I didn’t stuff the house with HDTVs and projectors to create an immersive football environment.

And that was just fine by me.

Way back in 2000, when the Titans – Rams clash was televised in HD by ABC and Panasonic, the subject of HDTV was rocket science to my neighbors. You couldn’t get it on cable, or from DirecTV. The only place to find HD broadcasts was from your local TV station…and that took an outside antenna, an expensive set-top box, and a wing and a prayer.

For that game, I set up a Princeton AF3.0HD widescreen CRT monitor (an ugly and bulky cuss, if I ever saw one) in my family room, and Sony’s VPL-VW10HT 768p LCD projector in my basement, driving a Stewart 82-inch matte screen. A single Panasonic TU-DST51A set-top box pulled in the signals from a Radio Shack UHF yagi, mounted on my rear deck.

With each successive year, the number of TVs grew…and grew…and grew.  We had LCD HDTVs, plasma HDTVs, DLP projectors, CRT projectors, and 3LCD projectors. Antennas were mounted on the roof, in the attic, along inside walls, and on that same rear deck.

Coaxial and video cables snaked all over the house. TVs popped up atop the refrigerator, in the bathroom, in the front hall (viewed from inside a closet!), on the rear deck, and even outside the front door.

The record for attendees was 70, in 2009. The record for TVs was 14, set the year Indy won it’s first Super Bowl and equaled last year. After that game, I decided to pull the plug on an ‘official’ HDTV party and keep it simple. After all, there’s no real mystery in HDTV anymore – you can buy a 32-inch LCD HDTV at Kmart for $300 nowadays!

This year’s party, which came together at the last minute, featured six screens, two of which are permanently installed. Panasonic’s TH-42PZ80U 42-inch 1080p plasma entertained guests in my family room, while Mitsubishi’s HC6000 1080p LCD projector lit up a JKP Affinity 92-inch screen in my theater.

A couple of 50-inch plasma monitors were hooked up in the living room and main theater, while Eviant’s T7 portable DTV sat atop the refrigerator and functioned as an air check monitor. As has been the case every year, all of the RF feeds came from roof-top and indoor antennas – no cable or satellite feeds were used.

And that 6th TV? Turns out that we actually got enough snow on Saturday to cover the lawn for the first time in 11 years…and it didn’t melt. So, I took a Canon SX80 MKII LCoS projector and aimed out it a second-floor window at a very steep down angle. Then, I hooked up a spare Samsung DTB-H260F DTV tuner to my house RF system.

Voila! I was now projecting HDTV onto the front lawn, using snow as a screen. The projected image had some keystoning issues, to be sure. But it still looked cool. I figure the size of the projected images was about 15 feet diagonally. And having 3300 lumens from the projector really helped punch up the brightness!

Here’s how the Canon SX80 was mounted. Talk about steep angles!

(For any ISF guys reading this, I used the Cool color temperature setting…naturally!)

 

Surprisingly, there were no 3D broadcasts during the game. I was ready if there were, though – I still had a pile of anaglyph 3D glasses left over from 2009 (remember the Monsters vs. Aliens trailer and the Pepsi SoBe commercials?) Some of this year’s commercials were entertaining, many were forgettable.

But the real story was New Orleans’ dramatic, come-from-behind win, a real feel-good result for that beleaguered city. The HD slow-mo replays were awesome, in particular the one that conclusively proved the Saints had gotten a crucial two-point conversion in the 2nd half. And The Who’s halftime show was one of the best in memory – it rocked out!

Our house was loaded with Saints fans, some sporting ‘Who Dat?’ T-shirts and wearing strings of colorful beads. The eats included jambalaya and pork barbecue, with Hurricanes do drink on the side. And my hat’s off to one guest who managed to bring back the original Café Du Monde beignet mix and whip up a batch of those tasty treats for us.

So…no more extravagant Super Bowl parties from now on. Just some good food and a couple of TVs (OK, maybe three, or five, or six) on which to enjoy the action.

And if Fox decides to carry the game in 3D next year, I still have those glasses…

CES 2010, PART III: Trends and takeaways

In this, my final installment of CES 2010 coverage, I’m going to cut through the pile of press releases and hype and focus on several clear trends that emerged from this years’ show. Some were pretty obvious (3D), others not so obvious (shifting power in the TV marketplace).

3D: Yep, it was everywhere. After about the first 10 demonstrations, I declined the offer of glasses and simply took notes on the manufacturer and products demonstrated. TV manufacturers really, REALLY want 3D in the home to take off in 2010, providing more momentum for  sales in an era of “me too” thin TV styles and falling prices.

Problem is, many consumers just bought their first LCD or plasma HDTV in the past couple of years, and they’re in no hurry to upgrade to 3D-compatible models. While cell phones and other personal electronics turn over every couple of years, there is an expectation that TVs will last a lot longer…probably 10 years at least.

3D is coming, ready or not!

So I see a potential market for 3D converter boxes, just like the ATSC converter boxes of a decade ago. Such boxes will be able to process 3D content into a format that uses the highest-possible refresh rate of the TV, detected through HDMI connections. It may be 120Hz, enabling active shutter 3D. Or, the TV may be limited to segmented or interlaced 3D presentations, using two frames @ 60Hz each for a total frame rate of 30Hz. Will it be the best 3D available? No, but it will suffice to get viewers started.

As for delivery platforms, Blu-ray and DVRs currently have the edge over streaming and broadband downloads. The file sizes are just too large and the bit rates non-sustainable over the typical broadband connection. Downloads to flash memory will also play a big part in the near future of 3D.

NeTVs: Consumers love ‘em, and crave more Internet-connected products. But they want those connections to be wireless, NOT wired. DisplaySearch predicted that there would be upwards to 70 million NeTVs sold by 2012, with a majority of those in Western Europe and North America.

The popularity of using a TV to find Internet video just like TV other channels shows that Microsoft had it exactly backwards in the late 1990s – they wanted you to watch TV on your computer. Why did anyone think that would be a good idea? (Sorry, Bill and Steve, ya can’t win ‘em all…)

The best thing about NeTVs is their relatively low implementation costs for manufacturers. And the growth of widgets and video streaming is amazing! Even Netflix has acknowledged that their future business model will be based on streaming and digital downloads, not optical discs.

Icons and streamig and widgets – oh my!

NeTVs also pose a competitive threat to the cable TV industry’s tru2way initiative.  tru2way is an embedded interactive cable tuner system that will replace CableCARDs. Sounds good, but there’s a little problem: It is based on the traditional cable TV channel model, which is likely on the way out as consumers increasingly will move to broadband video delivery and dump expensive channel tier packages.

On another front, network connections in Blu-ray players will turn out to be the salvation of that format. As I have mentioned before, BD players in Japan are full-blown media hubs, with internal hard drives, BD-RE capability, and coaxial and Ethernet connections. That’s the sort of product that will interest American consumers more than a simple BD player.

Don’t believe me? Look at how many new BD players have WiFi connections and support streaming. LG’s new BD-950 player takes the right approach as it contains a 250GB DVR and Wireless-N connectivity. Assuming the DRM lobbyists and Hollywood lawyers don’t have collective heart attacks; look for more BD player announcements like this during 2010.

The new kids on the block: You only had to glance at the size of the Haier, TCL, and Hisense booths at CES to see that the balance of power in TV manufacturing is changing drastically. These guys had everything the Koreans and Japanese did – Blu-ray players, WiFi connections, NeTVs, 3D demonstrations, widgets, streaming, edge-lit LEDs, wireless HDMI. You name it; they had it on display.

Those reporters and analysts that took the time to visit Vizio’s ballroom suite at the Wynn also saw another impressive demo by a powerful “new kid,” with a full line of LED LCD TVs, a BD player, wireless products, accessories such as headphones with built-in LCD screens, and even prototype MH digital TV receivers.

Look, Ma – no cables!

Even so, Haier one-upped everyone by demonstrating a completely wireless LCD TV in their booth. Based on WiTricity technology developed at MIT, this small LCD TV coupled about 100 watts of energy from a nearby RF-style emitter. Is it ready for the marketplace yet? No, but the idea that someday all connections to a large TV could be wireless is intriguing.

Significantly, this demo wasn’t in Sony’s booth, nor Samsung, nor Panasonic, nor LG. It was in a Chinese TV manufacturer’s booth, and that says a lot. Look for all three companies to significantly boost awareness of their product lines in 2010, and sign deals to sell direct through major brick-and-mortar stores.

Handheld convergence: The days when everyone has a “smart” phone like Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android are fast closing in on us. These phones will do it all – voice, text, PDA functions, GPS, shoot video and photos, and maybe even receive digital TV through the new MH standard.

A Google rep at the Pepcom Digital Experience show told me that “universal” Android phones (combo GSM and CDMA models) aren’t exactly around the corner. But they’re coming later this year for Verizon customers who can’t use their phones overseas, and for AT&T customers who can’t use their phones at all in many places.

Portable TVs for the 21st Century.

Question: If these phones eventually reach 10 megapixels imaging capability and can also shoot HD video, does the market for stand-alone pocket cameras go away? Pocket video cameras are already a big threat to still cameras – this will just make it worse…

OLEDs: Will they EVER come to market? Seriously, we’ve been seeing OLEDs for years at CES, but you can count the number of OLED-equipped CE products currently offered for sale on the fingers of one hand.

That may change in 2010, as LG Display is poised to rollout commercial 15-inch AM OLED displays into North America and Europe. My feeling is that they would work perfectly with Netbooks and even eBook readers. (Indeed, there is an OLED-based eBook product in the works!). Netbooks are going to repace laptops eventually but would still have a three to four-year life cycle, so they seem to be a natural fit with OLED displays.

They’ll be here any day now…any day…any day…

In the meantime, we’ll se the odd OLED screen here and there, such as in the Aiptek PenCam Trio I wrote about in part II of my CES coverage. Smaller OLED screens are just easier to manufacture right now, and probably more cost-effective for camcorders and digital cameras.

Smart TVs: We’re getting closer to the day when the only universal remote control you’ll need will be your hands. (Or your voice. Or maybe both!) Toshiba’s Cell TV demonstration showed that day isn’t far off, and past CES shows have also featured gesture recognition control by JVC and Hitachi.

Will we see a gesture-recognition TV this year? I believe we will, although it will cost plenty to get to market. But there will surely be early adopters who will pay any price to out one of these in their homes. And Toshiba could use the increased PR boost such a product would create for them, particularly in a cluttered LCD TV marketplace.

It sure beats the Clapper.