Category: The Front Line

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.

CES 2010, Part II: Dead-ends, gems, and trends

The photos have been edited…the press kits downloaded…the flash drives emptied…time for another post-CES writeup!

There were lots of mixed signals at CES this year. On one hand, attendance was way up from 2009’s debacle, and that’s a good thing for the CE industry. On the other hand, many booths were smaller, and the South Hall wasn’t even filled to capacity. There were quite a few ‘rest stops’ to be found in the Central and South halls…booths that were paid for, but never used. And that led to a few ‘dead ends’ as I searched for several ‘missing in action’ exhibitors.

In my Display Daily for January 18, I mentioned some of the more prominent MIAs, notably Sanyo, Pioneer, and Hitachi. A Pioneer representative emailed me after the show that…“our home entertainment group decided not to exhibit at CES this year in order to reduce costs and make the most efficient use of their resources for the remainder of the year.  As you noted, our mobile group did exhibit in the North hall…the home division is on track with restructuring efforts announced earlier in 2009, and they’re planning a normal rollout of key product categories in Spring, Summer and Fall 2010.”

How nice to CES to provide this “park” next to the Panasonic booth!

I’m still not sure what happened to Sanyo and Hitachi. The former company is a powerhouse across a wide range of CE products, including digital still and video cameras. And Hitachi was doing some nice cutting-edge work with super-thin LCD TVs, along with combo BD camcorders and motion-recognition TVs.

Instead, their booth spaces were taken over by Chinese CE manufacturers such as Haier and Hisense. You may not have head of these brands before, but you will soon – Haier is already being distributed by small, regional appliance retailers, and Hisense plans a major push into the US market for 2010 with a full line of super-thin LED LCD TVs. They’ve even got a glassless 3D TV solution.

So what were the gems from this year’s show? Here are a dozen products and/or demos I saw that made the trip to Las Vegas well worth the aggravation. (And if you’ve flown to Las Vegas lately on US Airways, you know what I mean by aggravation!)

Samsung’s prototype OLED ID card works with RFID sensors.

Samsung OLED ID card: This technology demonstration took place at the Digital Experience tabletop show. The card has a tiny (about an inch square) OLED embedded in it, next to a conventional photograph. When placed near an RFID sensor, the OLED screen comes to life, showing an animated 360-degree view of the person. It rotates twice, and then zooms in to a tight headshot (below the hairline to the chin). Remove the RFID reader, and the screen goes blank. It’s powered by a super-thin lithium ion battery.

It looks like they’re mating…

Luftco wireless USB file transfer: Got a file on one flash drive you need to copy to another? Piece of cake! Simply use two of Luftco’s wireless (Bluetooth) USB flash memory sticks. Place them side; turn both on, and after they sync up, the file is automatically copied to the empty drive. Look ma, no laptop!

That’s actually a 3D globe, loaded with content and menu windows.

Toshiba Cell 3D TV demo: I’ve seen this before at CES in a less-refined presentation. This year, Toshiba really dressed it up, and added active shutter 3D content on top of everything. The Cell processor is powerful enough to process up to 8 streams of HD programming while simultaneously handling the complex x,y,z vectors of hand gestures. Will we see this on a commercial TV model by end of this year? I believe we will.

You want wide? Vizio’s got w-i-d-e.

Vizio 21:9 (2.35:1) LCD TV: Most of you readers have probably heard about Philips’ CinemaScope LCD TV. Prototypes were shown last spring, but this is the first I’ve heard of a manufacturer bringing it to the marketplace. It’s a niche product to be sure, but the size (56 inches) and resolution (2560×1080 pixels) will no doubt attract plenty of early adopters. No firm pricing has been announced just yet.

I thought we were supposed to be watching HDTV on these things, not YouTube!

IDT StreamClean video processor: Now that we’re all running out and buying big screen plasma and LCD TVs, what are we watching on them? YouTube, Hulu, and a host of other low-rez, crappy video signals. Those look bad enough on a desktop monitor, but on a 55-inch 1080p LCD TV? Fortunately, IDT (among others) is working on a host of ASICs to clean up compression and scaling artifacts. While they don’t exactly turn chicken turds into chicken salad, they work better than I expected.

A projector with an antenna connector? You betcha!

Desonic HomeBoy LED LCoS projector: Wow – it didn’t take long for LED projectors to go mainstream. Desonic is another one of the Chinese manufacturers that swamped CES this year. Their booth in the South Hall featured a few clever projector designs, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen with a built-in ATSC tuner. Not sure how functional that is, but Desonic gets extra credit for thinking out of the box. The HomeBoy is rated at 100 lumens and has a native resolution of 800×600 pixels.

How much smaller can they make these things? (And not, it’s NOT 3D…)

Aiptek PenCam Trio HD: This is a super-slim 1280×720 HD pen camera that can also shoot 5 MP photos. It comes with 4 GB of flash memory (records 100 minutes of H.264 video) and is equipped with a mini HDMI port for connection to a larger TV. The viewing screen is tiny – only 1.1 inches – but it’s an AM OLED screen! Cool all around, and it comes in five different colors.

More eye candy from the LG Displays suite.

LG Display suite: It doesn’t matter what LGD shows every year, ALL of it is cool. Located at the Bellagio this year, I was once again greeted by old friend Bruce Berkoff and Stacey Voorhees, and they proceeded to show me several 3D demos, a wall of 15-inch OLEDs, and a new 72-inch LCD glass cut from LGD that also showed up in the LG booth and Vizio’s suite at the Wynn as finished TV products.

A 3D camcorder for only twenty-one grand? Such a deal!

Panasonic 3D plasma demos and consumer 3D camcorder: The folks from Osaka are jumping into 3D in a big way, and their active-shutter demos of Olympics footage were top-notch. In fact, almost half the booth space was devoted to 3D – wireless, DirecTV, and a prototype $21,000 camcorder that is being ‘built to order.’ Look for it at the 2010 HPA Technology Retreat in a few weeks.

An LED, a laser, and a color wheel – voila! A “green” projector!

Casio Green Slim projector: Casio’s answer to eliminating mercury-filled projection lamps almost reads like a Rube Goldberg design (note to younger readers – Google his name, it’s well worth the read!). Their latest projector design uses a red LED, a blue laser, and a spinning color wheel with green phosphors on it to derive a full RGB palette. The red LED illuminates a DMD directly, while some of the energy from the blue laser splits off and ‘tickles’ the green phosphor. Both WXGA and XGA resolutions are available, and amazingly, they start at $800!

You’ve got to see it in 3LCD LED color. (Sorry, Epson!)

Samsung F10M LED 3LCD projector: This XGA-resolution desktop projector uses three discrete light-emitting diodes instead of a short-arc lamp, and brightness is specified at 1,000 lumens. Up until now, all of the LED projectors I’ve seen at this brightness level have used DLP technology. Guess what? 3LCD imaging works just as well with LEDs. Look for other 3LCD manufacturers to follow suit in 2010.

(Later this week: My final CES post-show wrap-up.)

CES 2010 – Part I: Big crowds, smaller booths, 3D, MIAs…

CES 2010 rebounded nicely from last year’s lightly-attended show. But there weren’t as many surprises this year.

First off, 3D was everywhere. You couldn’t hide from it. I estimate I saw at least 20 demos of 3D over two days, and toards the end I simply declined the active or passive glasses and just took notes on the manufacturer and the projector or TV on display. 3D is like the wild west right now – everyone’s advancing their own “solution” and there aren’t any standards for home delivery just yet. (Where’s a sheriff when you need one?) Some of the more ballyhooed demos were actually disappointing, like JVC’s 4K 3D demo that used passive glasses. Yes, the images had lots of detail. Yes, they were larger than life. But they also exhibited too much crosstalk for my liking. (Crosstalk in 3D appears as unwanted ghost images in your glasses and is actually left or right eye information showing up in the wrong eye.) My preference was for the active shutter demos – they were cleaner and a better representation of 3D.

Secondly, more and more companies are jumping on the NeTV bandwagon. In addition to new Widget alliances and an entire App Store that Samsung announced, I saw numerous demonstrations of image processing for cleaning up Internet video to be shown on large screens. IDT’s suite at the Wynn had some particularly effective processing for not only YouTube videos, but movies downloaded to iPods as well. Those of you who own large LCD and plasma TVs know exactly how bad Internet video looks on a 1080p screen. These processors don’t make it look substantially better, but they do clean it up enough to be tolerable. This movement towards broadband delivery of video content is exactly why CE companies are asking the FCC why it is that digital TV stations really need all of the channels currently allocated to broadcasters.

One good answer is mobile handheld digital TV, or MH. There was an entire MH pavilion this year in the Central Hall, loaded with exhibits of integrated MH cell phones, MH receivers inside portable DVD players, and USB plug-in MH receiver sticks.  Participants included LG, Samsung, Movee, and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC),  among others. Combined with a primary HD program stream, MH could be a real game-changer for broadcast television. Add in custom widgets from local TV stations to appear on NeTVs, and voila – broadcasting has re-invented itself.

Yet another trend was green displays, from pocket LED projectors to LED-backlit LCD TVs. Even Panasonic got into the game with a demonstration of 25% to 30% reductions in energy usage on their latest line of plasma TVs. LED baklights are rapidly replacing cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) commonly used in LCD TVs. My prediction is that LEDs will be the dominant backlight technology within two years across all sizes of LCD TVs – they contain no mercury (although they do contain gallium, a rare metal) and enable much better color control and local area dimming. In the projector world, Samsung showed an LED-powered 3LCD model that was rated at over 1000 lumens, while Casio featured a hybrid red diode – blue laser – green phosphor color wheel design in an ultra-slim $800 XGA DLP chassis!

I was quite impressed with the size of the booths staged by Chinese TV manufacturers TCL, Haier, and HiSense. TCL manufactures the RCA line of LCD TVs, while HiSense is planning to launcha full line of TVs and related products this year, under its own name. That includes 240Hz Tvs, 3D models, and Blu-ray players.These are major players, and wil give the Japanese and Korean manufacturers a run for their money.

Missing in action? Pioneer’s AV receivers and BD players (they opted to skip the show to “conserve resources”), Hitachi’s LCD TVs and camcorders (no public explanation why), and Sanyo’s line of camcorders, cameras, and projectors (again, no official word on why they passed up the show).  Those are three substantial, heavyweight players in the CE marketplace!

Well, back to work. Look for more detailed coverage next week, this time with photos. (Boy, it takes a LONG time to download and edit 750 images…)