Category: The Front Line

OLEDs Can Fold. So What?

The idea that a folding OLED display will somehow revolutionize portable product design and create a volcanic market expansion periodically raises its ill-conceived head. A recent occurance was the presentation by UBI Research president Choon Hoon Yi at IMID 2016 in Jeju entitled “Flexible OLED Opens New Digital Convergence.” Yi’s “digital convergence era” refers to the convergence of phone and tablet, in which the screen can be completely folded and unfolded, allowing a 5-inch phone screen to become tablet sized.

Is it possible to develop OLED displays so flexible they can be said to fold? Yes. Is it then plausible that such a display can be integrated into a “convergence” product that consumers will actually buy in large numbers? That part is questionable.

The foldable concept most people seem to think of is shown in this photo of a 2013 Samsung design demonstration. The display inside the folder wraps around both halves to make the double-sized display when the folder is opened. So, when the folder is closed, we have three thickness of display. Well, okay, polymer OLEDs are thin. We also have three thicknesses of touch panels, three thicknesses of Gorilla glass, and at least two flex circuits. You’ll probably need multiple audio drivers, microphones, and cameras so they can be pointed in the right directions when the folder is open and closed. This is becoming a rather beefy device, and consumers like their phones thin. They have also, especially in North American and Asia, enthusiastically rejected clamshell phones. And this is, no matter how you try to wriggle around it, a clamshell.

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013.  (Photo:  Samsung)

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013. (Photo: Samsung)

Next problem. When the device is open and in tablet mode, the screen must be rigid and flat both to provide a distortion-free image for movie watchers and a usable touch screen for swiping and typing. That means our folder can not be made of flexible, supple Corinthian leather, unless its supported with a rigid sheet of something. And the folding part has to be supported by a robust hinge that locks at 180 degrees, and perhaps at other angles, as well.

Can each of these design challenges be dealt with by clever engineers and lots of development money? Sure they can, but in the end you are significantly compromising the user’s experience of a phone or a tablet in order to create this convergence device.

Compare it with the iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S7, which are slim, sleek, polished, and very, very good at what they do. The Galaxy S7 has an OLED display and the S7 Edge has a flexible one. Of course, it is only flexed once, when the phone is assembled, but that’s enough.

In fact, while it is very easy to envision extremely useful applications for flexible OLEDs, it is very hard to envision practical applications that require the OLED to be flexed more than once. Except for one. But that’s another story.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

LeEco: Today Vizio, Tomorrow the World?

When LeEco (Leshi Internet Information & Technology) exhibited at one of the press-and-analyst shows at CES 2016, it had not yet changed its name from Letv. Letv showed prototypes and products that were notable both for their variety and strikingly handsome industrial designs.

Some of those products also contained advanced components. At Qualcomm’s CES press briefing, the company said the Letv Le Max Pro was the “first announced smartphone” to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor, as well as the phone with the “first announced support” for Multi-gigabit 11ad in a smartphone. Early members of the Le Max family went on sale in China in July 2015, and quickly became the best-selling high-end phone in China, topping both Apple and Samsung, according to Sino Market Research.

But the change of name from Letv to LeEco is appropriate because the company’s focus is on a global ecosystem strategy it calls “Le Ecosystem” — an Internet-based platform encompassing content and applicatons, as well as devices. The company also has a dizzying array of other businesses, including eco-agriculture, Internet-connected electric cars, and a cinema production company.

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle).  The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate.  The SoC is a Snapdragon 810.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle). The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate. The SoC is a Snapdragon 810. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The LeEco Group (Beijing) started when Jia Yueting establilshed Letv.com in 2004. Now called Le.com, it is among the largest on-line video providers in China. LeEco started its TV hardware business only recently, in 2013. According to IHS, LeEco “focuses on the growth of the paid content subscription, while it sells TV hardware at below manufacturing cost or even provides it for free during promotional periods.” Please keep that in mind as you read the following paragraphs.

On July 26, as is well known in our community, LeEco and U.S.-based TV manufacturer Vizio announced the LeEco would acquired VIZIO for $2 billion. The combined TV sales of VIZIO (No. 2 in the U.S.) and LeEco (No. 7 in China) would have been sixth in the world in 2015, ahead of Skyworth.

Vizio’s management and customer service teams will remain in place, and the company’s sets have always been made in China, so it’s the global strategies and synergies that are important here. LeEco buys VIZIO’s know-how and sales and distribution infrastructure in the U.S. VIZIO gets access to the Asian (including Chinese) market, where it currently has little exposure.

We’re not done yet. On August 2, Variety reported an upcoming content deal between LeEco and Netflix. “We are planning a very significant cooperation with Netflix,” said Liu Hong, co-founder and vice chairman of LeEco, speaking in Beijing on Tuesday. “Details will be announced in the third quarter.”

A quick look at Le.com shows a large selection of Chinese-language films and videos. How does Netflix content fit in there? It could, of course, with dubbing or subtitles, and a period for approval from Chinese censors (which is becoming a lengthier and more thorough process). But China may not be where LeEco intends to go with the Netflix content. The company intends to come here.

LeEco will officially announce its new U.S. presence this autumn. PR director Todd Witkemper said LeEco has about 400 U.S.-based employees now and intends to have a thousand by year’s end, reported Jimmy Westenberg in a June 17 posting on Android Authority. The company will reportedly introduce a video streaming service and very competitively priced smartphones to the U.S.

LeEco is also rolling out its phones and a video streaming service in India. Variety speculates that a LeEco/Netflix deal might also be done for the Indian market.

So, are we likely to see free VIZIO sets being used as inducements to sign up for LeEco’s new U.S. streaming service? If LeEco attempts their free-device strategy in the U.S., I would guess using their own smartphones is more likely. We’ll see.

Cord-Cutting: A Slow And Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

An interesting study was just conducted by consulting firm cg42 and it claims that pay TV service providers stand to lose as much as $1 billion in revenue over the next 12 months. The reason? Cg42 says that as many as 800,000 customers are likely to ‘cut the cord’ in an attempt to save money on pay TV packages and bundles.

Cg42 surveyed 1,119 customers online this past summer and calculated that pay TV companies could lose as much as $1,248 per lost subscriber on an annual basis. In their survey, they found that the average pay TV subscriber spends about $187 per month for cable TV, phone, Internet access, and video streaming subscriptions.

In contrast, ‘cord nevers’ – people who have never subscribed to pay TV services – spend about $71 per month on broadband access and video streaming subscriptions. The streaming part of that amounts to as little as $15 per month.

Cg42’s survey revealed that both cord-cutters and cord-nevers don’t care much for traditional TV programming, and 83% of cord-cutters said they can access most or all of the content they want to watch without a pay TV subscription. (87% of cord-nevers said the same thing.)

Perhaps more ominous for companies like Comcast and Time Warner, the satisfaction of watching TV without paying for cable or satellite services increases the longer these viewers remain away from pay TV subscriptions.

The most popular streaming service is still Netflix, which 94% of respondents subscribe to.  And number 2? YouTube’s free video channels, which offer selected clips from late night talk shows and musical performances.

Surprisingly, many respondents get their sports fix by going to bars or restaurants to watch games. The survey didn’t mention how many people also watch sports on free over-the-air TV, which of course includes NFL games, selected baseball games and the World Series, the NHL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs, plus the Olympics, golf, tennis, and NASCAR/Indy Car racing.

Surveys like these aren’t anything new. We’ve seen analysts forecasting the end of traditional pay TV packages for several years now. However, there is a real concern about the cost of these monthly services, and whether they’re worth the price.

I’ve advised numerous folks on how to get free over-the-air television and supplement it with streaming services to save money – and in fact, later today, I’ll be visiting someone nearby to do an RF site survey and see how well he can receive the local Philadelphia stations at home (upward of 50 minor channels).

Couple that with broadband service and there’s no real reason to stay with pay TV, especially now that you can subscribe to HBO and Showtime online without a pay TV service.  You can also do without landline phone service if you have a mobile phone, further reducing your monthly expenditures.

I said this a few years ago in several columns: The future of cable TV is providing broadband service. Just like mobile phone companies charge you only for data (phone calls and messaging are basically free now), so will cable and satellite companies. They will look more like the electric company, charging you for however many gigabytes you used that month.

And how you use the data will be up to you: sending and receiving photos, streaming video, emails, and voice-over-IP. That’s the real future of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House, and other MSOs. The question is, have they accepted it yet?

Ultra HDTV, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2 – Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave…

A few days ago, I received an email from the president of an AV products manufacturer. He had purchased a Samsung UN65HU8550 65-inch Ultra HDTV back in 2014 and decided to take the plunge into Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Previously, he had been using an upscaling Blu-ray player to achieve 3840×2160 resolution, but now he wanted the real thing. So, he visited his local Best Buy and picked up Samsung’s UBD-K8550 UHD Blu-ray player, took it home, and connected it to one of the HDMI inputs on his UHDTV.

Sounds simple, right? Except that it didn’t work. The UHD disc spun up, started to play, and then a message was displayed that the player would down-convert to 1080p resolution because it didn’t detect support for HDCP 2.2 (the newest and most aggressive form of copy protection for optical disc media).

To him, this made no sense whatsoever. (Me, too!) Here he was, playing an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, from a Samsung Ultra HD BD player, into a Samsung Ultra HDTV – and it wouldn’t work. I advised him to make sure he was truly using an HDMI 2.0 input (sometimes labeled as such, or color-coded).

He tried all of the inputs, including the MHL input that is supposed to be compliant with HDCP 2.2, but no luck. Again, the disc would spin up, and then display the same error message. (By the way, HDMI 1.3/1.4 inputs can also support HDCP 2.2.)

Another trip to Best Buy resulted in the purchase of Philips’ BDP7501 Ultra HD Blu-ray model, which was then connected to the Samsung TV and – voila! It worked, playing back in true 2160p resolution.  That is; only when connected directly to the Samsung TV, and NOT through his existing Denon AVR (which likely doesn’t support HDCP 2.2 key exchanges on any of its HDMI ports).

Some quick checks on the Internet showed this wasn’t an isolated problem – others had purchased the same TV, or different screen size variations of it, and were unable to watch 4K movies from the Samsung player. One comment I read talked about going so far as to buy an HDCP 2.2 to HDCP 1.4 converter, a product I wasn’t even aware existed. And apparently, it worked! (Warning: This product may be illegal to purchase as it alters a copy-protection process. I’m only providing the URL as a reference.) (http://www.hdtvsupply.com/hdcp-2-2-to-hdcp-1-4-converter.html)

The next step was to check in with my friends at Samsung, who responded that an upgrade kit would fix the problem. It’s called the SEK3500U One Connect Evolution Kit, and attaches to your Samsung 4K TV through a separate connector on the side panel.  This $400 box – which resembles a thin Blu-ray player – provides four HDMI 2.0 inputs, all up to speed with HDCP 2.2 support, HDMI 2.0a compatibility for high dynamic range playback, and improved color rendering, according to several Amazon reviews I read. (https://www.amazon.com/Samsung-SEK-3500U-ZA-Evolution-Kit) Samsung also commented that frame rates may play a part in the problem, as the Blu-ray Disc Association HDR specification for HDMI 2.0a calls for 2160p60 playback with 4:4:4 color, and that using a lower frame rate might fool the UHDTV into down-converting to 1080p resolution.

All of this just confirms my continued advice to my friends and colleagues: “Wait just a little bit longer before you buy a 4K TV.” Too many things are still in a state of flux on the manufacturing side, not the least of which is support for multiple high dynamic range formats. And the issues with HDCP 2.2 support are frankly, just ridiculous at this point: The standard’s been out for a few years, and it will be used exclusively with all HDMI inputs on Ultra HDTVs.

Another takeaway from this is the slow and steady move away from optical disc delivery of 4K movies and TV shows to streaming connections. The protocols for copy protection are a bit different for streaming, but at least the underlying architecture is standard across all platforms (some sort of common streaming protocol like RTSP, carrying MPEG4 H.264 or HEVC H.265 / VP9 with IP headers) and can be easily updated with software.

Given the continual increase in home broadband speeds – especially in metro areas – 4K streaming is fast becoming a realistic option. Granted, the image quality at 15 – 20 Mb/s won’t be as good as a file coming off an optical disc at 100 – 110 Mb/s, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority of home viewers continue to choose convenience and price over quality. That may be one reason there are only three Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market today: How many people are going to spend $300 – $400 – $500 for one?

As I write this, the SEK3500U is on its way, and my colleague will soon be enjoying true Ultra HD movies like he should have been from the start. I suppose the $400 cost is a small price to pay if you’ve already shelled out a few thousand dollars for an Ultra HDTV, but it would irk me to no end to be in that situation. (You know what they say about the “leading” edge often being the “bleeding” edge.)

To summarize; my advice to readers remains the same as it has been. If you are thinking of buying a new Ultra HDTV – like me – WAIT until next spring, or at least until Super Bowl time. Not only will you see lower prices, but you’re more likely to have all of the bugs out of the system – and you’ll be able to score a good deal on a set that can show high dynamic range content, too; certainly supporting two or more of the new HDR formats.

And if you just gotta have an Ultra HD Blu-ray player? Those prices will have come down, too. A quick check on Amazon shows the UBD-K8500 currently available for $317.99, while the Philips BDP7501 will cost you $279.99.  (Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 player wasn’t shipping at the time this article was written.)

Caveat emptor….

 

Samsung Moves Front & Center With HDR

Last Wednesday, I was one of a group of journalists, engineers, and other technical types sitting in on a presentation about high dynamic range (HDR) TV. The location was Samsung’s sparkling-new product showcase in lower Manhattan at 837 Washington Street, and the presenters ranged from Samsung execs to well-known industry consultants, including Florian Friedrich of AVTOP, Steve Panosian of Samsung, Kevin Miller from ISF, Gerard Catapano from Samsung QA Labs, and Jason Hartlove of Nanosys.

THE NEXT BIG THING

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about high dynamic range television by now. Along with Ultra HD resolution, HDR is the next big thing in TV displays, along with a new, wider color gamut, and eventually high frame rate video.

The transition away from mature Full HD (1920×1080) display technology to Ultra HD is happening much faster than most people expected. The costs of manufacturing LCD panels for televisions have absolutely plummeted in the past couple of years; so much that there is at best a $50 to $100 price delta between same-size 1080p and 2160p TV models.

In fact, we will start to see major TV brands dropping 1080p models altogether in larger screen sizes; possibly as soon as December. Sales experience is showing that customers take the upgrade to 4K more often than not when buying sets measuring 55 inches or larger, which is good news for retailers.

And that’s “qualified” good news, as worldwide sales of televisions have been in decline the past four years. The double-digit annual growth of Ultra HDTV sales are keeping things from getting worse and leading everyone in Japan, Korea, and China to focus on 4K and leave increasing numbers of sales of 1080p sets to the bargain brands.

But quadrupling the picture resolution by itself isn’t enough to turn the tide. Hence, we now have HDR, which can produce images containing peak brightness levels that are 10x higher than what we used to see on our old tube HDTVs. (Remember those?) And the colors represented on these displays are also much more saturated and intense, thanks to advancements in illumination technology.

Back in the early days of high definition television, we were largely in unknown territory. The first HDTV broadcasts used terrestrial television, and everyone needed to learn more about antennas and set-top boxes. Yet, seven years after the first HDTV broadcasts, every major network had produced some quantity of HDTV content.

There were missteps. Remember the surge in interest in 3D about a decade ago? It peaked in 2009 and featured competing 3D encoding and viewing standards, expensive glasses that often broke, complaints of headaches and nausea after extended, and even a campaign by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists to test for eye disorders; one based on the inability of certain people to see stereoscopic images correctly.

TIME TO CHANGE THINGS UP

Gerard Catapano from Samsung and Chris Chinnock of Insight Media talk about UHDTV market trends.

Gerard Catapano from Samsung and Chris Chinnock of Insight Media talk about UHDTV market trends.

HDR is different. You don’t need anything other than the naked eye to see it, and the premise of HDR is that you are watching images with peak whites and contrast ratios that follow closely what you see in real life (about 14 stops of light at any instant, from deep shadows to peak brightness).

What’s more, the colors you see rendered in HDR are much more vivid than what our current televisions can display as they’re working with a restricted color gamut. If you’ve seen bright neon or LED signs at night, marveled at a brilliant sunset, or gotten up close to tropical flowers in bloom, you know how hard it is to reproduce those intense colors on a television or computer monitor.

That’s all changed. We’re now standing at the threshold of an entirely different class of displays that are advanced by several orders of magnitude from the color TVs your parents or grandparents watched 50 years ago. It isn’t just about having more pixels – it’s about adding in all of the visual elements that replicate what you see every day.

Samsung's KS98900 HDR TV, as seen last April at Samsung's 837 Washington Street showroom. It uses quantum dots manufactured by Nanosys.

Samsung’s KS9800 HDR TV, as seen last April at Samsung’s 837 Washington Street showroom. It uses quantum dots manufactured by Nanosys.

Samsung is one of the first companies to get out of the gate with HDR televisions, and they’re using a new technology to light up the screen. Instead of conventional white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and arrays of color filters, the light source is made up of arrays of blue LEDs and matrices of green and red quantum dots (QDs). It’s not difficult to get intensely-saturated and bright blues from LEDs, but green and red provide more of a challenge. Hence; the QD backlight.

And they are bright. Samsung claims that their HDR TVs can achieve 1000 candelas per square meter (cd/m2) in a small area, which is quite the jump from the 300 cd/m2 or so that conventional white LED backlights can generate. Plus, the intense greens and reds generated by QDs have expanded the gamut of displayable colors considerably; closer to that of digital cinema projectors.

Now, the catch: How can we measure the performance of an HDR TV equipped with quantum dots? We can’t use the older test pattern generators and set-up Blu-ray discs as they’re limited to the current ITU Recommendation BT.709 color space and only use 8-bit color encoding. (HDR is based on a 10-bit color system.)

For that matter, we can’t even use the older display interfaces to connect a test pattern generator. For HDMI, the standard must be version 2.0a, and if we want to use DisplayPort, it must be version 1.4. It goes without saying that we must use an Ultra HD Blu-ray player if we want to source HDR test patterns from optical disc – and there is exactly one of those (Samsung) on the market, with another one coming from Panasonic this fall.

Florian Friedrich and Kevin Miller discuss the challenges of evaluating and calibrating HDR TVs.

Florian Friedrich and Kevin Miller discuss the challenges of evaluating and calibrating HDR TVs.

At the Samsung event, Friedrich and Miller explained how a new suite of test patterns has been prepared for Ultra HD Blu-ray to both evaluate and calibrate an HDR display. This test pattern UHD BD will be available from Samsung and can be used with any HDR TV, even the line-up of LG organic light-emitting diode (OLED) UHD sets that have come to market.

Steve Panosian talked about the lack of standards in TV performance and how there has to be a better way for consumers to compare the performance of one brand of HDR TVs against another. Although at this point in time, there are so few models available that it’s basically Samsung vs. LG, with companies like TCL and Hisense looking to get into the game this year.

Jason Hartlove from Nanosys made an appearance to talk about what’s happening with quantum dot science and what the next generation of HDR TVs might look like as the QD arrays in Ultra HDTVs start to resemble something like an OLED emitter array. And Chris Chinnock of Insight Media served as moderator for the day’s events, which culminated in hands-on sessions showing how to use the test pattern UHD Blu-ray to evaluate a set’s performance and calibrate it for optimal results.

The panel weighs in on the current state of HDR in consumer displays.

The panel weighs in on the current state of HDR in consumer displays.

The interesting thing about HDR TVs is that we really don’t need to provide much in the way of user adjustments anymore. HDR TVs use CEA 861.3 metadata, flowing through an HDMI or DisplayPort connection, to determine brightness levels, gamma, and color values.  And with peak brightness values in the range of 800 – 1000 cd/m2, why would we need to have a “Dynamic” picture mode setting? (It’s already dynamic!)

Although I had seen this demonstration on two previous occasions, Insight Media and Samsung did an excellent job of explaining the challenges in both designing a set of test patterns to evaluate HDR TV performance and putting those patterns to actual use. I was reminded of those early days of HDTV: What signal format and connector do I need? What kind of antenna will pick up the broadcasts, and where do I aim it? What’s the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?

THE NEXT STEPS

My advice to everyone remains unchanged, however. If you are in the market for a new Ultra HDTV with HDR, I would hold off on purchasing it until at least January, if not next spring. By then, there should be several models supporting more than one HDR format (the baseline being HDR 10, but there are at least four others developed by Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, and the BBC).

More importantly, your UHD set should support not only HDR content flowing through a display connection, but over an Internet connection. More and more content delivery is switching to video streaming as we move away from physical media. Plus, you’ll certainly spend less money on an HDR set if you can sit on your hands for a while, and there may even be a few more UHD Blu-ray player models to choose from six months from now, along with a lot more movies mastered in HDR.