Category: Trade Shows

NAB 2018 In The Rear View Mirror

I just returned from my annual visit to the NAB Show in Las Vegas and the overall impression was of an industry (or industries) marching in place. Many booths were smaller; there were plenty of empty spaces filled with tables and chairs for eating and lounging, and at times you could hear crickets chirping in the North and Central Halls.  (Not so the South Hall, which was a madhouse all three days I visited.)

There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of energy. The broadcast and film industries are taking the first steps to move to IP backbones for everything from production to post and distribution, and it’s moving slowly. Even so, there was no shortage of vendors trying to convince booth visitors that AV-over-IT is the way to go, chop-chop!

Some NAB exhibitors that were formerly powerhouses in traditional media production infrastructures have staked their entire business model on IT, with flashy exhibits featuring powerful codecs, cloud media storage and retrieval, high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, and production workflows (editing, color correction, and visual effects) all interconnected via an IT infrastructure.

And, of course, there is now a SMPTE standard for transporting professional media over managed AV networks (note the word “managed”), and that’s ST 2110. The pertinent documents that define the standards are (to date) SMPTE ST 2110-10/-20/-30 for addressing system concerns and uncompressed video and audio streams, and SMPTE ST 2110-21 for specifying traffic shaping and delivery timing of uncompressed video.

No doubt about it – the Central Hall booths were definitely smaller and quieter this year.

 

Canon’s Larry Thorpe and Ivo Norenberg talked about the company’s new 50-1000mm zoom lens for Full HD cameras.

 

BlackMagic Design’s Pocket Cinema 4K Camera is quite popular – and affordable.

Others at NAB weren’t so sure about this rush to IT and extolled the virtues of next-generation SDI (6G, 12G, and even 24G). Their argument is that deterministic video doesn’t always travel well with the non-real-time traffic you find on networks. And the “pro” SDI crowd may have an argument, based on all of the 12G connectivity demos we saw. 3G video, to be more specific, runs at about 2.97 Gb/s, so a 12G connection would be good for 11.88 Gb/s – fast enough to transport an uncompressed 4K/60 video signal with 8-bit 4:2:2 color or 10-bit 4:2:0 color.

I’ve talked about 8K video and displays in previous columns, but mostly from a science experiment perspective. Well, we were quite surprised – perhaps pleasantly – to see Sharp exhibiting at NAB, showing an entire acquisition, editing, production, storage, and display system for 8K video. (Yes, that Sharp, the same guys that make those huge LCD displays. Now owned by Hon Hai precision industries.)

Sharp’s 8K broadcast camera, more accurately the 8C-B60A, uses a single Super 35mm sensor with effective resolution of 7680×4320 pixels arrayed in a Bayer format. That’s 16 times the resolution of a Full HD camera, which means data rates that are 16x that of 3G SDI. In case you are math challenged, we’re talking in the range of 48 Gb/s of data for a 4320p/60 video signal with 8-bit 4:2:2 color, which requires four 12G connections.

Sharp is building 8K cameras for live coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

 

NHK demonstrated an 8K 240Hz slow motion video playback system, along with other 8K goodies.

 

Soliton demonstrated H.265 encoding across multiple platforms, including Android devices.

And this isn’t a science experiment at all. Sharp is building cameras for the live 8K broadcasts to take place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, originating from Japanese broadcast network NHK. By now, this should be old hat, as NHK has been covering the Olympics in 8K since 2012 and showed different approaches to home viewing in Las Vegas. They also impressed with demos of 8K “slo-mo” video at a frame rate of 240 Hz, and yes, it is practical and ready to roll.

In the NHK booth, you could also watch a demonstration of 8K/60 video traveling through a 10 Gb/s switch using so-called mezzanine compression based on the TiCo system. In this case, NHK was using 5:1 TiCo compression to slow down a 40 Gb/s 8K/60 video stream to 8 Gb/s. (Four 12G video connections would result in a bit rate of nearly 48 Gb/s in case you’re wondering.)

Not far from NHK’s booth last year was a virtual city of companies showing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) hardware and software. That was about twice the size of the VR/AR exhibits in 2016, so I expected to find a sprawling metropolis of VR goodies. Instead, I came across a very large food court and lots of partitioned-off space. Turns out, what was left of the VR companies occupied a small pavilion known as “Immersive Storytelling.” Is VR the next 3D? (Probably not, but you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that.)

Panasonic’s got a 55-inch 4K OLED monitor for client viewing.

 

Epson showed an ultra short-throw laser projection system with excellent edge-to-edge sharpness.

 

The gadgeteers at NTT built a drone with a spinning LED sign shaped like a globe. Why? Because they could, I suppose.

Upstairs in the South Hall, there were dozens of companies hawking video compression tools, streaming and cloud services, targeted ad insertion, audience analytics, and a bunch of other buzzwords I’m probably getting too old to completely understand. (It will be interesting to see how many of these enterprises are still around a year from now.)

But my primary goal in that hall was to talk to folks from the Alliance for Open Media coalition. In case you haven’t heard of this group, they’ve been promoting an open-source, royalty-free codec labeled AV-1 for “next-generation 4K video.” There are at least 18 prominent members of the group and you may recognize a few of them, such as Google, Apple, Mozilla, YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, and VideoLAN.

And that they’re promoting is a codec that is very similar to HEVC H.265, which is made up of lots of intellectual property that requires licensing from an organization known as MPEG-LA (Licensing Authority, not Los Angeles). The AOM contingent thinks it is taking WAY too long to get H.265 off the ground and would rather just make a suitable codec free to anyone who wants to use it to speed up the transition to 4K video.

In addition to giving out red, yellow, green, and blue lollipops, Google had its jump 360-degree camera out for inspection.

 

Technicolor claims to have solved the problem of rapid switching between different HDR formats streaming in the same program.

 

Keep an eye on the AV-1 codec. It could really upset the apple cart.

Of course, they didn’t have a ready answer when I questioned the future viability of any company that had sunk millions of dollars into H.265 development, only to see their hard work given away for free. The stock answers included “there will be winners and losers” and “some companies will probably be bought out.” Note that the primary goal of the members I listed is content delivery, not living off patent royalties, so that gives you some insights to their thinking.

The last puzzle piece was the new ATSC 3.0 standard for digital TV broadcasting, and it’s being tried out in several markets as I write this; most notably, Phoenix. ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with the current version 1.0 as it uses a different modulation process (ODM vs. VSB) and is very much intertwined with IP to make delivery to mobile devices practical. WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina has been broadcasting in this format for almost a year now.

ATSC 3.0 is already being tested in several TV markets. Will it take off? And how will consumers choose to watch it?

 

CreateLED had this cool LED “waterfall” in their booth.

ATSC 3.0 is designed to be more bandwidth-efficient and can carry 1080p and 4K broadcasts along with high dynamic range video. At the show, I saw demos of ATSC 3.0 receivers married to 802.11ac WiFi routers, ATSC 3.0 set-top boxes, and even an autonomous shuttle vehicle between the Central and South Halls that was supposedly carrying live ATSC 3.0 mobile broadcasts. (It wasn’t working at the time, though. More crickets…)

All in all; a very subdued show, but reflective of an industry in transition from a world of deterministic video traveling uncompressed over coaxial cable to compressed audio and video packets streaming through wired and wireless networks with varying degrees of latency. Where do we go from here?

 

 

CES 2018 In The Rear View Mirror (Or, what a difference a decade makes…)

BACK IN THE DAY…

I’ve lost track of how many Consumer Electronic Shows I’ve been to over the years. While recently going through my photo archives, I found images from the 2008 show, and what an eye opener! Prominent TV brands from back then that are no longer with us included Mitsubishi, who had just launched their premium Laser DLP rear-projection TV sets, and Hitachi, who had the good sense to read the writing on the wall and bail out on the TV business shortly after.

Pioneer was another brand about to pull the plug on televisions, but they continued to showcase their ultra-thin Kuro plasma sets. Panasonic also featured plasma TVs in their booth, claiming their picture quality was every bit as good as Pioneer (it was) and dazzling visitors with a one-off 150-inch 4K (3840×2160) plasma monitor. No one could have predicted at the time that plasma display technology would disappear just five years later.

Over in the Samsung booth, there was a small tower of small OLED TVs out for inspection, along with a full array of plasma and LCD TVs, the latter featuring Full HD (1920×1080) resolution – a big deal at the time! JVC showed what they claimed to be the world’s thinnest LCD TV (about 2 inches thick) and Sony was offering an 11-inch AM OLED monitor for sale, the XEL-1 a/k/a “the torch.” It didn’t run very long before the brightness fell off dramatically.

FLASHBACK: Remember Mitsubishi’s Laser DLP rear projection TV? It was launched in 2008. Today, Mitsubishi is out of the TV business.

 

FLASHBACK: Ten years ago, OLED TVs were expensive, cutting edge (and small) displays. Today? A mainstream product.

Dolby was taking its first steps into high dynamic range imaging by its acquisition of Canadian tech startup Brightside Technologies. The latter pioneered and patented a technique for LCD local area dimming with white LEDs, ostensibly to improve LCD contrast and also to obtain much lower black levels. LG Philips (today’s LG Display) was demonstrating smooth motion on LCDs and reducing blur on fast-moving objects.

The first iPhone had just made its appearance and tablets didn’t exist yet. Netflix had just started a streaming service, while a company called Vudu launched at Pepcom’s Digital Experience and promised smooth downloads of HD movies and TV shows to the home. And of course, 2008 as the year that the HD DVD – Blu-ray wars came to an end as Warner Brothers was apparently convinced by Sony to go all in with the BD format. That was to prove the coup de grade for HD DVD – Toshiba pulled the plug on this format a couple years later. (I still have a player and about 20 HD DVD movies, many still in their shrink wrap.)

Televisions were of course the big news for most of us at the show, and they dominated the booths of Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba (remember Toshiba?), Sharp, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Philips, JVC, and a bunch of smaller brands – not to mention a handful of Chinese companies no one had ever heard of. Today, many of those manufacturers are out of the TV business altogether or have licensed their names to Japanese, Korean, or Chinese TV manufacturers. A notable example would be Hisense, which controls the Sharp and Toshiba TV brands (even though Hon Hai Precision Industries now owns Sharp).

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

LG will offer Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in its 2018 TVs, like other manufacturers.

 

Samsung claims all of their products will be interconnected by 2020 – and 5G will be a key to making that happen.

This little detour down memory lane showed me just how much the show has changed in a decade. Perhaps the biggest change is the diminished importance of televisions: A quick check at Best Buy’s pre-Super Bowl TV sales shows that you can pick up a first-tier 55-inch 4K (Ultra HD) TV with “smart” functionality for about $500, and about $100 less for a 2nd-tier brand. Want high dynamic range? Add around $300 – $400 to the price. Compared to what a 1080 Kuro plasma cost back in 2008 (about $3,000 to $5,000, if my memory serves me correctly), that is an incomprehensible decline in pricing. And we’re talking about Ultra HDTVs here, not Full HD sets that can be had in the same screen size for as little as $399!

Sure, there were plenty of televisions to look at in Las Vegas. But the fact is that they just don’t matter that much anymore in the grand scheme of things. For perspective, my daughter’s brand-new Google Pixel 2 smartphone costs about as much money as a Sony XBR49X800E 49-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR and Dolby Digital Plus audio. (I don’t know if I’m more surprised that Sony would offer such a discount or that smartphones are still grossly overpriced!)

Sony demonstrated an 8K LCD monitor with micro LED backlighting that they claim can achieve a peak (specular) brightness level of 10,000 nits.

 

TCL has fully embraced quantum dot illumination for high dynamic range.

In any case, I spent three days at the show, wandering the LVCC and seeing a few surprises here and there (and getting caught in the Wednesday noontime blackout while in the Samsung booth). And the overwhelming emphasis was not on “what you got” but “what you do with it.” Being connected with voice commands is the thing nowadays. So is faster WiFi and 5G cellular, along with smart, connected appliances and smart, connected cars.

Think about this interesting paradox. Auto manufacturers, along with display giants Samsung and LG Display, are showing sophisticated dashboards and center consoles with audio, navigation, contacts, and adaptive machine learning. The goal is to provide an unparalleled, immersive driving experience, or as Samsung put it during their press conference, “to do anything in your car you can do with your TV.”

On the other hand, we’re seeing big advances in autonomous cars that wouldn’t need any of that stuff built into the dashboard and center console because there isn’t a driver to begin with. So, which is it? Immersive AI consoles, or smart self-driving cars? (I couldn’t get a feel one way or the other during the show.)

The Mercedes AMG Project 1 car mixes a conventional gas engine with multiple electric motors to achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph.

 

Talk about connecting everything: Continental showed a “smart” tire that can provide real-time performance data to drivers.

One thing I did notice was the proliferation of Amazon and Google voice command systems across everything from televisions to cars. If you had a bullhorn and walked through the convention center yelling “Hi, Alexa!” you’d have been a very unpopular person in short order. Speech recognition and control has come a long way since I first saw it implemented at the turn of this decade, and it works. And it’s cheap. And you can use it to control just about everything in your home, and likely your office.

In no particular order, here are ten products, trends, and/or demos I spotted in Vegas that are worth paying attention to over the next 12 months.

AI / Speech Recognition – Every TV manufacturer had at least one model at CES that supports Amazon, Google Home, or Google Assistant. (Some support both!) You can link your TV to your refrigerator, washer, dryer, and other appliances in your home and control just about anything or get status updates. Or you can just ask your assistant general questions, and depending on the question, the system can anticipate what you’re about to do and activate or deactivate devices.

LG has this feature in their 2018 TVs (ThinQ with Cloi), while Samsung claims that every product they make will be interconnected by 2020 and voice controlled using their Bixby system. While the Chinese brands are not quite up that level, they did show sample rooms with interconnected devices that all respond to voice prompts. (My personal favorite was Haier’s “conscious bathroom.” No idea what that means…)

Panasonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and emphasized design concepts and integrated projects in its booth over individual products.

 

LG Display pulled another surprise from its bag of tricks with this 65-inch rollable 4K OLED display.

Samsung’s purchase of Harman in 2016 gives them entry to the multi-billion-dollar car audio market, which appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much. And by extension, they can support voice recognition and control in cars, linking them back to homes and offices. On the TV side, both TiVo and Comcast have had voice control and search features for some time, using adaptive intelligence to hunt down and locate programs. (Who needs TV Guide, anyway?)

Flexible displays: LG Display stole part of the show by exhibiting a 65-inch roll-up 4K OLED TV in their technology suite. They also impressed with stacked 55-inch transparent OLEDs and p-OLED dashboards. But the fact that plastic displays have arrived means that just about any surface can be covered with a display. Need proof? Look at the latest crop of smartphones with wrap-around displays where a frame used to be.

And all of those hopped-up dashboards and center consoles I mentioned earlier are likely to take advantage of flexible OLEDs and even LCDs. (Yes, those are being developed now.) The key is to minimize the effects of vibration and G-forces, two things that can be fatal to displays. One big advantage of this approach is the use of virtual gauges and indicators: You’ll be able to create and recall multiple custom looks for your dashboard. (That would be helpful for those of us who need reading glasses.)

Canadian chip manufacturer Peraso showed how you can play an immersive VR game without any cables to the console.

 

Call up a recipe using Whirlpool’s Yummly app and it will turn on your oven and set it to the correct temperature automatically.

“Smart” refrigerators: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen products like this, but they appear to be mainstream now. Just like the days of old where we taped or used magnets to attach every important piece of paper in our lives to the fridge, we can now access everything from recipes to personal schedules using a built-in touchscreen. On some models, it can even turn transparent so you can see what’s on the shelves.

Samsung and LG both demoed technology that would scan in food items and determine their useful shelf life, tell you that you needed to use up said items soon, and even suggest recipes to use up those items. You could even access your fridge from your television, and with some appliances shown by Whirlpool, have the oven set itself while the recipe was being called up. (George Jetson would be envious!)

Autonomous delivery vehicles: Understandably, there has been some pushback on unmanned cars by people who just can’t bring themselves to trust the technology. But the adoption curve could be a lot faster for autonomous delivery vehicles. Ford is testing just that in a partnership with Dominoes Pizza, with an unmanned car pulling up your driveway no long after you order that piping-hot 16” pie with sausage and peppers. (Who would care if a pizza gets hurt in a crash?)

Yes, Ford is testing autonomous delivery of Domino’s pizza.

 

Ethertronics is developing steerable TV antennas for off-air TV reception, something we’ve seen in the past. It may catch on this time.

Cutting the cord: No, not dropping cable TV, although some developments at the show may hasten that trend. I’m talking about cutting the cord for virtual reality game players by using a high-speed 60 GHz WiFi link. Peraso showed just how this would work in their Westgate suite, sending video and audio to a headset while back-channeling control signals from joysticks. The FCC opened up two more channels in the 60 GHz band last year and each channel is about 2 GHz wide – 100 times the width of 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi channels.

This opens up a wealth of possibilities, such as wireless hard drives or SSDs connected by 802.11ad links. While millimeter-wave technology has not exactly burned up the marketplace, it is a practical solution for short-range, high-bandwidth video and audio links. Plus, the radio waves are so small that beam-steering antennas would allow multiple TX/RX links in the same room, on the same channel, with zero interference. Pretty cool!

Self-configuring IoT gadgets: We’ve been hearing a lot about the Internet of Things for several years, but it seemed like the dam broke this year. More and more CE gadgets come with some form of network interface and a WiFi connection, and large manufacturers like LG and Samsung claim that in the very near future, all you’ll have to do is plug ‘em in and turn ‘em on to link everything together.

This is a relatively new trend on the world of home theater and commercial AV, but make no mistake – it is the next wave. And this level of connectivity and control will require faster WiFi connections, most likely using dual-band WiFi routers to boot traffic to the 5 GHz band when coping with interference. Perhaps the most significant part of the trend is just how inexpensive the hardware will be. After all, you can buy the full-sized Echo for $100 and the stubby Dot for $50 – and those are basically your control interfaces.

Robots have gotten very good at smiling and blinking!

 

Bell Helicopter showed an autonomous chopper for city commuters.

High dynamic range TV – I haven’t talked about TVs very much, mostly because there isn’t much to say right now. The exception is HDR and its companion, wide color gamut (WCG), which were the main attraction in most TV exhibits. On the one hand, you have the current “hot” technology, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs from LG that can probably squeeze out 600 – 800 nits small area white, but oh! Those black levels!

On the other hand, you have LCD panels married to backlights that use quantum dot (QD) particles to generate intense, saturated greens and reds with blue LEDs filling in the rest.  Samsung is probably best known for using QDs in their premium LCD TVs (a/k/a Q-LEDS), but TCL and Hisense have them, too. LG goes a different route to get to HDR with their Nano Cell technology, and Sony has been experimenting with LED backlights to get more “oomph!” out of 4K images.

At the show, Samsung showed “The Wall,” a 146-inch modular display using micro LED emissive technology to achieve HDR and wider colors. Micro LEDs are a relatively new technology and can create red, green, and blue light, so it is possible (but expensive) to build an emissive display with them. Sony showed a similar prototype several years ago, and it looked amazing – but was hand-wired and probably cost over a hundred grand to build.

Samsung’s 146-inch micro LED “wall” attracted a ton of viewers…

 

…that is, until the power went out in the Central Hall just before noon on Wednesday! (Ooops…)

Speaking of Sony, they had an impressive if somewhat confusing demo of an 8K LCD TV that could supposedly hit a brightness level of 10,000 nits with intense specular highlights. But they weren’t discussing how that was actually happening, only to say that “there are hundreds of LED arrays” in the backlight. The claim was that a true HDR 10,000 video image could be viewed without clipping, although most of what I saw was in the 200 – 400 nits range.

Robots and drones: There were plenty of them in Vegas, but the vast majority are only capable of simple functions like blinking (this is something all robots do constantly) and responding to your voice commands. LG showed valet, guide, and shopping robots that can roll around and talk to you. Other exhibitors had robots that can sing, read to your kids, and wave their arms a lot (something else robots are really good at).

But it’s still early in the game. Keep in mind an autonomous car is a robot, after all. Yamaha took that concept a step further and created a robotic motorcycle rider, putting it on a test track against one of the world’s fastest (human) riders. Needless to say, Yamaha’s robot didn’t crash, nor did it set any speed records. An extension of that research is a motorcycle that rolls up to or away from you, depending on your hand gesture. (Shades of the Twilight Zone.)

As for drones, they were everywhere like a cloud of annoying mosquitoes. Surprisingly, Bell Helicopter showed a prototype of an autonomous drone copter for intra-city commuting. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to test fly it, but the concept is solid and not far off.

Panasonic announced a new line of OLED TVs in 55-inch and 65-inch sizes for the U.S. market.

 

Canon demonstrated an inventory scanning robot.

Steerable TV antennas: The statistics don’t lie. More and more people are dumping pay TV channel packages in favor of streaming, adding free off-air television along the way. I’ve been a big advocate for this going back to the DTV transition almost 20 years ago, but it’s easy for me – my house has two outdoor TV antennas and one indoor to feed all of my sets.

But the average homeowner doesn’t have an antenna, nor do they know much about installing one. Ethertronics showed a prototype steerable antenna for window or wall mounting that’s based on their steerable technology for WiFi. You install the flat antenna, connect power to it, and push a button on the housing. The antenna then scans for channels several times, trying different antenna patterns. The pattern that results in the most signals is then set as the default (it can be overridden). This is another great example of artificial intelligence and machine learning at work.

Analog is back: Okay, a weird one, but Polaroid and Kodak both showed instant print cameras as the show. Polaroid went so far as to bring back their 40+ year-old One Step as the One Step 2 (that’s confusing). Apparently, Millennials and Generations Y and Z love instant prints, and why not? While you can easily share digital photos via Instagram and Facebook, there’s just something different about having a physical print in your hand.

Polaroid has resurrected the OneStep instant camera – and it’s wildly popular (although not really this big)!

Add that to the list of “retro” things like vinyl records, Kodak’s 8mm movie camera (didn’t see that this year), and even audiocassettes that have come back from the grave. Some of this desire for the past may be a reaction to the blinding speed of technological change: I know people that prefer older wristwatches to the “connected” models that monitor everything about you. (And yes, some of us still write checks to pay our bills, putting them in stamped envelopes and mailing them. Imagine that.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the welcome fact that Panasonic is fully back in the U.S. TV game, introducing two new 4K OLED TV models (FZ 950 and FZ 800) at the show. They also announced a new line of Blu-ray players and it will be considerably easier to sell those if they have a TV to add to the package. (LG Display is happy too, since they make the OLED panels for both Sony and Panasonic.)  Yes, we’ll all miss those beautiful Viera plasma TVs (but we won’t miss those high electricity bills!)…

 

 

 

 

The RCA Brand Prospers

RCA, the iconic company that — more than any other — brought color television to the consumer mass market was dissolved years ago. But its brand has survived and sometimes prospered. The brand is owned and licensed by Technicolor. After some mis-steps in years past, Technicolor is now managing the brand in an intelligent and unusually hands-on fashion.

For the last four years, the brand has been licensed to the ON Corporation of Seongnam, Korea, which will continue to manufacture RCA TV sets for the U.S. and some other markets until at least 2020. ON has the license for TV production and distribution only, with other companies having the licenses for “video tablets,” telephones, and accessories. However, an indication of the way Technicolor is managing the brand could be seen in the RCA booth, which combined ON Corp’s RCA TVs, Digital Stream’s mobile RCA TVs, and Telefield’s RCA business telephones. If you didn’t know better, you might think that RCA still existed as a company.

ON Corp US positions its TV models on the value end of the spectrum, but not at the bottom of it. The sets don’t look cheap, and the design of the higher-end sets, with ultra-thin bezels, is attractive. RCA is entering the 4Kx2K (or Ultra HD) TV market this year with three screen sizes: 55, 65, and 84 inches. These sets have LED backlights and smart TV functions. The Android (formerly Google) TV platform built into each of the sets provides an integrated on-screen interface with access to cable/satellite TV, apps and online content, including more than 100,000 on-demand movies and TV episodes, and thousands of YouTube channels. The UHD-TV sets all have a native 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160.

xRCA 65_4k_

The RCA 65-inch UHD-TV with smart functions provided by the Google TV platform. The set was described as having a “curved design,” which refers the the curved bar of the base, not to the screen being curved rather than flat. (Photo: ON Corp)

“Our first Ultra HD TVs are priced very competitively because we anticipate 2014 to be a pivotal year for this new class of TVs as more consumers become exposed to the striking picture quality that is possible with virtually any source material,” said Jonathan Zupnik, ON Corp US Executive VP of Marketing.

Smart features include the Google Chrome web browser; Google’s PrimeTime guide, which permits browsing channels while streaming or watching live TV and recommends shows based on personal preferences; Google TV Search for quickly finding shows by title, channel name, actor, or genre; and voice search.

RCA says the higher-end sets have a “curved design,” but that refers to the curved-bar base, not to the screen. Zupnik said he did not anticipate people might think RCA was referring to a curved screen. Indeed, all of the RCA models have flat, rather than curved, screens. Zupnik said that ON Corp has built curved-screen sets but decided not to make them part of the U.S. line-up or to show them at CES. “I’m very cautious about curved screens,” Zupnik said.

The less expensive tier of RCA sets are HDTV rather than UHD-TV, and implement their smart TV features with a Roku Streaming Stick, which provides access to over a thousand entertainment channels. Some of the sets simply provide an exposed MHL port into which the Roku stick is inserted, but some come with the stick already installed in an MHL port that is concealed behind a simple screw-on panel. Screen sizes for the HDTV line-up run from 28 to 65 inches.

RCA is doing well, said Zupnik, with sales up over 20% in the last year. For an old RCA hand such as yours truly, it’s good to see the old brand prosper. This is surely not what General Sarnoff had in mind for his legacy, but it’s not nothin’ either.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Display Surprises at CES 2014

Some of my fellow analysts have been bemoaning a lack of TV, tablet, and cell-phone innovations at CES 2014. Well, either I have lower standards than my colleagues or a keener eye because I saw quite a few things that surprised, delighted, and horrified me. Here are some of them.

3M’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) using quantum dots from partner Nanosys is now in a high-volume shipping product. 3M was coy about identifying the customer, but partner Nanosys (which supplies the quantum dots used by 3M) didn’t hesitate. QDEF is being used in Kindle Fire HDX 7.0 and 8.9 inch tablets. The 8.9-inch has a 2560×1600-pixel display withg 339 pixels per inch (ppi), and uses QDEF to increase the color gamut from 60% to 72% NTSC. This is a noticeable although not extreme improvement, but Amazon asked 3M and Nanosys to optimize the system to significantly improve battery life, even if that meant only a modest improvement in gamut. They did. Battery life is substantially improved.

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Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with QDEF (right) is tuned to give moderately better color gamut and much better power consumption. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Plasma is not dead yet, despite Panasonic pulling the plug.  ChangHong will sell plasma TVs in the U.S. this year in 43-, 51-, and 60-inch sizes. LG says it will continue to sell plasma in 2014. If Samsung said anything, I missed it.

HiSense introduced a 4K quantum-dot “Wide Gamut TV,” which uses QDEF film rather than the QD Vision rail. It will enter the Chinese market in March; U.S. in the summer. Maximum size is 85 inches, and there is an H.265 decoder built in.

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Professional high-dynamic-range technology at consumer prices? Sharp is working on it. We could see an HDR TV in 2015, a Sharp booth rep said. (Photo: Ken Werner)

In addition to the impressive AQUOS Quattron+, which I described at some length in a previous post (http://www.hdtvexpert.com/?p=3517), Sharp showed a a high-dynamic range TV prototype using Dolby technology. What’s surprising is that the highly effective Dolby technology has only been used until now for very expensive professional monitors. It would be impressive if Sharp can bring the technology’s cost down to high-end consumer levels. A Sharp rep said products could appear in 2015.

Samsung showed an OLED display that could be bent from flat to gently curved by small motors whirring away inside the case. Lots of oohs and aahs from the assembled. Is this good for anything? Beats me, but I did say this was going to be a list things that were surprising. That doesn’t mean useful.

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Horizontal tiling of curved displays provides the immersive feeling that single curved displays of modest size do not. This has real applications for digital signage. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Samsung and others did find ways to do something (potentially) useful with curved displays. The radius of curvature for curved TVs is so large (roughly 15 feet) that it really makes little sense for 55- and 65-inch screens. But Samsung extended the curve by tiling a bunch of these curved screens side to side. Definite applications for digital signage. LG showed a 105-inch curved display. At that size, the claim for curvature offering a more immersive viewing experience has credibility.

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LG Display’s curved 105-inch OLED-TV is big enough to provide the immersive experience that smaller curved displays do not. (Photo: Ken Werner)

WebOS may finally have found a reason for living as the OS for LG smart TVs. Of the 25 new TV models LG will introduce this year, 56% will have WebOS. Research shows most people think smart TV is too complicated, which inspired LG to position WebOS as the “intuitive OS optimized for the Web.”

Pixelworks has taken its motion-estimation and motion-compensation (MEMC) chip, which burns 5 watts in TV sets, and produced a very-low-power version for mobile devices. The TV version of the chip is in some LG sets now, and Skyworth has announced another design win for the chip. The video processing chip takes 24 frame-per-second (fps) content and and converts it to 120, thus producing a major improvement in judder. As we spend more time watching video on our small personal screens, we are likely to get impatient with the motion artifacts that have already been dealt with on our living-room TVs. A side-by-side demo in Pixelworks’ suite was impressive.

It may not be a surprise in principle, but actually seeing the combination of OLED and 4K is VERY impressive.

Not all 4K TVs are beautiful. The 55-inch S1 model from New Century Optronics was truly terrible, with serious comb artifacts (when was the last time you saw a comb artifact?), bad judder, and resolution that looked more like 2K than 4K. At least the U13 model looked like 4K, but it too exhibited serious judder.

Chinese OLED TVs in 2014. Chinese TV giant TCL showed 30.5-inch and 55-inch FHD OLED-TVs. The sets will be launched in China next month, and in the U.S. in Q2 or Q3. The 55-inch has a color gamut of 100% NTSC. A TCL rep said the OLED panel in the 30.5-inch is manufactured by TCL and the panel in the 55-inch is manufactured by a partner. That probably means that the 30.5-inch is produced by China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT), which is a business unit of TCL.

LG Display’s OLED manufacturing yield to rise sharply. It is no secret that the manufacturing yields of LGD’s OLED TV panels were so low last year — estimates were between 10% and 30% — that they severely impacted the number of panels that could be produced and kept their cost high. Now, LGD executives tell me the internal yield target for the new OLED plant opening in Q3 is 75%.

Panasonic Lumix “hybrid photography.” Now that digital “still” cameras also capture motion video, manufacturers are trying to figure out what what they can do with this combination of abilities. Nikon 1 cameras can bracket a still photo with a short video clip. Panasonic’s “hybrid photography” may turn out to be more useful. It produces a largely still image with moving elements: among the demos was a woman’s still face with softly moving hair. The file should be only slightly larger than a traditional still shot, but still provide motion. We’ll see how consumers respond.

Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I left CES 2014 not only exhausted, but also convinced that there were lots of entertaining surprises to be sniffed out by display bloodhounds.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

InfoComm 2013 in the Rear View Mirror

Last week marked my 20th consecutive trip to InfoComm and it was a hectic time in Orlando. I got in Sunday night and spent most of Monday setting up equipment for my four classes and presentations at InfoComm, including two Super Tuesday sessions (Future Trends, Things You Never Thought About) while I was also co-teaching an all-day Super Tuesday session on RF and Wireless Trends.

Wednesday morning brought a 2-hour class on digital video, while my Thursday morning class covered and demonstrated a variety of wireless display and video connectivity systems (none of which used WiFi, by the way). That’s about ten hours’ worth of teaching, and it does take its toll on your voice!

As a result, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the show floor. Even so, I spotted a few trends that are impacting the pro AV industry and will dramatically re-shape it by the end of this decade.

First off, attendance at classes this year was strong, with more than a few sessions selling out. The transition from analog to digital AV is in full swing, and there’s plenty to be learned. More than half the attendees in my classes came from the higher education channel and were either in the process of upgrading to digital signal switching and distribution, or about to embark on that arduous task within the next six months.

Here's the wireless Nook HD+ in action. Even in a high-level RF environment (lots of WiFi activity), it worked flawlessly.

Here’s the wireless Nook HD+ in action. Even in a high-level RF environment (lots of WiFi activity), it worked flawlessly.

 

And here's what the Nook HD+ screen looked like. It's mirroring the PowerPoints showing on the main projection screens.

And here’s what the Nook HD+ screen looked like. It’s mirroring the PowerPoints showing on the main projection screens.

There was intense interest in my wireless AV class, which for the first time featured actual products that you can buy now. Clint Hoffman and his crew at Kramer Electronics worked hard to get me a production model of the company’s new KW-11 WHDI transceiver kit, which I promptly installed in my home-made wireless Nook HD+ tablet. This 6 GHz system was used to deliver PowerPoints and 1080p/60 clips from Skyfall as I walked around the 150+ attendees. It worked like a champ!

Peerless AV also provided me with their two-channel WHDI linking system, which we used to transmit 1080p signals to a Sharp 80-inch LCD TV in the corner of the classroom. That same TV was simultaneously receiving low-power ATSC signals on channel 23 from MELD Technologies’ Pico Broadcaster white space system.

On the other side of the room, DVDO’s 60 GHz WiHD Air product was sending clips from Men in Black III from a Panasonic Blu-ray player to the house projection system. And Jim Venable and Alan Ruberg from the Wireless Speaker and Audio Association were demonstrating 5.1-channel wireless surround audio playback of House of Flying Daggers. If anyone in the crowd had doubts about wireless high-bandwidth AV connectivity being real, they were quickly dispelled.

In my Future Trends talk on Tuesday, I identified inexpensive, large LCD displays as growing market disruptors. That was obvious when I walked the show floor, where booths were stuffed with big LCD screens, including some 4K models. Sharp had their big glass on display and also spotlighted their new 32-inch 4K LCD monitors, powered by IGZO backplanes. Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Planar, NEC, and others made “big LCD” the focal point of their booths.

Not surprisingly, most of the projector manufacturer booths were smaller this year than last. But those that had ‘em to show made sure their lamp-free projectors were located front and center. Lamp-free projection is a big deal now and takes on even more importance with the threat from large LCDs. Panasonic, Optoma, Casio, Sony, projectiondesign, Vivitek, and Mitsubishi all had impressive demos of LED, laser, and hybrid projectors. (Oddly, I walked through the BenQ booth a few times but couldn’t locate their laser DLP models.) Keep an eye on this battle – it’s only going to intensify as more end-users consider the move to “big LCD.”

As for 4K, there were lots of discussions about the pros and cons at the show. It has been pointed out on more than one occasion that we’ve yet to see a single 4K display interface; HDMI or DisplayPort. The trick now is to use several HDMI connections to get data to the screen, but that’s not practical in the long term.

With the pending release of HDMI 2.0 standards and perhaps some more aggressive promotion by VESA of Display Stream (up to 25 Gb/s data rates), I expect all of that to change by next year’s InfoComm. There is considerable demand in the commercial AV space for higher display resolution, both in single screens and tiled displays. Think of process control, command and control, virtual reality, geophysical mapping, and military surveillance as logical candidates.

One of the more intriguing discussions came during Scott Sharer’s closing Super Tuesday session. Fellow panelist Bill Nattress, a principal at Shen Milsom Wilke in Chicago, talked about the pending demise of the conventional conference room and meeting room in favor of ad hoc, no-wall meeting spaces. How will people present there? Projectors aren’t a likely candidate. Perhaps tablets, which will certainly get bigger? Large LCD screens on roll-around stands?

And how will we control AV playback in these spaces? Most likely with advanced gesture control and voice recognition. The two go hand-in-hand, in my opinion, and we are going to see plenty of finished products by 2020; perhaps even sooner. Look for the era of the “touchless” touch screen to start soon.

So, there you have it: 4K, large cheap LCDs, lamp-free projection, wireless high-bandwidth connectivity, faster multifunction interfaces, and gesture/voice control. Keep your eyes on those trends for the rest of the year and I’ll look forward to seeing you in one of my classes next June in Las Vegas!