Posts Tagged ‘3D’

CES 2011: Afterthoughts

CES is a strange show. It’s so big and has so many exhibitors that you keep thinking about what you’ve seen for weeks afterwards – kinda like mental ‘aftershocks’ and flashbacks. And I’ve had a few of those since returning home almost a week ago.

Here, in no particular order, are some afterthoughts from CES:

It looked much more impressive than it worked.

Gesture Recognition – Hey, Where’d it Go? In 2007, 2008, and 2009, gesture recognition for TV operation was a BIG deal at CES. Hitachi, Toshiba, JVC, and others all showed sophisticated gesture-recognition systems at previous CES shows, and last year’s Toshiba exhibit managed to combine GR, their Cell processor, and 3D in a most impressive demonstration.

This year? Hardly any GR demos at all, aside from some rather crude examples found in the Hisense and TCL booths that barely worked. The TCL demo was so insensitive that visitors to that particular exhibit looked like they were swatting at flies, while the Hisense demo consisted of someone doing a work-out while following an animated trainer on a nearby LCD TV.

Yawn…

OLED TVs are coming any day now. About the same time the Cubs win the World Series.

OLEDs – We’re Still Waiting: Every year, Samsung, Sony, LG, and others tease us with demonstrations of gorgeous-looking OLED TVs in a variety of screen sizes. Yet, we continue to wait, and wait, and wait for production models to come to brick-and-mortar stores. (The XEL-1 doesn’t count.) Sony even built an autostereo screen into a 24.5-inch AM OLED display, while Samsung’s 19-inch AM OLED was 50% transparent.

We’d all like to replace our LCD and plasma TVs with OLEDs, but it looks like we’re going to be drooling and waiting a LONG time before that happens. Smart phones have already beaten us to the punch and it looks like tablet computers will be the next place to roll out (literally) OLED screens.

And yet, every year, we get our hopes up again…

These must be figments of my imagination.

Picoprojectors: Vaporware? After reading a recent Display Daily post by colleague Matt Brennesholtz at Insight Media, I fired off an email to eight different IM analysts, asking them if they had ever seen a picoprojector in use in 2010 other than at a trade show or a display technology conference.

This may surprise you, but each one of them responded with a simple, “No.” None of them had spotted any at retail, either. And yet, companies like Pacific Media Associates continue to issue optimistic sales forecasts for picoprojectors, while Texas Instruments had a full suite of “picos” at CES that were built into smart phones, a tablet computer, cameras, and pocket projectors.

I think tablet computers may derail picoprojectors, or obsolete them completely. How about you?

Maybe they didn't get the memo last year?

Hey Sharp, 3D was SO 2010! Sharp once again had an enormous CES booth filled with big, colorful LCD TVs (70-inches was the big news this year) and finally had a few 3D Blu-ray demos to go with them. Well, a year late isn’t too bad, I guess. The only problem is; Sharp’s share of the U.S. TV market has been steadily dropping since 2005 and is below 3%, according to NPD Display Search’s 3rd quarter 2010 numbers. That’s embarrassing! Even Panasonic now ships more LCD TVs than Sharp, who pioneered the LCD TV biz a couple of decades ago.

The four-color Quattron technology, while intriguing, doesn’t appear to have caught on with consumers so far, and we all know how disappointing sales of active shutter 3D TVs have been to date. To add to Sharp’s problems, Sony has not fully committed to fund its share of Sharp’s new Gen 10 LCD plant. Sony was originally on the hook for a 34% stake, but according to multiple reports may cap that investment at 12% and look to China for a cheaper source of LCD panels.

This would be a good time for a comeback, kid…

There's a contrarian in every crowd...

Mitsubishi Thumbs its Nose at the Experts: Yep, those ‘diamond’ guys are still making rear-projection DLP TVs, and apparently selling plenty of them, too. Their 92-inch roll-out at CES drew big crowds and will probably ticket around $5,000, which is less money than a decent front projector, screen, and home theater in a box will cost you. Did I say it could do 3D, too? Side-by-side, top+bottom, frame packing, checkerboard – you name it.

We “experts” predicted Mits would fall by the wayside as the LCD and plasma juggernauts rolled through the market. Uh, not quite. And with Mits’ new laser light engine, the issue of lamp replacement will eventually fade into the sunset. Texas Instruments is thrilled that they still have a RPTV customer, and as long as Mits can manage its bill of materials (BOM) costs, they can remain in the catbird seat for a few more years until something better comes along.

(Sound of a big raspberry coming from Irvine…)

DisplayPort: On Your Mark…Get Set…Get Set…Get Set: Is DisplayPort ever going to take off? I saw several cool demos of multi-monitor support and embedded 3D notebooks through DisplayPort in the IDT suite, along with a basic booth in the lower South Hall showing wireless DisplayPort over WHDI and a multi-channel audio concept demo.  But who’s using it, aside from Apple?

In the meantime, HDMI (Silicon Image) showed ViaPort (multiple connections to a TV hub and one to a AVR with automatic streaming for the highest-supported audio format), MHL (Mobile content through a mini HDMI interface to TVs and other devices), and ViaPort for digital signage (Blu-ray at full resolution to eight daisy-chained TVs through single HDMI connections).

Maybe they misplaced the starter’s gun.

What's next? VIZIO appliances? Cars? An Airline?

VIZIO – The Next Apple? Not only has VIZIO staked a big claim in the TV marketplace, they also rolled out a tablet computer and a smart phone at CES. The VIZIO Phone has a 4-inch display, GPS, WiFi, two built-in cameras, HDMI output (MHL), 2 GB of storage and doubles as a universal remote for VIZIO products.

The VIZIO tablet is pretty impressive, too. It also has WiFi, GPS, and a high-rez camera for videoconferencing, HMDI output, three internal speakers, and 2Gb of internal storage plus a MicroSD card slot. And yes, it can also work as a universal remote. The guys at VIZIO also thumbed their noses at all of the active-shutter 3DTV manufacturers and opted to go with passive 3D in a 65-inch LCD set that uses inexpensive RealD (circular polarization) glasses.

What’s next, Mr. Wang? Brick-and-mortar ‘VIZIO Zone’ stores in selected cities and malls? (Don’t laugh, he might just try it!)

Ghandi was into passive, too.

Active Shutter 3D – Has it Peaked Already? In addition to VIZIO, LG and JVC also showed new large LCD TV products with embedded micropolarizers and inexpensive passive 3D glasses. I saw a few passive demos here and there, but these were the big three as far a product rollouts. LG even had large bins with passive glasses at the numerous entrances to their booth.

While passive 3D certainly solves the problems with fragile and expensive glasses, it can play funny tricks with screen resolution as every other horizontal row of pixels has micro-sized circular polarizers that work in opposite directions. That can make the screen appear to have noticeable black lines on it when viewing normal content, a problem that would be solved by moving to 4K native resolution (thereby adding to panel complexity and costs).

Still, passive 3D could put a crimp in 3D TV sales this year as it feeds into the average consumer’s wariness of another TV ‘format war.’

Step Right Up and Getcha 3D Camcorder! This product category went from 0 participants in 2010 to “I lost count’ in 2011. Panasonic, Sony, ViewSonic, JVC – you name the company, they had a 3D camcorder out for inspection somewhere in their booth. And it wasn’t just the big boys, either. Ever hear of Aiptek? Didn’t think so. They showed a palm-sized 3D camcorder under their name that coincidentally appeared in the nearby ViewSonic booth.

 

Coming to a home near you! Check newspapers...

The question is how many of these cameras were using conversion lenses (Panasonic) and how many were capturing video through true 3D optical assemblies (JVC, Sony).  The Aiptek model in question may also have been converting 2D on the fly, but it was hard to tell from the sketchy details in their booth. Also, Sony’s and JVC’s cameras use the full-resolution frame-packing format, similar to Blu-ray DVD.

OK, who wants a 3D camcorder? (And a 3D TV to go with it?)

Wonder if their booth was open on Saturday?

Hey, Didn’t You Guys Just Lose $8.5B? Once again, the United States Postal Service occupied a healthy-sized booth in the upper South Hall. And once again, they were shilling for Priority and Overnight Mail, package shipping, and a new service called PremiumPostcard.com direct mail marketing.  They also featured something called the Fast and Furious Challenge, although no racecar was in sight this year.

Ordinarily, I’d be kinda upset that taxpayer money was spent this way…except that the USPS operates as a quasi-private agency, living entirely off revenues from mail delivery. So maybe I should instead give them props for trying to drum up more business, except that it’s hard to understand how many of the surrounding Chinese manufacturers would benefit from any USPS offerings.

As long as they don’t drop Saturday delivery, I guess I don’t care…

CES 2011: Applications? Plenty! Buzz? Ahhh, Not So Much…

How do you like THIS for a videowall?

If you still needed any convincing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, the 30-minute-long cab line at McCarran Airport did the trick. Attendance at this year’s running of the world’s ultimate gadget expo was WAY up, probably hitting 2007 levels. (CES claimed 140,000 in attendance, but my guess is that the real number was more like 90,000 – 100,000, based on cab lines and traffic.)

But CES was a vastly different show than in recent years. True “wowza!” product demos were few and far between. Instead, what we saw were ‘apps’ – practical, real-world applications of technologies introduced in the past couple of years. (And of course, umpteen million tablet computers.)

Smart phones were huge this year, and they were doing everything from shooting videos to doubling as game controllers and even talking to ovens and refrigerators. The Android OS rules this space, with Windows coming up far behind. If there was a possible use for a smart phone, someone demonstrated it in a booth (including 3D).

Ever expect to see 3D on an MH receiver? Neither did I.

A wonderful moment, indeed.

Discussions of “the cloud” were heard in every hallway. For those readers who don’t know what “the cloud” is, it’s the concept of storing and accessing media files from remote servers, streaming or downloading it to view on portable and desktop displays. Netflix streaming is a good example of “the cloud,” and many industry analysts believe “cloud” delivery of content is where everything is headed – no more big hard drives or optical disc readers, just fast wireless and wired Ethernet connections.

Speaking or wireless, it’s all the rage. I lost track of all the wireless connectivity demos, ranging from wireless USB 3.0 docking stations to full-bandwidth 1080p video and multi-channel audio streaming to TVs from Blu-ray players, using the 6 GHz radio frequency band.

And those tablet computers…they were everywhere, so many that tablets suffered the ignonimous fate of moving from the most anticipated new product at the opening of the show to “so what?” products by its closing. I saw just as many off-brand and white label tablets in the lower regions of the South Hall as I did at the Blackberry, ViewSonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic booths. Can you say, “buzz kill?”

That's a complete nVidia workstation graphics card, connected through 6 GHz wireless links.

How does a Wireless USB 3.0 docking station grab ya? Samsung's got it.

3D TRENDS

Last year’s show was dominated by 3D. You couldn’t get away from it! This year, the 3D pickings weren’t quite as abundant, although a few companies (Sony and Panasonic) continued to place a heavy emphasis on stereoscopic TV viewing in their booths.

Toshiba did too, except they chose to emphasize glasses-free (autostereo) 3D exclusively in their booth. LG opted to show passive 3D products that use inexpensive circular-polarization glasses, along with a single autostereo LCD TV. Meanwhile, Sony had concept demos of a portable 3D Blu-ray player and a 24-inch autostereo organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV.

The reduced emphasis on 3D might have something to do with the paltry sales of active-shutter 3D TVs in 2010. Sales numbers were nowhere near what anyone predicted, which could partly be blamed on the recession. But it could also be blamed on a perception that there is a format war brewing in the world of 3D TV (shades of the 1080i vs. 720p battles from ten years ago).

Toshiba's 15-inch prototype autostereo notebook display uses a built-in camera to adjust the 3D viewing angle to your position.

HELLO, 1958! Polaroid actually showed a blue-yellow anaglyph 3D demo at CES. (CAUTION: Don't watch Avatar this way...)

Toshiba’s recent announcements of glasses-free 3D TV certainly added to that perception, and that’s all they showed at CES. Meanwhile, LG and JVC seem to be leaning towards passive 3D (embedded polarizing filters) in their LCD TVs, and in fact LG had large baskets of passive 3D glasses available to both visitors.

The LG autostereo LCD TV worked about as well as the Toshiba models. As you change your viewing position, patterned film retarders (PFRs) built-in to the LCD surface create a new perspective and viewpoint, blocking some pixels and revealing others. It works, but you’ve seen the same effect before with static digital signage displays in retail stores and in airports. And it’s not easy to watch 3D video this way for very long.

There were plenty of autostereo handheld display demos. LG’s new Optimus smart phones were shown as game controllers for 3D gaming systems, but were also displaying mobile 3D content. Nearby, LG had a demonstration of autostereo 3D as broadcast from Las Vegas DTV station KLVX, using the MH mobile digital TV standard.

Sony showed an autostereo media player in its booth, along with the aforementioned portable Blu-ray player with autostereo screen. (Frankly, I think the market for portable BD players is pretty miniscule, but the autostereo images looked quite nice.)

Sony's 24.5-inch autostereo AM OLED was a show-stopper.

JVC's got some skin in the 3D game with this 65-inch passive 3D LED LCD TV.

Sharp, who last year missed the boat on 3D – and whose U.S. market share in TV sales continues to drop precipitously – rolled out the 3D bandwagon this year, with a full line of Quattron 3D TVs out for inspection, including a new 70-inch model. Hidden away in another part of their booth were demos of 3.8” and 10.6” autostereo LCD displays for handheld devices.

JVC, who has been concentrating more on projection products lately, unveiled their first consumer passive 3D TV. It’s a 65-inch, edge-lit LED model with embedded micropolarizers that work with RealD theater glasses. Back in the Central hall, Hisense, Konka, and TCL all showed Chinese-made 3D sets with active shutter glass technology, while VIZIO threw its hat in with the passive 3D crowd, unveiling several models that use embedded polarizing filters and passive eyewear.

Hmmm…maybe there IS something to this 3D format war, after all…

NETWORKED TVS

It was hard to find a TV at CES that didn’t sport some sort of Internet connection. Panasonic (VieraCast), VIZIO (VIZIO Internet Apps), Sony (Google TV), LG (Smart TV), and Samsung (Samsung Apps) all had full plates of NeTVs out for inspection, along with numerous connected Blu-ray players. By the way, the ‘connected’ part of Blu-ray players is the big reason they are finally selling so well, as consumers apparently can’t get enough of YouTube and Netflix streaming.

There were also plenty of demos of smart phone control of TVs, using WiFi to stream back a lower-resolution version of the content being displayed on-screen. I’m not really sure why anyone would need that functionality, especially if they are already sitting in front of the TV watching whatever program or movie is playing out. Maybe it’s just in case you need to run to the bathroom?

Don't have Internet connectivity on your plasma or LCD TV? LG's got the fix.

You want a TV remote? I'll show you a TV remote!

LG went everyone better with their ST600 Smart TV adapter. Remember ATSC set-top boxes from the DTV transition? Well, the ST600 is an Internet TV adapter that works with any set through its HDMI port.  It costs about $150, and gives you a Web browser, plus one-button access to popular Internet TV sites like Netflix, CinemaNow, VUDU, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB TV, Pandora, and others.

Sony prominently featured their Sony Smart TV product line, based on Google TV. This product has really stumbled out of the gate, probably because of the incredibly complex keyboard remote control (remember Web TV, anyone?) and the fact that a majority of Web video surfing can be accessed with directed one-button Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube apps. Maybe we’ll see a simplified version of the product from Sony in 2011.

Panasonic rolled out its own tablet computer, as previously mentioned. The Viera Tablet is part of a “cloud” focused content delivery strategy (there it is, again!) that will let consumers access on-demand and VIERA Connect content. The tablet will actually be available in several different sizes, ranging from 4” to 10,” and also functions as a TV remote control.

Sharp also featured connected Blu-ray players, with directed apps for VUDU taking center stage. Three new models use wireless connections to access Netflix, VUDU, Pandora and YouTube content via streaming connections. They also took the wraps off a 70-inch Quattron LCD TV with built-in WiFi and a support for CinemaNow, Netflix, VUDU, and DLNA video streaming.

Sharp's got a new 70-inch LCD glass cut, and wireless Internet connectivity to go with it.

Samsung didn’t have quite as many sexy NeTV announcements, but they did have the largest LCD TV at the show (75 inches) and prominently featured their Smart Hub technology. You can access the usual suspects through wired and wireless Ethernet connections, along with Blockbuster, MLB.TV, AccuWeather, Facebook, Hulu Plus, and History Channel content, among others.

PROJECTION TRENDS

There wasn’t a lot of projector news from CES. Texas Instruments used the event to launch a new line of DLP Pico HD chipsets. These are tiny WXGA-resolution (1280×800 pixels) digital micromirror devices (DMDs) that are used in picoprojectors and pocket projectors, and there were plenty on display in the TI suite. They had picos running in GE digital cameras, Sharp smart phones, and even a prototype tablet computer.

Sony even showed a DLP-based picoprojector in a new digital camera at Digital Experience, an interesting development considering that both companies parted ways back in 1996 after Sony built its first and only SVGA DLP high-brightness projector.

Yes, Pico DLP chips really are that small.

Even digital cameras are equipped with picoprojectors nowadays.

Other picoprojectors were shown from LG, ViewSonic, Acer, and Optoma. The Optoma iPod docking station with built-in picoprojector was a clever product, as was the GE digital camera. But most of these projectors cast small, dim images, and you have to wonder how the explosion of tablet computers will affect this market, considering that both picos and tablets would be used for very small group presentations.

Several 3D projectors took a bow in Las Vegas. Mitsubishi finally has a model number for its LCoS 3D projector (HC9000), while Sharp announced the XV-Z17000 DLP 3D chassis. Samsung’s also got a new 3D box, the SP-A8000, which also uses DLP technology. Over in the JVC booth, the previously-announced DLA-X9 and DLA-X7 D-ILA (LCoS) 3D front projectors now have THX 3D certification – apparently the only models to earn that appellation so far. The general consensus is that DLP produces better blacks and higher contrast than LCoS 3D projectors, but that will remain to be seen. (I expect to have a review sample of the Mits unit in mid-March.)

Mitsubishi’s big screen TV division continues to hang on in the rear-projection DLP marketplace and is actually doing quite well, thank you very much. (It’s easy to capture 100% market share when you are the only player!) They launched a 92-inch DLP set with 3D compatibility, and while it doesn’t have a model number yet, expect it to sell in the mid-$5000 range, with active shutter glasses an extra.

Is a 92-inch 3D screen big enough for ya?

NO?? OK, then how about a 155-inch OLED screen?

WIRED VS. WIRELESS NETWORKING

I met with most of the major networking groups at CES. Two of them (HDBaseT and DiiVA) are very close in theory and practice, with structured wire being used to distribute video and audio between connected devices. Both systems also support USB connectivity for remote gaming control, and both systems can deliver power to connected devices (100 watts for HDBaseT and 24 watts for DiiVA).

Many commercial interface manufacturers are incorporating HDBaseT infrastructures into their AV switching products, the latest being Crestron (Digital Media) and Gefen. AMX already uses a version of HDBaseT in their AV switchers and distribution amplifiers.

DiiVA is apparently gaining popularity in China, where new apartment buildings and houses all have structured wire pulls. Most of the companies that have DiiVA-compatible products are also (not surprisingly) based in China.

Keep your eye on Diiva for both consumer and commercial applications.

A touch of the button is all it takes to get you in a surround-sound sweet spot, courtesy of Summit Semiconductor.

On the wireless side, Summit Semiconductor, Aeleron, and Amimon all showed system-on-chip solutions for high-bitrate video and audio distribution. Amimon is the founder of the Wireless High Definition Interface (WHDI) and showed wireless display connectivity to remote PCs, as well as Blu-ray 1080p playback to specially-equipped LG and Hisense wireless LCD TVs.

Aeleron featured Ultra WideBand (UWB) connectivity of 1080p streaming and docking systems that work with TVs, laptops, smart phones, and other media players. They also featured DLNA-compatible UWB adapters for in-room signal distribution (UWB can’t go between rooms) and driverless HDMI interfaces.

Summit’s demo was perhaps the most interesting. It featured uncompressed distribution of wireless multi-channel surround audio to randomly-placed powered speaker columns. A special remote activates a supersonic Doppler system that automatically adjusts the levels of all speakers so that you are sitting in t ‘sweet spot,’ no matter where you are in the room, or where the speakers happen to be placed. It takes all of ½ second for this adjustment to be made.

Back over in the Hilton, Sigma Designs has found a way to reduce line noise and broad spectrum interference in HomePlug systems. Turns out, all those battery chargers and AC adapters are pretty ‘dirty,’ which clips the available bit rate for moving video and audio through decoupled AC power lines. With the Sigma enhancements, the receive speed (to a media player or TV) is as much as 65% of the transmit speed (from the playout source). With normal HomePlug appliances, the receive speed can drop to as little as 20 – 25% of the transmit speed.

Who knew HomePlug systems were so noisy? (not to mention iPad AC power adapters...)

Guess what? Your smart phone can talk to your oven now. And your refrigerator, and washer, and dryer, and...WHAT??? No! Not the TOILET!!!

THE WRAP

There was so much more to report on from CES. Many of the new TVs and accessories will be featured in upcoming spring line shows, where I’ll take a closer look at each. You can also find news about specific model numbers and pricing at many other media outlets, along with each manufacturer’s specific Web sites.

If there was anything to take away from the show, it was that TVs were not the big news at CES this year. Instead, multi-function smart phones and connected media appliances generated all the buzz. We’re definitely in for a protracted battle between the “your TV should be the hub!” advocates and the “Connect outside the TV!” evangelists, not to mention the “go wireless!” and “use wired connections!” camps.

I tend to favor the “connect outside the TV” and “go wireless” arguments, although it is a tricky task to stream high-definition video in an uncompressed format between rooms in a house. (And no, the FCC taking away more UHF TV channels won’t help at all – there’s not enough spectrum space in the UHF band for 512 MHz channels!)

3D will continue to muddle along this year, as the economy slowly recovers and consumers sit on their hands. The confusing “glasses or no glasses” messages won’t help. Active-shutter 3D and passive 3d are clearly superior to autostereo 3D for viewing TV shows and movies, but you have to test-drive all three modes first to understand why. Look for the passive systems from LG, JVC, and VIZIO to pick up more market share as the year winds on and consumers realize they can use their freebie movie theater glasses at home.

LG's placing its bets on passive 3D TV.

Samsung's flexible OLED displays don't get bent out of shape.

NeTVs are here to stay and potentially a lot more popular than 3D. Sony’s Google TV approach may be too complicated for most consumers, who are likely to favor the simpler direct channel apps offered by everyone else. And if they can access Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus, they may not need much else. Look for LG’s Internet converter box to be copied by other manufacturers so that older TVs can join in the fun.

It was nice to see a few OLED TV demos this year, but once again the technology just isn’t ready for prime time. Look for Samsung to show an OLED Galaxy tablet later this year, if for no other reason than to prove they can make one. But it will be a while before you can buy it. The rest of the tablet and smart phone crowd will stay with tried-and-true LCD technology for the time being.

Blu-ray disc and player prices will continue to plummet. I’ve predicted that major brands will stop making conventional DVD players altogether in 2011, moving to Blu-ray as their exclusive platform. While we didn’t see any BD players with internal hard drives like those sold in Japan, they’re not far off. Too many people are using Netflix streaming and would like to try a straight digital download for improved image quality. What better place to enable a DVR than in a BD multifunction media hub?

And get used to using your smart phone to do everything. Game console controls, TV remotes, autostereo displays, even diagnostic tools to use with connected major appliances – all of these smart phone applications were shown at CES.

So was a iPhone case with a built-in bottle opener, which might turn out to be one of the most useful smart phone “apps” of all…

No comment!

3D TV Came In With a Bang, But Appears to Have Fizzled Out

A recent story at Reuters.com says that 3D TV hasn’t caught the imagination of consumers and that they are still largely sitting on the sidelines when it comes to a new TV purchase.

Even Internet connectivity hasn’t provided much of a boost to the ailing TV business, which has seen big-screen LCD and plasma prices sliced to unheard of levels as manufacturers try to kick-start the holiday buying season.

How about super-thin LED-backlit TVs? Those aren’t doing the trick, either. Instead, the hot items this year appear to be smart phones and digital cameras, which have also seen dramatic price drops.

The Reuters story quotes Frank Ingarra, a portfolio manager at Hennessey Funds, as asking why TV manufacturers thought it necessary to push a new generation of TVs right after many people bought their first flat screen sets. “People don’t understand the added benefit of 3D,” Ingarra said. “When you get into $2,000 TVs, you start thinking: ‘At what point do I really need this, and is it going to make my viewing experience that much better?”

Not surprisingly, the high cost of active-shutter 3D glasses – and their incompatibility with other 3D TV brands – has been a turn-off for consumers, according to Ross Rubin at NPD Research. Earlier research studies showed that some consumers are waiting for 3D technology to progress further, and are waiting for “competing technologies” to resolve their differences. By “competing,” I mean active shutter vs. passive 3D viewing, which uses much less expensive glasses.

The lack of content and the ill-advised exclusive 3D content bundles have also impaired 3D TV sales, in my opinion. There’s still not a lot of 3D content to watch yet, and in particular, the premium 3D Blu-ray titles that viewers really want to see, such as Avatar, are all locked up in long-term deals with TV brands.

On a related note, TVs equipped with Google’s search engine (read: Sony Bravia LCD TVs) haven’t been selling well, either. That could be evidence that consumers are voting for more of an app-driven approach to NeTV viewing (such as direct links to YouTube and Netflix) and don’t care to search through millions of videos on the Internet with a complex keyboard to simply “watch TV.”

The story pointed out that “…consumers realized they could find the same services, like movie service Netflix Inc, elsewhere” using lower-priced alternatives such as PlayStation and Xbox consoles, Blu-ray players (which are getting dirt-cheap now), and Apple TV and Roku boxes. (Anyone remember what happened to Web TV?)

At CES next month, we’re certainly going to see more cutting-edge TV products, although I think the emphasis on 3D will be toned down considerably from a year ago and TV manufacturer’s marketing efforts shifted more towards connected TVs and peripheral media players. Even though TV sales are weak now – a recession just can’t be overcome with marketing hype – the future of TV is clearly Internet connectivity.

Whether most of those connections take place through a TV or through a connected peripheral such as a Blu-ray player remains to be seen. In the meantime, consumers are content to sit on their checkbooks and credit cards for now, paying scant attention to 3D and Google TV as they rush out to buy the latest Droid, Samsung, Apple, or HTC phone to put under the tree…

3D over broadcast digital TV: Can it be done right now?

I’ve been asked more than a few times this year if it is at all possible to transmit 3D over digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB), or what we know simply as “free digital TV.” There seems to be a perception that one must have a Pay TV subscription service (cable, DBS, FiOS, or U-Verse) to access 3D programming.

Believe it or not, carrying 3D over terrestrial broadcast stations is mostly a business decision. Yes, major TV networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC could start broadcasting programs in 3D right now. And your 3D-enabled TV would be able to process the 3D signals correctly so the programs can be watched with active-shutter glasses. (I’m not going to discuss color anaglyph 3D here, which works over any TC channel, but produces the lowest quality of 3D.)

The ‘catch’ is that the 3D content would have to be delivered in a frame-compatible format, such as 720p/60 top + bottom (like ESPN uses), or 1080i/30 side-by-side (like DirecTV uses). Both of these formats were specifically developed to fit in a standard 6 MHz channel space, using a maximum bit rate of about 19.39 Mb/s. And in fact, broadcasts of 3D content from earlier this year were delivered in the MPEG2 format that is standard for over-the-air digital TV.

The top + bottom format used for 720p/60 frame-compatible broadcasts.

The fact that cable companies and satellite broadcasters are now moving to MPEG4 encoding for 3D carriage shouldn’t be discouraging. MPEG4 (more specifically, H.264 AVC) provides for 50% compression efficiency over MPEG2. But broadcasters can still pipe a pretty good 3D signal into your home using MPEG2, which has also gotten a lot more efficient in the nearly 20 years it’s been around.

Remember that both of the frame-compatible 3D formats sacrifice some image resolution to fit within a standard channel width/bit rate constraint, no matter what service you get 3D from. For top+bottom, your TV receives a combination frame with two 1280×360 images, anamorphically squeezed in the vertical plane. For side-by-side, each frame of video provides a pair of 960×1080 images, anamorphically squeezed in the horizontal plane.

Your 3D TV separates the two frames and reverses the anamorphic squeeze with a stretching process, resulting in full left eye/right eye frames – albeit with somewhat lower resolution. But today’s TVs do a pretty good job of interpolating pixels to correct for de-interlacing and judder, so these half-resolution images don’t look nearly as bad as you might think.

The side-by-side 1080i/30 format used for 1080i/30 broadcasts.

So, what’s holding broadcasters back? For one thing, available bits! DTTB is limited to a maximum bit rate of 19.39 Mb/s, and that leaves just enough room for one full HD channel (15 Mb/s maximum bit rate) and perhaps a standard-definition channel (3 MB/s maximum bit rate) to go along with it. So a broadcaster would have to devote the entire HD bit rate to the 3D program. Jamming a second 720p/60 or 1080i/30 3D program alongside the standard 2D broadcast would not be practical, as image quality on both channels would suffer.

Another possibility would be to transmit a 2D signal (left eye) and carry the right eye signal as a separate program. This would be a similar approach to analog FM stereo broadcasts, where the stereo information is transmitted as a subcarrier, or analog color TV, where the color burst is also carried as a subcarrier.

This technique can be accomplished digitally by transmitting a full-bandwidth 2D signal (left eye) and carrying additional metadata (2D + depth information) required to create the stereoscopic effect. That metadata would add something to the payload, and would rely on the some of the image processing inside the TV.

Now, a broadcaster could carry the Super Bowl in full HD as before (720p or 1080i), yet still enable 3D viewing for TVs equipped to handle the 3D signal. But there’s another ‘catch:’ Your TV would have to recognize the metadata ‘package’ and be able to open it up, rebuild the right eye frames, and sequence them accordingly.

Because it’s not likely that a DTTB station would use its entire bandwidth to carry a 3D broadcast of a big event, the 2D + depth format would make the most sense, just as older black and white TVs could still display a color TV program simply by ignoring the chrominance signals. I don’t know of any consumer TVs that are equipped to handle the 2D + depth format, so some sort of outboard adapter would be required to make this work.

The good news is that such a 3D converter box would not have to be expensive. It would incorporate an ATSC tuner (maybe even a pair of tuners!) and would be equipped to process the DTTB 3D signal into top + bottom or side-by-side formats, using a standard HDMI output connection to the TV. Frankly, such a box ought not to cost much more than $100, and could also be sold as a bundle with one or two pairs of universal active shutter glasses. (Motorola showed a prototype 3D converter box at NAB 2010 for older, non-3D TVs.)

What programs would work in 3D? Aside from football, which I do not believe benefits much from 3D based on my recent experiences, I’d say basketball, hockey, auto racing, Olympics individual events, golf, and tennis. Basically any sports event where the camera can get close enough to realistically create a sense of depth.

Who would be likely to try 3D broadcasts? My guess would be ABC and Fox for starters, given how much sports programming these networks already carry and how many stations they own. ABC, of course, is part of Disney, who also owns ESPN. ABC has the NBA, college football, and the Indianapolis 500, while Fox operates an extensive sports division and covers college and pro football, auto racing, and major league baseball.

NBC might also dip their toes in the water with Olympics coverage, Notre Dame football, NASCAR, horse racing, and Sunday Night Football. I’d see CBS as the last network to try this out, simply because they adhere to a strict ‘no multicast’ policy at all of their owned-and-operated (O&O) CBS and CW stations.

So the answer to the question is “Yes, free TV stations can broadcast 3D programming, and they can broadcast it now.” The catch is, do they want to, and which delivery format would they adopt to make it work?

Product Review: Samsung UN46C7000 3D LCD TV

If you attended CES back in January, you couldn’t escape 3D. It was everywhere in every booth, staring down from plasma and LCD TVs, projected from hanging screens, and dazzling on super-thin OLED monitors.

There is no question that TV manufacturers put some heavy bets on 2010 being the year of 3D. And most of the heavy betting came from Samsung, who originally announced 19 different models of LCD and plasma 3D sets at their press conference.

As things played out, public reception to 3D TV has been mixed. Numerous surveys have been taken that show consumers think 3D is certainly cool, but not many of them plan to buy a 3D TV this year. Is it too early in the technology curve? Is the lingering recession keeping wallets shut? It’s hard to say, but the fact is that 3D is coming along slowly – perhaps more slowly than manufacturers would like.

No, those cute lil' monsters do NOT come with the TV.

Samsung’s UN-46C7000 ($2,599 list) is one of the smallest 3D TVs available. For this review, I purchased Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D Blu-ray player for $249 at Amazon.com, as it was difficult to procure a press sample. (You can now buy this player for $214 at several different online stores.) Of course, right after it shipped, Samsung’s PR agency sent me the new BD-C6800 player. Figures!

OUT OF THE BOX

The UN46C7000 is ready to rock and roll. You’ll spend a few minutes assembling the support stand and trying to figure out how to attach it to the back of the incredibly-thin TV (something Samsung’s lab folks have had to deal with, too).  The finish around the bezel and on the stand is a shiny silvery color, which I find a bit distracting. But it goes to the old saying that “televisions are furniture,” I guess.

Samsung has provided plenty of input connections on this TV. There are four HDMI inputs, all of them version 1.4a compatible. Input #1 also supports connections to a personal computer, while Input #2 is the audio return channel (ARC) connection for an external AV receiver.

Believe it or not, THOSE are the analog video connections, along with the antenna input (far left).

There’s also a single analog component video (YPbPr) connection, a sign of the times. How much longer before this connection goes away altogether?  Of course, composite video connections just WON’T go away, and there’s one of those, too. Note that all of these analog connections do not use conventional RCA jacks – there’s no room for ‘em.

Instead, Samsung provides special breakout cables for component and composite video, along with analog video hookups. The actual plugs are stereo mini types. The same space/size problem applies to the Antenna input – Samsung provides an adapter to go from the standard threaded F-connector to a mini slide-on coaxial connector.

All of the HDMI connections support CEC, so when you turn on your Blu-ray player, the TV also powers up and switches to that input automatically. Want to feed digital audio from TV programs to your AV receiver? Samsung’s gotcha covered with a Toslink output jack, but you’ll need to come up with the cable. And as I just mentioned, HDMI input #2 will provide an audio return path to your receiver.

Four HDMI inputs are arrayed vertically along the left side of the rear panel.

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

Samsung’s menus haven’t changed much over the years.  There are four image presets, labeled Dynamic, Standard, Natural, and Movie. Suffice it to say that you won’t want to run the TV for very long in Dynamic mode, as the pictures are extremely bright and over-enhanced. Standard, Natural, and Movie modes all work well for everyday viewing, but if you are into calibration, you’ll need to use Movie mode.

In addition to the Big 5 adjustments, you can also select from four different color temperature settings, five different aspect ratio settings, and a host of ‘green’ energy setting modes called Eco Solution. There are five different settings for screen brightness – including one that turns the image off, but leaves the sound on – and there’s also an ‘Eco Sensor’ that adjusts picture brightness based on ambient room lighting conditions.

If you think all of these settings play havoc with gamma, you are correct! And there are other image ‘enhancements’ that Samsung has included that will also result in some strange gamma curves, including three different black levels, three settings for dynamic contrast, and a shadow detail enhance/reduce adjustment. My advice is to leave them all off.

Samsung's backlit remote controls have gotten pretty snazzy in recent years.

Thanks to former home theater magazine editor Mike Wood, who know runs Samsung’s test lab in Los Angeles, we’re seeing more calibrator-friendly adjustments in the image menu. There are two Expert Patterns (grayscale and color) for basic brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue calibrations. You can also select red, green, and blue-only modes, as well as Auto, Native, and Custom color spaces. The Custom mode lets you define your own x,y coordinates for primaries.

For color temperature calibration, Samsung provides two-point and ten-point RGB gain and offset adjustments. The theory is to do most of the calibration in two-point mode, then go back through a multi-step grayscale in ten-point mode for fine-tuning. (It almost worked for me, with one hiccup.)

Other adjustments include Flesh Tone enhance (leave it off), xvYCC mode (leave it off as well, no one currently supports extended color in packaged content), and the usual edge enhancement (peaking) stuff. (Remember, HDTV doesn’t need edge enhancement – it’s high-definition, savvy?)

There are a couple of noise filters that have some effect on image quality. The MPEG noise filter attempts to use low-pass filtering to get rid of mosquito noise and macroblock (excessive compression) artifacts. Be warned that low-pass filtering softens high-frequency image detail, so go easy on these controls. There’s only so much you can do to turn chicken turds into chicken salad, as my old college film professor used to say.

We’ll wrap things up with a discussion of Auto Motion Plus. This feature, which is pretty much de rigueur on all new LCD TVs, corrects for 24-frame judder by pulling the frame rate up to multiples of 60 Hz. In the case of the UN46C7000, the corrected frame rate is supposedly 240 Hz. What this actually does to images is to make filmed content look like it is live, or shot at video rates.

Whether this is esthetically a good thing to do is a matter of debate. The result is a very smooth presentation, free of flicker and judder, but it just doesn’t look the same as a movie. The motivation behind Auto Motion Plus (and every other TV manufacturers implementation of it) is to get rid of motion blur and smearing, something that all LCD TVs suffer from to various degrees. Try it – you may like it, you may hate it.

3D MENUS

Thought I’d forgotten about these, eh? Samsung 3D TVs are quite smart enough to recognize when 3D content is streaming through their inputs, unless it is encoded in the HDMI v1.4a frame packing format. This format, which delivers movies in the 1920x1080p @24 Hz format, is so unique that if you start playing a 3D Blu-ray disc, the UN46C7000 will automatically switch into 3D mode – no further adjustments required.

The two frame-compatible 3D formats (1080i side-by-side and 720p top+bottom) require some help from you to be shown correctly. Once you’ve established that you are indeed seeing the unprocessed 720p or 1080i 3D program from your content provider, go into the UN46C7000’s 3D menu and turn 3D mode ON.

Your will then be presented with a menu of 3D frame compatible formats to choose from, including side by side (1080i), top & bottom (720p), and several esoteric formats like line by line, vertical stripe, checkerboard (also known as quincunx), and frequency. That last format alternates full-frame left and right images in a similar manner to active shutter 3D, but at slower frame rates.

Aside from frame packing and side-by-side/top & bottom, you are most likely to run into the checkerboard format when playing back 3D games and other non-standard media. The other formats are not widely used, but you may come across them with Internet-delivered or broadcast content in the future.

Samsung also has a 2D to 3D conversion algorithm built-in to all of their 3D TVs. Try it – the effect is noticeable at times, but still doesn’t look quite right to me. My advice is not to try and add synthetic 3D effects to everyday TV shows and movies, but stick with content that has been specifically formatted for 3D. (Readers who saw Clash of the Titans in 3D know what I’m talking about.

ON THE TEST BENCH

Given all of the image enhancement adjustments present in this TV – and the auto-dimming circuitry that boosts black levels – it is difficult to get an accurate read on gamma performance and contrast. Nevertheless, I did run a basic set of test patterns and came up with some mostly-believable numbers, using 1920x1080p test patterns from an AccuPel HDG4000 generator and ColorFacts 7.5 calibration software.

After my best calibration, I measured brightness in Movie mode at 110 nits  (32 foot-Lamberts). That number ranged as high as 400 nits in Dynamic mode (tanning lamp mode), 201 nits in Standard mode, and 210 nits in Natural mode. ANSI (average) contrast was clocked at a respectable 621:1, with peak contrast from  checkerboard pattern at 722:1.

Because of the auto dimming feature with low-level content, peak contrast can reach amazingly high levels. In Movie mode, a sequential white/black measurement reached 20,567:1, and soared to 400,000:1 in Dynamic mode. (Not that your eye can actually see that level of contrast.)

It's kinda wobbly-looking, but this 2.44 gamma was the best I could pull from the TV.

White balance uniformity was respectable for an LCD TV. Maximum color temperature shift across a full white screen was 388 degrees Kelvin, while maximum color shift across a nine-step grayscale was 287 degrees Kelvin. During one of my ten-point calibrations, the gray pattern at 30 IRE shifted noticeably blue-green, resulting in a bump up to 7260K. I’m not sure why it happened – going back and recalibrating in two-point mode fixed the problem.

That's a pretty impressive grayscale track!

And here's the reason why - look at the RGB levels, which vary little from black to 100 IRE.

I mentioned the screwy gamma curve performance earlier. You’ll tear your hair out trying to get a consistent gamma on the UN46C7000, so you’ll just have to settle for your ‘best shot.’ That’s what I did with an effective but wobbly 2.44 gamma in what I called my ‘best’ calibration out of ten. Not satisfied, I came back and tried it again with a ‘final’ calibration and didn’t see a significant difference.

But both curves were a lot cleaner than what I started with, which was S-curve gamma response in almost every picture mode. The culprit? That doggone auto-dimming circuit that forces deep blacks when the on-screen content has low luminance levels. Needless to say, you don’t want to be using a TV like this as a reference-grade monitor.

The UN46C7000 has a surprisingly accurate color gamut when compared to the BT.709 standard color space for HDTV. It just comes up a bit short on red and is oversaturated with green and blue. You can fix this to some extent using the Custom color space control, but red, yellow, and green are then undersaturated as a result. Can win ‘em all…

 

Here's the UN46C7000's factory color gamut...

...and here's the corrected color gamut, albeit light on green, yellow, and red.

IMAGE QUALITY

Because this TV is primarily marketed for 3D use, I decided to make most of my image quality judgments based on 3D content.  Of course, that didn’t leave me a lot of options for programming as I could only choose from 3D sports on ESPN, or the sole 3D Blu-ray disc in my possession – Monsters Vs. Aliens.

My thoughts on 3D football have already been published and can be found here. As for image quality, I found myself switching to Natural or Standard mode to pick up the additional brightness I was losing through Samsung’s active shutter glasses – about 50%, according to the basic physics of light. Movie mode was not bright enough for viewing 3D unless I had all ambient room lighting dimmed and there was little or no outside light.

Of course, switching out of Movie mode when watching a 3D movie tosses all of your calibration efforts out the window. How’s that for a conundrum? Your best image quality isn’t bright enough for watching 3D movies. (I knew there was a catch to this 3D thing…)

Switching in and out of Auto Motion mode fixed up quite a few motion blur problems observed in ESPN’s 3D telecast of the Ohio State – Miami football game, which I also elected to watch in Standard mode so I could throw away 100 of those 200 nits, yet still have acceptable screen brightness. I didn’t have a chance to use it to watch conventional movies.

This is the 21st-century version of the old Indian chief test pattern.

The 3D experience using frame compatible formats isn’t quite the same as watching frame-packed 3D from a Blu-ray. The latter format has more detail, more contrast punch, and  is just a lot more satisfying to watch. Because the two frame-compatible formats are half-resolution, image detail on long and medium shots didn’t quite measure up to ‘straight’ HD as seen from ESPN’s 2D telecast of the same game on my adjacent Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma.

Monsters in 3D was a very enjoyable experience. I did observe a slight amount of crosstalk through Samsung’s glasses, mostly when bright or near-white objects were present in the frame, such as Dr. Cockroach’s white lab coat, or white text on signs. Auto Motion was disabled and I didn’t see much in the way of objectionable judder, although animated movies tend to be ‘cleaner’ in this regard than live action films.

In general, it’s tough to make critical observations about 3D image quality because the images are so much dimmer. And it is discouraging that the best calibrated mode was too dark for my liking, resulting in dull colors and lower contrast. But given the screwy gamma response I saw in all modes, maybe I should have just sat back and enjoyed whatever appeared on the screen.

2D was a different story. In Movie mode, images had saturated, accurate color, plenty of contrast pop, and more than enough brightness for everyday viewing. Once ambient room light levels get to a certain point, you don’t really see any elevated black level issues. But you will see a flattening of contrast and a drop in brightness as you move off the center axis, something all LCD TVs have to contend with.

CONCLUSION

Samsung’s UN46C7000 is representative of current 3D LCD TV technology, using edge LED backlighting, auto dimming, and a super-thin design.

In terms of 2D performance, it is a strong performer despite those issues relating to gamma performance. In fact, it’s one of the best ultra-thin LCD sets I’ve examined in recent years, even though the patterned vertical alignment (PVA) liquid crystal layer still has some problems with color shifts when viewed off-axis.But it is bright, the colors pop, and images are detailed and crisp, especially after you go through and disable all of the so-called enhancements. And as you can see from the charts, once you calibrate it, it stays tight when tracking a specific color temperature.

As a 3D set, it does a workmanlike job, but could use more help with critical adjustments at higher brightness levels. You can’t calibrate anything in any mode other than Movie, so your only option is to crank up the brightness and try to recapture some of the light lost in Samsung’s active shutter glasses. That may screw up the TV’s gamma response, through.

SAMSUNG BD-C6900/BD-C6800: Samsung’s 3D Blu-ray players are very easy to set up. Plug them in, power up, and the CEC sensor will automatically turn on the TV and switch to that input. Both players are WiFi enabled, and will prompt you for a connection to your home network using manually-configured IP setup or the default automatic (DHCP) configuration. If you don ‘t know much about TCP/IP configurations and addresses, use the automatic mode to set it and forget it.

Both players can stream content from Netflix and also from your home media servers, so you can watch video clips, look at digital photos, and listen to MP3 music files and Internet radio from Pandora. The players will automatically configure themselves to the 1080p/24 frame-packing format when a 3D Blu-ray disc is loaded, and the default output resolution is 1080p for Samsung LCD and plasma TVs.

Full specifications and other product information are available here – http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/UN46C7000WFXZA

Current Web prices on this TV range from $1,370 to $2,200 as of November 10, 2010.

Power consumption tests – Over an 8-hour period, the UN46C7000 consumed an average of 106.4 watts while in Movie mode with full-screen content.