Posts Tagged ‘3M’

CES 2014 In The Rear-View Mirror

Once again, CES has come and gone. It sneaks up on us right after a relaxing Christmas / New Year holiday. We’re jolted out of a quiet reverie and it’s back to the rush to board at the airport gate, walking the serpentine lines for taxis at McCarran Airport, and “late to bed, early to rise” as we scramble to make our booth and off-site appointments in Las Vegas.

We don’t make them all on time. Some we miss completely. But there’s a serendipity angle to it all: We might find, in our haste to get from one meeting to another, some amazing new gadget we didn’t know about as we take shortcuts through booths in the North, South, and Central Halls.

Or a colleague sends us a text or leaves a voicemail, emphatically stating “you have to see this!” Or a chance meeting leads to an ad hoc meeting, often off-site or over a hasty lunch in the convention center.

My point is this: You “find” as many cool things at the show as you “lose.” For every must-see product that you don’t see, there’s another one you trip over. Granted; many “must-see” products are yawners – you’ve figured it out 30 seconds into your carefully-staged meeting with PR people and company executives, and you’re getting fidgety.

LS Samsung Booth MCU 600p

My best CES discoveries involve products or demos where I can observe them anonymously, without PR folks hovering at my side or staring at my badge before they pounce like hungry mountain lions.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the consumer electronics press, I don’t need to break stories the instant I hear about them. There are already too many people doing that. What’s missing is the filter of analysis – some time spent to digest the significance of a press release, product demo, or concept demo.

And that’s what I enjoy the most: Waiting a few days – or even a week – after the show to think about what I saw and ultimately explain the significance of it all. What follows is my analysis of the 2014 International CES (as we are instructed to call it) and which products and demos I thought had real significance, as opposed to those which served no apparent purpose beyond generating daily headlines and “buzz.”

Curved TV screens: OK, I had to start with this one, since every TV manufacturer at the show (save Panasonic and Toshiba) exhibited one or more curved-screen OLED and LCD televisions. Is there something to the curved-screen concept? On first blush, you’d think so, given all of the PR hype that accompanied these products.

The truth is; really big TV screens do benefit a little from a curved surface, particularly if they are UHDTV models and you are sitting close to them. The effect is not unlike Cinerama movie screens from the 1950s and 1960s. (That’s how I saw Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the day.)

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having “5K” resolution – and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

Bear in mind I’m talking about BIG screens here – in the range of 80 inches and up. The super-widescreen (21:9 aspect ratio) LCD TVs shown by Samsung, LG, and Toshiba used the curve to great effect. But conventional 16:9 TVs didn’t seem to benefit as much, especially in side-by-side demos.

The facts show that worldwide TV shipments and sales have declined for two straight years, except in China where they grew by double digits each year. TV prices are also collapsing – you can buy a first-tier 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV now for $600, and 60-inch “smart” sets are well under $800 – so manufacturers will try anything to stimulate sales.

Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many UHDTV (4K) TVs all of a sudden? Partially. Unfortunately, there’s just no money in manufacturing and selling 2K TVs anymore (ask the Japanese manufacturers how that’s been working for them), and the incremental cost to crank out 4K LCD panels isn’t that much.

Chinese panel and TV manufacturers have already figured this out and are shifting production to 4K in large panels while simultaneously dropping prices. You can already buy a 50-inch 4K LCD TV from TCL for $999. Vizio, who is a contract buyer much like Apple, announced at the show that they’d have a 55-inch 4K LCD TV for $1299 and a 65-inch model for well under $2,000.

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Vizio's 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Vizio’s 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Consider that the going price for a 55-inch 4K “smart” LCD TV from Samsung, LG, and Sony is sitting at $2,999 as of this writing and you can see where the industry is heading. My prediction is that all LCD TV screens 60 inches or larger will use 4K panels exclusively within three years. (4K scaling engines work much better than you might think!)

And don’t make the popular mistake of conflating 4K with 3D as ‘failed’ technologies. The latter was basically doomed from the start: Who wants to wear glasses to watch television? Not many people I know. Unfortunately, glasses-free (autostereo) TV is still not ready for prime time, so 3D (for now) is basically a freebie add-on to certain models of televisions.

4K, on the other hand, has legs. And those legs will get stronger and faster as the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) chips start showing up in televisions and video encoders. HEVC, or H.265 encoding, can cut the required bit rate for 2K content delivery in half. That means it can also deliver 4K at the old 2K rates, somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 20 Mb/s.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265  encoding and decoding into their products.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding into their products.

Nanotech's Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

Nanotech’s Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

While consumer demand for 4K is slowly ramping up, there is plenty of interest in UHDTV from the commercial AV sector. And Panasonic focused in on that sector almost exclusively in their CES booth. I’m not sure why – there are plenty of inferences here; most significantly, it would appear that Panasonic is exiting the money-losing television business entirely. (Ditto nearby Toshiba, which had similar 4K “applications” showcased and which also did not exhibit a line of 2014 televisions.)

Long story short; you may be buying 4K televisions in the near future whether you want ‘em or not. It’s a manufacturing and plant utilization issue, and if commercial demand for 4K picks up as expected, that will drive the changeover even faster.

As for sources of 4K content; Samsung announced a partnership with Paramount and Fox to get it into the home via the M-Go platform. Comcast had an Xfinity demo for connected set-top-boxes to stream 4K, and of course Netflix plans to roll out 4K delivery this year direct to subscribers.

I’m not sure how they’ll pull that off. My broadband speeds vary widely, depending on time of day: I’m writing this at noontime and according to CNET’s Broadband Speed Test, my downstream bit rate is about 22 megabits per second (Mb/s). Yet, I’ve seen that drop to as low as 2 – 3 Mb/s during late evening hours, when many neighbors are no doubt streaming Netflix movies.

Even so, HEVC will definitely help that problem. I spoke to a couple of Comcast folks on my flights out to and back from CES, and they’re all focused on the bandwidth and bit rate challenges of 2K streaming, let alone 4K. More 4K streaming interface products are needed, such as Nanotech’s $300 Nuvola NP-H1, which is about the size of an Apple TV box and ridiculously simple to connect and operate.

LG's got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don't know...)

LG’s got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don’t know…)

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays earlier. There were lots of OLED displays at CES, ranging from the cool, curved 6-inch OLED screen used in the new LG G-Flex curved smartphone to prototype 30-inch OLED TVs and workstation monitors in the TCL booth and on to the 55-inch, 65-iunch, and even 77-inch OLED TVs seen around the floor. (LG’s 77-inch offering is current the world’s largest OLED TV, and of course, it’s curved.)

OLEDs are tricky beasts to manufacture. Yields are usually on the low side (less than 25% per manufacturing run) and that number goes down as screen sizes increase, which explains the high prices for these TVs.

And there’s the unresolved issue of differential color aging, most notably in dark blue emitters. With current OLED science, you can expect dark blue emitters to reach half-brightness at about 5,000 hours of operation with a maximum brightness of 200 nits. Samsung addresses this quandary by employing two blue emitters for every red and green pixel on their OLED TVs, while LG has the more difficult task of managing blue aging in their white OLED emitters.

Several studies over the past three years consistently show people hanging on to their flat screen TVs for 5 to 7 years, which is likely to be a lot longer than 5,000 hours of operation. Will differential color aging rear its ugly head as early adopters shell out close to $10K for a 55-inch OLED TV? Bet on it.

Turns out, there’s another way to get wide color gamuts and saturated colors: Quantum dots. QDs, as we call them, are inorganic compounds that exhibit piezoelectric behavior when bombarded with photons. They emit stable, narrow-bandwidth colors with no drift, and can do so for long periods of time – long enough to work in a consumer television.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

QDs are manufactured by numerous companies, most notably Nanosys and QD Vision in the United States.  The former company has partnered with 3M to manufacture an optical film that goes on the backside of LCD panels, while the latter offers Color IQ optical components that interface with the entire LED illumination system in edge-lit TVs.

Sony is already selling 55-inch and 65-inch 4K LCD TVs using the Color IQ technology, and I can tell you that the difference in color is remarkable. Red – perhaps the most difficult color to reproduce accurately in any flat-screen TV – really looks like red when viewed with a QD backlight. And it’s possible to show many subtle shades of red with this technology.

All you need is a QD film or emitter with arrays of red and green dots, plus a backlight made up of blue LEDs. The blue passes through, while the blue photons “tickle” the red and green dots, causing them to emit their respective colors. It’s also possible to build a direct-illumination display out of quantum dots that would rival OLED TVs.

How about 4K display interfaces? By now, you’ve probably heard that HDMI has “upgraded” to version 2.0 and can support a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).  Practically speaking; because of the way display data is transmitted, only 16 Gb/s of that is really available for a display connection. Still, that’s fast enough to show 4K content (3840×2160, or Quad HD) with a 60 Hz frame rate, using 8-bit color.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here's an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here’s an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

Epson's Moverio glasses aren't as sexy as Google Glass - but then, they can do more things.

Epson’s Moverio glasses aren’t as sexy as Google Glass – but then, they can do more things.

Over at the DisplayPort booth, I heard stories of version 1.3 looming later this spring. DisplayPort 1.2, unlike HDMI, uses a packet structure to stream display, audio, and other data across four scalable lanes, and has a maximum rate of 21.6 Gb/s – much faster than HDMI. Applying the “20 percent” rule, that leaves about 17.3 Gb/s to actually carry 4K signals. And the extra bits over HDMI means that DP can transport 3840×2160 video with a frame rate of 60 Hz, but with 10-bit color.

Don’t underestimate the value of higher data rates: 4K could turn out to be a revolutionary shift in the way we watch TV, adding much wide color gamuts, higher frame rates, and high dynamic range (HDR) to the equation. HDMI clearly isn’t fast enough to play on that field; DP barely is. Both interfaces still have a long way to go.

So – why not make a wireless 4K connection? There were plenty of demos of wireless connectivity at the show, and I’m not just talking about Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most impressive was in the Silicon Image meeting room, all the way at the back of the lower South Hall, near the Arizona border.

SI, which bought out wireless manufacturer SiBEAM a few years ago, demonstrated super-compact 60 GHz wireless HDMI and MHL links using their UltraGig silicon. A variety of prototype cradles for phones and tablets were available for the demo: Simply plug in your handheld device and start streaming 1080p/60 video to a nearby 55-inch LCD TV screen.

Granted, the 60 GHz tech is a bit exotic. But it works quite well in small rooms and can take advantage of signal multipath “bounces” by using multiple, steerable antenna arrays built-in to each chip. And it can handle 4K, too – as long as the bit rate doesn’t exceed the HDMI 2.0 specification, the resolution, color bit depth, and frame rate are irrelevant.

This sort of product is a “holy grail” item for meeting rooms and education. Indeed; I field numerous questions every year during my InfoComm wireless AV classes along these lines: “Where can I buy a wireless tablet dongle?” Patience, my friends. Patience…

LG was one of many companies showing

LG was one of many companies showing “digital health” products, like these LifeBand monitors.

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But I don't think you'll see any of these in the near future...

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But you won’t see any of these in the near future…

The decline in TV shipments and sales seems to be offset by a boom in connected personal lifestyle and health gadgets, most notably wristbands that monitor your pulse and workouts. There were plenty of these trinkets at the show and an entire booth in the lower South Hall devoted to “digital health.”

Of course, the big name brands had these products – LG’s LifeBand was a good example. But so did the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. “Digital health” was like tablets a few years back – so many products were introduced at the show that they went from “wow!” to “ho-hum” in one day.

This boom in personal connectivity extends to appliances, beds (Sleep Number had a model that can elevate the head of the bed automatically with a voice command), cars (BMW’s i3 connected electric car was ubiquitous), and even your home. Combine it with short-range Bluetooth or ZigBee wireless connectivity and you can control and monitor just about anything on your smartphone and tablet.

Granted; there isn’t the money in these small products like there used to be in televisions. But consumers do want to connect, monitor, and control everything in their lives, and their refrigerators, cars, beds, televisions, percolators, and toasters will be able to comply. (And in 4K resolution, too!)

PointGrab can mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

PointGrab lets you mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Obviously, I didn’t visit the subjects of gesture and voice control. There were several good demos at the show of each, and two of the leading companies I showcased last year – Omek and Prime Sense – have been subsequently acquired by Intel and Apple. Hillcrest Labs, PointGrab, and other had compelling demos of gesture control in Las Vegas – a subject for a later time.

Summing up, let’s first revisit my mantra: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it. Televisions and optical disc media storage are clearly on the decline, while streaming, 4K, health monitoring, and wireless are hot. The television manufacturing business is slowly and inexorably moving to China as prices continue their free-fall.

The consumer is shifting his and her focus to all the devices in the home they use every days; not just television. Connectivity is everything, and the television is evolving from an entertainment device into a control center or “hub” of connectivity. The more those connections are made with wireless, the better – and that includes high-definition video from tablets and phones.

It’s going to be an interesting year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3M Wants to Expand Market for DBEF Reflective Polarizer, by Ken Werner

During CES 2012, 3M’s Optical Systems Division set up a demonstration in the Sony Theater at the MGM Grand. Dave Lamb (Senior Physics Research Specialist) and Dave Iverson (Business Manager, LCD Television Business) discussed a consumer study sponsored by 3M and conducted by CBS Vision that bolstered 3M’s contention that using the company’s Vikuiti DBEF reflective polarizer film is a significant value add for TV brands.

The results of the study had been announced a few weeks previously, but in Las Vegas I could experience the experimental set-up and explore some aspects not covered in the press release.

First, let’s back up. What is DBEF, and what does it do? In a conventional backlit LCD display, only half the light from the backlight passes through the bottom absorbing polarizer. It is only this light, which is polarized in the proper direction to make it through the bottom polarizer, that can be processed by the LCD pixels to make an image. So, before the display can do anything useful with the light, we are throwing half of it away.

3M’s Dual Brightness Enhancing Film (DBEF) is a reflective polarizer film that reflects light of the “wrong” polarization instead of absorbing it. When the light bounces around after being reflected, its polarization is randomized by its reflections, so some of this light can now pass through the DBEF film. Ultimately, most of the light that originally had the “wrong” polarization, makes it through the DBEF. Since the polarization axis of the DBEF is aligned with the axis of the bottom polarizer, most of this light passes through the bottom polarizer. (Not all of the light passes through, because the bottom polarizer is not 100% transparent even for light of the correct polarization.) Measurements have shown that DBEF displays are 32% brighter than displays without DBEF.
So, how was this perceived by subjects in the CBS Visual study? In the study, viewers were placed mid-way between two TV sets, each viewed at a 45-degree angle. One TV set had a DBEF reflective polarizer in the optical stack, the other had only the standard absorptive polarizer. Although there was more light in the viewing cone, the DBEF set used 15% less power.

When I sat where the test subjects had been seated, the DBEF set was clearly brighter. Lamb said that 88% of test group agreed with me, and that 83% of males and 64% of females 55 years old and older said they would pay an average of $200 for such a set.

Among the test group 46% said they typically watched their TV set at a viewing angle more than 15 degrees from dead center even when viewing alone. That number jumped to 67% for viewing with other people.

Lamb told me 3M has characterized roughly 150 TV sets since 2007-08. The typical luminance was 500 nits in 2008; it is 300 nits now. Energy Star is a major reason for the shift. But 500 nits was overkill at the time, motivated my luminance being a point of differentiation at a time when LCD-TV was still battling with both CRT and plasma for dominance. But now, Lamb said, TV manufacturers may be pushing the lower limit of luminance in pursuit of additional energy savings. How dim is too dim?

Clearly, 3M would like to convince TV manufacturers that DBEF is the solution to this conundrum for a wider range of models. DBEF is currently used in many high-end sets (including “a preponderance” of Sony sets), but 3M is hoping that with more awareness of users wanting higher viewing angle and more brightness in addition to low power, TV makers will respond.

Pico Projectors: Cute, But Does Anyone Use Them?

You see them at trade shows and technical conferences. They’re available (by mail) from Staples and other retailers. Nikon has a digital camera (CoolPix S1000PJ, about $399) with a built-in projector, and Sony just announced three new models of camcorders equipped with projectors (HDR-PJ50V, $1000; HDR-PJ30V, $950, and HDR-PJ10, $750) at CES.

But who’s using them? Have you seen any in use for an office or classroom presentation? Do any of your friends and neighbors own a picoprojector? None of mine do, and I know a lot of ‘cutting edge’ techno freaks.

In my most recent Wake-Up Call e-blast for Pro AV magazine, I asked the same questions. Aside from trade show like CES and InfoComm and technology conferences such as SID, I have yet to see one of these little buggers in actual use.

Last night, on my way out of the local Giant grocery store, I passed by Larmon Photo, a regional camera retailer based in Abington, PA.  I’ve known the folks at Larmon for many years and have purchased quite a few digital cameras there.

Nikon's S1000PJ digital camera with built-in projector.

Larmon is an authorized Nikon dealer and sells a ton of Nikon digital SLRs and CoolPix point-and-shoot cameras. So that means they’d also carry the CoolPix S1000PJ in their line.

I asked my friend at the store if they carried the camera, and indeed they have since it was launched in the fall of 2009. But have they sold any of them since then? Not a one.

In fact, he said they had never gotten a single inquiry about the S1000PJ, but they have moved bucket loads of other, less-expensive CoolPix cameras in the past year and a half.

Last week, I had lunch with a client who works for a second-tier projector manufacturer. (His company doesn’t sell picos, by the way.)  His comment was that he regarded picoprojectors as ‘rebound’ products – that is, they are frequently returned to AV dealers after purchase. The most common reason was ‘it’s not bright enough.’ (In fact, one of his dealers reported he had customers trying to return more picoprojectors than he had originally sold!)

Picoprojectors have two things working against them. First, most of them are simply too dim. How big an image can you reasonably project with 10, 20, or 30 lumens? Even 50 lumens isn’t much to start with when you are making a small group presentation. You’d be better off using a larger notebook computer screen, as you wouldn’t have to dim the room lights.

Secondly, picoprojectors are EXPENSIVE. Really! Staples sells a few models of picoprojectors – all of which must be ordered by mail with a 5 – 8 day delivery cycle, no stores carry them – and they start at $300 (Optoma PK201, 20 lumens, 852×480 resolution). Staples also carries the Optoma PK301 (50 lumens, 854×480 resolution, $400) and the 3M MPro 150 (15 lumens, 640×480 resolution, $400).

3M' MPro 150 pocket projector.

Hmmm…For $360, you can buy an NEC NP115 (800×600 resolution, 2500 lumens) that weighs all of 5 pounds, and will project big images on just about any surface under full room lighting. It doesn’t fit in your pocket, but has three video inputs and varifocal lens.

See the problem here? $400 is a lot of money to spend on something that can barely light up a sheet of paper three feet away. And yet, numerous companies are spending lots of money to develop and bring these products to market, including Texas Instruments, 3M, Optoma, Vivitek, Syndiant, Microdisplay, and ViewSonic.

In my Wake-Up Call newsletter, I mentioned that I saw tablet computers as a direct threat to picoprojectors. And apparently a good part of the picoprojector industry agrees, according to a January 3 press release from Pacific Media Associates, which surveyed pico manufacturers and suppliers about the present and future market for picos. (Apparently, 70,00 of them were sold in 2010 – who knew?)

I noticed several negative user comments about picos, mostly focused on low light output and how impractical the projectors turned out to be.  Here’s one comment from the Staples Web site: “Performance leaves a LOT to be desired. Product says it has adjustable brightness, but was too dim to use in a room with any light what so ever, and brightness would not adjust. Might be a good item for a very small room with no light and limited attendees.” Here’s another. “No practical use for this product. Great for use in a closet!”

To be fair, there were also a couple of positive reviews of this particular pocket projector. But there are no user reviews of the two other picoprojectors on the Staples Web site so far, even though they’ve been available for over a year.

At CES, TI had a demo room full of picos – built-in to cameras and tablets, as well as stand-alone models with brightness ranges approaching a more practical 500 lumens. But 500 lumens isn’t a real pico; it’s just an underpowered ultraportable projector. Most of the demos were just too dim to be of any practical use.

So I repeat my question. Does anybody use picoprojectors? Does anybody even want a picoprojector?

How about you?