Posts Tagged ‘4K TV’

Has Sony Finally Seen The Light?

Sony’s ongoing financial woes have been well-documented by this writer over the past few years. Gone are the days when the Tokyo-based electronics giant could invent and own all parts of a media format, like the Walkman and Betacam.

It’s exceedingly difficult to make any money selling hardware to consumers these days, as fellow CE giants Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi have all found out. And one of the biggest loss leaders is the Bravia television business, thanks to cutthroat competition from Samsung and LG, and now Chinese brands like Hisense and TCL.

Sony’s late entry into the LCD television marketplace a little over 10 years ago didn’t help. Back then, the company had OEM deals for LCD and plasma TVs with Pioneer and the aforementioned LG, along with a joint venture with Samsung to manufacture LCD televisions (S-LCD). But even with the Sony brand and decent market share, profits were nowhere to be found.

As losses piled up in the television unit, more red ink started flowing from Sony’s VAIO computer operations (since sold off to Lenovo). And in a real head-scratcher, Sony bought out its share of a mobile phone joint venture from Ericsson, only to see that miscalculation produce even more financial misery than the TV group ever did.

Now, chairman Kazuo Hirai has made it official: Sony will no longer chase higher sales in smartphones, where its Experia models just can’t compete with Samsung and Apple. And Sony won’t get any traction in the world’s largest mobile phone market, China, where home-grown brands like Huawei play a dominant role.

Are the days of "Make Believe" are over at Sony?

Are the days of “Make Believe” are over at Sony?

Significantly, Hirai also said that he would not rule out an exit strategy for both smartphones and televisions. (Sony’s TV operations were recently spun off as a separate operating unit so their losses can be clearly identified from the rest of the company.) Sony is on track to post a $1.5B loss for the current fiscal year that ends March 31, continuing a string of down years. Layoffs have continued company-wide and about 1200 more employees will be let go from the mobile division this year.

Despite the gloomy news, Sony’s ace in the hole is a burgeoning entertainment division. Sony Pictures, Sony Pictures Television, Sony Music, and PlayStation – taken together – are profitable operations. More than one institutional investor has called for Sony to exit the hardware business altogether and concentrate on content and software, which is where the money is nowadays.

But Sony has such a strong and rich legacy in consumer electronics that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past, even after posting year upon year of record losses attributable to that same CE hardware. It’s gotten so bad that the company even announced last year that they would not pay a stock dividend for the first time in 50+ years. (Boy, did THAT news wake everyone up!)

In a recent Reuters story, Hirai stated that Sony would target a return on equity of more than 10% by 2018, aiming for an operating profit of $4.2 billion for fiscal 2017. That would be quite a turnaround, given Sony’s performance over the past five years. And it won’t be possible unless the company kisses the TV and phone businesses goodbye, once and for all.

Did Sony learn the lesson of Panasonic, who bit the bullet and shut down their plasma TV manufacturing business cold turkey in 2013, returning to profitability last year? (Panasonic is on track to make about a $2 billion profit for FY 2014.)

Panasonic also shut down other underperforming business units and shifted its focus to commercial products, and it would not surprise me to see them walk away from consumer TVs altogether in the next year or so as their market share is so small.

What about Sony’s Japanese competitors? Hitachi read the tea leaves several years ago and gave up on TVs altogether, while Toshiba is retrenching to the Japanese market. Sharp continues to struggle in the television business as its once-dominant 21% worldwide market share in TV shipments (2006) has dwindled to about 3% and a $250 million loss is staring them in the face for FY 2014.

It seems like everyone but Sony figured out the way back to profitability several years ago. Now, has Sony wised up? Have they finally seen the light?

Time will tell…

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

As I write this, it is the morning of Day 2 at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat. This annual conference brings together the top minds across a wide range of disciplines in the media production business. Cameras, lenses, codecs, displays, file formats and exchanges, content protection, archiving – they’re all here, as are representatives from the major studios, TV networks, software companies, colleges, universities, government agencies, and standards organizations.

Many of the sessions over the past few days have focused on next-generation television – specifically, capturing, editing, and finishing 4K images. Hand-in-hand with these additional pixels comes high dynamic range (HDR), which was prominently featured at CES in January. There’s also a new, wider color space (ITU BT.2020) to deal with, along with higher frame rates (how does 120 Hz grab you?).

I present a review of the Consumer Electronics Show every year at HPA (which now stands for the Hollywood Professional Alliance), and try my best to cram as much as I can in half an hour. Obviously, HDR was a big part of my presentation. And the overemphasis on HDR at CES provided a nice contrast to the presentations at HPA – at CES, it’s all about marketing hype, while at HPA, it’s all about engineering and making things work.

It was a full house for this year's Tech Retreat - as usual!

It was a full house for this year’s Tech Retreat – as usual!

The average Joe may not understand much about “4K TV” or Ultra HD, but there is definitely more than meets the eye. At CES, an announcement was made about the new UHD Alliance, a partnership of TV manufacturers (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic), Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox), and other interested parties that include Netflix, Dolby, DirecTV, and Technicolor.

All well and good, but you need to understand the primary function of this Alliance is to promote the sale of Ultra HD televisions. And right now, television sales haven’t been as strong as they were five years ago. (The introduction of Ultra HD did boost sales a bit in 2014, which may have provided the impetus for the UHD Alliance.)

So here are a few of the problems with transitioning to Ultra HD. First off, not all of the pieces are in place for implementing add-ons like HDR, wider color gamuts, deeper color, and higher frame rates. It’s nice to talk about these features in conjunction with Ultra HD, but the mastering and delivery standards for HDR 4K movies and TV programs haven’t even been finalized yet.

Color is a particularly tricky issue, as LCD TVs with LED backlights render colors differently than LCD TVs equipped with quantum dot backlights. And OLED TVs require their own look-up tables as they are emissive displays, not transmissive. As far as frame rates go, consumer TVs generally can’t handle anything faster than 60 Hz and in fact prefer incoming signals to match up to one of four harmonically-related clock rates.

Next, there is a new version of copy protection coming to your television in the near future. It’s known as HDCP 2.2, and will ride along on an HDMI 2.0 connector. It is not backward-compatible with current versions, and you may be surprised to learn that early models of 4K TVs don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. So there is a real compatibility problem lurking in the shadows if you are an early adopter.

You may be wondering where 4K Blu-ray content will come from. The first Ultra HD BD player was shown at CES, and you can expect those to show up late in the 4th quarter of this year. Suffice it to say that they will be running HDCP 2.2 on their HDMI outputs! Media players will also have to adopt version 2.2 if they are to access movies and other protected content.

Getting back to HDMI: Although version 2.0 was announced in September 2013, it’s pretty scarce on Ultra HDTVs. Most current-model sets I’ve seen have one or two HDMI 2.0 inputs, and as I just mentioned, many of those don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. HDMI 2.0 is also speed challenged; with a maximum clock rate, it can’t support signals beyond 3840x2160p/60 with 8-bit RGB color.

Because of that, some UHDTV manufacturers are quietly adding DisplayPort 1.2 inputs to their products. Some of these interfaces are intended for connections to proprietary media players, but others are available for connections to set-top boxes, computers, and laptops. DP 1.2 can support 3840x2160p/60 with 10-bit RGB color as it has a much higher clock rate.

In summary, it’s all well and good that UHDTV is here, and initial sales are encouraging. But the plane isn’t finished yet, even though some of us want to fly it. The HPA presentations I’ve heard and seen the past two days clearly point out all of the back room details that have to be addressed before the media production, editing, mastering, and delivery ecosystem for UHDTV is ready to roll…

4K & UHDTV: Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends…

Yesterday, TWICE reported that Samsung, Sony, and LG will partner with Best Buy on a 13-week consumer awareness campaign to increase interest in UHDTV and ultimately drive sales of 4K TVs.

The campaign starts tomorrow and is named “Believing Begins Here.” The Consumer Electronics Association had a part in developing the campaign, which will feature in-store demonstrations of UHDTV at 50 Best Buy locations in 11 major markets, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

The timing of this campaign is no coincidence. National Football League pre-season games have already started, and the first NCAA college football games are scheduled for August 28. And as we all know, nothing sells big-screen TVs like football!

The demonstrations will take place between 11 AM and 3 PM each Saturday for the duration of the campaign. According to the TWICE story, these three major TV brands (and hopefully others to be added later) “…have chosen the last remaining big-box CE specialty chain as their showcase.” (I’m sure HH Gregg and Frye’s would dispute that last statement!)

Does this bring back memories of the stumbling, awkward effort to promote 3D TV five years ago? It should, except there’s a difference this time around. For one thing, there aren’t any eyewear issues, because there’s no eyewear. Assuming BB does a good job with 4K content selection, anyone who happens to wander by the demo can easily and quickly check it out.

For another, there’s aren’t any “exclusive” 3D Blu-ray deals tied to specific manufacturers and TVs, a strategy that amounted to shooting one’s self in the foot back then. Throw in the battle between passive and active 3D, the eye disorders and vision issues almost a quarter of the population experiences, and a paucity of interesting 3D content readily available to viewers, and the obituary for 3D TV was quickly written.

This time around, Best Buy has decided to emphasize 2K/4K upconversion as a “future-proof” advantage of 4K TVs and will have adequate demos of 2K-to-4K program material to make their point. And to attract potential customers, the usual manufacturer promotions and sweepstakes/drawings will be conducted. Prizes include a 55-inch Sony, Samsung, or LG UHDTV with installation and Geek Squad service plan included. (By the way, a 55-inch Samsung 4K TV can be taken out of the box and up and running in about 5 minutes, based on my experiences at InfoComm during my 4K / UHDTV class.)

The television industry clearly has a lot more at stake in 2014 than it did in 2009. TV shipments have declined for two years in a row, and TV prices are collapsing with each quarter. (You can easily buy 60-inch LCD sets for less than $1,000 now, and LG has already dropped a 55-inch 4K “smart” model to less than $2,000.)

For some manufacturers like Panasonic, the TV business has been de-emphasized in favor of commercial electronics products and even beauty aids and appliances. (Panasonic now sources a lot of its LCD TV glass on the wholesale market from Taiwan and China.) For others like Mitsubishi, the business of manufacturing and selling TV is “history” as their profits slowly but inexorably evaporated to nothing.

One fact that Best Buy and its partners can’t really explain to consumers is the changing dynamics of the LCD panel and television components supply chain. Thanks to an aggressive push by Chinese manufacturers into the television business and an emphasis on 4K, we will soon see ALL TVs larger than 55 inches move exclusively to 4K glass, just as we saw the migration from 720p/768p glass to 1080p about 6-7 years ago.

The good news is; 2K-to-4K upscaling is comparatively easy, as my colleague Ken Werner has pointed out in a previous Display Daily. Some manufacturers are even building upscaling chips into HDMI interfaces and cables! So the Best Buy demos should be effective if they start with strong 2K content.

But there are always unanswered questions. Best Buy now sells Vizio TVs, and according to Vizio’s timetable, they will have a full range of heavily discounted UHDTVs available this fall, starting at $999 for a 50-inch TV and going all the way to $2,999 for a 75-inch set. In the key sizes of 55 and 65 inches, the prices will be $1,299 and $2,199, respectively. How does that price war help the Big 3? And why should Vizio have anything to do with this campaign when they can simply sit on the sidelines for a couple of months and then swoop in and capture sales based on their brand recognition?

More devil in the details: We still don’t have a 4K Blu-ray standard, and every month it is delayed lets more wind out of the BD sails. According to a recent Home Media story, consumer spending on streaming, downloads, and optical discs was flat through the first six months of this year, to the tune of $8.6B in the U.S.

The “details” show us that digital spending (downloads and streaming of movies and TV shows) increased by 17% ($3.6B) over the same time period in 2013. Meanwhile, spending on optical discs (DVD and Blu-ray) continues to drop, falling 8% ($3.3B) in the Y-Y comparison. Additionally, rentals of optical discs dropped 14% ($1.7B) compared to the first six months of 2013. Brick and mortar store rentals took an enormous hit of 33%.

Breaking out the Blu-ray category, the story says that Blu-ray disc sales were up by 10% during Q2 ’14, with new theatrical releases up 18% in the same time period. But that’s not enough to offset the overall decline in interest by consumers to buy or rent optical discs. (No numbers were provided for Blu-ray sales revenues.)

Will 4K suffer the same fate as 3D? Not a chance. As I just pointed out, many of our big screen TVs will employ 4K panels exclusively in the not-too-distant future. The infrastructure for 4K streaming is being built and the sales and rental numbers show consumers increasingly prefer that delivery format to accumulating a pile of discs.

I plan to check out the 4K demos myself in “secret shopper” mode and will have a report in a future DD.

Mixed Signals about UHDTV

Earlier this week, there were a few “coincidental” press events and trade shows, all in New York City or just across the river in New Jersey. And all of them featured discussions about or demonstrations of UHDTV technology.

First off was the CES 2014 Unveiled event, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The morning and part of the afternoon were taken up by an Ultra HD Conference, which featured several panel discussions and a keynote address during lunch. The first panel, titled “Ultra HD: An Evolution, or Revolution?” featured executives from LG, Sony, Toshiba, and Sharp, and set the table for many ad hoc discussions later on in the day, such as (a) does the public REALLY want or understand UHDTV, and (b) will UHDTV stimulate a stagnating market for televisions?

The second panel, moderated by Deborah McAdams of TV Technology, was called “Native Ultra HD Content: Where’s The Beef?” and addressed the elephant in the room; namely, where is 4K video content going to come from, and how will we get it into the home? Panelists from the ATSC, the Digital Entertainment Group, and Rovi tackled those questions, while yet another group discussed “Taking Ultra HD to Retail” later in the day.

LG's 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

LG’s 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

 

Given that this was a CEA event, we did hear a lot of positive spin and wishful thinking about Ultra HD (UHDTV). And that’s not surprising, considering that the actual outlook for television sales for the upcoming holiday selling season isn’t all that wonderful. According to Shawn DuBravac of CEA, consumer spending on technology gifts is expected to increase in 2013 by just 2.6% over 2012, with tablet (14%) and notebook computers (12%) leading televisions (11%) as the most desired gifts on holiday wish lists. (Smartphones tied with videogame consoles at 7%.)

More tellingly; when survey participants were asked why they would adjust their holiday gift expenditures lower, 67% replied that they already have what gadgets they need and 68% said they had concerns about the economy. An additional 66% said they didn’t have the money, while 64% cited the increased cost of living as a reason to cut back on spending. None of that is good news for a new class of 4K televisions that retail for about $65 per diagonal inch, quite a premium above the $15 per diagonal inch that 2K LCD and plasma TVs sell for.

The following day, across the reviver at the Meadowlands Convention Center, I taught a class on HDMI troubleshooting at the Almo E4 Expo. This show, which is focused on the commercial AV industry, featured plenty of large screen displays from Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung, and others. And the discussions largely focused on the challenge of moving 4K content around a facility.

Would HDMI 2.0 be good enough? (Not for high frame rate 2160p content with deep color.) How about DisplayPort 1.2? (Yes, it is fast enough to handle 2160p/60 with 10-bit color, but needs to get faster.) Who is using DisplayPort? (Not enough manufacturers to date, although it appears to be the interface of choice for a growing number of digital signage media players.) Are there 4K media players available? (Yes, but in very limited quantities from a handful of manufacturers.)

Panasonic's first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

Panasonic’s first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

 

One day later, the CCW / SATCON show at the Javits Center had several panel discussions and presentations focused on the nitty-gritty of capturing, editing, and distributing 4K workflows. Several booths featured 4K monitors (Panasonic had both their 4K Toughpad tablet and 31.5” 4K reference LCD monitor at the show), plus 4K encoding/decoding solutions and camera interfaces. Once again, the biggest challenge appeared to be moving enormous amounts of data around reliably and quickly.

I had an interesting sidebar discussion with veteran journalist Stewart Wolpin at the CEA event. I stated that the Chinese are going to wreak havoc on the UHDTV market as they ramp up glass production and slash prices. Wolpin replied that he didn’t see it as a problem: “Who is going to give these brands (TCL, Haier, ChangHong, etc.) any shelf space? They don’t have much if any presence in the U.S. now and just won’t be competitive with the established TV brands. They’re really more concerned with making tons of money selling TVs in their own country.”

True, China is the only part of the world where there is growth in TV sales Y-Y right now. But they have become a presence to reckon with, if for no other reason than they can make inexpensive 4K TVs with all of the bells and whistles that sell for about as much as a 1st-tier 2K TV. TCL has shipped a 50-inch 4K TV that will retail for $999, and Seiki is also raising eyebrows with their recent announcement of a 65-inch 4K TV for $2,999.

It would be a fool’s errand to predict just how fast UHDTV will be embraced by consumers. Not all parts of the ecosystem are in place yet (HDMI limitations and the lack of H.265 encoder chips are just two stumbling blocks), and there’s still the issue of content delivery to be addressed.

Even so, the trend towards using 4K glass in larger LCD (and eventually, OLED) TVs is pretty clear. Remember the days of 720p and 1080p TVs? The move to 4K will follow a similar pattern, especially where LCD panel manufacturers are seeing little or no profit cranking out 2K glass.

So – UHDTV is definitely coming, from this analyst’s perspective. How fast is still hard to tell. Check back in a year!

Tough Times Ahead For Toshiba

Toshiba, that industrial giant and manufacturer of everything from notebook computers to copiers, lighting equipment, and electronic components, is shutting down two of its overseas television manufacturing facilities and laying off about 3,000 employees worldwide from its “visual products businesses” (their words).

While we hear almost weekly about the struggles of Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic to attain profitability in the TV business, we don’t hear much about Toshiba. Given what we do know – they source their LCD panels from other manufacturers and have a worldwide market share below 5% – it should be no surprise that the company is struggling to make ends meet with televisions.

Last August, Toshiba’s CEO Hisao Tanaka stated in a Wall Street Journal interview that he would not “…pull the plug on the company’s unprofitable television and personal-computer operations, shunning the “easy option” of exiting cutthroat competition for a chance to reclaim its former prominence in the businesses.”

Another quote from the story is apt: “There’s a perception that a conglomerate with a lot of businesses may cancel out the benefits [of size],” said Mr. Tanaka, explaining the so-called conglomerate discount. “I think we can use a lot of the technologies that we as a conglomerate have by integrating or merging them and turn the discount into a premium.”

The WSJ story detailed how Toshiba had been profitable overall the past three fiscal years, lifted by sales in flash memory and power equipment. Those profits must have been substantial to overcome losses exceeding ¥50 billion ($512 million) at its TV operations in each of the past two years.

Tanaka’s plan in August was to move 400 Japanese employees out of the TV and personal computer operations and cut back on the number of TV models in the line. Well, it looks like things took a bit of a turn for the worse since then.

Toshiba’s 9/30 press release states that the company will “…increase products from original design manufacturers (ODMs) in the global market from the current rate of about 40% to 70% by FY 2014. The company further plans to reduce fixed costs and improve productivity by reducing the number of ODMs and models, and by integrating manufacturing facilities.”

Translation: Toshiba will out-source manufacturing of what remaining LCD TVs it sells to the tune of 70% of its product line, and it’s a good bet most of those TVs will come from Chinese factories. Toshiba also plans to merge its television and CE operations with its appliance operations, creating a new entity known as Toshiba Consumer Electronics Corporation.

Intriguingly, it also appears that Toshiba is going all-in with UHDTV. “Toshiba will allocate resources to large-screen Ultra HD (4K) LCD TVs, where growing demand is expected, to differentiated functions for viewing and recording…the company will also reinforce development of visual products for business applications, including digital signage, another area where demand is growing.”

More intriguingly, the press release stated that “…Toshiba will focus on emerging markets including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where growth in demand is expected. In addition, Toshiba will end sales in unprofitable regions.” Hmmm…could one of those “unprofitable regions” be North America?

In summary, another venerable Japanese TV brand has been decimated by the brutal economics of the 21st century, where Korean TV brands are playing Family Feud with curved OLED TVs while the Chinese are quietly but aggressively establishing a beachhead in 4K LCD TV manufacturing.

Toshiba sure talks a good game. Now, can they “walk the talk?”