Posts Tagged ‘Cable TV’

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!

Google TV: Oops! Never Mind…

In a story reported by the New York Times, Google has asked TV manufacturing partners Toshiba, Sharp, and LG to hold off on introducing any new Google TV products at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show.

The official reason is that Google needs more time to refine the software. The real reason may be the lackluster reception that Google TV has gotten so far from consumers. The first sets to launch with Google TV were Sony Bravia TVs, back in October.

If any readers walked the aisles of Best Buy recently, you probably noticed the Google TV kiosk that featured an incredibly complex remote control – one that outdid Rubik’s Cube in complexity. The Sony Google TV remote featured two mouse disks and dozens of tiny alphanumeric keys, and was a sure turn-off for those viewers used to one-button navigation to Netflix and YouTube.

It's just like a smart phone keyboard...only vastly more complex...

In fact, the question now is whether there is any real interest in using a video engine as part of a NeTV – or if consumers are happy with icons or apps that take them directly to Hulu, Netflix, or other content sources.

To make matters worse, major TV networks including CBS, NBC, and ABC are blocking their online programming from Google TV, as is Hulu. Given that the top-rated TV shows are carried by these “old school” networks – as is the current #1 time-shifted show, The Office – that’s not good news for early adopters.

Logitech’s Google TV set-top box has also met with indifference and disdain. According to the Times story, 38% of reviewers on Amazon.com gave the Logitech Google TV receiver three stars or less, and 19% gave it just a solitary star. Not good!

Does this mean consumers don’t like the idea of NeTVs? Not at all. What they DO seem to prefer is a limited number of directed channel apps for the most popular content providers, and not another Web TV-approach to merging computer and TV viewing…something that is akin to mixing oil and water.

Don’t bet against Google, though. They’ll eventually figure out what consumers want and don’t want. The question is; can they compete against the amazingly user-friendly TiVo interface and the ‘directed apps’ approach of companies like Samsung (also a Google TV partner)?

And is Google TV destined for success, or will it go the way of Web TV? (Challenge: Do any readers even know what happened to Web TV? It’s still around, although under a vastly different name…)

Can You Cut the Cord and Still Find Happiness in TV Land?

The newspapers have been full lately of stories that (a) claim cord-cutting will have no impact on pay TV viewing, or (b) show an increasing number of TV viewers are dumping (or strongly considering dumping) cable TV packages in favor of broadband video, or broadband plus over-the-air digital TV.

On the “it’s no big deal side,” you’ll find ESPN and Frank Magid Associates, while the “cord cutting is a growing trend” camp is represented by Parks and Associates, Time Warner, and SNL Kagan. While both sides acknowledge that the pay TV industry suffered its first-ever net loss of subscribers from April to September of this year, they disagree on the reasons.

ESPN and Magid claim that the total subscriber churn is less than 1%, and may be as low as one-quarter of one percent. They attribute the drop-off to the recession and expiring triple-play special deals. Parks points to the explosion in sales of Internet-connected TVs (NeTVs) and connected Blu-ray players and DVRs. Time Warner, in the meantime, just launched a lower-price basic “popular demand” channel package to hold on to subscribers, and will be followed by Charter Communications shortly.

Time for some clarity! According to a story on paidContent.org, Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin reported the results of a simple request she made of 300 respondents in October: “Please list which TV channels you must have available online in order for you to turn off your pay TV subscription.”

Guess who sat at the top of the list? CBS, named by 35% of respondents. The #2 slot was filled by ABC (right behind at 34%), while Fox was in a tie with NBC at 31%.

The highest-rated pay TV network was (no surprise) ESPN, listed by 27% of respondents. The rest of the top ten was made up of Discovery (19%), History Channel (14%), HBO (11%), Comedy Central (10%), and The Food Network (also 10%).

It’s interesting that the top four networks are also available in many markets for free as over-the-air digital TV broadcasts. That also may explain why some cord-cutters are quick to dump cable TV and get their TV fix with antennas and a broadband connection.  (For what it’s worth, PBS finished in a seven-way tie with The CW, MTV, HGTV, CNN, Lifetime, and Bravo.)

The paidContent article comments that most respondents who voted for at least one over-the-air TV network also listed the rest of them. “Most folks think of the four broadcasters as a monolith,” said Martin. “This may be because consumers actually watch shows on all four broadcast networks, or it could be because they have no idea which network their favorite shows are on.”

For viewers who live near major cities, it’s not unusual to have as many as 30+ minor channels of free, over-the-air programming available. Those viewers are also more likely to have fast broadband, so cutting off cable or satellite TV still leaves them with plenty of program choices…and apparently, their ‘can’t live without’ TV networks as well.

So yes, you can find some happiness in the world of free TV…so long as you are willing to part with a few cable and satellite networks, and have a good broadband connection for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet TV channels.

To Readers: How about you? Would you be willing to drop cable or satellite TV, and just live with what you can watch using an antenna and a fast Internet connection? Or maybe you’ve already cut the cord? I’d like to hear your comments one way or the other.

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?