Posts Tagged ‘Display’

James Cameron Says Half-Resolution 3D Is ‘Good Enough’ for the Home (Updated 4/28/11)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some readers have taken exception with my description of James Cameron’s statements pertaining to the half-resolution side-by-side and top+bottom 3D formats. Cameron did not endorse passive 3D at NAB; his comments below were limited only to these two frame-compatible 3D delivery systems. Accordingly, I have changed the headline to more accurately reflect his statements.

 

At the NAB show a few weeks ago, James Cameron and Vince Pace announced a new company to assist cinematographers and videographers in the production of 3D movies and TV shows by developing, selling, and leasing 3D camera systems.

 

Cameron feels that in the not-too-distant future, all feature film and TV series production could be mastered in 3D with 2D versions extracted from the digital files. The company has already developed a system for simultaneous 3D/2D production at live events, known as Shadow. It was used during the recent CBS broadcast of the Masters golf tournament.

 

While none of this is earth-shattering news, something Cameron said later during the question and answer period bears mentioning. In response to a question about carrying 3D over conventional broadcast channels, Cameron replied by first describing the side-by-side and top+bottom frame-compatible 3D formats, both of which sacrifice resolution.

 

Side-by-side is used exclusively on 1080i 3D broadcasts, resulting in left eye and right eye images that are anamorphically squeezed into the same video frame. For side-by-side 3D, each image winds up with 960×1080 resolution, while top+bottom images are re-sized to 1280×360. The lost pixels must be interpolated when each frame is anamorphically stretched back to its original size, which is why neither 3D system looks particularly sharp when compared to 3D Blu-ray discs.

 

After Cameron correctly identified side-by-side and top+bottom as being the only practical systems right now for broadcast, he then went on to say, “…full HD 3D would require a doubling of bandwidth, but it’s not necessary right now…you only need full HD for each eye for cinema-sized displays. You don’t need it for home displays. That’s my opinion right now.”

 

You can watch Cameron’s response here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI8OmPdSfBw&NR=1

 

That comment opened quite a few eyes, particularly mine. Here is the most influential filmmaker of his time when it comes to advanced technology, saying that full HD isn’t needed in the home, and that half-resolution 3D is adequate for now.

 

Really?

 

What about frame-packed 3D Blu-ray discs? I’m sure the Digital Entertainment Group would like to hear Cameron’s perspective on that one. So would any manufacturer of active-shutter 3D TVs. So would any person who just purchased a 3D TV measuring 46 inches and larger.

 

What about passive 3D TVs, which throw away half the vertical resolution from any 3D content? Why would you want to watch less-than-full HD 3D movies and TV shows on one of these sets and just make the problem worse?

 

I would think that Cameron would be strongly advocating for full HD across the board, particularly since one company (Sisivel) already showed a system at NAB 2011 that would accommodate two full-resolution 1280×720 views in a standard 6 MHz channel using H.264 AVC coding. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

And that is how you pack two full-resolution 1280x720p 3D images into one standard 6 Mhz broadcast...with the help of a little MPEG4 encoding, of course.

The Sisivel system keeps the left eye frame intact; that is the normal 2D view. The right eye frame is broken up into three smaller tiles that are stitched together in the decoder/receiver. It’s not a new trick and is relatively simple to pull off with today’s powerful software and hardware.

 

Granted, ATSC broadcasters do not use MPEG4 encoding. But that’s not the point: Sisivel tried a different approach and came up with a way to handle 720p 3D content without sacrificing any resolution, something that ought to be of interest to ESPN’s 3D content producers who could deliver this format right now over cable and DBS systems.

 

MPEG2 compression systems have also gotten a lot more efficient, perhaps 100% better than they were a decade ago. While it’s not feasible to put a pair of 1920x1080i full-frame signals into a 6 MHz channel, it can be done now with 720p, based on the demos I saw at NAB.

 

No one should ‘settle’ for lower quality 3D if they are simultaneously trying to get the format to take off. There are plenty of sharp technical people out there that are coming up with creative ways to pack multiple HD programs into standard TV channels without compromising image quality. Stay tuned!

NAB 2011: It’s All About Streaming, Displays, and Connectivity

With each passing year, NAB looks less and less like a broadcaster’s show and more like a cross between CES and InfoComm. It’s a three-ring circus of product demos, panel discussions, conferences, and media events that all points to the future of ‘broadcasting’ as being very different than what it was at the end of the 20th century.

 

Officially, slightly less than 90,000 folks showed up to walk the floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and it was elbow-to-elbow in some exhibits. But there was another trend of smaller booths for the ‘big name’ exhibitors like Panasonic and JVC.

 

That reflects the reality of selling products that have mostly three and four zeros in their price tags. At my first NAB in 1995, it wasn’t unusual to see $50,000 cameras and $80,000 recorders. Now, you can buy some pretty impressive production cameras for about $5,000.

 

Streaming and over-the-top video was big this year. Ironically, NAB featured an enormous streaming media pavilion back in 1999, but it vanished the next year. The reason? A lack of broadband services across the country that could support streaming at reasonable bit rates.

 

Obviously, that’s all changed now, what with Netflix at 21 million subscribers and climbing, and MSOs deploying multi-platform delivery of video and audio to a plethora of handheld devices. Concurrently, the broadcast world is trying to roll out a new mobile handheld (MH) digital TV service to stand-along portable receivers and specially-equipped phones.

 

And behind all of this, the FCC continues to make noise that it wants to grab an additional 100 – 120 MHz of UHF TV spectrum to be repurposed for wireless broadband, a service you’ll have to pay for. Attendees had mixed thoughts on whether the Commission will actually be able to pull this off – there is some opposition in Congress – but there appeared to be a high level of opposition to the plan, considering there is plenty of other spectrum available for repurposing, much of it already used exclusively for government and military purposes.

 

Like last year, there were lots of 3D demos, but the buzz wasn’t really there. 3D still has a ways to go with its roll-out and it simply can’t compete with the interest in content delivery to smart phones, tablets, and other media players. Still, there were some cool 3D products to be found here and there.

 

Here are some of the highlights from the show.

Is that an MH receiver in your pocket, or are you just glad to watch DTV?

ATSC MH Pavilion – several companies exhibited a range of receivers for the MH services being transmitted during the show from Las Vegas TV stations and low-power rigs in the convention center. LG and RCA both showed some snazzy portable MH receivers, with LG’s exhibit putting the spotlight on autostereo 3D MH (as seen at CES) and a service call ‘Tweet TV’ which would allow viewers to comment on shows they’re watching and have those tweets appear on their MH receiver.

 

Another demo had CBS affiliate KLAS-DT transmitting electronic coupons for local retailers and restaurants during the show. These showed up on a prototype full-touch CDMA smart phone with a 3.2” HVGA screen.

 

In a nearby booth, RCA unveiled a lineup of hybrid portable DTV receivers. There are two 3.5” models (DMT335R, $119, and DMT336R, $159), a 7” version (DMT270R, $179), and a pocket car tuner/receiver that connects to an existing car entertainment center. It will sell for $129.

Believe it or not, this was a commercial for Coca-Cola.

Motorola had two intriguing demonstrations. The first showed full-bandwidth 3D content distribution, using the full 38.8 Mb/s bandwidth of a 256 QAM channel to transport frame-packed 1080p video with full 1920×1080 left eye and right eye images, encoded in the MPEG4 H.264 format and sequenced through active shutter glasses.

 

Nearby, an HD video stream was encoded for four different displays, with all four signals carried simultaneously in the same bit stream. First up was a 1080p/60 broadcast; next to that a 720p/60 version, followed by a standard definition version (480i) and a version sized for a laptop computer or tablet. Both MPEG2 and MPEG4 codecs were used.

 

Red Rover attracted quite a crowd with their 28″ 4K (3840×2160) 3D video monitor which uses two 4K LCD panels arranged at 90-degree angles to each other (one on top, facing down). A half-mirror with linear polarization is used to combine the left and right eye images for passive viewing. Both LCD panels are Samsung vertically-aligned models, and the whole works will sell for (ready for this?) $120,000.

Only $120K? That's a steal!

Volfoni showed dual-purpose 3D glasses at NAB. When powered on, they function as active shutter eyewear. Powered off, they are usable as passive 3D glasses. The whole shebang is controlled by an external power pack the size of an iPod nano that clips to your pocket or shirt, and this ‘pod’ can ‘learn’ any IR code from active shutter TVs.

 

The pod controller can step through several neutral density filters and there are several levels of color correction possible from the remote power pack. (Electronic sunglasses – imagine that!) The glasses use 2.4 GHz RF signaling technology to synchronize with any active shutter monitor or TV. And despite all of the bells and whistles, they weigh just over an ounce.

 

Sony’s 17″ and 25″ BVM-series OLED monitors that were first shown at the 2011 HPA Technology Retreat now have siblings. The PVM-E250 Trimaster OLED display is structurally the same as its more-costly BVM cousin, but has fewer adjustments and operating features. And it’s going to sell for quite a discount over the BVM version – just $6,100. There’s also a 17-inch version which wasn’t operating at the show, and it is expected to retail for $4,100.

 

Up at the front of the Central Hall, Panasonic was showing the TH-42BT300U, their first plasma reference-grade monitor. It’s not all that different from the exiting 20-series industrial plasma monitors in appearance, but there’s a big difference in operating features. Black levels have dropped and low-level noise has been minimized with a half-luminance PWM step. This results in more shades of gray and a smoother transition out of black.

 

In addition, the TH-42BT300U supports 3D playback for side-by-side and top + bottom color and exposure correction. Panasonic has also added automatic ’snap-to’ color space menu options, along with a user-definable color gamut option. When calibrated, it was an eye-catcher. There’s a 50-inch version also in the works, and both monitors will go on sale this fall.

Sony knows OLEDs. Make. Believe. (Nah, it was real...)

Panasonic's TH-42BT300U (left) maps color accurately to the BT.709 color space, unlike its sibling the TH-42PF20U (right).

Hyundai unveiled the B240X, a new 24″ passive stereo LCD monitor. It sports a 1920×1200 display with circularly-polarized film-patterned retarders and supports 3D side-by-side and top + bottom viewing formats. The pixel pitch is about .27 mm and brightness is rated at 300 nits. Hyundai also created an eye-catching 138″ (diagonal) 3×3 3D video wall for NAB, using its flagship S465D 46″ LCD monitor.

 

Sisivel has come up with a unique way to deliver higher-resolution 3D TV in the frame-compatible format. Instead of throwing away half the horizontal resolution for 1080i side-by-side 3D transmissions, Sisivel breaks the left eye and right eye images into two 1280×720 frames. The left eye frame is carried intact in a 1920×1080 transmission, while the right eye is broken up into three pieces – the top 50% of the frame, and two half-frames that make up the bottom.

 

All of this gets packed in a rather unusual manner (see photo), but some simple video processing and tiling software re-assembles the right eye fragments into one image after decoding. Then, it’s a simple matter to sequence the lefty eye, right eye images as is normally done. The advantage of this format is that it has higher resolution than ESPN’s top+bottom 3D standard (two 1280×360 frames).

So THAT's how you pack two 1280x720 3D frames into a 1920x1080 broadcast. Clever, eh?

 

JVC announced two LCD production monitors at NAB. The DT-V24G11Z is a 24-inch broadcast and production LCD monitor that uses 10-bit processing and has a native resolution of 920×1200 pixels. The extra resolution provides area above and below a 1080p image for metering, embedded captions, and signal status. The incoming signal can also be enlarged slightly to fill the entire screen.

 

The DT-3D24G1Z is a 24-inch passive 3D monitor with circular polarization patterned films. It has 1920×1080 pixel resolution, 3G HD-SDI and dual-link inputs, a built-in dual waveform monitor and vectorscope, left eye and right eye measurement markers, and side-by-side split-screen display for post production work including gamma, exposure, and color/white balance correction.

 

Nearby, crowds gathered to see two new 4K cameras that use a custom LSI for high bitrate HD signal processing. The demo used a Sharp 4K LCD monitor, and the cameras were running at 3840×2160 resolution. They have no model numbers or price tags yet.

 

Ikegami’s field emission display (FED) monitor that attracted so much attention a few NABs ago, but was written off when Sony pulled out its investment from the manufacturer, is now back. Its image quality compared favorably with Sony’s E-series BVM OLED monitors, and the images displayed with a wide H&V viewing angle and plenty of contrast pop. It was being used to show images from a Vinten robotic camera mount at NAB, and no pricing has been announced.

Forget the Canon SED, Ikegami's got an FED! (A 'what?')

Dolby showed their PRM-4200 42-inch HDR LCD reference monitor at NAB. While this product is not new, there was a substantial price cut announced at the show to $39,000.  Initial comments from the post production community have indicated the price is too high for today’s economic environment. As a result, Dolby has apparently sold a few to video equipment rental houses for location and studio production work.

 

Digital SLRs are being used to shoot TV productions such as “House” and independent films, and they could use a couple of good monitors with hot shoe mounts. Nebtek had a 5.6” model at the show, as did TV Logic. Both models sport 1280×800 (WXGA) resolution, compatibility with HD-SDI and HDMI inputs, and have on-screen display of waveform/vectorscope details, focus assist, and chroma/luma signal warnings. Embedded audio from the cameras’ HDMI output can be displayed on screen, and there are several scan and pixel mapping modes.

 

One of the more significant announcements at the show – at least, at first reading – was Verizon’s Digital Media Services. The idea is to serve as an electronic warehouse for everyone from content producers to digital media retailers – in effect, an Amazon e-commerce model, except that Verizon wouldn’t sell anything; merely ‘warehouse’ the assets and distribute them as need to whomever needs them.

 

Numerous companies showed real-time MPEG encoders, among them Z3 Technology, Visionary Systems, Haivision, Vbrick, Adtec, Black Magic Designs, and (of all people) Rovi, otherwise known for their electronic program guide software. Many of these encoder boxes can accept analog video (composite and component) as well as HDMI and DVI inputs. The general idea appears to be ‘plug-and-play’ encoding for IPTV streaming across a broad range of markets. The Black Magic encoder was the cheapest I’ve seen to date at $500, while price ranges on other models ranged as high as $9,000.

A Tektronix monitor for color anaglyph 3D? REALLY?

Do NOT let your children get any ideas from this photo...

Tektronix had one of the funnier (unintentionally) demonstrations of test and monitoring gear. A new combination monitor, the WFM300, has a color anaglyph mode where you can see the interocular distance for red and cyan color anaglyph program material. Never mind the fact that color anaglyph isn’t being used for much of anything except printed 3D these days, so what were the folks at ‘Tek’ thinking?

 

Finally, Sony showed they can be all wet but still on top of things with their demonstration of an HXR-NX70U 1080p camcorder operating normally while getting a pretty good hosing. The camera is completely water-sealed and dust-sealed for use in hostile environments, and records to internal hard disc drives and memory cards. The shower ran continuously during the show and the camera never even hiccupped. Fun stuff!

Samsung’s 2011 Line Show: “The Edge Of Wonder”

On March 16, it was Samsung’s turn to show everyone just how clever their engineers are by filling the Samsung Experience at New York’s Time Warner building with TVs, tablets, smart phones, laptops, cameras, and major appliances.

If you can turn it on and watch it, you can connect to it (or connect it to something else).

If there was one unifying theme in this blizzard of products, it was ‘connected.’ Digital cameras streaming photos wirelessly to TVs. Laptops connecting wirelessly to docking stations. 3D active shutter glasses connecting over Bluetooth to 3D TVs. Smart phones controlling TVs and appliances. TVs streaming content in real time to tablets and smart phones. Blu-ray players streaming movies to TVs.

 

Oh, wait. They already do that last one. My bad!

 

For fans of the 1960s TV secret agent spoof Get Smart, yesterday’s event was right out of an episode with Agents 86 and 99 and all their cool gadgets. The only things missing were the Cone of Silence and the famous ‘shoe that is actually a telephone.’ (I’m sure Samsung’s working on both.)

 

Now, we did see some of Samsung’s goodies at CES. But it’s so noisy, so crowded, and so confusing out there that these line shows bring back necessary clarity and allow members of the press to more leisurely peruse the offerings to see what’s really hot.

 

Samsung’s president Tim Baxter has a new name for the massive cross-platform, ‘send anything anywhere’ approach that Samsung has adopted for 2011: The Nth-screen strategy.

 

And what exactly does THAT mean? To quote Baxter, “It means our devices work together to create new experiences, while letting people access content anywhere, anytime on any screen.” So there!

THis is where all the magic happens.

Once I navigated past an impressive display of ultra-thin TVs with minimal bezels floating in mid-air with Galaxy tablets and smart phones, I was able to zero on the TV, Blu-ray, and TV accessory products.  Of course, LCD TV is Samsung’s ‘bread-and-butter’ product, and there are 21 new models with LED backlights that range from 19 to 55 inches.

 

The big news in connected TVs is Smart Hub, which is a hybrid of keyword video search, Samsung Apps, and a full Web browser (apparently not Google TV). This new ‘find video wherever it is to be found’ control will be included on all premium models. It will be included on all TVs 40 inches and larger. The D8000 and D7000 LCD TVs will also have a full QWERTY keyboard for searching video.

 

Selected TVs can also share media with other connected devices (read: smart phones and tablets), and there’s a more user-friendly network setup and connection wizard. From a style standpoint, the bezels keep getting thinner – at this rate, they’ll soon be transparent – and power consumption has been cut back to meet Energy Star 5.1 standards.

 

Seven of the new LED LCD TVs support 3D playback (D8000, D7000, and D6400 series). The usual tweaks have been made (improved 2D to 3D, a new 3D auto contrast mode, 3D brightness peaking, and improved surround audio), but the biggest change is in the glasses. They’re still active shutter, but now use Bluetooth wireless instead of infrared to connect to the TV.

Do these 3D glasses rock the house, or what? (Sorry, they're not backwards-conpatible.)

That means, of course, that older Samsung 3D glasses will not work with 2011 TVs, nor will older TVs work with the new glasses. Speaking of those, they have an all-new design for 2011, with the battery compartment at the back of the temples. The temples themselves are curved and flexible and may just hold up better under normal use.

 

Prices have come WAY down on LED LCD TVs. The top-of-the-line UN55D8000, which is available now at retail, has an estimated selling price of $3,599. Except for three models, the rest of the line is priced under $2,300, with thirteen models retailing below $1,500.

 

The most bang for the buck will be the UN55D6000, which is ticketed at just $2,099 and should be well under $1,500 by September if past price trends are any indication. All models offer full 1080p resolution except for the 19”, 26”, and 32” D4000 series TVs.

 

Plasma is still very much a part of the story at Samsung and there are 15 new models to please you. I’m still a big fan of plasma, and Samsung has come a long way in PDP picture quality lately (see my current review of the UN50C8000 3D plasma TV).

OK, time to face facts: 3D just looks better on a plasma TV.

Like the LCD sets, the new plasma offerings have a super-thin bezel. Eight of the new models are just an inch-and-a-half thick, something that wowed us when Hitachi showed it three years ago at CES. Now, we journalists just expect it, I guess.

 

Smart Hub will be present on all of the D8000, D7000, and D6500 models, and all of the 3D goodies from the LED LCD line will also be included on all but a handful of 2011 plasma TVs. That includes the new active shutter glasses with Bluetooth. Other enhancements include that new deep black panel (which also cuts down on image brightness), a local contrast enhancement circuit – I’ll reserve judgment on that until I can test-drive it – and Cinema Black APL control.

 

I’m willing to bet Samsung has also been working on faster-decaying phosphors to minimize the yellow ‘smear’ sometimes seen with fast motion. Panasonic’s also been attacking this problem, and what one company does, the other invariably copies. I should mention that the new 3D starter kits for both LCD and plasma TVs include not only the Shrek portfolio of movies in 3D, but also a new 3D Blu-ray pressing of Megamind, along with two pairs of the ‘new’ glasses.

 

Plasma TVs have always represented a great value for top-notch performance. Samsung’s largest plasma, the 64-inch PN-64D8000, will set you back $3,799 and ships in April. There are also 55-inch and 51-inch models in the D8000 family (you read that correctly, champ – there are now 51-inch plasmas!), along with the same screen sizes in the D7000 line.

 

Ten plasma sets fall below $2,500, with four models under a kilobuck. You can get into 3D plasma pretty cheaply now, starting with the PN43D490 ($799) which happens to be a 720p HDTV. The lowest-priced 1080p plasma equipped with 3D is the PN51D550, and Samsung figures it will be advertised at $1,299 – still a bargain, and you know it will be in the $800 to $900 range before long.

How'd you like to play 3D games on this setup? It's made up of tiled 27-inch Samsung 3D LCD monitors.

How’s about playback hardware? Samsung has seven new Blu-ray players, four of which are 3D models. The top-line BD-D7500 carries a $350 tag (you know that will drop quickly) and is loaded for bear. Oddly, the lower-priced BD-6700 ($300) and BD-6500 (also $300) support DTS-HD High Resolution audio, which the more expensive BD-D7500 doesn’t (neither does the comparably-priced BD-D7000). The 6700 and 6500 players also have component video outputs, something that is rapidly disappearing from all DVD and Blu-ray players as we head into an ‘analog sunset.’

 

For bare-bones playback, you can pick up the BD-D5300 ($150). It’s got the same network connectivity features, but no component outputs and doesn’t support as many digital audio formats (Dolby only).  This player, and its sibling the BD-D5700, do not have ‘out of the box’ WiFi connectivity, as do the other new players. You’ll have to pick up a wireless LAN adapter to make that work.

 

Samsung has a new feature for all of its connected Blu-ray players. It works with a Samsung-branded router and is called One Foot. You simply place the player within one foot of the router, turn everything  on, and the router’s IP address is automatically configured (this is something Panasonic should also be doing!) and you’re good to go, no matter where you place that Blu-ray player afterwards.

A keyboard for your TV. Hmm, where have we seen that before? (Oh right, Web TV...)

There are also several new Blu-ray home entertainment systems, including the company’s first offering with 7.1 channel audio. The HW-D7000 supports 3D Blu-ray playback and Internet connectivity (along with all of those Smart Hub goodies), and there is a new 3D Sound Plus spatial surround system that claims to move sound waves along a z-axis – that is, towards and away from you. The HW-D7000 is ticketed at $599, while eight other models range in price from $350 (HW-D540) to $800 (HT-D6730W).

 

One interesting new app (HBO GO) lets you watch HBO programming on all new Smart TVs or through Smart Blu-ray players. If you are a current HBO subscriber, you get the app at no charge. I’m not sure what the picture quality will be like, as HBO HDTV movies and programs have high-quality production values that depend on high bit-rate speeds to look their best. Maybe better than Netflix? We’ll see.

 

I’ll wrap things up with a mention of the new Galaxy media players. These cuties measure 4 and 5 inches and run on the Android Froyo 2.2 OS. Both have 802.11n connectivity, front and rear cameras (shades of the new iPad), stereo speakers, and support for Flash 10.1. (Take that, Apple!) Skype comes loaded on the 4” model, and they can function as E-book readers with Noon and Kindle apps. Additional memory  can be loaded through a MicroSD card slot (maximum of 32 GB). No prices were announced at the event.

Here's how the new Galaxy media players (far right) compare in size to Galaxy tablets.

Panasonic’s 2011 TV and Blu-ray Press Briefings

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Panasonic held press briefings on its 2011 TV and accessory product line at the House of Glass on 25th Street in New York City. Good choice of venue, considering all of the plasma and LCD TVs that were set up for inspection in front of enormous floor-to-ceiling windows.

 

As usual, plasma still rules the roost at Panasonic, although LCD technology continues to make inroads. This year, you’ll find 19 new models of plasma TVs and a few new glass cut sizes, such as 55 inches (replaces the 54-inch size) and 60 inches (goodbye, 58 inches).

 

The line breaks down into three categories (and I’m using Panasonic’s descriptions here) – twelve Full HD (1080p) 3D plasma TVs, four 1080p FHD plasma sets, and three 720p plasma TVs. (Yes, there is still a market for 720p plasma.)

As usual, Panasonic's got 3D plasma covered.

The fact that almost two-thirds of all new Panasonic plasma TVs are 3D-ready reflects the market’s response to higher-priced 3D TVs in 2010: Consumers just weren’t interested in paying a premium for 3D. Now, you can get into a 3D plasma TV for as little as $1100 (TC-P42ST30), while a 50-inch set will cost you $1,500 (TC-P50ST30).

 

The top-of-the-line models carry the VT30 suffix and are being marketed in 65-inch and 55-inch sizes (TC-P65VT30, $4,300 and TC-P55VT30, $2,800). Readers may recall that Panasonic’s first 3D offering a year ago was a 50-inch plasma with two pairs of active shutter glasses for $2,800 through Best Buy, so you can appreciate just how much pricing has changed over time.

 

In addition to the pair of VT30 models, there are four GT30 plasma 3D TVs from 50 inches ($1,900) to 65 inches ($3,700), and four ST30 variations that also range from 50 inches ($1,500) to 65 inches ($3,300). In the non-3D 1080p (S30) plasma category, Panasonic has four choices from 42 inches ($800) to 60 inches ($1,900), while the three 720p sets are priced at $600 (TC-P42X3), $700 (TC-P64X3), and $800 (TC-P50X3).

 

Many of these sets offer the VIERA Connect feature, which provides a host of connected Internet TV channels and specialized apps. Like Samsung, Panasonic is also hosting a connected apps marketplace and will open its platform and middleware technology to third-party developers and manufacturers.

No matter what the technology is, everyone eventually finds a way to goof off with it.

Some of the more interesting apps that I saw included wellness and fitness apps from Body Media and ICON, one of which lets you track your weight on TV. (Somehow I think that’s not going to be very popular with couch potatoes.) Of course, Skype is ever-present, as are Twitter and Facebook apps and Hulu Plus. And it goes without saying that Netflix is also on all VIERA Connect TVs.

 

Over on the LCD side, Panasonic raised some eyebrows by unveiling two of the smallest 3D TVs I’ve seen to date. The TC-L37DT30 (37 inches, $1,300) and TC-L32DT30 (32 inches, $1,200) both use IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD glass, generally the better choice for TVs as it doesn’t have any off-axis color shift issues. And both TVs have LED backlights, which aren’t too common in this screen size.

 

I checked out some 3D content on both panels and it was surprisingly free of crosstalk, a problem that often pops up with LCD 3D TVs due to all of the polarizers in the optical path. Both models have the full VIERA Connect suite and also claim a 240 Hz refresh rate.

 

Panasonic also has three E3-series models (32, 37, and 42 inches) which also employ LED backlights and will sell for $700, $800, and $950, respectively. Instead of full VIERA Connect features, these models offer Easy IPTV (Netflix, Amazon, and CinemaNow, plus Napster, Pandora, and Facebook).  Another 42-inch LCD model (TC-L42E30) will ticket at $1,100 and adds easy IPTV plus LED backlighting and 120Hz processing, while the TC-L42D30 is a full 1080p LCD TV with VIERA Connect for $1,150.

Who knew there was a market for 32-inch 3D TVs? (Is there?)

What’s interesting is that Panasonic now has as many 42-inch LCD TVs in their line (3) as they do plasma (3). What does that say about the future of 42 inches as a plasma TV size for Panasonic? Company representatives replied that Samsung and LG also sell plasma, but those companies are known largely as LCD TV brands. In contrast, Panasonic built its rep on top-notch plasma picture quality. Is it a price point play? Could be, as the 42-inch LCD sets have higher MSRPs than the equivalent PDPs. Maybe we’re getting closer to the day where 42-inches will just become an LCD size.

 

Over in the Blu-ray department, Panasonic has four new models, one of which left me scratching my head. To set things up here, I should mention that Blu-ray player prices have taken precipitous drops in 2010, and that has resulted in an upwards spike in BD player sales. But I would venture – and so far, anecdotal evidence supports me – that consumers are buying Blu-ray players mostly for the connectivity features (spelled N-E-T-F-L-I-X).

 

Right now, you can buy several Blu-ray players now for less than $100, and more than one analyst firm predicts we’ll have $40 and $50 BD players by the end of 2011. Not surprisingly, the price premium assigned to 3D BD players has largely evaporated; I picked up a Samsung BDP-C6900 last fall for $244 and you can find them on line for about $170 now.

 

The ‘connectivity thing’ is clearly driving a majority of BD player sales. So it was a puzzler to see Panasonic’s new DMP-BD75 in the lineup, as this $99 2D player has no provision for WiFi connectivity; only a conventional RJ-45 Ethernet jack. Bad choice! Consumers don’t want to hard-wire Blu-ray players; they want to use a WiFi connection. But the DMP-BD75 doesn’t even have a WiFi dongle option. This product could be gone from the line as fast as it appeared.

Three of the four new Blu-ray players are 3D models.

The other three players make a lot more sense. The DMP-BD310 ($399) is the blue-chip model and comes with VIERA Cast and 2D to 3D conversion, plus built-in WiFi connectivity and dual HDMI outputs. Skype is also included, bringing conference calling and an answering machine to your TV. (What WILL they think of next?)

 

Stepping down, the DMP-BD210 is ticketed at $299 and has the same features, but only one HDMI output. Both models have touch-free drawer operation – simply wave your hand along the top cover and the disc drawer opens and closes automatically. (Kids are going to have a lot of fun with that!) The DMP-BD110 lops another few bucks off the price, but doesn’t have built-in WiFi or the ‘magic door’ option. A WiFi dongle is available as an option.

 

I should mention that WiFi setup and network configuration on all three 3D models is a quantum leap from 2010s models, which practically required you to have Microsoft network certification to complete the process. Now, it’s as easy as setting up a Cisco/Linksys Wireless-N router, which is to say that the BD player basically does all the work. ‘Bout time!

 

Panasonic also has a new portable Blu-ray player (DMP-BD200), a portable DVD player (DVD-LS92 -really? Who uses those anymore?), and believe it or not, two new DVD players. One has progressive scan, while the other is upconverting.

 

Given that progressive scan DVD players are selling for about $35 these days and upconverting models are around $50, you have to wonder why Panasonic even wants to play in that space anymore. I say, ditch the red laser format and just go blue – the players are certainly cheap enough…

CE Pro's editor Grant Clauser is suitably impresed with the new soundbar.

I also saw a few demonstrations of new soundbar technologies and home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) products, three of which are built around Blu-ray playback and two around DVD playback. The most interesting product was the SC-HTB520 soundbar, which is packaged with a separate wireless subwoofer and sells for $400.

 

In the demos I sat through, this soundbar did a surprisingly good job creating a virtual surround sound field and would be of interest for folks who don’t have the space or inclination to set up six different speakers. I could see this soundbar installed with lots of family room TVs (like my 42-inch Panasonic plasma) to add a little spatial separation for prime time TVs shows and sports broadcasts.

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…)

Remember reading "The Tortoise and the Hare" as a kid? Here's the tortoise.

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…