Posts Tagged ‘HDR’

Of Samsung, Big Screens, IoT, HDR, And Patience

Last Tuesday, April 12, Samsung held its annual press briefing and TV launch event at its new, “hip” facility in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The multi-story building is known as Samsung837 (like a Twitter handle), as its location is on 837 Washington Street by the High Line elevated walkway.

Samsung, who has dominated the worldwide television market for many years – and who has a pretty good market share in smartphones, too – has been a leader in developing Ultra HD (4K) televisions with high dynamic range and wider color gamuts, most notably in their S-line.

At the briefing, they announced their new, top-of-the-line Ultra HDTVs, equipped for high dynamic range with quantum dot backlights manufactured by Nanosys of Sunnyvale, CA. There are a few new sizes in the line that are re-defining what a “small” TV screen means! The flagship model is the KS9800 curved SUHDTV, which will be available in a 65-inch size ($4,499), 78 inches ($9,999), and a mammoth 88-inch version ($19,999).

Samsung's Dave Dar fills in the press on the company's new line of S-UHDTVs.

Samsung’s Dave Dar fills in the press on the company’s new line of S-UHDTVs.

Stepping down, we find the KS9500-series, with a 55” model for $2,499, a 65” model for $3,699, and a 78” model for $7,999 (June). The flat-screen KS9000 comes in three flavors – 55” ($2,299), 65” ($3,499) and 75” ($6,499, June). There are two entry-level SKUs (if that’s even the right term to use) as well – the KS8500, a curved-screen version, is aimed at the consumer wanting a smaller screen, with a 55” model for $1,999 and a 65” model for $2,999. A 49” model will be available in May for $1,699.  The line is rounded out with the KS8000 flat SUHDTV (55” $1, 799; and 65” $2,799, with a 49” model for $1,499 and a 60” model for $2,299; both to come in May).

There’s not a huge difference between these models – the differences have mostly to do with curved and flat surfaces and the screen size options available. Plus a bevy of “bells and whistles.” Perhaps the most intriguing are a set of “connect and control” features.

Samsung’s been offering a Smart Hub feature for some time, and this year’s iteration lets you plug in a cable box from Comcast or Time Warner or a set-top from DirecTV, and the TV will automatically recognize the box and set up all the required control functions on the Samsung TV remote. All you have to do is plug in an HDMI cable.

The KS9800 will make you forget you ever lusted for a Pioneer Elite plasma TV. (As long as you don't watch it off-axis.)

The KS9800 will make you forget you ever lusted for a Pioneer Elite plasma TV. (As long as you don’t watch it off-axis.)

 

And here's where the magic happens - two jars with indium phosphide quantum dots suspended in fluid to produce those brilliant reds and greens.

And here’s where the magic happens – two jars with indium phosphide quantum dots suspended in fluid to produce those brilliant reds and greens.

On top of that, Samsung’s Smart Things feature provides on-off control of things like locks, lamps, and other devices connected by Wi-Fi, ZigBee, or Z-Wave protocols. The company offers switchable outlets, water sensors, proximity sensors, and motion sensors; all of which connect back to your television and smart phone for monitoring and control. (And yes, the television can also be controlled by this system.)

Samsung’s concept is this: Since we spend so much time in front of our big screen TVs, why not make them the hub of a home monitoring and control system? And why not make the connection and activation of everything from set-top boxes to remotely-controlled AC outlets a plug-and-play operation? A Smart Things starter kit is available for $249, and you can add compatible ZigBee and Z-Wave devices like thermostats, smoke and CO detectors, and locks from companies like Honeywell, Schlage, Cree, Leviton, and First Alert.

So why are Samsung and other TV manufacturers looking to get into home control systems? A combination of declining TV sales and falling prices has resulted in an accelerating transition away from Full HD (1920×1080) televisions and displays to Ultra HD (3840×2160), as TV manufacturing shifts to China and manufacturers frantically search for profitability.

Samsung – likely motivated by this trend – is looking a way to add value to TV sales, pitching a complete home entertainment and control system (with sound bars, surround audio, and Ultra HD Blu-ray players, of course) to consumers. It’s all about the Internet of Things (IoT) – the idea that every electronic gadget in your home has an IP address and can be controlled with a driver and an app.

The three-story atrium at Samsung's new 837 Washington Street is enormous - and has a working cafe with live entertainment.

The three-story atrium at Samsung’s new 837 Washington Street is enormous – and has a working cafe with live entertainment.

Think about this for a moment: Seven years ago, a first-tier 50-inch 1080p plasma equipped with active-shutter 3D playback was priced at $2,500. Today, you can buy four times the resolution, eight times the brightness, a much wider color gamut, a much lighter set with lower power consumption, and five more inches of screen for about $600 less.

Amazing! You’re thinking. My next TV is going to be an Ultra HDTV!  Good thinking, as your next TV sized 55 inches or larger will probably be an Ultra HD set anyway, since TV manufacturers are ramping down production of 1080p sets and retailers are devoting more shelf space to UHD.

While there are and will continue to be some amazing deals on Ultra HD sets, don’t forget the enhancements. In addition to the aforementioned high dynamic range and wider color gamut, higher frame rates (HFR) will also become a part of the UHD ecosystem. (So will 8K displays, but I’m getting ahead of myself…)

Problem is; no two companies are implementing all of these add-ons the same way. We have competing systems for HDR (Dolby Vision, Technicolor, BBC/NHK HLG, and yes, Samsung), and yet another controversy about pixel resolution in displays using the pentile red-green-blue-white (RGBW) pixel array (LG’s new Ultra HD OLEDs).

To date, only two HDR Blu-ray players have been announced, and only one (Samsung) is available at retail. A bigger problem: Many Ultra HDTVs have only one HDMI 2.0 input, which needs to support the CTA 861.3 HDR metadata standard. (DisplayPort 1.4 also works with CTA 861.3, but it was just announced). And HDMI 2.0 is barely fast enough for 4K HDR: If you want to connect a PC for Ultra HD gaming at 60Hz with 10-bit RGB (4:4:4) color, you’re out of luck.

Yep, I want one, too. But I think I'm going to wait a little while longer until the HDR picture clears up a bit...

Yep, I want one, too. But I think I’m going to wait a little while longer until the HDR picture clears up a bit…

In other words; it’s chaos as usual in the CE world, like HDTV was circa 1998. I don’t know how fast these issues will be worked out. All HDR-10 compatible TVs should play back 10-bit content from Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and media files. When it comes to enhanced HDR systems, Vizio, TCL, and LG support Dolby Vision, but Samsung does not; neither do Panasonic and Sony.

Only a handful of TV models have opted to include the still royalty-free DisplayPort interface to overcome some of the UHD speed limit issues of HDMI. 4K content isn’t exactly in abundance, either. No broadcasts are planned in the near future, and a handful of cable systems are working on 4K channels (remember the 3D channels from Comcast and DirecTV?). Netflix and Amazon Prime do stream in UHD, but you need a TV that supports the VP9/VP10 and H.265 codecs to watch.

If you are considering a purchase of an Ultra HDTV and not in a big hurry, my advice is to sit on your hands for another year until many of these issues get ironed out. Sometimes doing nothing really is the best option…

“HDR” Is Coming To Your Next TV. So What, Exactly, Does That Mean?

Thinking about buying a new Ultra HDTV? You might want to wait a few months…or maybe a year. HDR is coming!

I know, I know. It seems like the new TV you just bought is already obsolete (although it really isn’t; just a little behind the times.) You can’t keep up – first, it was 720p plasma, and the market move to 1080p. Then it was 1080p LCD, followed by super-thin LCD televisions. Then “smart” TV and 3D (although the latter died a quick, merciful death).

And now, it’s Ultra HD. And OLED TV. When will it stop? Answer – it won’t, not with overcapacity for panel manufacturing in Asia and plummeting retail prices for bigger screens. In fact, as I’ve pointed out numerous times before, Ultra HD and Full HD televisions have essentially reached price parity. In many cases, an extra $100 will buy you Ultra HD resolution in the same screen size. Or $50 will get you an Ultra HDTV with five fewer inches of screen size.

The way things are heading, your next television purchase is almost certain to be an Ultra HDTV, provided it’s 50 inches or larger and you buy it no earlier than December. By then, prices will have fallen so much on UHD models that it wouldn’t make any sense to invest in a newer Full HD model. Not only that, but retailers are already allocating a larger percentage of inventory to Ultra HDTVs, cutting back on the number of Full HD models they stock.

There’s another reason you’ll want to wait until December (or later) to pick up a new Ultra HDTV, and that’s HDR – or, more specifically, high dynamic range.

HDR is the latest enhancement to come to television. Unlike 3D, you don’t need any special eyewear to see it. And the difference between standard televisions and HDR sets is dramatic – much brighter whites and higher contrast ratios on LCDs, greater shadow detail and brighter highlights on OLEDs. In other words, television pictures that approximate what your eyes see every day.

In the world of photography, we measure exposures in “stops” of light, like f2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, etc. Think of standard dynamic range as something in the range of 8 to 10 stops. In comparison, HDR can represent a minimum of 15 stops of light, with each additional stop being twice as bright as the previous one. (Some advanced HDR cameras can capture 20 stops of light!)

It’s hard to describe the concept of HDR with words, but trust me; when you see it, you’ll know it. Combined with Ultra HD resolution, it is an entirely new TV viewing experience than anything you’ve seen before. Even plain vanilla Full HDTV looks different with HDR content.

Hisense compared HDR on OLED TVs to their

Hisense compared HDR on OLED TVs to their “ULED” high dynamic range system that uses quantum dots.

 

OLEDs can do HDR, too. Here's a 65-inch LG UHDTV showing colors encoded to the new, wider BT.2020 color space.

OLEDs can do HDR, too. Here’s a 65-inch LG UHDTV showing colors encoded to the new, wider BT.2020 color space.

HDR has become such a big deal that a good portion of the Day 2 session at the recent Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat was devoted to this topic, with a couple dozen speakers covering all aspects of capture, post, mastering, and distribution to the home. And to be honest, not many of these experts know how it will all work in the end, especially when it comes to the consumer viewing experience.

So, what do you need to watch HDR? First off; your TV must have some way of reproducing the high dynamic range signal, which means the basic white LED backlight with color filters used by just about every garden-variety LCD TV won’t work. Instead, you’ll want to look for LCD televisions using enhanced backlighting technology like quantum dots.

Quantum dots (QDs) are tiny nanocrystalline chemical compounds that emit high-intensity color light when stimulated by photons, usually from blue or ultraviolet light sources. (That’s the “quantum energy” effect.) Several different companies manufacture quantum dots – QD Vision makes them in light pipes for thin LCDs, while Nanosys and 3M have joined forces to produce a QD film layer for LCD displays.

Presently, Samsung (S-LCD), Vizio, and Sony (certain Triluminous models) sell Ultra HDTVs with quantum dot technology, and are soon to be joined by TCL and Hisense. LG has also shown LCD TVs with quantum dot technology, but they have a trick up their sleeve – organic light-emitting diode (OLEDs) televisions.

OLED technology can also reproduce HDR signals. LG’s white OLED emitters work with color filters in a red-green-blue-white stripe to achieve high brightness and strong color saturation, easily achieving the 15-stop threshold. While OLEDs can’t hit the peak brightness levels of HDR LCDs (800 nits or more), they do much better coming out of black and reproducing very low luminance steps – something that LCDs can’t do without tricks like dynamic backlight dimming and contrast/black level manipulation.

TCL is also shipping Ultra HDTVs with quantum dot backlights from QD Vision to display HDR content.

TCL is also shipping Ultra HDTVs with quantum dot backlights from QD Vision to display HDR content.

 

As of this writing, only Samsung is shipping a UHD Blu-ray player, and it can also play back UHD content.

As of this writing, only Samsung is shipping a UHD Blu-ray player, and it can also play back UHD content.

At the 2016 CES, the Ultra HD Alliance released their specifications for “premium” Ultra HD, a/k/a HDR. The sets must have a minimum resolution of 3840×2160 pixels and reproduce HDR signals using the SMPTE ST2084 standard, with 10 bits per pixel minimum. (The current Blu-ray format, along with broadcast cable, satellite, and streaming TV services, relies on 8-bit color formatting.)

For LCD Ultra HDTVs, the specification calls for a level of black no higher than .05 nits (it can be lower) and a minimum brightness of 1000 nits. For OLED TVs, the black level must be .0005 nits (no higher) and white has to hit 540 nits. If you‘re interested in the resulting contrast ratios, it would be 20,000:1 for LCDs and over 1,000,000:1 for OLEDs.

Hand-in-hand with HDR is a new, wider gamut of colors (WCG) known formally as ITU Recommendation BT.2020. The “2020” color space is quite a bit larger than the current ITU Rec.709 color space that came into use with digital TV. With this new space, you’ll see brighter, more saturated greens and reds and over a billion shades of color. (8-bit color is limited to 16.7 million shades.) And to reproduce those shades of color, you need more horsepower under the hood. (Hence; quantum dots and OLEDs.)

Sony had demonstrations of both HDR and wide color gamut (WCG) video in their CES booth.

Sony had demonstrations of both HDR and wide color gamut (WCG) video in their CES booth.

 

Technicolor licenses the RCA brand, and this 65-inch LCD with quantum dots supports the parent company's HDR format.

Technicolor licenses the RCA brand, and this 65-inch LCD with quantum dots supports the parent company’s HDR format.

What about content? New standards have been released for HDR Blu-ray discs that follow the UHD Alliance Premium specs – 10-bit color, 3840×2160 resolution, and BT.2020 color space representation. In the Samsung booth at CES, a shelf display contained more than 100 Blu-ray movie packages that have been or will be mastered with HDR and WCG. Some of those titles are available now to play back on Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player ($350) or Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 (no price yet). Expect BD players from LG and Sony to make an appearance this year, too.

But the question now is the relevance of optical media. Numerous studies have shown that rentals of Blu-ray discs have been in decline for some time, and BD sales don’t make a dent in the ever-growing volume of transactional video-on-demand, streaming, and digital downloads.

The good news is that HDR content can be streamed or downloaded, although your Ultra HDTV or media player will likely require support for a new video compression/decompression (codec) standard, High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) H.265. Many new Ultra HDTVs support this standard. Google’s VP9 and VP10 codecs, used with YouTube 4K content, may also support HDR in the future.

And what about flavors of HDR? Right now, the system getting the most attention is Dolby Vision, which got out of the gate early and is now implemented on Vizio, TCL, Sony, and Philips HDR LCD Ultra HDTVs. LG announced at CES that they would also support Dolby Vision on their premium Ultra HD OLED TVs. Another system has been proposed by Technicolor and it appears that TV manufacturers will support it as well.

The HDMI 2.0a standard supports CTA 861.3 HDR metadata.

The HDMI 2.0a standard supports CTA 861.3 HDR metadata.

 

DisplayPort version 1.4 supports HDR (4K/120 and 8K/60), including 4:2:0 and 4:2:2 formats. It's also compatible with CTA 861.3.

DisplayPort version 1.4 supports HDR (4K/120 and 8K/60), including 4:2:0 and 4:2:2 formats. It’s also compatible with CTA 861.3.

The trick is compliance with the CTA 861.3 standard for reading and understanding HDR “metadata” that will be encoded with the HDR movie or TV program. This metadata will travel through the HDMI or DisplayPort interface in what’s called an “info frame” and the Ultra HDTV should reproduce it correctly. For streaming content, HDR metadata will be embedded in the program and read by the TV on the fly.

At CES, both Samsung and LG showed HDR Ultra HD content as a broadcast signal, using the new ATSC 3.0 standard and a UHF TV channel. Not many people paid much attention to this demo, but it was significant that HDR content can be broadcast as well as streamed. Yet another HDR format, hybrid log gamma, has been proposed by the BBC and NHK as a way to transmit one signal with both SDR and HDR content, letting the compatible Ultra HDTV show it in the appropriate format.

We already have several precedents for this piggy-back backward-compatible approach, such as the NTSC color “burst” signal added to black-and-white television transmissions in the 1950s and the FM stereo sub-carrier that also appeared in the late 1950s. Viewers with older Ultra HDTVs (which wouldn’t be that old, trust me) would simply see an SDR signal, while newer sets would expand the dynamic range at the high (brighter) end to achieve HDR.

In the Samsung booth, you could watch Ultra HD content with HDR as broadcast over the air...

In the Samsung booth, you could watch Ultra HD content with HDR as broadcast over the air…

 

...or you could see it streaming from YouTube.

…or you could see it streaming from YouTube.

Now, a lot of what I’ve just described is still in the building stages. Only a handful of HDR Ultra HDTVs are available right now, and only Samsung’s HDR Blu-ray player is on store shelves. I don’t know of any streaming content providers that are formatting programs in HDR, although Netflix and Amazon Prime are streaming 4K video. There aren’t any 4K cable channels at present, nor are any broadcast networks transmitting 4K shows.

But they’ll all catch up over time. They key is to have an Ultra HDTV that supports HDR and WCG playback, preferably one with both HDMI 2.0a (HDR) and DisplayPort 1.4 inputs. The former interface is already supported, although on a limited basis, while the latter was just announced a week ago.

And that brings me back to my original premise – if you are considering the purchase of a new Ultra HDTV, you’d be smart to wait until the end of the year or even until mid-January when TV prices are historically their lowest. And check to make sure your new set supports HDR through ALL inputs, not just the HDMI connection.

By then, you’ll have a much larger menu of HDR content choices, and of course you can still enjoy watching SDR 4K content. (And by then, you’ll see that big-screen Full HD sets have largely disappeared from store shelves anyway!)

CES 2016 In The Rear View Mirror

I’m a little less than a week back from one of the world’s largest trade shows, the 2016 International CES. According to press releases from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the new name for the Consumer Electronics Association, upwards of 170,000 people attended the show this year, which was spread out over several venues in Las Vegas.

Based on the crowds I saw, I’d say that number wasn’t far off. Walking through booths in the Las Vegas Convention Center gave me the feeling of strolling along the beach, unaware that a tidal wave was sneaking up on you – one minute you had a particular exhibit all to yourself, and the next, you were swamped by a sea of bodies adorned with CES badges.

Trying to predict which trends in electronics will be “hot” each year is basically a fool’s errand. Going into the show, I was deluged with press releases about “Internet of Things” gadgets, and the show didn’t disappoint – I saw everything from connected thermostats and body sensors to pet food dispensers and shower heads that monitor how much water each member of your family uses – and record that data, too.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

 

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

Last year, the show was all about Ultra HDTV, with some unusual video aspect ratios and pixel counts thrown in. This year, I figured high dynamic range (HDR) would be the “hot” item in every booth. Surprisingly, it wasn’t generating all that much buzz, even though it was featured in the Sony, Samsung, LG, and Chinese TV booths. Instead, there seemed to me much more interest in virtual reality (VR); examples of which were to be found everywhere in the LVCC and also over at the Sands Expo Center.

What was an eye-opener (although not entirely unexpected) was the reduction in booth space devoted to televisions in the Samsung, Panasonic, and LG booths. Sony chose to use Ultra HDTVs to illustrate HDR, wide color gamut, and local area dimming concepts, while Panasonic largely ignored TVs altogether, featuring just a 65-inch UHD OLED TV in one part of their booth and a 55-inch 8K LCD set in another; primarily to demonstrate 8K signal transport over optical fiber.

LG and Samsung devoted more real estate than ever before to connected and “smart” appliances, tablets, smartphones, and personal electronics like smart watches, subtly pushing TVs (of which there were still plenty, believe me) to a secondary role with less square footage. The fact is; appliances are more profitable than TVs these days…WAY more profitable. And Samsung and LG had plenty of refrigerators, ovens, washers, and even dryers out for inspection.

For LG, CES was a big “coming out” party for their expanding line of OLED Ultra HDTVs – they were everywhere, dazzling with their deep blacks and saturated colors. But LCD still plays a part in the LG ecosystem: The 98-inch 8K LCD panel that blew us away last year made a return appearance, as did the 105-inch 21:9 5K (5120×2160) model.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

 

Samsung showed the

Samsung showed the “World’s largest 170-inch TV.” Apparently there are smaller ones I didn’t know about.

Over in the Samsung booth, they kept the “mine’s bigger than yours” contest going with a 170-inch Ultra HDTV based on a LCD panel fabbed at CSOT in China and equipped with quantum dots. (Last year, Samsung insisted their quantum dot illumination technology was to be called “nanocrystals.” This year, they did a 180-degree turn, and are now calling them quantum dots.) A curved 8K TV and some demos of live broadcast Ultra HD with HDR were also showcased alongside the company’s new Ultra HD Blu-ray player ($399 when it ships in the spring).

The “towers” and stacks of LG and Samsung televisions we used to marvel at a decade ago have now found their way into the ever-expanding booths of Chinese TV brands like Hisense, TCL, Changhong, Haier, Konka, and Skyworth. (Not familiar names? Don’t worry, you’ll get to know them soon enough.) And notable by its absence was Sharp Electronics, whose US TV business and assembly plant in Mexico were acquired by Hisense last year. That’s quite a change from ten years ago, when the company held a 21% worldwide market share in LCD TV shipments.

To be sure, there was a Sharp meeting room w-a-y in the back of the Hisense booth, which was enormous – almost as big as TCL’s behemoth in the middle of the Central Hall. And the Konka, Changhong, and Skyworth booths weren’t far behind in size. If you needed to see the writing on the wall regarding the future of television manufacturing, it couldn’t have been more clear – everything is slowly and inexorably moving to China. (It’s a good bet that the LCD panel in your current TV came out of a Chinese or Taiwanese assembly plant!)

TVs were just part of the story in Las Vegas. I had been waiting a few years to see which companies would finally pick up the baton and start manufacturing 802.11ad Wi-Fi chipsets. For those readers who haven’t heard of it before, 802.11ad – or its more common names, “Wireless Gigabit” and “Certified Wireless Gigabit” is a standard that uses the 60 GHz millimeter-wave band to transmit high-speed data over 2 GHz-wide channels.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm's chipset.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm’s chipset.

 

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone...)

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone…)

Considering that the current channels in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band are only 20 MHz wide, and that the 802.11ac channel bonding protocol can only combine enough of them to create a 160 MHz channel, that’s quite a leap in bandwidth! The catch? 60 GHz signals are reflected by just about solid object, limiting their use to inside rooms. But with high-power operation and steerable antennas, those signals can travel a pretty good distance.

In-room, high-bandwidth operation is perfect for streaming video – even at 4K resolution – from phones, tablets, set-top boxes, and even Blu-ray players to TVs, projectors, AV receivers, and switching and distribution gear. Qualcomm had demos of numerous ready-to-manufacture tri-band modems (2.4/5/60 GHz), along with LETV’s latest smart phone with a built-in 60 GHz radio chip. And SiBEAM, a part of Lattice Semiconductor, showed 4K streaming through their WiHD technology, along with close-proximity interface coupling using SNAP to download images and video from a waterproofed GoPro camera.

Lattice had some other tricks up their sleeve in their meeting room. One of those was using a Windows 10 phone with a MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) connection through USB Type-C to create a virtual desktop PC. All that needed to be added was a mouse, a keyboard, and monitor. In another area, they showed a scheme to compress Ultra HD signals before transmitting them over an HDBaseT link, with decompression at the far end. This, presumably to overcome the 18 Gb/s speed limit of HDMI 2.0.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That's the chipset under that enormous fan.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That’s the chipset under that enormous fan.

 

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Not far away, the “funny car” guys at the MHL Consortium showed their superMHL interface linking video to another LG 98-inch 8K LCD display. Converting what was once a tiny, 5-pin interface designed for 1080p/60 streaming off phones and tablets to a 32-pin, full-size symmetrical connector that can hit speeds of 36 Gb/s seems like putting Caterpillar truck tires and a big-block Chevy engine in a Smart Car to me…but they did it anyway, and added support for USB Type-C Alternate mode. Now, they’re ready for 8K, or so they keep telling me. (That’s fine, but the immediate need is for faster interfaces to accommodate Ultra HD with 10-bit and 12-bit RGB color at high frame rates. Let’s hear about some design wins!)

At the nearby VESA/DisplayPort booth, there were numerous demonstrations of video streaming over USB Type-C connections in Alternate mode, with one lash-up supporting two 1920x1080p monitors AND a 2550×1536 monitor, all at the same time. DP got somewhat faster with version 1.3 (32 Gb/s) and now a new version (1.4) will be announced by the end of January. The VESA guys also had a nice exhibit of Display Stream Compression (DSC), which can pack down a display signal by a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio with essentially no loss or latency (a few microseconds). If we’re going to keep pushing clock speeds higher and higher, compression is inevitable.

The world of display interfacing appears to becoming more disjointed, what with the majority of consumer devices still supporting HDMI 1.4 and 2.0, while an increasing number of computer and video card manufacturers are jumping on the DisplayPort bandwagon (Apple, HP, and Lenovo, among others). How superMHL will fit into this is anyone’s guess: The format is TMDS-based, like HDMI, but outstrips it in every way (HDMI 2.0 does not support DSC or USB Type-C operation). Do we really need two TMDS-based interfaces, going forward?

Speaking of USB Type-C, everybody and their brother/sister at CES had Type-C hubs, adapters, and even extenders out for inspection. If any connector is going to force the competing display interface standards to get in line, it will be this one. Apple, Intel, Lenovo, and several phone/tablet manufacturers are already casting their lots with Type-C, and it looks to be the next “sure thing” as we head toward a universal data/video/audio/power interface. I even came home with a credit card-sized press kit with a reversible USB 2.0 / 3.0 Type-C plug built-in!

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

 

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

So – how about HDR? Yes, a few companies showed it, and there were spirited discussions over dinner whether OLEDs could actually show signals with high dynamic range (they most assuredly can, as they can reproduce 15 stops of light from just above black to full white without clipping) and whether you actually need thousands of cd/m2 to qualify as an HDR display (I’m not in that camp; displays that bright can be painful to look at).

For LCDs, quantum dots (QDs) will lead the way to HDR. Both QD Vision and 3M had demos of quantum dot illuminants, with QD Vision focusing on light pipes for now and 3M partnering with Nanosys to manufacture a quantum dot enhancement film. Both work very well and provide a much larger color gamut than our current ITU Rec.709 color space, which looks positively washed-out compared to the more expansive Rec.2020 color gamut associated with UHD and HDR. QD Vision also showed the reduction in power consumption over OLEDs when using QDs. However, you won’t get the deep blacks and wide viewing angles out of an LCD in any case, so a few more watts may not matter to the videophiles.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray format had its formal debut at CES with Panasonic and Samsung both showing players. The latter can be pre-ordered for $399 and will ship in the spring. (Remember when Samsung’s first-ever Blu-ray player sold for nearly $2,000 almost a decade ago?) To support HDR – which requires 10-bit encoding – the HDMI interface must be type 2.0a to correctly read the metadata. That can be in the DolbyVision format, or the Technicolor format, but the baseline definition is HDR-10.

LG Display's flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

LG Display’s flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

 

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

I saved the best for last. Every year, LG Display invites a few journalists up to what we call the “candy store” to see the latest in display technology. And this year didn’t disappoint: How about dual-side 55-inch flexible OLED TVs just millimeters thick? Or a 25-inch waterfall (curved) display that could form the entire center console in a car, with flexible OLEDs in the dashboard creating bright, colorful, and contrasty gauges?

LGD has WAY too much fun coming up with demos for this suite. I saw four 65-inch OLED panels stacked on end, edge to edge, and bent into an S-curve to create a 2.2:1 ratio widescreen UHD+ display. And it also had video playing on both sides. In another location, I saw a jaw-dropping 31.5” 8K LCD monitor with almost perfect uniformity, and an 82-inch “pillar” LCD display.

How about a 55-inch UHD OLED display rolled into a half-pipe, with you standing at the center, playing a video game? Talk about filling your field of view! Next to it was a convex 55-inch display, wrapped around a ceiling support pole. And next to that, a 55-inch transparent OLED display with graphics and text floating over real jewelry, arranged on tiers. The actual transparency index is about 40% and the concept worked great.

Toyota's Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year's sidecar-shaped model.

Toyota’s Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year’s sidecar-shaped model.

 

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

The icing on the cake was an 18-inch flexible OLED with 800×1200 resolution that could be rolled up into a tube or a cone-like shape while showing HD video. This was one of those “I gotta get me one of these!” moments, but significantly, it shows how OLED technology has matured to the point where it can be manufactured on flexible substrates. And what is the largest market in the world or displays? Transportation, where G-forces and vibration eventually crack rigid substrates, like LCD glass.

That’s just a snapshot of what I saw, and I haven’t even mentioned drones (buzzing all over the place), fold-up scooters and hoverboards, smart appliances, pet cams, alarms that alert you when an alarm goes off (really!), wooden smartphones (really!), talking spoons and forks (really!), toothbrushes linked to video games (would I kid you?), and 4K action cams with built-in solar cell chargers.

Gotta run now. My phone just sent me a Wi-Fi alarm that a Bluetooth-connected doorbell camera spotted the UPS guy delivering a package I was already alerted about via email to my desktop that signaled a buzzer via ZigBee in my virtual desktop PC that was connected wirelessly to my smartphone, currently streaming 4K video over a 60 GHz link to my “smart” TV that is also…also…also…

Oh, great. Now I’ve forgotten what I was talking about…Does anyone make an iRemember app? (Look for my “second thoughts” column later this month…)

2016 – A Turning Point For Television

In a few short weeks, I (and hundreds of my colleagues in the press) will dutifully board planes for Las Vegas to once again spend a week walking the show floor at International CES. We’ll listen to PR pitches, grab fast-food meals on the fly, show up late for appointments, have numerous ad hoc discussions in hallways and cabs, and try to make sense of all the new technologies unveiled in the Las Vegas Convention Center and nearby hotels.

As usual, many of us will want to focus on televisions – or more specifically, what televisions are becoming. TVs have always been an important product category at CES, and that was particularly true with the introduction of digital, high definition TV in the late 1990s, followed by plasma and then LCD display technologies in the early to mid-2000s.

Today, the bloom is largely off the rose. TVs have become commodities, thanks to aggressive pricing and distribution by Korean manufacturers that have largely driven the Japanese brands out of the business. And we’re seeing that cycle repeat itself as China becomes the nexus for TV manufacturing and prices for 1080p sets continue in free fall.

But something new is here – Ultra HD (a/k/a 4K). And the transition is happening at a breathtaking pace: The first 4K / UHD sets appeared on these shores in 2012 with astronomically high price tags. Four years later, you can buy a 55-inch Ultra HDTV with “smart” wireless functions for less than $800, a price point that has forced same-size 1080p sets below $500.

And it’s not just more pixels. High dynamic range (HDR) is coming to market, as are new illumination technologies that will provide much larger color gamuts. LCD and OLED panel manufacturers are now able to address at 10 bits per pixel, breaking past the now-inadequate 8-bit standard that has held back displays of all kinds for over a decade.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Screen sizes are getting larger, too. Ten years ago, a 42-inch TV was considered “big” and anything larger was a home theater installation. Today? Consumers are routinely buying 50-inch, 55-inch, and even 60-inch sets as prices have fallen. That same 42-inch set is often consigned to a bedroom or kid’s room, or maybe a summer home.

Back in September of 2008, I bought a Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma TV for about $1,100. It had two HDMI 1.3 connections, three analog composite/component video inputs, and no network connectivity of any kind. But wow, did it make great pictures!

Seven years later, that TV sits in my basement, unused. It was replaced by a price-comparable, more energy-efficient 46-inch LCD model after Hurricane Sandy killed our power for several days and I did a whole-house energy audit. (And no, the LCD picture quality doesn’t compare to the plasma.)

But that’s not all that changed. I picked up four HDMI 1.4 inputs along the way (yep, it was set up for 3D), plus built-in Wi-Fi and “smart” functions. And I added a sound bar to make up for the awful quality of the built-in speakers. Plus, I added a Blu-ray player to round out the package, although it hardly sees any discs these days – it’s mostly used for streaming.

So – let’s say I’d like to replace that TV in 2016, just five years later. What would my options be?

To start with, I’d be able to buy a lot more screen. Right now, I could pick up a Samsung or LG 65-inch smart 1080p set for what I spent in 2011. Or, I could bite the bullet and make the move to Ultra HD with a 55-inch or 60-inch screen, complete with four HDMI inputs (one or two would be version 2.0, with HDCP 2.2 support), Wi-Fi, Netflix streaming (very important these days), and possibly a quantum dot backlight for HDR and WCG support.

My new set should support the HEVC H.265 codec, of course. That will make it possible to stream UHD content into my TV at 12 – 18 Mb/s from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vimeo, Vudu, and any other company that jumps on the 4K content bandwagon. I could even go out and buy a brand-new Ultra HD Blu-ray player to complement it. But it’s more likely I’d opt to stream UHD content over my new, fast 30 Mb/s Internet connection from Comcast.

Now, it might pay to wait until later in 2016, when I could be sure of purchasing an Ultra HDTV that would support one or more of the proposed HDR delivery standards for disc-based and streaming UHD movies. And maybe I’d have more “fast” inputs, like DisplayPort 1.2 or even 1.3 to go along with HDMI 2.0 (and quite possibly, superMHL).

And I might even swing back over to an emissive display, to replace the picture quality I got from my old plasma set. That would mean purchasing an OLED Ultra HDTV, which would also support HDR and WCG, plus all of the usual bells and whistles (Wi-Fi, multiple HDMI/DP inputs, streaming, apps).

My point? We’re going to see some amazing technology in the next generation of televisions at ICES. And consumers are apparently warming up to Ultra HD – while sales of 1080p sets continue to decline, Ultra HD sales are climbing by double-digit percentages. I expect that number to accelerate as we near the Super Bowl, even though it won’t be broadcast in 4K (yet!).

If you are thinking about upgrading your main TV, 2016 could give you plenty of reasons to do it. My advice? Wait until all the puzzle pieces are in place for delivery of HDR and WCG to your home, and look into upgrading your Internet connections – streaming 4K will be here faster than you realize. And if you can live with your 1080p set until the fall of 2016, you’ll be amazed and likely very pleased at the upgrade…

Ultra HD Blu-ray: Getting Closer

On May 12, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had completed the specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and concurrently released a new logo to go with the format. UHD BD supports a maximum image resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, refreshed at a variety of frame rates (including 60 Hz) with a maximum of 10 bits per pixel coding.

The move to Ultra HD (or Quad HD) resolution is a big step forward for this optical disc format, which has been fighting to hold its place in the media landscape against video streaming and digital movie downloads, both of which can also handle 1080p/60 video with 8-bit color.

UHD+BD+Logo+JPG MR

One key component of the new format is support for high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, being touted as the next big thing by the likes of Dolby and Vizio. HDR imaging represents about 15 stops of light from deep shadows to bright white, and is an impressive tool in the arsenal of next-generation television – which is essentially what Ultra HD (and beyond) represent.

Audio is getting a workout too, with the addition of object-oriented, multi-spatial playback formats that go far beyond Dolby and DTS 7.1 formats. (Anyone for NHK’s 22.2 surround format?)

Of course, all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players must be backward-compatible with older Blu-ray Discs. What’s not mentioned in the Blu-ray Disc Association press release is that your UHDTV must be compatible with HDCP (copy protection) version 2.2 to play back UHD content as it becomes available.

And if you do the math, you’ll realize that you’ll also need at least an HDMI version 2.0 interface (or DisplayPort 1.2, or superMHL) on your TV or projector to handle the much higher interface data rates that will result from 10-bit color played back from UHD Blu-ray discs. Every Ultra HDTV I’ve seen so far has at least one HDMI 2.0 input, and some are also including DisplayPort 1.2.

Here's Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

Here’s Panasonic’s prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

There’s another possible catch. The UHD Blu-ray standard supports HEVC H.265, a new video codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264 AVC, the current Blu-ray codec. H.265 is really a key part of the specification, considering there’s four times the image resolution in each frame of UHD video. So your UHD TV should also recognize and decode H.265 content, which may also arrive over streaming connections.

And “streaming” is the wild card here. There’s no question that Blu-ray provides the best at-home, near-cinematic experience of any playback format. However, the trend over the past half decade clearly shows more consumer dollars shifting toward streaming and downloads, often on smaller handheld devices like tablets which don’t need 2160p resolution. And with companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and Cablevision worried about losing customers, more emphasis is being put on increasing broadband speeds to the home as a competitive marketing edge.

Add in a growing catalog of HEVC-compatible devices (TVs, set-top boxes, computers, gaming consoles) and it will be easier than ever to deliver UHD content to the home “on demand.” Maybe not next week, or even this year.

But it will happen: The blue laser optical disc format wars concluded about seven years ago, while video streaming was in its infancy. Today, we can stream 1080p video to just about any media device. Look at how many passengers on flights, trains, and buses now watch movies and TV shows on tablets and even smartphones. For the vast majority of consumers, the story is all about convenience and price in accessing and watching movies, and not so much about quality.

So – a new BD standard is a good thing, if for no other reason than to keep up with the shift to next-generation television. It will be a great format for those who simply have to own a movie, or who still want to rent one on disc. (I’m looking forward to finally seeing the burial and and reading the epitaph for 8-bit color!)

But the disc-focused segment of the market is becoming a smaller piece of the revenue pie for Hollywood with each passing year, and it’s not clear if the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard will have any impact on that trend. How fast will consumers embrace this format? What will movies cost, compared to today’s Blu-ray disc packages? How about the Ultra Violet registry, and cross-platform access to purchased content? Do we even need physical media any more?

Stay tuned!