Posts Tagged ‘HDTV’

3D TV Came In With a Bang, But Appears to Have Fizzled Out

A recent story at Reuters.com says that 3D TV hasn’t caught the imagination of consumers and that they are still largely sitting on the sidelines when it comes to a new TV purchase.

Even Internet connectivity hasn’t provided much of a boost to the ailing TV business, which has seen big-screen LCD and plasma prices sliced to unheard of levels as manufacturers try to kick-start the holiday buying season.

How about super-thin LED-backlit TVs? Those aren’t doing the trick, either. Instead, the hot items this year appear to be smart phones and digital cameras, which have also seen dramatic price drops.

The Reuters story quotes Frank Ingarra, a portfolio manager at Hennessey Funds, as asking why TV manufacturers thought it necessary to push a new generation of TVs right after many people bought their first flat screen sets. “People don’t understand the added benefit of 3D,” Ingarra said. “When you get into $2,000 TVs, you start thinking: ‘At what point do I really need this, and is it going to make my viewing experience that much better?”

Not surprisingly, the high cost of active-shutter 3D glasses – and their incompatibility with other 3D TV brands – has been a turn-off for consumers, according to Ross Rubin at NPD Research. Earlier research studies showed that some consumers are waiting for 3D technology to progress further, and are waiting for “competing technologies” to resolve their differences. By “competing,” I mean active shutter vs. passive 3D viewing, which uses much less expensive glasses.

The lack of content and the ill-advised exclusive 3D content bundles have also impaired 3D TV sales, in my opinion. There’s still not a lot of 3D content to watch yet, and in particular, the premium 3D Blu-ray titles that viewers really want to see, such as Avatar, are all locked up in long-term deals with TV brands.

On a related note, TVs equipped with Google’s search engine (read: Sony Bravia LCD TVs) haven’t been selling well, either. That could be evidence that consumers are voting for more of an app-driven approach to NeTV viewing (such as direct links to YouTube and Netflix) and don’t care to search through millions of videos on the Internet with a complex keyboard to simply “watch TV.”

The story pointed out that “…consumers realized they could find the same services, like movie service Netflix Inc, elsewhere” using lower-priced alternatives such as PlayStation and Xbox consoles, Blu-ray players (which are getting dirt-cheap now), and Apple TV and Roku boxes. (Anyone remember what happened to Web TV?)

At CES next month, we’re certainly going to see more cutting-edge TV products, although I think the emphasis on 3D will be toned down considerably from a year ago and TV manufacturer’s marketing efforts shifted more towards connected TVs and peripheral media players. Even though TV sales are weak now – a recession just can’t be overcome with marketing hype – the future of TV is clearly Internet connectivity.

Whether most of those connections take place through a TV or through a connected peripheral such as a Blu-ray player remains to be seen. In the meantime, consumers are content to sit on their checkbooks and credit cards for now, paying scant attention to 3D and Google TV as they rush out to buy the latest Droid, Samsung, Apple, or HTC phone to put under the tree…

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.

Hmmm…A New Blu-Ray Player. Why Not?

The Blu-ray format has struggled for several years to gain the wide acceptance accorded to its lower-resolution sibling. Even though the latest market figures show Blu-ray player penetration at nearly 20% of U.S. households, packaged media rental and sales continue to decline (they’re down about 7% Y-Y), and Blu-ray disc sales and rentals are not sufficient to make up the difference.

There’s no question that the format war with HD DVD was a major setback. (China is now using a version of HD DVD as its de facto blue laser DVD format.) But the biggest problem Blu-ray had was bad timing – the world is slowly moving away from packaged media to digital downloads and streaming.

The high cost of players and discs didn’t help, either, and in fact may have hastened the move towards digital file capture. In a conversation with a Disney executive a few years ago (right after Warner Brothers pulled the plug on HD DVD), he stated that the easiest way to make sure Blu-ray caught on was to stop pressing red laser DVDs and stop manufacturing red laser DVD players.

Time marches on. Blu-ray prices have plummeted for both the players and discs. In fact, you can buy the four-disc Toy Story 3 set from Amazon.com for $24.99 right now, and wind up with the main feature in the BD format, a BD extras disc, a red laser DVD, and a digital copy. That’s an amazingly low price on a supposedly ‘hot’ new BD release.

So, why did I decide to buy a new player? For starters, they are dirt cheap right now, and getting cheaper by the day. I paid $180 for my Panasonic DMP-DB85  through B&H Video, a price that was matched by Amazon.com. And that included free shipping via UPS Ground, which usually means overnight for me for anything coming from B&H.

Secondly, I wanted a player that would work with the CEC interface on my Panasonic TH-42PZ80U plasma. One-touch control of the player and TV is just easier for family members than fussing with a bunch of remotes.

Third, our family subscribes to Netflix, so I was interested in adding streaming to my bag of media tricks. Granted, my TiVo HD can also stream, but I don’t want to tie it up if I’m recording shows to one or both of the internal DVRs.

Fourth, Consumer Reports gave the DMP-BD85 its second-highest ranking in a recent review of Blu-ray players. Yes, I subscribe to CR, and they do a bang-up job of product testing – particularly TVs and accessories.

Finally, the image quality from the Panasonic DMP-BD65 is very good, rivaling the OPPO upscaling player it replaced. Plus, the Panasonic remote is a lot easier to use than the older-style OPPO remotes. Readers who have older OPPOs know exactly what I mean.

I don’t play that many DVDs any more, but this unit should suffice as my media hub for a while. The DMP-BD85 comes with a USB 2.0 plug-in 802.11n adapter and isn’t too difficult to configure, although the on-screen menu could use some massaging. I had everything up and running in 5 minutes, even on a secure network.

Are we getting closer to the day that conventional DVD players become extinct? Well, Wal-Mart announced they’ll have a $65 Magnavox Blu-ray player available on Black Friday. And you can buy Panasonic 65-series players for about $100 now at BJ’s Wholesale Club.

So, yes – we are getting closer to that day when Blu-ray is the only optical disc format for packaged media. Only question is, will it happen before the American consumer makes a wholesale move to digital streaming and downloads?

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?

3CD: Well, that was fun. I’m bored. What’s next?

I stopped in at my local Best Buy this past Saturday (10/30) to look for an inexpensive upscaling DVD player (yeah, I know that’s redundant) for my in-laws.

While I was there, I wandered around the store to see what was being showcased in the store demos. 3D, which was a big thing back in April, had clearly fizzled out – at least, as far as store personnel were concerned.

Of four possible 3D demo stations, only one had any glasses – the Sony Bravia 3D demo in the Magnolia section. A nearby Panasonic 3D demo had clips from Avatar rolling in 3D on a plasma TV, but not a pair of glasses to be found.

At the entrance to the Magnolia store was a Samsung 55-inch LCD 3D demo. Trouble was, the channel was set to a 2D telecast of the Michigan State – Iowa college football game and no 3D glasses were anywhere to be seen.

Behind the service counter in the regular TV section was yet another 3D demo, this time featuring the 46-inch UN46C7000 Samsung LCD TV. And just like my last visit, the TV was showing Monsters vs. Aliens in 2D, again sans 3D glasses.

A possible fifth demo at the end of one of the aisles used to feature Panasonic’s 50VT20 plasma, but it had been taken down. This was the only demo that had any working 3D glasses a few months back.

So, what was all the  buzz about at BB this time? Why, Sony Internet TV, of course!

If you think TV remotes are complicated, wait until you try THIS keyboard!

Yep, it’s time to get out on the Internet and dig for content, using Google’s search engine and Sony’s incredibly small and dense keyboard. I didn’t see a single person attempt to use it during my 30 minute visit to the store.

In addition to Sony’s support for Google TV, Logitech has a new set-top box you can connect to the Ethernet port on your existing TV – or to the HDMI input.

Sony also showed a new “Internet TV Blu-ray Disc Player” that incorporates the Google interface. It’s the silvery box in the lower middle part of the photo, and encourages you to “take advantage of Full HD 1080p Blu-ray Disc Capabilities.” (???) No mention of 3D anywhere in the exhibit, so there may be a ‘separation of church and state’ thing going on as far as Sony is concerned.

Oh, and that inexpensive upscaling DVD player? I wound up going down the street to 6th Avenue Electronics and scoring a Panasonic DVD-S58PP-K with HDMI output and CEC for $50. Can’t beat that with a stick.