Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

A Tale Of Two Companies, Part II: The Best-Laid Plans…

In a recent post, I talked about Panasonic’s impressive financial turnaround from its last fiscal year, booking a nice profit after doing some soul-searching and consequent house-cleaning of underperforming business units. And I contrasted Panasonic’s performance with the struggles of Sony, who continues to struggle with red ink. Let’s take a few moments to revisit both brands.

Coincidentally, Panasonic held a couple of press days this week in New York City to talk about its 2014 TV lineup. I attended the Thursday session and can say that it was much more low-key than previous Panasonic TV events.

For 2014, the emphasis was on two things – 4K, and cloud connectivity. Panasonic introduced a new concept, LifeScreen, which is yet another search engine combined with a clever graphical user interface.  You pre-set your preferences, and your Panasonic TV searches for content to match them.

And how, exactly, does the TV know it’s you? Thanks to a pop-up camera and face recognition software, the TV comes to life when you stand or sit in front of it and loads up your programs choices. A new remote control provides both swipe control and voice recognition (shades of Samsung 2011!), and seems to work reliably.

Jay Park Presents 600p

Panasonic’s Jay Park fills us in on the 2014 TV lineup details.

Panasonic’s cloud structure isn’t much different than other manufacturers. You can download photos and video and share them with connected tablets and phones in your house. And you can upload your own photos and videos to the same online storage.

Now, to the nitty-gritty. As expected, the 2014 TV lineup is 100% LCD. What’s unexpected, but ultimately not surprising, is that you’ll find a mix of IPS and PVA LCD panels in these new TVs, meaning that Panasonic (like everyone else) is shopping for the best price and performance combination in LCD panels for their new TVs.

Given the cutthroat pricing in the TV market, this isn’t surprising and in fact is a smart strategy: There’s plenty of good LCD glass coming out of Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese fabs, so why bother with the costs of making it yourself?

Panasonic's 2014 LCD TVs (center) predominantly use PVA glass and are quite improved over the 2013 models (right), holding their own against last year's ZT-series plasma (left).

Panasonic’s 2014 LCD TVs (center) predominantly use PVA glass and are quite improved over the 2013 models (right), holding their own against last year’s ZT-series plasma (left).

 

You can operate the 2014 TVs from an iPad, iPhone, or Android device - even to the level of a full grayscale and color calibration.

You can operate the 2014 TVs from an iPad, iPhone, or Android device – even to the level of a full grayscale and color calibration.

Panasonic’s value-add for these TVs is to improve the spectral response of the white LEDs used in these new sets, and it’s impressive. They’re claiming 98% coverage of the minimum DCI color space and have improved the rendering of yellow.

Side-by-side demos with last year’s award-winning ZT60 plasma TV showed the difference dramatically. Aside from the usual issues with PVA and IPS LCD panels, the images had excellent contrast, great color saturation, and decent black levels – and you can clearly see why plasma has fallen by the wayside.

There will be six series of models in the 2014 TV line-up, starting with the entry-level A400 and moving all the way up to the new 55-inch and 65-inch Ultra HD AX800-series TVs. The new remote and camera system come with three of these lines, and some models now include a sound bar (smart move!) in the box.

HDMI 2.0 and HEVC decoding are standard on the AX800, which is interesting considering how few Broadcom HEVC decoder chips have been deployed by TV manufacturers to date. And you can operate the TV from your iPhone or iPad (or Android device), even to the point of doing a full color and grayscale calibration, thanks to a new app.

So Panasonic remains a player in the TV game, even though the company’s worldwide market share fell out of the top five in 2013. Panasonic’s return to corporate profitability will take a lot of pressure off the TV division, which has relocated to San Diego from New Jersey.

In contrast, Panasonic’s neighbor down the street in San Diego – Sony – continues to struggle with red ink. The company released its final numbers for fiscal year 2013 last Thursday, and things still don’t look good, even though the picture is lightening up a bit.

For 2013, Sony booked a net loss of -¥125B (about $1.23B USD) with operating income of ¥26.5B (about $265M USD). There were a couple of operating divisions that continue to drag down profit, most notably Sony’s discontinued PC business unit, battery manufacturing, and disc manufacturing (DVD, Blu-ray) outside Japan and the U.S.

Sony’s long-struggling TV operations are reported as part of the company’s Home Entertainment and Sound business unit, which recorded a loss of -$248M for FY 2013. That’s actually a 70% reduction from FY 2012, which is a silver lining. Overall, the TV division saw its sales increase 30% Y-Y, which is more good news.

Another bright spot for Sony is its Imaging Products and Solutions (IP&S) division, which booked $256M in operating income. That’s not enough, however, to offset the -$729M operating loss from PC operations and the -$78M loss from the Game division. And an impairment charge of -$250M was assigned to the disc manufacturing business, adding more red ink.

Getting rid of the unprofitable PC business will definitely help next year’s results. (Apparently, so will the sale of Sony’s New York City headquarters on Madison Avenue, which netted almost $700M, according to the company’s financial statement.) The operating loss reported for the Game division (-$78M) was a surprise, but Sony attributed it to costs involved in launching the PlayStation 4 console and a $60M write-off of PC game software titles.

There’s no question that Sony has quite a mountain to climb and get back on the “plus” side of the ledger. Unlike Panasonic, Sony’s worldwide share of television shipments held pretty steadily in 2013 (about 7%, down slightly from 2012), but that number either has to go up or further cost-cutting must take place to make TV retailing worth continuing.

Sony also has to make a decision about its optical disc business unit. The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) hasn’t released a standard for 4K yet, while the Digital Entertainment Group’s numbers have shown pretty consistently over the past four years that digital media consumption is shifting emphatically to digital downloads and streaming. Given this trend, it’s not likely that the disc manufacturing unit will ever return to profitability and might also be a candidate for the axe by year’s end.

You know that old saying about the best-laid plans oft going astray? Hmmm…

A Tale Of Two Companies, Revisited

It’s annual meeting time in Japan, and the final reports for fiscal year 2014 are trickling in. (In Japan, the fiscal year starts on April 1 and runs through March 31.)

Given all of the financial misery that Japan Inc. has been enduring for the past four years, you’d probably cringe before opening the latest consolidated financial statements. Yet, there was a surprise this time.

Let’s look at two of the dominant CE brands in Japan – Panasonic and Sony. The former company grabbed some headlines last year when it announced an exit from the plasma display panel (PDP) business, effective 12/31/13. For years, plasma displays and televisions were synonymous with Panasonic – they dominated the market and provided most of the technological breakthroughs that led to the (still to this day, IMHO) “best in class” televisions on the market.

Sometimes “best’ doesn’t always win. Plasma TV shipments and sales had been in steady decline for the past seven years as more and more consumers chose LCD TVs, particularly after 1080p resolution became widespread and national discounters like Vizio forced prices down to bargain-basement levels.

2013’s final numbers from NPD DisplaySearch show that plasma TV shipments from all brands (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG) accounted for slightly more than 4% of the global TV market. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Panasonic – who had been in the midst of a massive review of all 80+ of its business units – did the right thing and quickly cut its losses, however painful that may have been.

Now, it appears all of that aggressive restructuring and cost-cutting has paid off. For FY 2014, Panasonic posted a net profit of about ¥120.4 billion, or $1.18B USD. That represents a spectacular turnaround from a ¥754 billion loss in FY 2013, or about $7B USD.

In addition to the money-losing plasma operations, Panasonic also jettisoned its mobile phone business. (Didn’t know they made mobile phones? Neither did most people.) Along with slimming down underperforming business units, finishing the acquisition of Sanyo and all costs associated with it, and shifting their focus to everything from energy storage solutions to Lumix cameras, the company realized an operating profit of ¥305 billion ($2.3B) for the fiscal year.

Now, on to Sony, who has struggled to maintain profitability for several years, thanks in part to the never-ending red ink generated by its television business unit. Sony won’t post its final numbers until May 15, but an advisory went out on May 1 saying that they won’t be pretty – and in fact will be worse than previous guidance suggested.

The company now is forecasting an operating income of ¥26 billion ($255M USD) for FY 2014 when all is said and done. That number represents a steep drop of 67% from the company’s original forecast of ¥80 billion ($783M USD). Sony identified two primary reasons for the drop in income. I’ll quote from the company’s press release:

“Sony expects to record approximately 30 billion yen in additional expenses in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 related to exiting the PC business. Since Sony’s announcement on February 6, 2014 that it will exit the PC business, PC sales for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 and expected PC sales for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 are underperforming the February expectation. Consequently, Sony expects to record write-downs for excess components in inventory and accrual of expenses to compensate suppliers for unused components ordered for Sony’s spring PC lineup. In addition, certain restructuring charges are expected to be recorded ahead of schedule.”

Okay, so the computer operations weren’t pulling their weight, which is why Sony decided to exit stage right and reportedly sell their VAIO operations to Lenovo (as announced in February). But there’s more:

Sony expects to record approximately 25 billion yen in impairment charges mainly related to its overseas disc manufacturing business. Primarily due to demand for physical media contracting faster than anticipated, mainly in the European region, the future profitability of the disc manufacturing business has been revised. Consequently, Sony has determined that it does not expect to generate sufficient cash flow in the future to recover the carrying amount of long-lived assets, resulting in an expected impairment charge. Primarily due to the reason mentioned above, the fair value of the entire disc manufacturing business also has decreased, resulting in an expected impairment of goodwill.”

Translation: The Blu-ray and DVD business is in the tank, particularly in Europe. Clearly, consumers are turning more and more to cloud storage and streaming of movies and TV shows, and not purchasing or renting optical discs. That’s definitely not good news in Tokyo, but it’s not like this trend snuck up and blindsided the company: I’ve been writing about it for several years now in Display Daily.

Given how aggressively Sony worked a few years ago to convince Warner Home Media and other studios to dump the nascent HD-DVD format in favor of Sony’s home-grown Blu-ray platform, this development must sting all the more. And talk about bad timing: The latest numbers from the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) show that digital movie sales (streaming and downloads) during the first three months of 2014 totaled $330.25 million, while optical disc sales and revenue were down 13.7% to $1.82 billion from $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, continuing a long-term steady decline that goes all the way back almost a decade.

We won’t have the final numbers from Sony for a few weeks. (Sharp and Toshiba also have yet to report their year-end results.) But you can clearly see what happens when one company faces reality and takes the bull by the horns, while another keeps stalling for time. I’ll check in again in two weeks with the rest of the numbers from Japan, Inc.

NAB 2014 In The Rear View Mirror

The 2014 NAB Show has come and gone, and although attendance was strong, this year’s edition didn’t have quite the buzz that I expected. Given all that is happening with UHDTV currently, that’s surprising: We are seeing a transformation of television into something very different from traditional models, including demonstrations of next-generation broadcast systems (ATSC 3.0), more powerful encoders (HEVC), and a migration to IP-based video production facilities (the cloud, AVB).

I spent three and a half days at the show, taking it all in while setting aside some time to present a paper at the Broadcast Engineering Conference on the current state of wireless AV connectivity and moderating a Wednesday Super Session on the future of video technology. If I really had to pick one word to characterize this year’s show, it would be “flux.”

Some trends were clear. The Japanese brands (aside from Canon) continue to down-size their booths as their business models shift away from traditional cameras, switchers, recording devices, and monitors. There were numerous companies showing cloud-based storage and media delivery over IT networks, and more than a few booths featured demos of HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding; most of it done with software.

Only a handful of booths emphasized monitors, and some of those had super-sized screens for digital signage out for inspection. In the north and central halls, you could find the traditional purveyors of broadcast transmitters, antennas, and coaxial cable, along with microphones and conventional audio products. But the emphasis seemed to be on “connected” anything – video, audio, cloud storage and delivery, and even wireless cameras for field acquisition and live events.

Given the sheer number of booths, it was difficult to compile a “pick hits” list, but I’ll give it a shot. To me, these companies/products/demos made the trip to Las Vegas worthwhile (and having traveled there over 70 times in the past 20 years, that’s saying a lot!).

Visionary Solutions may not be on your radar, but these clever folks are building some impressive hardware and software codecs at affordable prices. This year, they rolled out their PackeTV system, an end-to-end IP-based video delivery product with scheduling, recording, security, and delivery of real-time and recorded H.264 video, all rolled into one. The graphical user interface (GUI) for controlling the system was well-designed and easy to figure out.

Altera showed how easy it is to stream 12 G HD-SDI (4K) over a single piece of plain coaxial cable.

Altera showed how easy it is to stream 12 G HD-SDI (4K) over a single piece of plain coaxial cable.

 

LG and Gates Air demonstrated their vision for ATSC 3.0, using OFDM and HEVC in a standard TV channel.

LG and Gates Air demonstrated their vision for ATSC 3.0, using OFDM and HEVC in a standard TV channel.

LG and Gates Air had an impressive demo of an ATSC 3.0 concept broadcast. They combined Quad HD, 2K, and SD video programs into one 6 MHz channel, using HEVC encoding and decoding. The signals were encoded at 14, 1.6, and .98 Mb/s respectively, and the signal-to-noise threshold for the SD cast was just 1.5 dB. Multipath sets emulating mobile reception were also demonstrated with the 2K and SD streams holding up very well even at 50 mph.

Sony demonstrated a beautiful 30-inch OLED reference monitor that will soon take its place in the existing Trimaster series. This is a home-grown product and employs the same top-emission system with optical bandpass filters found on the 17-inch and 25-inch products. No price has been announced yet, and Sony has a real challenge in trying to figure out what that price should be as its customers aren’t willing to shell out 1990s bucks anymore for reference displays.

Altera had a clever demo of 12 Gb/s HD-SDI streaming over a piece of “conventional” coaxial cable. 3G HD-SDI has a nominal data cap of 3 Gb/s, so this demo used linked HD-SDI streams to hit the magic number (coincidentally, the data rate for a Quad HD video stream with a 60 Hz refresh rate and 4:2:2 coding). The coax link was 60 feet long and the transmission was flawless, aside from some hiccups on the PC playout server.

Ericsson showed there is more than one way to stream live 4K content. They set up a system that transported a live Quad HD video stream (3840x2160p/60) from a server in England, through satellite and fiber links, to the Ericsson and Intelsat booths at the show. But they used conventional H.264 encoding, breaking the 4K signal into 2K quadrants and using their Simulsync process to stich them together at the receiving end in a seamless presentation on an 84-inch monitor.

Ericsson stiched together four 2K image quadrants to stream this 4K image live from England.

Ericsson stiched together four 2K image quadrants to stream this 4K image live from England.

 

NHK's 4-pound Super Hi-Vision camera records video with 7680x4320 pixels @ 60 Hz and is a marvel.

NHK’s 4-pound Super Hi-Vision camera records video with 7680×4320 pixels @ 60 Hz and is a marvel.

NHK once again had their 8K Super Hi-Vision booth set up, but this time they were streaming live 8K (7680×4320) content from a new, compact 4-pound camera head. The signals were broadcast across the booth in two separate streams on a standard UHF channel, using 4096 QAM at 91 MB/s. Half of the data traveled as a horizontally-polarized signal and the other half as a vertically-polarized signal, both on UHF channel 36. (At that frequency, you can achieve about 20 dB separation between polarization angles.)

Haivision was demonstrating their Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) system over at the Renaissance Hotel. SRT is a hardware/software overlay for existing Haivision encoder/decoder products that is intended to better manage end-to-end streaming over public Internet connections. It offers adaptive streaming rates and two levels of encryption (AES 128-bit and 256-bit). SRT is positioned as an alternative to more expensive satellite backhaul links and dedicated MPLS point-to-point connections.

Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Institute (ETRI) had a small but intriguing demo of facial recognition linked to ad servers. The recognition system is built into a standard TV and has a range of about 10 feet, can discriminate between older and younger viewers, and will recognize a face turned 45 degrees to the right or left of center. An appropriate advertisement for the viewer is then displayed during a commercial break.

Fraunhofer HHI always has clever technology demos at NAB, and this year they spotlighted real-time software-based HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding at bit rates up to 40 Mb/s. They also showcased a real-time, hardware-based H.265 decoder using an Altera Stratix V FPGA. This decoder can handle bit rates to 80 MB/s and uses standard interfaces for set-top box designs. Fraunhofer also had an intriguing demo of surround sound playback for tablets in a nearby isolation booth.

BlackMagic's Ursa 4K camera costs only $6,000 (EF lens version)!

BlackMagic’s Ursa 4K camera costs only $6,000 (EF lens version)!

Sony's 30-inch Trimaster OLED looked great, but will its price tag break the bank?

Sony’s 30-inch Trimaster OLED looked great, but will its price tag break the bank?

No plasma? No problem for Panasonic, which showed new 84-inch and 98-inch 4K LCD monitors at the show.

No plasma? No problem for Panasonic, which showed new 84-inch and 98-inch 4K LCD monitors at the show.

BlackMagic Design continues to introduce powerful camera systems at bargain basement prices. Their new Ursa 4K field/studio camera has a huge 10-inch LCD monitor, touchscreen control, RAW and ProRes recorders, and upgradable Super 35mm shutter. The EF lens-compatible version lists at $5,995 while the PL-compatible version is $6,495. Their Studio Camera 4K, also equipped with the 10-inch LCD monitor and 12 GB HD-SDI connections, had an even more amazing price – $2,995.

Intel showed a clever use for Thunderbolt technology: Using a display interface for file exchanges. Thunderbolt runs on the DisplayPort physical layer and has a maximum speed of 20 Gb/s. By using a simple mini or regular DisplayPort cable; two MacBooks, two Windows laptops, or a MacBook/Win laptop can link together for file transfers, working just like a 10GigE network connection.

Panasonic showed it still has game after shutting down plasma manufacturing. Two new large digital 4K LCD displays were up and running in their booth – an 84-inch model (TH-84LQ7OU) and a 98-inch model (TH-98LQ7OU). We’ve seen the 84-inch LG Display LC glass cut before offered by other manufacturers, but the 98-inch hasn’t been in wide circulation. These will replace the 85-inch and 103-inch plasma monitors previously offered.

Finally, Christie had regular screenings to show off its new laser cinema projector system. This projector uses two sets of color primaries and matching eyewear, using wave division multiplexing to achieve a high degree of left eye/ right eye separation. According to a Christie rep, the system can achieve a brightness level of 72,000 lumens, and what was interesting to me was virtually no difference in image brightness through the glasses or without them.

Consumer Television: It’s Business As Usual (Or Maybe Not)

The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but a report in The Korea Herald, dated January 22 says that the final data will show Samsung dominated the global television business in 2013.

According to the story, Samsung was estimated to have sold 49 million units of flat-panel TVs last year. DisplaySearch had the totals at 32 million from January through September (the final DisplaySearch numbers for 2013 haven’t been compiled yet) and Yoon Boo-keun, Samsung’s consumer electronics division chief, stated at CES earlier this month that the company sold around 15 million TVs in Q4.

That’s an impressive number by anyone’s standards and reflects the complete dominance Samsung has in the television business. Think back 20 years to when Samsung was an afterthought; perceived as a 3rd-tier “bargain” brand for electronics.

Now, they’re on top of the heap, and have been so for eight consecutive years. In the meantime, LG looks to maintain its grip on 2nd place, with a varying market share number in the low to mid-teens throughout 2013. Between the two companies, they control over 40% of the worldwide television business.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will no doubt be disappointed by the final numbers for ’13. In the third quarter; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp were hovering around 8%, 6%, and 5% market share respectively – and those numbers are expected to drop when the final tally comes in.

As I noted in my last DD, Panasonic seems to be charting a course away from televisions, based on what they didn’t show at CES (a full line-up of 2014 models) and their emphasis on commercial sales of everything from cameras and storage devices to digital signs and batteries. And of course, Panasonic pulled the plug on plasma panel and TV manufacturing at the end of December.

The other remaining player in televisions – Toshiba – took a similar approach to their CES booth, choosing to show a wide variety of 4K (Ultra HD) display applications for home and office and skipping the TV line-up. Toshiba has already shut down two manufacturing plants and laid off over 3,000 employees because of continued losses in television and computer manufacturing.

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former continues to stay the course in sales and marketing of consumer TVs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t turn in yet another year of red ink – the ninth in a row. Sharp, meanwhile, has chosen to emphasize their super-sized lineup of TVs, plus clever engineering tricks like the Quattron+ line and their ability to manufacture IGZO TFTs with decent yields.

The problem for both companies is their uninterrupted slide in television market share that has been going on for eight years. With a 5% share worldwide and 3% in the United States as of Q3 2013, Sharp can’t afford to stay in this game for much longer. Neither can Sony, if they are serious about returning a profit to shareholders.

It doesn’t help matters that television sales are expected to have declined worldwide by 2.2% from 2012 when the accountants are done. The double-digit boom in TV sales in China kept that number from being a lot worse.

Amid the flurry of post-CES news stories about curved, super-sized UHDTVs was another item that went almost unnoticed, except for the sharp eyes of analyst Paul Gagnon of NPD DisplaySearch. In his blog post of January 17, Gagnon revealed how three retailers in the United Kingdom are already discounting LG’s “first to market” 55-inch curved OLED TV (55EA980W) by £3,000 ($4,910).

This product, which launched on these shores in July of 2013 for nearly $15,000, saw its price drop in the U.S by nearly $6,000 one month later when Samsung rolled out their own curved 55-inch model for about $9,000. And now – just seven months later – the LG model is selling in the U.K. for £4,999 ($8,178), almost one-half of its original sticker price. (Perhaps they overestimated demand?)

And the cannibalizing of TV prices continues unabated. On the last day of CES, Vizio announced its prices for a line of full-array LED 4K (UHDTV) “smart” LCD models – and they aren’t much higher than conventional LED “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung.

Case in point: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 will retail for $1,000, while the 55-inch version will have a sticker price of $1,400. The P602ui-B3 is set at $1,800, and the 65-inch model will command $2,199. Finally, a 70-inch skew (P702ui-B3) will be offered at $2,600. Consider that Samsung and Sony are trying to peddle 55-inch 4K LCD smart TVs for about $2,900 right now and you can clearly see the train wreck coming.

Summing up: Samsung dominates the consumer television world – business as usual. Panasonic and Toshiba de-emphasize TVs at CES – maybe not. Sony and Sharp keep pouring money into consumer television manufacturing and marketing, even though they are incurring substantial losses – business as usual. LG and Vizio slashing prices on OLEDs and 4K TVs – definitely not!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly quoted the discount applied to the LG 55EA980W as the actual selling price. The article has been updated on January 29 to reflect the correct selling price and discount of this TV.

CES 2014 In The Rear-View Mirror

Once again, CES has come and gone. It sneaks up on us right after a relaxing Christmas / New Year holiday. We’re jolted out of a quiet reverie and it’s back to the rush to board at the airport gate, walking the serpentine lines for taxis at McCarran Airport, and “late to bed, early to rise” as we scramble to make our booth and off-site appointments in Las Vegas.

We don’t make them all on time. Some we miss completely. But there’s a serendipity angle to it all: We might find, in our haste to get from one meeting to another, some amazing new gadget we didn’t know about as we take shortcuts through booths in the North, South, and Central Halls.

Or a colleague sends us a text or leaves a voicemail, emphatically stating “you have to see this!” Or a chance meeting leads to an ad hoc meeting, often off-site or over a hasty lunch in the convention center.

My point is this: You “find” as many cool things at the show as you “lose.” For every must-see product that you don’t see, there’s another one you trip over. Granted; many “must-see” products are yawners – you’ve figured it out 30 seconds into your carefully-staged meeting with PR people and company executives, and you’re getting fidgety.

LS Samsung Booth MCU 600p

My best CES discoveries involve products or demos where I can observe them anonymously, without PR folks hovering at my side or staring at my badge before they pounce like hungry mountain lions.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the consumer electronics press, I don’t need to break stories the instant I hear about them. There are already too many people doing that. What’s missing is the filter of analysis – some time spent to digest the significance of a press release, product demo, or concept demo.

And that’s what I enjoy the most: Waiting a few days – or even a week – after the show to think about what I saw and ultimately explain the significance of it all. What follows is my analysis of the 2014 International CES (as we are instructed to call it) and which products and demos I thought had real significance, as opposed to those which served no apparent purpose beyond generating daily headlines and “buzz.”

Curved TV screens: OK, I had to start with this one, since every TV manufacturer at the show (save Panasonic and Toshiba) exhibited one or more curved-screen OLED and LCD televisions. Is there something to the curved-screen concept? On first blush, you’d think so, given all of the PR hype that accompanied these products.

The truth is; really big TV screens do benefit a little from a curved surface, particularly if they are UHDTV models and you are sitting close to them. The effect is not unlike Cinerama movie screens from the 1950s and 1960s. (That’s how I saw Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the day.)

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having "5K" resolution - and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having “5K” resolution – and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

Bear in mind I’m talking about BIG screens here – in the range of 80 inches and up. The super-widescreen (21:9 aspect ratio) LCD TVs shown by Samsung, LG, and Toshiba used the curve to great effect. But conventional 16:9 TVs didn’t seem to benefit as much, especially in side-by-side demos.

The facts show that worldwide TV shipments and sales have declined for two straight years, except in China where they grew by double digits each year. TV prices are also collapsing – you can buy a first-tier 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV now for $600, and 60-inch “smart” sets are well under $800 – so manufacturers will try anything to stimulate sales.

Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many UHDTV (4K) TVs all of a sudden? Partially. Unfortunately, there’s just no money in manufacturing and selling 2K TVs anymore (ask the Japanese manufacturers how that’s been working for them), and the incremental cost to crank out 4K LCD panels isn’t that much.

Chinese panel and TV manufacturers have already figured this out and are shifting production to 4K in large panels while simultaneously dropping prices. You can already buy a 50-inch 4K LCD TV from TCL for $999. Vizio, who is a contract buyer much like Apple, announced at the show that they’d have a 55-inch 4K LCD TV for $1299 and a 65-inch model for well under $2,000.

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Vizio's 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Vizio’s 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Consider that the going price for a 55-inch 4K “smart” LCD TV from Samsung, LG, and Sony is sitting at $2,999 as of this writing and you can see where the industry is heading. My prediction is that all LCD TV screens 60 inches or larger will use 4K panels exclusively within three years. (4K scaling engines work much better than you might think!)

And don’t make the popular mistake of conflating 4K with 3D as ‘failed’ technologies. The latter was basically doomed from the start: Who wants to wear glasses to watch television? Not many people I know. Unfortunately, glasses-free (autostereo) TV is still not ready for prime time, so 3D (for now) is basically a freebie add-on to certain models of televisions.

4K, on the other hand, has legs. And those legs will get stronger and faster as the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) chips start showing up in televisions and video encoders. HEVC, or H.265 encoding, can cut the required bit rate for 2K content delivery in half. That means it can also deliver 4K at the old 2K rates, somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 20 Mb/s.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265  encoding and decoding into their products.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding into their products.

Nanotech's Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

Nanotech’s Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

While consumer demand for 4K is slowly ramping up, there is plenty of interest in UHDTV from the commercial AV sector. And Panasonic focused in on that sector almost exclusively in their CES booth. I’m not sure why – there are plenty of inferences here; most significantly, it would appear that Panasonic is exiting the money-losing television business entirely. (Ditto nearby Toshiba, which had similar 4K “applications” showcased and which also did not exhibit a line of 2014 televisions.)

Long story short; you may be buying 4K televisions in the near future whether you want ‘em or not. It’s a manufacturing and plant utilization issue, and if commercial demand for 4K picks up as expected, that will drive the changeover even faster.

As for sources of 4K content; Samsung announced a partnership with Paramount and Fox to get it into the home via the M-Go platform. Comcast had an Xfinity demo for connected set-top-boxes to stream 4K, and of course Netflix plans to roll out 4K delivery this year direct to subscribers.

I’m not sure how they’ll pull that off. My broadband speeds vary widely, depending on time of day: I’m writing this at noontime and according to CNET’s Broadband Speed Test, my downstream bit rate is about 22 megabits per second (Mb/s). Yet, I’ve seen that drop to as low as 2 – 3 Mb/s during late evening hours, when many neighbors are no doubt streaming Netflix movies.

Even so, HEVC will definitely help that problem. I spoke to a couple of Comcast folks on my flights out to and back from CES, and they’re all focused on the bandwidth and bit rate challenges of 2K streaming, let alone 4K. More 4K streaming interface products are needed, such as Nanotech’s $300 Nuvola NP-H1, which is about the size of an Apple TV box and ridiculously simple to connect and operate.

LG's got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don't know...)

LG’s got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don’t know…)

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays earlier. There were lots of OLED displays at CES, ranging from the cool, curved 6-inch OLED screen used in the new LG G-Flex curved smartphone to prototype 30-inch OLED TVs and workstation monitors in the TCL booth and on to the 55-inch, 65-iunch, and even 77-inch OLED TVs seen around the floor. (LG’s 77-inch offering is current the world’s largest OLED TV, and of course, it’s curved.)

OLEDs are tricky beasts to manufacture. Yields are usually on the low side (less than 25% per manufacturing run) and that number goes down as screen sizes increase, which explains the high prices for these TVs.

And there’s the unresolved issue of differential color aging, most notably in dark blue emitters. With current OLED science, you can expect dark blue emitters to reach half-brightness at about 5,000 hours of operation with a maximum brightness of 200 nits. Samsung addresses this quandary by employing two blue emitters for every red and green pixel on their OLED TVs, while LG has the more difficult task of managing blue aging in their white OLED emitters.

Several studies over the past three years consistently show people hanging on to their flat screen TVs for 5 to 7 years, which is likely to be a lot longer than 5,000 hours of operation. Will differential color aging rear its ugly head as early adopters shell out close to $10K for a 55-inch OLED TV? Bet on it.

Turns out, there’s another way to get wide color gamuts and saturated colors: Quantum dots. QDs, as we call them, are inorganic compounds that exhibit piezoelectric behavior when bombarded with photons. They emit stable, narrow-bandwidth colors with no drift, and can do so for long periods of time – long enough to work in a consumer television.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

QDs are manufactured by numerous companies, most notably Nanosys and QD Vision in the United States.  The former company has partnered with 3M to manufacture an optical film that goes on the backside of LCD panels, while the latter offers Color IQ optical components that interface with the entire LED illumination system in edge-lit TVs.

Sony is already selling 55-inch and 65-inch 4K LCD TVs using the Color IQ technology, and I can tell you that the difference in color is remarkable. Red – perhaps the most difficult color to reproduce accurately in any flat-screen TV – really looks like red when viewed with a QD backlight. And it’s possible to show many subtle shades of red with this technology.

All you need is a QD film or emitter with arrays of red and green dots, plus a backlight made up of blue LEDs. The blue passes through, while the blue photons “tickle” the red and green dots, causing them to emit their respective colors. It’s also possible to build a direct-illumination display out of quantum dots that would rival OLED TVs.

How about 4K display interfaces? By now, you’ve probably heard that HDMI has “upgraded” to version 2.0 and can support a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).  Practically speaking; because of the way display data is transmitted, only 16 Gb/s of that is really available for a display connection. Still, that’s fast enough to show 4K content (3840×2160, or Quad HD) with a 60 Hz frame rate, using 8-bit color.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here's an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here’s an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

Epson's Moverio glasses aren't as sexy as Google Glass - but then, they can do more things.

Epson’s Moverio glasses aren’t as sexy as Google Glass – but then, they can do more things.

Over at the DisplayPort booth, I heard stories of version 1.3 looming later this spring. DisplayPort 1.2, unlike HDMI, uses a packet structure to stream display, audio, and other data across four scalable lanes, and has a maximum rate of 21.6 Gb/s – much faster than HDMI. Applying the “20 percent” rule, that leaves about 17.3 Gb/s to actually carry 4K signals. And the extra bits over HDMI means that DP can transport 3840×2160 video with a frame rate of 60 Hz, but with 10-bit color.

Don’t underestimate the value of higher data rates: 4K could turn out to be a revolutionary shift in the way we watch TV, adding much wide color gamuts, higher frame rates, and high dynamic range (HDR) to the equation. HDMI clearly isn’t fast enough to play on that field; DP barely is. Both interfaces still have a long way to go.

So – why not make a wireless 4K connection? There were plenty of demos of wireless connectivity at the show, and I’m not just talking about Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most impressive was in the Silicon Image meeting room, all the way at the back of the lower South Hall, near the Arizona border.

SI, which bought out wireless manufacturer SiBEAM a few years ago, demonstrated super-compact 60 GHz wireless HDMI and MHL links using their UltraGig silicon. A variety of prototype cradles for phones and tablets were available for the demo: Simply plug in your handheld device and start streaming 1080p/60 video to a nearby 55-inch LCD TV screen.

Granted, the 60 GHz tech is a bit exotic. But it works quite well in small rooms and can take advantage of signal multipath “bounces” by using multiple, steerable antenna arrays built-in to each chip. And it can handle 4K, too – as long as the bit rate doesn’t exceed the HDMI 2.0 specification, the resolution, color bit depth, and frame rate are irrelevant.

This sort of product is a “holy grail” item for meeting rooms and education. Indeed; I field numerous questions every year during my InfoComm wireless AV classes along these lines: “Where can I buy a wireless tablet dongle?” Patience, my friends. Patience…

LG was one of many companies showing "digital health" products, like these LifeBand monitors.

LG was one of many companies showing “digital health” products, like these LifeBand monitors.

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But I don't think you'll see any of these in the near future...

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But you won’t see any of these in the near future…

The decline in TV shipments and sales seems to be offset by a boom in connected personal lifestyle and health gadgets, most notably wristbands that monitor your pulse and workouts. There were plenty of these trinkets at the show and an entire booth in the lower South Hall devoted to “digital health.”

Of course, the big name brands had these products – LG’s LifeBand was a good example. But so did the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. “Digital health” was like tablets a few years back – so many products were introduced at the show that they went from “wow!” to “ho-hum” in one day.

This boom in personal connectivity extends to appliances, beds (Sleep Number had a model that can elevate the head of the bed automatically with a voice command), cars (BMW’s i3 connected electric car was ubiquitous), and even your home. Combine it with short-range Bluetooth or ZigBee wireless connectivity and you can control and monitor just about anything on your smartphone and tablet.

Granted; there isn’t the money in these small products like there used to be in televisions. But consumers do want to connect, monitor, and control everything in their lives, and their refrigerators, cars, beds, televisions, percolators, and toasters will be able to comply. (And in 4K resolution, too!)

PointGrab can mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

PointGrab lets you mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Obviously, I didn’t visit the subjects of gesture and voice control. There were several good demos at the show of each, and two of the leading companies I showcased last year – Omek and Prime Sense – have been subsequently acquired by Intel and Apple. Hillcrest Labs, PointGrab, and other had compelling demos of gesture control in Las Vegas – a subject for a later time.

Summing up, let’s first revisit my mantra: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it. Televisions and optical disc media storage are clearly on the decline, while streaming, 4K, health monitoring, and wireless are hot. The television manufacturing business is slowly and inexorably moving to China as prices continue their free-fall.

The consumer is shifting his and her focus to all the devices in the home they use every days; not just television. Connectivity is everything, and the television is evolving from an entertainment device into a control center or “hub” of connectivity. The more those connections are made with wireless, the better – and that includes high-definition video from tablets and phones.

It’s going to be an interesting year…