Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

The End Of One Era And The Start Of Another

Panasonic, a long-time leader in consumer electronics announced on Tuesday (May 31) that it would stop manufacturing large LCD panels for televisions at its Himeji fab in western Japan. Production will wind down this summer and stop completely in September, with the balance of IPS LCD panels going to transportation and medical markets.

Himeji was a relatively new fab, having come inline in 2010. This is where Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD TVs were born even as the company’s plasma TV manufacturing business was going into a nosedive. And that line of TVs was well-received by the trade press and the general public.

But it turned out that LCD panel manufacturing in Japan is a costly effort, compared to manufacturing in Korea and China. Indeed; many Panasonic LCD TVs use glass that’s made across the China Sea, and that trend goes back a couple of years. According to a story on the Reuters Web site, “…the plant has never logged a profit during years of heavy price competition with South Korean and Chinese rivals.”

It doesn’t help that Panasonic has virtually no U.S. market share in LCD TVs, having fallen behind Vizio and Hisense even as competitors like Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, and Hitachi have all packed it in over the past decade. And with all of the company’s eggs in the plasma basket for many years, they were late to wake up and smell the coffee.

A quick online check of Best Buy, HH Gregg, and Fry’s Web sites showed no listings for Panasonic TVs – not even among Ultra HD models. So I went to the company’s U.S. Web site and searched again, finding six models of Ultra HDTVs ranging in size from 50 inches to 85 inches – and all of them carried the notation “Not available.”

I got the same results when I clicked on “View All TVs,” and actually got a smaller selection of Ultra HD models to peruse. So no major retailer carries Panasonic TVs now. (Not even Sears, which actually has a Kenmore line of HDTVs and even 4K TVs!)

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here...but ya can't buy them.

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here…but ya can’t buy them.

According to the Reuters story, “The decision to close the (Himeji LCD TV panel) business comes after Panasonic scrapped a company-wide revenue target of 10 trillion yen ($90.1 billion) for the year through March 2019 to focus on profitability.” Based on what I found out, it would appear that the entire TV business in North America (if not elsewhere) is also at an end.

Ironically, I just received an invite from Panasonic’s PR agency to come see their new Blu-ray player (DMP-UB900) at the company’s corporate headquarters in a few weeks. So my question now becomes, “Why are you showing me an Ultra HD Blu-ray player when you don’t seem to have any Ultra HDTV models to go with it?”

Puzzling indeed, especially in light of the rapid move away from 1080p (Full HD) televisions to Ultra HD models that’s taking place all over the world! And you need no further proof than to go on the aforementioned big box store Web sites and take a gander at the selection of Full HD and Ultra HDTV models.

A quick search showed that Best Buy currently has 108 models of 2160p (Ultra HD) sets for sale, compared to 58 Full HD models and 27 720p models.  The picture isn’t quite as clear at HH Gregg, as they show 133 “LED TVs” (presumably Full HD) and 78 Ultra HD models. And Fry’s shows two different categories for “4K TVs,” although those account for 173 models with Full HD showing 220 models.

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they're just SO 2005!).

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they’re just SO 2005!).

So what to make of this? Simple – the adoption rate for Ultra HDTV sets is accelerating to the point where (at Best Buy, at least) the offerings now exceed those with Full HD resolution. Keep in mind that the first Ultra HDTVs appeared on our shores not quite four years ago, used the LG 84-inch IPS LCD panel, and cost anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000.

Now, you can buy a first-tier 55-inch Samsung Ultra HD “smart” LCD TV for $700.  As I’m writing this, Vizio has a 50-inch “smart” 4K model for $499, as does Insignia. Westinghouse goes them one better with a 55-inch 4K set for the same price, and LG is clearing out a 49-inch Ultra HD set for $550.  And Hisense recently announced HDR models for less than $600! Mind-boggling.

So here we go at warp speed; zooming into a new world of 4K TVs as Full HD sets fade into the distance, having first appeared a little over a decade ago. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – your next big screen LCD TV is going to be an Ultra HD model, especially if you pick it up in December, or wait a little longer into 2017.

And your new Ultra HDTV will NOT be a Panasonic model, based on what my Web search revealed. In fact, there’s a good chance your next Ultra HDTV could be a Chinese brand, like Hisense or TCL, thanks to their very aggressive pricing. (But make sure your set supports high dynamic range to be future-proof!)

NAB 2016: Thoughts and Afterthoughts

I’m back from my 22nd consecutive NAB Show, and it’s always a worthwhile trip. NAB isn’t quite as large or crazy as CES, but it’s still sprawled out enough to require three full days to see everything. (Except that you don’t have to fight the insane crowds that fill the Las Vegas Convention Center in January.)

This year’s theme was “Unleash!” or something like that. I never was completely sure, and it sounded more appropriate for a competition of hunting dogs anyway. But the crowds came anyway (over 100,000 for sure) to see everything from 4K and 8K video to live demonstrations of the new ATSC 3.0 digital broadcasting system, a plethora of small 4K cameras, the accelerating move to IP infrastructures instead of SDI, and video streaming to every conceivable device.

My visit to the show had a threefold purpose. In addition to press coverage and checking out product trends for customers, I also delivered a presentation during the Broadcast Engineering Conference titled “Next Generation Interfaces: Progress, or Babylon?” The subject was a new wave of high-speed interfaces needed to connect 4K, 5K, 6K, and 8K displays (DisplayPort, HDMI 2.0, and superMHL, not to mention Display Stream Compression).

Besides hundreds of exhibits, there are the pavilions. Trade shows LOVE setting up pavilions to showcase a hot technology or trend. Sometimes they’re a bit premature: In 1999, the show featured an enormous “streaming media” area in the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center stuffed full of startup companies showing postage-stamp-sized video, streaming over DSL and dial-up connections. All of those companies were gone a year later.

In addition to the Futures Park pavilion – which showcased NHK’s 8K broadcasting efforts and ATSC 3.0, and which was mysteriously stuffed all the way at the back (east) end of the upper south hall, where few people rarely go – there was the Sprockit startup pavilion in the north hall, near the Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality pavilion (more on that in a moment).

This setup was useed to capture HDR and SDR images of the model, stream them to the roof, and link via 18 GHz microwave to Black Mountain...

This setup was used to capture HDR and SDR images of the model, stream them to the roof, and link via 18 GHz microwave to Black Mountain…

 

...where the images where coded as HEVC H.265 4K signals and broadcast on UHF channel 50, back to the convention center. (Introducing about 14 seconds of latency along the way...)

…where the images were coded as HEVC H.265 4K signals and broadcast on UHF channel 50, back to the convention center. (Introducing about 14 seconds of latency along the way…)

There was also a demonstration of ATSC 3.0 in the home, located at the upper entrance (west end) of the south hall. Outside, Nokia set up a concert stage and had entertainment each day, all day long, streaming the performances into the VR/AR booth for viewing and listening on appropriate headgear.

To set the table and see just how much the industry has changed in a little over 20 years, the “hot” broadcasting formats in 1995 were Digital Betacam (two years old), DVCPRO, and a new HD format called D5. Non-linear editing was just getting off the ground from the likes of Avid, Media 100, and Boxx Technologies. A decent SD camera for studio and field production cost about $20,000, and HD was still very much in the experimental stage – the new Grand Alliance HD format was heavily promoting the format, model station WHD in Washington was conducting trial broadcasts, and there was no such thing as 720p/60/59.94 just yet.

The standard connectors for video? BNC and RCA for composite, with BNC doubling for the serial digital interface (SDI) connection. VGA was the connector of choice for PCs, and component video was tricky to implement. Tape was the preferred recording media, as optical disc hadn’t made its public debut yet. “High resolution” on a graphics workstation was around 1280×1024 (SXGA), a “bright” LCD projector could crank out about 500 lumens with 640×480 resolution, and the Internet was still a mystery to 90% of attendees.

We all know how the intervening years played out. TV broadcasters are now in the middle of a channel auction, and we may lose more UHF spectrum (in 1995, UHF channels ran from 14 to 69), possibly as much as 60 – 80+ MHz, or 10 – 14 channels. Demand for optical disc media is very much on the wane as streaming and cloud services are picking up the reins.

You don’t see very many transmitter and antenna manufacturers at the show any more, and when you do, their booths are pretty small. There’s been consolidation in the industry with antenna maker Dielectric shutting down a few years ago, then getting bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and revived (just in time for the auction!). Harmonic recently purchased Thomson, which explains the big empty booth where they should have been.

Z3's DME-10 is a super-tiny H.264 encoder for IP streaming.

Z3’s DME-10 is a super-tiny H.264 encoder for IP streaming.

 

Vitec's H.264 encoders aren't much bigger!

Vitec’s H.264 encoders aren’t much bigger!

And the biggest booth at the show doesn’t belong to Sony, or Panasonic, or Imagine (Harris). Nope, that honor goes to Canon, showing you that there’s still plenty of money to be made in video and still cameras, optical glass, and camera sensors. In a sign o’ the times, Panasonic’s once-enormous booth, which occupied the full width of the central hall mezzanine, has shrunk down to about half its original size.

NAB now is all about “anytime, anywhere” content creation, mastering, storage, and delivery. The concept of broadcasting is almost quaint these days (ATSC 3.0 notwithstanding) as more and more viewers avail themselves of faster broadband speeds and opt for on-demand streaming and binge viewing of TV shows.

Brands like Netflix and Amazon are stirring the pot, not ABC and NBC. (Most of the TV shows in the top 20 every week are CBS programs.) YouTube now offers a premium ad-free service (ironic, since ten years ago it was a place to share videos commercial-free). And this year’s “3D” is virtual reality (VR), backed up by augmented reality (AR).

Nokia's VR camera has 8 super-wide-angle lenses and 8 microphones. And I'm sorry, it DOES look like a high-tech hair dryer...

Nokia’s VR camera has 8 super-wide-angle lenses and 8 microphones. And I’m sorry, it DOES look like a high-tech hair dryer…

 

That is a lot of stuff to put on your head just so you can escape reality, isn't it?

That is a lot of stuff to put on your head just so you can escape reality, isn’t it?

Not clear on the difference? VR presents a totally electronic “pseudo” view of the world, which can be represented by custom video clips or generated by computer graphics. AR takes real-world views and overlays text, graphics, and other picture elements to “augment” your experience.

Google Glass is a good example of augmented reality – you’d walk down the street and graphics would appear in the near-to-eye display, showing you the location of a restaurant, displaying a text message, or alerting you to a phone call. Oculus Rift and Samsung Galaxy Gear are good examples of virtual reality, immersing your eyes and ears in imaginary worlds with large headsets and earphones.

I’ve tried VR and AR systems a few times, and the eyewear works- but it’s heavy and quite bulky. And the multichannel spatial audio is also impressive, but I have to strap headphones over those enormous headsets. In fact, the biggest problem with VR and AR right now IS the headset.  Galaxy Gear and other systems use your smartphone as a stereo display (you can do the same thing with a simple cardboard viewer), but the resolution of your smartphone’s display simply isn’t fine enough to work in a near-to-eye application.

After you wear a VR/AR headset for a while and stand up and take it off, you may find your sense of balance is also out of whack and that you momentarily have some trouble walking correctly. That’s another example of a spatial disorientation problem caused by the disconnect between your eyesight and other senses.

If some of these problems sound familiar, they should. We heard much the same thing during the latest incarnation of 3D from 2008 to 2012, particularly from people wearing active-shutter 3D glasses. During the roll-out of 3D, it became apparent that as much as 25% of the general population could not view 3D correctly because of eye disorders, spatial disorientation, incompatibility with contact lenses, and other problems.

Boland's selling the 55-inch LG Display RGBW 4K OLED as a broadcast monitor.

Boland’s selling the 55-inch LG Display RGBW 4K OLED as a broadcast monitor.

 

Fusion is selling the same monitor as a

Fusion is selling the same monitor as a “reference” broadcast monitor and multiviewer. (Sony’s got it, too!)

Back to reality! Here are a few more interesting things I saw in Las Vegas:

ATSC 3.0 is ready for its day in the sun. A consortium of interest groups recently petitioned the FCC to make that happen, and based on the demos at the show, it has a fighting chance to ensure broadcasting sticks around for a while. For current TVs, some sort of sidecar box will be required. But you’ll be able to watch 4K (Ultra HD) broadcasts with spatial audio and stream broadcast content to phones, tablets, and laptops, too.

8K Real-Time HEVC Encoding was on display in the NTT and NEC booths. For those counting, there are 7680 horizontal and 4320 vertical pixels in one 8K image, and both companies had demos of 4:2:0 video streaming at about 80 Mb/s. Recall that 8K has 16 times the resolution of 1080p full HD, and you can see that a ton of computational power is required to make it all work.

HEVC Encoding was also in abundance on the show floor. Vitec had some super-small contribution H.265 encoders, and Haivision brought out a new Makito H.265 portable encoder. The Fraunhofer Institute had an impressive demo of contribution 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut encoded at 16 Mb/s, resulting in picture quality that would rival an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc streaming six times as fast.

The Fraunhofer Institute demonstrated 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut at an amazingly low 16 Mb/s. Image quality was spectacular (and yes, they did encode pieces of falling glitter in the video!).

The Fraunhofer Institute demonstrated 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut at an amazingly low 16 Mb/s. Image quality was spectacular (and yes, they did encode pieces of falling glitter in the video!).

 

Samsung will make its dynamic tone mapping scheme for HDR available to anyone who wants to use it - and has submitted it to SMPTE as a candidate HDR format.

Samsung will make its dynamic tone mapping scheme for HDR available to anyone who wants to use it – and has submitted it to SMPTE as a candidate HDR format.

 

Technicolor demonstrated their

Technicolor demonstrated their “HDR interpolated from SDR” process, and it works better than I expected.

Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays are gaining ground on LCD for studio and broadcast operations. Three different companies – Boland, Sony, and Fusion – were showing Ultra HD “client” and “reference” monitors based on a 55-inch RGBW panel manufactured by LG Display. Sony, of course, has 30-inch and 25-inch models, and some of the older 25-inch glass is being used in monitors made by companies like Flanders Scientific. Newer OLED panels use 10-bit drivers and can reproduce HDR signals with a wide color gamut.

High Dynamic Range was very much on people’s minds at NAB 2016. Dolby showed its Dolby Vision proprietary HDR system, and Technicolor privately demoed its dual SDR/HDR workflow and distribution scheme. Samsung was an expected visitor to the show floor – their booth featured a side-by-side comparison of SDR and HDR with dynamic tone mapping, a system they invented and will make available openly to anyone. It’s also a candidate for SMPTE HDR standards.

Super-fine pitch LED display walls are the next big thing, and I mean that – literally. Leyard, who bought Planar Systems last year, had an impressive 100-foot diagonal “8K’ LED video wall (no mention of the dot pitch, but it had to be around 1.2mm) that dominated the floor. An industry colleague remarked that the brightness and size of this screen would be sufficient to replace cinema screens and overcome reflective, contrast lowering glare. (Plus kick the electric bill up quite a few notches!)

Leyard also had a prototype 4K LED display wall using .9mm dot pitch LED emitters and not far away, Christie showed its Velvet series of LED walls, with dot pitches ranging from as coarse as 4mm (remember when that used to be a fine pitch?) to as sharp as .9mm. Top= put all of that into perspective, the first 42-inch and 50-inch plasma monitors that entered the U.S. market in the mid-1990s had a dot pitch of about 1mm, and 720p/768p plasma monitors were about .85mm. How far we’ve come!

Words don't express how spectacular Leyard/Planar's 100-foot 8K LED wall looked. You had to be there. (Next-generation cinema screens, anyone?)

Words don’t express how spectacular Leyard/Planar’s 100-foot 8K LED wall looked. You had to be there. (Next-generation cinema screens, anyone?)

 

Panasonic had a cool 8K

Panasonic had a cool 8K “solution,” consisting of a 55-inch 8K IPS monitor and recorder/player. Still thinking about which 4K gear to buy? Get with the program!

 

NEC and NTT both showed real-time 8K encoding using HEVC H.265. (Have we moved past 4K already? Wow...)

NEC and NTT both showed real-time 8K encoding using HEVC H.265. (Have we moved past 4K already? Wow…)

 

For just $2,000, this box will let you copy HEVC H.265 2K and 4K video to as many as 25 SD cards at once. How do they do it?

For just $2,000, this box will let you copy HEVC H.265 2K and 4K video to as many as 25 SD cards at once. How do they do it?

And there’s still very much a place for AVC H.264 encoding. Z3 had a super-tiny DME-10 H.264 encoder for streaming over IP, as did Vitec. Matrox unveiled their Monarch Lecture Capture system (also based on H.264), and NTT had an impressive multistream H.264 / IP encoder/decoder system out for inspection. Some of these boxes would actually fit in your shirt pocket – that’s how small they’ve become.

Of course, the wizards at Blackmagic Design were at it again. This time, they showed an H.265-based recorder/duplicator system that can write 25 SD cards simultaneously with HEVC 2K and 4K video and audio – just plug ‘em in, and go! Over at the Adtec booth, the Affiniti system held the spotlight. This fast, “universal” bus for encoders and decoders is designed to be configured and maintained by anyone with minimal technical knowledge. It uses an SFP backplane, an approach more manufacturers are taking to keep up with the ever-higher speeds of 4K and UHD+ data.

Finally, I just had to mention the “world’s smallest 8K display,” as seen in the NHK booth. Yep, it measures just 13 inches diagonally and has an amazing pixel density of 664 pixels per inch (ppi). This display, made by the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Company of Japan, has a resolution of 7680 by 4320 pixels and employs a top-emission white OLED layer with color filters.  (Really???)

CES 2015 In The Rearview Mirror

After all the PR hype and anticipation, the 2015 International CES has come and gone, leaving me to edit over 1500 photos and a bunch of videos and sift through stacks of press releases to see what was really significant about the show…and what was just fluff.

Before I drill down to make my top picks, I should point out some trends that have been building for a few years. We all know that the majority of our electronic gadgets (phones, tablets, home alarm systems, televisions, computers, cordless phones, and so on) are manufactured in China and Southeast Asia.

Still, the expanding CES footprint of Chinese brands (Haier, TCL, Hisense, Changhong, Konka, Skyworth) takes some getting used to. So does the shrinking footprint of former Japanese powerhouses like Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba. There is a profound shift in power happening in the CE world as the center of gravity moves farther away from Tokyo and Osaka past Seoul to Shenzen and Shanghai.

Another unmistakable trend is the decline in prices for a wide range of CE products. “Connected health” was a big deal at least year’s show, but is there really any news to be found in $60 Fitbits? Or $149 home security systems? Or $125 32-inch televisions?

Speaking of televisions, they are becoming less important in the overall scheme of things with each passing year. 4K Ultra HD was all the rage last year – this year, everyone had 4K televisions, and many models were equipped with quantum dot backlights for high dynamic range. Of course, there was no shortage of curved televisions in all sizes.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung's booth.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung’s booth.

 

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

 

The facts are these: Changhong and TCL can make a large, curved 4K LCD TV with high dynamic range just as easily as Sharp, Samsung, and Panasonic. In some cases, the LCD panels used in these TVs are all coming from the same factory.

Samsung made a big splash this year with their S UHD television line, but they’re using quantum dots just like anyone else. LG showed both quantum dots and their new M+ technology that adds white pixels to an LCD matrix to boost brightness. TCL is selling QD-equipped TVs in China and expects to launch them on these shores this year.

Perhaps surprisingly, LG decided to make a big push for OLED technology, unveiling five new Ultra HD models at the show. While the Chinese also showed OLEDs (as did Panasonic), LG appears to be “all in” with their white OLED technology, claiming manufacturing yields as high as 70%. Well, someone’s got to pick up the torch that plasma dropped in 2013.

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood - flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you're feeling warped!).

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood – flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you’re feeling warped!).

 

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

 

For many of these manufacturers, appliances and white goods are taking on a more important role in contributing to the bottom line. The margins are better on high-end refrigerators and washer-dryer sets for the likes of Samsung and LG, even though consumers don’t turn them over as often as televisions. For Panasonic, beauty products are an important income stream.

Cameras and camcorders are still holding their own against mobile phones, surprisingly. I entered the CES arena equipped with both a new Samsung Galaxy 5 phone and a Panasonic Lumix ZS40 camera. While the Galaxy 5 does take some great pictures under ideal conditions, it was no match for the 30:1 optical zoom lens (Leica glass) on the Lumix – the latter allowed me to shoot under, around, and over people to get the photos I needed.

Speaking of mobile phones and tablets, there wasn’t much news to be had at the show. LG showed its updated LG G-Flex 2 and Samsung had a crowd around its Galaxy family of phones and tablets, but there just wasn’t the “BYOD buzz” we’ve seen in previous years. The 5” to 5.5” screen size seems to be a sweet spot for phones now – 6-inch models were scarce in Vegas.

LG's G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5

LG’s G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5″ screen.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

 

Connecting all of this stuff together made for a more compelling story from my perspective, especially as far as wireless technology goes. I saw more demos of wireless video streaming, wireless appliance control, wireless security systems, and wireless display connectivity at CES than at previous shows.

The 802.11ac channel bonding protocol is becoming increasingly important for making this stuff work in the 5 GHz band. And the wide-open spaces at 60 GHz are starting to attract everyone’s attention – having 2 GHz channels to play with is a lot more appealing for making high bitrate connections than fighting the congestion at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

Display interfaces are getting fast – a lot faster – and relying on compression for the first time. And now we’re starting to see the boundaries blur between small, high-performance mobile display interfaces and full-sized versions, which leads me to wonder why we need so many versions of HDMI and DisplayPort in the first place.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing number of automobile manufacturers who set up shop in the North Hall every year. It reminds me of the New York Auto Show, with the likes of Hyundai, VW, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Audi showing off their latest high-tech “connected” automobiles that can do everything from mirror your smartphone’s display to recognize speech commands, navigate flawlessly, and even drive themselves.

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn't even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn’t even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way...)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way…)

 

And there were plenty of alternatives to gasoline-powered engines to seen, from BMW’s i3 electric car to Toshiba’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. All equipped with Bluetooth, 802.11, Sirius, and in some cases, user-customizable dashboard displays using flexible displays (important to survive vibration and G-forces).

Quite a bit to take in over three and a half days! What follows is my list (in no particular order) of significant products and trends I spotted in Vegas. Let’s see if they hold up as the year progresses:

High Dynamic Range – as usual, a hot new technology makes its appearance at the show and quickly becomes a buzzword. HDR Ultra HDTVs were shown by numerous manufacturers at CES; none more prominently as Samsung, who made HDR the centerpiece of their Monday press conference with their S UHD line. Virtually all of these TVs use quantum dot technology to boost image brightness and color saturation, and only one (LG) had an alternative path to HDR with M+ technology.

HDR is a key part of the transition to next-generation television. So are wider color spaces, high frame rates, and increasing resolution. Looks like everyone’s getting into the game, including the Chinese. Interestingly, I saw only one demo of Dolby’s HDR technology in the TCL booth (Vizio also has it), so it appears many homegrown solutions are in the works for HDR displays.

LG Display's 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

LG Display’s 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

 

OLEDS Are Back – at least as far as LG is concerned. Seven new Ultra HD OLED TVs were rolled out at CES with sizes ranging from 55 inches to 77 inches, and one of them can flex back and forth from flat to curved surface mode. A partnership with Harman-Kardon should ensure better audio quality than you hear from typical super-thin televisions. (There were even two models featuring bases made from Swarovski crystal!)

With the demise of plasma, videophiles are still looking for displays that can give them the magic combination of deep blacks, saturated colors, and wide viewing angles. Right now, OLEDs are the only game in town, but they’ve proven to be tricky to manufacture with acceptable yields. LG Display seems to have overcome that barrier with these models (which use IGZO TFTs for pixel switching, by the way) and it will be interesting to see the uptake as 2015 winds on.

Super MHL Is Here: The battle for fastest display interface shifts back and forth between Silicon Image and VESA. DisplayPort fired the first salvo with their introduction of version 1.3, raising the maximum data rate to 32 Gb/s and introducing Display Stream compression for the first time. Now, the MHL Consortium has fired back with Super MHL. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and in its first iteration, allowed transport of 1080p/60 video over the 5-pin micro USB connector found on smartphones and tablets.

But Super MHL is different – it is a full-sized connector with 32 pins and matches the data rate of DP 1.3. The CES demo showed a Samsung 8K display being driven through Super MHL. How would anyone fit this on a mobile device? Does it replace HDMI 2.0? (It’s a LOT faster and uses DS compression, too.) So many questions to be answered…

Wait - isn't MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Wait – isn’t MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Hmmm...apparently they did give MHL

Hmmm…apparently they did give MHL “the juice.”

 

Talk To Me: Conexant showed a demo of voice control for TV set-top boxes (change channels, bring up program guide, set DVR recordings) that was leap years ahead of their demo from 2013. This system works exceptionally well in noisy environments and can be used to control other devices, such as room lighting, thermostats, and security systems.

Conexant is looking to sell their technology as a system on chip (SoC) to a wide cross section of manufacturers. The trick had been reliable speech recognition in all kinds of high and low noise environments, something that doomed Samsung’s voice control TVs back in 2012. It appears they’ve finally pulled it off, but the focus has shifted away from TVs to set-top boxes this time around.

I’ll Be Watching You: The EyeTribe of Denmark showed an amazing eye tracking and control system at ShowStoppers that can operate tablets and phones and costs all of $99. Yep, you read that right! While Tobii’s impressive demos have focused on laptops and gaming systems, EyeTribe has gone after potentially the biggest market for eye tracking. How many times have you wished you could operate your mobile phone while your hands were full?

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It...)

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It…)

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! Available without a prescription.

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! (Available without a prescription.)

 

Faster Video For All: Giraffic had an intriguing demo of optimizing and speeding up video streaming rates over conventional TCP/IP networks. And it had nothing to do with adaptive bitrate streaming, using H.265 encoding, or AVB protocols. What Giraffic is doing is changing the nature and frequency of HTTP requests. This is the best way I can explain it: Imagine you just sat down with a big piece of chocolate cake and want to eat it as quickly as possible. If you take big bites, you’ll be chewing for a while and some pieces may get stuck in your throat.

But if you start with very small bites (like crumbs) and keep shoveling them in quickly, you’ll finish the cake just as fast – or perhaps faster – than the conventional way of eating. And that’s what Giraffic does – it keeps nibbling at the video stream to ensure continuous delivery, even with 4K content. The company claims they can achieve streaming throughput 200% to 300% faster than conventional video streaming, with no freeze-ups and annoying “buffering” warnings.

4K Blu-ray: Okay, we’ve been waiting for this for some time now. And 4K video streaming has already begun at Netflix and Amazon. But Ultra HD BD is finally out of the gate, although you won’t see it until the fourth quarter of this year. Streaming rates will be on the high side of 100 Mb/s with single and dual-layer discs available. (And yes, high dynamic range will be a part of the equation!) Panasonic showed their prototype of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player at the show. The question is; with all the enhancements coming to streaming, does optical disc matter anymore? Time will tell…

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!

 

Now THERE'S an LCD shape you don't see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth...)

Now THERE’S an LCD shape you don’t see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth…)

Circular LCD Displays: This was a breakout year for oddball sizes of LCDs, particularly in the Sharp booth where automotive displays were shown. (LG Display also exhibited circular and curved LCD displays.) Given the drop in TV prices and Sharp’s ever-dwindling market share in TVs, the market for automotive and transportation displays may be a better bet, long-term. Especially given the company’s leadership in implementing IGZO TFTs, which are important for brighter displays with lower power consumption and higher pixel density.

USB Type-C Connectors: VESA had an excellent demo of this game-changing connector, which has a symmetrical design (no need to worry about which way you’ve plugged it in) and can multiplex DisplayPort 1.3 video with high-speed data. USB 3.1 Type-C is seen as the next generation of USB connectors for mobile and portable devices, and by itself, it can move serial data at 10 Gb/s.

SiBEAM Snap Wireless Connectivity: Silicon Image has revived the SiBEAM name (they bought the company in 2011) and implemented their 60 GHz wireless display connectivity into a close-proximity variant. You simply bring two Snap-equipped devices together (like a smartphone or tablet and a matching cradle), and voila – you’ve established a full bandwidth data and display connection that can run up to 12 Gb/s. Plus, the connector can be used for wireless charging.

SI is showing integrated Snap transmitter and receiver chips that would replace USB 2.0 or 3.0 connections. Clearly, they are also targeting USB interfaces that support DisplayPort 1.3 (see USB 3.1 Type-C) and trying to move away from physical display connections. (This was one argument against using MHL to connect to televisions.) But if they’re successful, what happens to MHL? And now that Super MHL has been shown, what happens to conventional HDMI? Stay tuned..

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

It's 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive....

It’s 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive….

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

 

Super-wide, high resolution desktop monitors: Seems like everybody had one of these at the show. HP, Dell, LG Display, Samsung, and others showed 27-inch widescreen displays with “5K” resolution (5120×2880 pixels). These monitors also support wider color gamuts and use 10-bit panels (a necessity, given all the 10-bit RGB images they’ll be asked to display). What’s surprising is how inexpensive these monitors are – HP’s Z27Q version will be available in March for just $1300.

Toshiba Glass: The jury’s still out on whether Google Glass is a hit or a bust (I’m leaning toward the latter). But Toshiba, who recently retrenched their television operations to Japan, is all-in with a line of enhanced glasses that employ a tiny projection module to show images on the lens surface. This has been tried before – Epson’s Moverio VR glasses have tiny QHD LCD panels embedded in them – and it remains to be seen if the public will buy into the idea. They do look stylish, though. (And there’s even a pair of safety goggles in the line.)

I’ll close out this report with a few passing thoughts. First, it’s impossible to miss the trends of mass-produced, cheap consumer electronics that are increasingly showing up at CES.  Next, there is hardly any new technology debuting at the show that multiple manufacturers have in short order (and that includes the Chinese).

Whereas voice recognition was big a few years ago, gesture control took its place the past couple of years. But now that Omek (bought by Intel) and PrimeSense (bought by Apple) are absent from the scene, voice recognition has come back. My new Galaxy 5 phone has Samsung voice on it and it works reasonably well. However, it appears that consumers just haven’t jumped on the gesture recognition bandwagon yet.

Remember 3D? I almost got all the way through this report without mentioning it. A few companies still showed it, such as LG, Toshiba, HP, Hisense, Changhong, Ultra D (digital signage), Panasonic, and some gaming companies. Likewise, Google TV was gone this year, replaced by Android TV in such places as the Sony booth. Aside from program guide searches, I’m not convinced that the average TV viewer needs a Google search engine or Android OS on their TV. But I could be wrong.

Cute little guy, isn't he? (Where's my fly swatter...)

Cute little guy, isn’t he? (Where’s my fly swatter…)

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

 

Remember drones? I almost managed to skip them as well. There were so many at the show, ranging from behemoths that idled in place overhead while we visited tables at Digital Experience to pocket-sized models with built-in cameras that could zip unobtrusively over a crowd under the control of your smartphone. (I’m waiting for the first pocket-sized EMP generators to appear next year – like electronic bug-zappers.)

Finally, after a day full of press conferences during which there was only about 30 minutes of actual, usable news, I’d like to see a temporary moratorium placed on the words “innovation,” “big data,” “stunning,” “cloud,” “ultra” anything, and in the Chinese booths, “happiness.”

The only thing stunning about Vegas is how expensive cab rides have become. True happiness can only be found at Big Daddy’s Barbecue outside the Central Hall (dee-lish!). “Big Data” should be the name of a blues band, or at least the harmonica player. (Maybe Big Data and The Cloud?)

And I’m sorry, but a floor-mounted pet camera and toothbrushes that sync up to video games are not “innovation.” Cute, yes, but no innovative. (Although the self-powered skateboard I saw that can run up to 16 miles might fall into that category…)

So I Bought A New Camera…

Yeah, I know. Camera sales are in decline (even digital SLRs), thanks to smart phones that can hit nearly 20 megapixels, have digital zooms, accessory telephoto lenses, and instant connections to Instagram and other photo sharing sites.

Still, there are a lot of things smart phone cameras don’t do well. Like shooting sharp, correctly-exposed images under low lighting levels. Or zoom optically over ranges of 15x, 20x, and even 30x. (Plus you don’t need to enter a password or swipe your fingerprint to turn on a camera.)

I shoot lots of photos every year, mostly for my articles, classes, and trade show coverage. In 2013, I probably captured well over 10,000 images and videos. My CES 2014 images alone totaled 1500 with an additional 100 videos, and it looks like it I will also break the 10K barrier by the end of December.

At one time, I did a lot of commercial photography, using Nikon F2s, Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras, and even view cameras. But those days are long in the past – I sold off everything to do with film starting a decade ago, and finished the job when point-and-shoot cameras exceeded 10 megapixels, supposedly equaling the resolution of 35mm Kodachrome 25 film.

I’ve been 100% digital for many years, relying on small cameras to grab product shots, shoot videos of trade show demos, and even capture a product shot here and there. My cameras have mostly been Nikon CoolPix models in recent years, as they are a lot smaller than DSLRs and easier to truck around convention centers. Plus, they don’t give up much in picture quality for their compact size and ease of use.

What’s funny about these cameras is how fast they depreciate in value. I beat the heck out of a CoolPix 8200 for a couple of years, only to discover its lens had a scratch. After bringing it to the local camera store (now gone), I was told it had a used value of $30 and would cost at least $200 to fix.

I was also told that I could pick up a brand-new Nikon P310 for just $229, thanks to a special instant rebate. So I popped out the SD memory card and battery from the old camera and left it there for recycling, walking away with the P310.

That was two years ago. As much as I like the P310, its 4:1 zoom ratio just wasn’t cutting it for my needs. Last Saturday, I hopped in the car and drove to one of the very few remaining camera stores in the area, Cardinal Camera, to see what my upgrade options were.

Cardinal sells all the big brands – Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Nikon, and Olympus – and this would give me the chance to play around with a model before I committed. (Yep, I could buy one online, but I needed to shake it out in person first.)

What caught my eye right off the bat was how little merchandise was on display in the store. Clearly, retail camera and accessory sales is not a growth business these days! Cardinal seems to do better with photography classes and quick color printing than offering much of the pro gear they used to, like studio lighting packages.

The second thing that caught my eye was the preponderance of Sony digital cameras and the scarcity of Canon and Nikon models behind the counter. Sony really has some nice models that use “mirrorless” technology with rangefinders and interchangeable lenses. The salesman brought out a Sony A6000 Cyber Shot model with combination LCD screen and viewfinder – 24 megapixels, 15-50mm interchangeable zoom lens, 23.5 x 15.6mm sensor, and 1080p/60 video capture.

I have to admit, I was impressed. The standard viewfinder activates when you raise the camera to your eye, and the 3” LCD screen was super-sharp. But the price was $700, and I just wasn’t interested in spending that much money on something I’d likely recycle in two years, given the depreciation and heavy use. (Plus, it wouldn’t fit in my jacket pocket.)

After checking out a few other models, I ultimately decided on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 point-and shoot. If you haven’t tried out a Panasonic camera lately, you will be in for a surprise – they’re every bit as good in build quality and performance as the Nikons I’ve been using, and the better models use Leica lenses exclusively.

The Leica DC lens on the ZS40 isn’t removable, but does have a 30x zoom range, and the camera’s 2/3 CMOS sensor is good for 18 megapixels, Plus, it has both an LCD display screen and viewfinder, selectable with a small button. And it slides easily in and out of my pocket, great for traveling light when traversing the Las Vegas Convention Center for four days.

This image was captured in

The Lumix DMC-ZS40 captured this image in “intelligent” mode (read: “I don’t know anything about cameras, so just take the picture for me”). Macro turned on with auto flash.

 

This image was also captured in

This image was also captured in “intelligent”mode, using the macro function. Model was sitting on my desktop and a single Tensor lamp was used for illumination.

Even better – the Lumix camera was discounted from $449 to $349, and Cardinal “ate” the 6% sales tax as part of a Black Friday weekend special. I added a couple of extra SDHC memory cards and a wall charger and was on my way. For that kind of deal, it wasn’t worth it to order online.

My point? There are some great deals to be had on cameras these days, thanks to competition from smart phones and a slow but steady decline in camera sales that started in 2010. If you know what you’re doing with lighting and composition, you don’t need to buy an expensive digital SLR to get acceptable image quality – $300 to $500 will do the trick.

While DSLRs are the way to go for high-end, museum-quality photography, point-and-shoots like the Lumix are a much better choice for everyday photos, especially if you need to get a quick shot unobtrusively under a wide range of good to poor lighting conditions.

And let’s be realistic – it’s hard to go wrong these days for a few hundred dollars. After a year, if you still aren’t in love with your camera, just buy a new one! They’re certainly cheap enough and their performance just gets better and better. (The same axiom holds true for televisions.) Just don’t be surprised when you see how little your camera is worth a year or two from now.

Welcome to the brave new world of consumer electronics…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…