Posts Tagged ‘Ultra HDTV’

The 2018 HPA Tech Retreat: Digital In The Desert

2018 brought a new venue (The J.W. Marriott) for the annual Hollywood Professional Association Technology Retreat and a program chock-full of interesting talks, not to mention the usual enormous Innovation Zone (formerly the Demo Room). I first attended the Retreat in 2002 out of simple curiosity, and back then there were perhaps 100 – 120 in attendance. Zoom ahead to 2018, and well over 600 people made the trek to Palm Desert.

The primary focus of HPA has been and continues to be post-production, and in recent years there have been numerous presentations on managing workflows, metadata, and “director’s intent.” So it went this year, with an entire section of the Innovation Zone devoted to the Interchange Media Format (IMF, not the International Monetary Fund).

But there’s more to the conference than workflows. I can’t remember precisely when I started doing this presentation, but I attempt to recap my impressions of the Consumer Electronics Show every year – and do it in exactly 30 minutes. Jim Burger from Thomson Coburn opens the first day with a review of what’s happening in Washington DC with regard to copyrights and other legal issues, and we both try to spice things up with a little humor here and there. (Very little…)

Over 600 people attended this year’s Tech Retreat.

Of course, there are other things to talk about, such as the emergence of solid-state cinema screens using light-emitting diodes and how likely they are to replace conventional digital cinema projectors. Peter Lude of Mission Rock Digital covered this topic nicely and it appears we’re not quite there yet, although it’s been my experience that Asian countries are often happy to dive into new cinema technologies where we in the U.S. and Canada would proceed more cautiously.

High dynamic range (HDR) is another hot topic, as you might imagine. One of the highlights of my talk was how cheap Ultra HDTVs have become, with certain models available for as little as $8 per diagonal inch and equipped with basic HDR (HDR 10 static metadata) for just $1 more per diagonal inch. My conclusion was that the economic impact of televisions on the CE world has been greatly diminished – televisions are commodities now, and the average consumer buys TVs these days by looking for the best price on the biggest screen they can fit at home.

Of course, my observations stirred up a bunch of discussions and counter-arguments, the strongest coming from representatives of Sony. From my perspective, no one hurts themselves by waiting a bit longer to invest in an HDR TV, as there are still a few bugs in the system. Not all HDR formats are supported on all models, and some content players and TVs don’t establish HDMI connections correctly, enabling a lower bit rate connection and blocking HDR signals –  something that would drive the average viewer crazy.

HDR was a hot topic at the Retreat and Panasonic demonstrated dual HDR (left) and SDR (right) output from their newest 4K camera.

The Sony camp argued that it has never been a better time to buy an Ultra HDTV with HDR, and in fact older models might actually out-perform newer models as the race to lower manufacturing costs could sacrifice quality. However; Sony’s own Z9 LCD Ultra HDTV, held up as a paragon of HDR playback (albeit a very expensive one at $9,000 originally), has been discontinued and the likely cause is far lower prices for OLED and quantum dot-equipped LCD TVs. And they did admit that there are still ample problems with HDMI interconnections and clock rate detection that adversely impact Ultra HD playback on current models of televisions.

The elephant in the room is that there isn’t enough HDR content to watch in the first place. Yes, Comcast provided 4K coverage of the Olympics via streaming connections, some of it with HDR. And DirecTV (AT&T) carried the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 4K with HDR. But the pickings are still slim. An informal show of hands after Day 2 seemed to confirm my advice to sit on one’s hands – more attendees who were considering an Ultra HDTV with HDR purchase seemed happy to wait it out a bit longer than those who just had to jump in and get a set today.

I don’t know of too many people who have picked up Ultra HD Blu-ray players to watch HDR content, either (I haven’t) but I am aware of a couple of instances where said players didn’t work correctly with compatible TVs. In one case, the manufacturer of the TV and UHD BD player were the same! But given how low prices have dropped for HDR-equipped sets, it appears that HDR will become a standard feature soon enough, just like the late, lamented 3D did. And UHD BD players will come down in price to match conventional Full HD models soon enough.

Thursday’s session opened with a panel discussion on HDR “flavors” and featured participants from Dolby, Sony, Samsung, and the BBC. It was timely: A recent article in the Hollywood Reporter talked about people getting confused with all of the different HDR formats – HDR 10, Dolby Vision, Hybrid Log Gamma, and HDR 10+ (Samsung’s take on dynamic metadata). So far, I know of only one manufacturer (LG) that supports four HDR formats (HDR 10, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Technicolor, which is more of a transport than a display format). In theory, the TV should recognize these formats automatically, but consumers may perceive we’re in the midst of another “format war” like we were with Blu-ray and HD DVD ten years ago.

This panel was followed by another titled, “Establishing Metadata Guidelines for Downstream Image Presentation Management on Consumer Displays.” In other words, maintaining creative intent all the way through to the television. Another panel on Day 2 discussed the Academy Color Exchange System (ACES), which was developed to ensure color volume and data didn’t change from the camera through post and mastering. There is a never-ending discussion about preserving the director’s and colorists’ intent to the TV screen, but that’s much easier said than done – TV manufacturers have very different axes to grind.

While we already have a system to deliver HDR metadata to televisions using CTA 861.3 extensions, my thought was that perhaps the Cinema/Movie/User picture settings on Ultra HDTVs could be configured to also recognize ACES metadata and provide that more accurate cinema experience. This would involve encoding that data into Blu-ray discs and also streaming content, but it shouldn’t be impossible to pull off – and would actually provide some value to manufacturers, especially if they could re-label this setting “Academy” instead of Cinema or Movie.

I hosted three breakfast roundtables during the conference on OLED technology, HDR signal interfacing, and gadget fatigue. And the last roundtable was the most intriguing, as my colleagues talked about mixed experiences with Alexa, Siri, and Google, using flip phones more than smart phones, trying out VR goggles that are now gathering dust, preferring hardcover and softcover books to tablets, and just trying to disconnect whenever possible.

The fact is; we live in a world of abundant, cheap electronics. It’s hard to disconnect from all of this stuff as it’s become an integral part of our lives, but it appears some of us are trying to maintain some separation and are questioning why everything in our lives needs to be connected, as we were repeatedly told at CES 2018. I can say that a majority of HPA attendees don’t think it’s a good idea to have everything in their house connected to the Internet, based on a show of hands after Day 1.

If you’ve never attended the Tech Retreat, you should. The general sessions are thought-provoking and the sidebar conversations and informal discussions (including the breakfast roundtables) are well worth the trip. I’m looking forward to the 2019 Retreat, at which I will likely report once again on my impressions of CES….

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!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CES 2016 In The Rear View Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Samsung showed the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

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

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

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

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

2016 – A Turning Point For Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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