Sony and Panasonic: New Entrants in OLED TV Race

This story has me scratching my head a bit; Sony and Panasonic will partner in developing OLED TVs. According to the press release, the two companies will pool their “core and printing technologies” to develop a “printing method-based next-generation OLED technology.” Perhaps the most puzzling part is that they “aim to establish mass-production technology during 2013.”

Wow! This strikes me as two drowning swimmers throwing each other cement life rings. Both companies have gone through very public financial difficulties. Sony has failed to catch any of the recent technology waves, and is awash in red ink. They have lost their traditional dominance in the television and personal media markets, and their PlayStation platform may get wiped out by Microsoft’s Xbox.

Panasonic is in no better shape. The company doubled down on plasma technology when flat panels started to take off, and consumers responded by choosing to pay a premium for brighter LCD models. It is losing billions of dollars annually, as the plasma TV market share continues to dwindle.

In general, these two Japanese electronic giants have spent the last decade watching the Korean and Chinese companies (both mainland and Taiwan) steadily eat their lunch (and their breakfast and their dinner for that matter).

Yes, Panasonic has some enormous production capacity that it is not using. Yes, Sony was out early with an OLED television (that was not high-definition and terrifyingly expensive and didn’t sell many units at all, but who’s counting?) Both companies do have a history of developing innovative technologies, however, and it’s possible that they could come up with a winner. If they can produce successful OLED TVs using printing methods instead of the less efficient and slower vacuum deposition batch methods currently in use, it could be that they could lower production costs enough to steal a march on LG and Samsung, and compete on cost sooner with the incumbent LCD models.

But can they accomplish this by next year? That seems to be a very tall order, given the early stages of development for metal oxide backplanes and OLED materials (especially the problematic blue emitters). It’s hard to see just how they might manage to pull this off.

Sharp Ships 90″ LCD HDTV

Imagine a television that is more than six and a half feet wide. Imagine that you could have one in your living room now if you want it. It’s not a pipedream; it’s the Sharp LC-90LE745U 90″ LCD HDTV, and the company announced yesterday that it is available now from select retailers in the U.S.

The mammoth screen has a 90″ diagonal measurement, and relies on a full matrix of white LEDs for its backlight to enable selective dimming for increased dynamic contrast. It tips the scales at a hefty 141 pounds (150 with the stand) so plan on getting some help when you go to mount it. It supports 3DTV, and comes with a pair of active glasses. It also is a Smart TV, but it is interesting to note that the screen does not use Sharp’s four-color-pixel Quattron technology. You might expect it to be a power hog, but it’s rated at just 138 watts when operating, which is less than many 52″  models that are about one-quarter the size.

This is a dramatic demonstration of Sharp’s new strategy, in which it will focus only on LCD TVs 60″ and larger. The idea is that it will leave the lower end of the market to its competitors, where they can slug it out among themselves. This makes sense in that Sharp is the only one with a Gen 10 LCD panel fab, which should mean that they can make these larger sizes more efficiently. The question is whether the worldwide market for these giant screens is large enough to make the play work.

The announced price for the LC-90LE745U is $10,999, but is expect to sell for closer to $10,000. This creates an interesting dilemna for those with five figures of disposable income to spend on a single television; do you get one of the new 55″ OLEDs from LG or Samsung, or do you go for a screen nearly four times that size with the LCD from Sharp? It’s not a decision that I expect to have to make, but it does make for an interesting “what if” question.

Alfred Poor on Video about HDTV

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing HDTV and related topics with David Gewirtz of ZDNet, which he captured on video. We covered a wide range of topics, including OLED HDTVs, 3DTV, screen sizes, Smart TVs, and “direct LED” TVs. The video runs almost a full hour and was made during a Skype video call. (David has invested a lot of time and effort to develop a pretty sophisticated “Skype Studio” for recording interviews like this, and he gets some impressive results.)

So here’s the video if you want to hear more about my latest thoughts about buying HDTVs. If you or someone you know are thinking about getting a new set, you’ll probably find some helpful information here.

If you have any questions, you can email me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or send a Twitter message to @AlfredPoor.

What Is a “Direct LED” TV?

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a new term creeping into the television industry lexicon: Direct LED TVs. And as is so often the case, the new term has created all sorts of new confusion. Here’s a quick overview of what this means.

First and foremost, this does not refer to a TV where the image is made directly by LEDs (unlike the Sony CrystalLED technology demonstration at CES 2012). It is still an LCD TV. The difference lies in how the backlight is oriented.

LCDs don’t make an image on their own; you need to shine a light through them to be able to see the picture. Originally, LCD panels had compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) behind them to create this light. Then the cost of LEDs came down some, and manufacturers put LEDs behind the panels instead. This saved energy, eliminated the environmentally-hazardous mercury used in CFLs, and improved the color performance. It also let the backlight be dimmed in different areas, which had the effect of increasing the dynamic contrast of the screen. On the other hand, the sets cost more.

Over time, the LEDs got brighter and engineers were able to create highly efficient light guides that could distribute the light from LEDs arranged along the edge of the screen, so that it would shine evenly across the back of the LCD panel. This made it possible to create the impossibly-thin flat panel TVs that you can buy today.

The high brightness LEDs remain expensive, however, and prices continue to fall for the run-of-the-mill LEDs that are used in millions of other devices. So now manufacturers have discovered that they can use more of these cheaper LEDs arranged behind the panel, and eliminate the expensive high brightness LEDs and their sophisticated light guides. The result is a television set that is a bit thicker, but that costs less than an edge-lit LCD TV. I have not seen one yet, but I would not be surprised to learn that the “direct LED” sets are not as bright as the edge-lit models, even though they use more LEDs in the backlight.

NPD DisplaySearch sees a bright future for this design. They expect direct LED models to take more than 10% of the worldwide TV market this year, driven mostly by their cost advantage. Edge-lit models will still dominate, however, with almost 60% of the worldwide market. So if you’re price sensitive, you may want to see what sort of savings you can get — and what compromises you’ll have to accept — when the direct LED models start to appear.

(By the way, while I’m quoting NPD Displaysearch numbers, let me point out that they expect the worldwide TV market to be about 250 million units this year. Of that, they expect fewer than 50,000 units to be OLED televisions. So if you’re planning on being one of the first to get an OLED TV, be prepared to spend a lot for it, because they will be rare indeed. That’s 0.02% of the worldwide total.)

The Return of Google TV!

According to a Reuters report, LG is going to start shipping televisions based on the Google TV platform before the end of May. Manufacturing of the sets is slated to begin May 17 in Mexico.

This is Round 2 for Google TV which drew a lot of interest before it put on the brakes and asked partners not to show products with it at CES 2011. This next version has a solid set of partners, including Samsung, Sony, and VIZIO in addition to LG. It remains to be seen whether the new interface is enough to make the feature a selling point. The platform should make it easier to search for and discover content across a number of sources, and it will also offer special features for DISH Network subscribers.

Clearly, Smart TVs are appealing to U.S. consumers as the attach rate of television sets to the Internet is climbing steadily. Whether or not Google TV offers enough “special sauce” to make it stand out from all the other connected options remains a question that probably won’t be answered until Google TV sets become available from the other manufacturers.

Look, Ma! No Wires!

You’ve got a beautiful, big flat screen television. It’s so thin that you’ve put it on a wall mount and it just seems to float in space. Maybe it will just float away! Wait a minute; no, that can’t happen because it’s tied solidly to the ground by a mass of cables that should be enough to connect the Space Shuttle to its launch gantry. There should be a better way.

Fortunately, there’s one industry group working to solve this problem. The Wireless Home Digital Interface Group (WHDI) has developed standards that allow high-definition signals to be sent wirelessly to display devices. This means that all you need is a power outlet and a small receiver at your television set; all the other devices in your home entertainment system can use WHDI to send the picture (and sound if necessary) to your television.

We’ve had this level of convenience for a while now with wireless surround sound speakers, but it’s great that this technology is becoming practical for the more-demanding video part of the equation. Solutions like HDMI could help lead to two important developments in our living rooms.

First, it makes it more practical to put the entertainment components next to the seating area where they are easy to reach, instead of across the room next to the television. If you want to watch a DVD, doesn’t it make more sense to have it in an end table next to the sofa, or built into the coffee table?

The other idea is a bit more radical; maybe the time has come for “dumb” TVs. All most people need these days is a big display. They don’t need tuners because they don’t connect their sets to an antenna. They don’t need their televisions to have Internet support because so many other devices already provide that function (or it’s inexpensive to add using a network media player). And the TVs don’t even need to have complex scalers or video processing built in; other devices such as Blu-ray players already have those features, and can take care of the task of converting other signals into a simple 1080p stream that a dumb TV can understand.

So with just a power plug and a single HDMI port (or built-in WHDI support), a dumb TV would be ready to do just about everything that the average U.S. viewer would want from it. Let the intelligence and source switching be handled by some other box in the room. What do you think? We have nothing to lose but our wires!

More Streaming Time on U.S. TVs

A new white paper from Parks Associates reports on the shifting trends in home entertainment. One of the most telling statistics in this document is that the average broadband user in U.S. households now watches 1.6 hours a weeek of Internet video on their television. Not on their notebook or smartphone or tablet or desktop computer: on their television!

When you consider that four out of five homes now have broadband service, that includes a whole lot of people who don’t a Netflix from a KitKat. So the fact that on average we’re watching this much Internet content on our televisions strikes me as being pretty significant. It’s a trend that I expect to continue to grow, and grow rapidly.

Parks also makes a number of recommendations, the most important of which is this one:

Services must offer a subscription or advertising-supported model.

The U.S. connected consumer does not want to get nickeled and dimed when watching television and movie content at home. We didn’t like paying for phone services by the minute or the text character, and the phone companies responded with flat rate options. There’s no reason to expect that we’d react any differently to getting our entertainment content. That’s why the “all you can eat” plans from Netflix and Hulu Plus are so much more successful than the a la carte rental (or purchase) plans offered by so many other services such as Cinemanow or Vudu. So if you’re going to get money from the consumers, get it as a subscription.

Or get it from advertisers; just don’t expect the traditional model of insert commercial interruptions to work much longer. Creative ways to effectively connect a viewing experience to a relevant brand message are needed if commercial advertising for video is to survice.

From Blu-ray players to video game consoles, from low-cost network media players to Smart TVs, more and more devices in the living room are making it easier to bring content from the Internet to the largest screen in the home. Get ready to watch those hours-viewed-per-week stats climb!

Panasonic Dozen-Foot Diagonal Display

Once again, Panasonic has move the goalposts in the “Mine Is Bigger than Yours” contest. The latest is a 145-inch diagonal plasma television; that’s more than 12 feet from corner to corner. According to a news report by Tech-On, the behemoth was a joint effort with NHK (Japan Broadcasting System) and was produced in one of Panasonic’s idle plasma panel fabrication lines. It’s not a big surprise that NHK is involved, because they have been at the forefront of higher-than-1080p resolutions for a long time.

There are several points of interest about this demonstration. First and foremost is the resolution; the panel has 7,680 by 4,320 pixels. I’ve done the math for you already, and that is the equivalent of sixteen 1080p resolution panels tiled together. The tiled panels would be only about 36-inches diagonal apiece, which is on the small size for current plasma products. As a result, the display has a pixel pitch of 60 ppi, which is smaller than a typical 42-inch plasma. This means that each sub-pixel is smaller and has less surface area for phosphors, which would mean that the panel can emit less light per pixel. This is one of the limitations of plasma technology.

One detail that is a surprise is that Panasonic engineers have come up with a way to divide up the scanning signals for these panels. Apparently they scan multiple horizontal lines at the same time, in order to refresh the 4,320 lines without flickering.

Finally, the article quotes Yoshio Ito, director of Display Devices Business Group and senior vice president at AVC Network Co, Panasonic: “It is possible to experience video with realistic sensations from a distance of 1.6 meters, which is the optimal viewing distance.” That’s just over five feet, folks. (That’s just about the distance that I’d recommend for a 36″ 1080p screen, which would have the same pixel size.) So I don’t want to hear any more complaints when I recommend a bigger screen for your viewing distance; here’s the SVP from Panasonic saying that five feet from a 12-foot diagonal screen is “optimal.”

IKEA Television: What Gives?

Have you seen the new IKEA Uppleva television? It apparently is designed to make it easy for consumers to choose a new HDTV that fits in with their Scandinavian decor. The set hasn’t been released in this country yet, so we don’t know what the price will be. Without this detail, it’s hard to assess the value of this new product, but it clearly marks some interesting changes in the market.

First, if you don’t think that the LCD TV has reached the commodity stage, this should convince you. Here’s a television branded not by any consumer electronics giant, but a furniture maker. This also conveys a message that this set will be as easy to install and use as the IKEA furniture (or with any luck, even easier). It bundles everything for you, including a Blu-ray player.

It is also interesting that a furniture maker should decide to market its own TV. I remember when Magnavox made a big deal about the furniture surrounding its massive cathode ray tube console sets, but I can’t remember another case where that was turned around.

And you don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by a lot of choices. The Uplevva comes in three sizes; that’s it. You don’t have to deal with a lot of the specifications that you might encounter in an electronics store, such as lcd vs. plasma tv, or whether the screen is 120 Hz or not, if it supports 3D TV, or how the contrast ratio compares. Just pick the television that fits your space and you’re good to go.

Is this the start of a trend? Will you be able to buy a television branded by Sterns and Foster that is designed just for your bedroom? Maybe the major supermarket chains will offer their own television brands; buy one at Thanksgiving and get a free turkey. The price of a flat screen tv has fallen to the point where they could be sold by retailers other than the traditional consumer electronics, shopping club, and discount chains. IKEA could be the bellwether for a whole new approach to selling televisions.

You can be sure that the Uppleva experiment will be watched closely to see if it is a strategy worth emulating. Of course, the company may have to endure a little rib-pocking before the new HDTV can be deemed a success, as has already been ably demonstrated by late night television host Conan O’Brien:

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2nd Screen Future Is Bright, but Watch Those Shades!

We’re a society that is joined at the hip to our technology: literally. With smartphones in holsters and ebook readers and tablets in our shoulder bags, we now take our digital connections with us wherever we go. But you may be in for a shock when you try to read your indispensable device when you’re out and about, wearing your favorite shades.

I made this discovery years ago, the hard way. Our sailboat has a GPS that doubles as a depth finder, and as we sail on the Chesapeake Bay, knowing how much water separates you from the bottom is essential information. I was making a tricky approach to a creek when I glanced down at the LCD screen to see what the depth was, and I saw a black screen. In a moment of panic, I thought the power had gone off on the device and I whipped off my sunglasses to start troubleshooting the problem. And the image on the screen magically reappeared.

What happened was that the polarization of the display and my sunglasses cancelled each other out. Polarizing films only transmits light waves that are oriented in a specific direction. This helps eliminate glare, and it creates a dimmer image because it blocks the light waves that are not in the correct orientation. You can witness this for yourself; look through two pairs of polarized sunglasses, and then rotate one until it is at right angles to the other. All the light should be blocked and you’ll just see black. (This is also a handy way to check to see if the lenses are really polarized.) You also can demonstrate the same effect using a pair of hair combs. When they are aligned so that their teeth line up, you can see through them. Rotate one to right angles, and your view will be blocked where they overlap.

So much for the science lesson; what does this mean in the real world? As I mentioned already, LCDs rely on polarized light to create their image. So it is possible that the light will not be correctly oriented to view when wearing polarized sunglasses. And that’s exactly what happens.

Take an Apple iPad and look at it in landscape mode while wearing a typical pair of polarized sunglasses, and the image will just look a little dimmer. Take that same table and turn it to portrait mode, however, and it goes black. You might think that OLED displays would not have this problem since they are emissive and do not rely on polarization to create the image, but some models like the Samsung Galaxy S actually go dark when held at a 45-degree angle because it uses a polarizing film to reduce internal reflections.

These observations were made by Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate, who also points out that there is a readily available solution for the manufacturers. They could use a “circular polarizer” — which is what is used in the 3D glasses at your local cinema — that will not block the image. Instead, there is a small color shift. According to Soneira, both the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 use this technology to eliminate the sunglasses problem.

So if you’re planning to catch up on some Netflix movies or other video on your next picnic, be sure to make a test run while wearing shades. You don’t want everything to go dark when you go outside.