With broadband and cable and satellite and digital terrestrial broadcast and IPTV making HD content available, who would think we need another method of transmission? Apparently, the Walt Disney Company does. They created MovieBeam, a new service that takes advantage of unused portions of analog television station transmissions. It’s available in 29 major markets in the US.
The system relies on a set-top box that stores the movies as they are dribbled over the airwaves. The box comes preloaded with 100 movies, and each week, another 10 get downloaded off the air. (This in turn bumps off 10 of the previously-stored movies.) You pay $200 for the box, and $30 to set up your account, then you pay for each movie as you watch it. “Popular” movies cost $2 each to watch, and “new release” titles cost $4. It will cost you an extra $1 to watch them in HD (though only “select” titles will be available in HD). You will need an HDMI connection with HDCP support to watch HD versions; component connections can only carry standard definition versions. Oh, and you’ll need to hook up the box to a phone line so that it can phone home occasionally.
This is an intriguing offer, especially for people who prefer to watch movies over network programming. For less than the cost of a DVD rental, you get the convenience of choosing from a rental shelf filled with 100 choices at all times. The selection is broad, from PG to R, comedy to action, and from a variety of studios. I guess I’d have to live with it for a while to know whether or not having 100 choices would be enough. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait to run that test; according to the Web site, the service is not available in my area yet.
A number of news sources have reported the results from a new survey by Harris Interactive on the subject of IPTV. More than half of the Americans polled said that they had heard of IPTV, and nearly one in five said that they’d sign up for it right away if they could send the images to their TV.
Not surprisingly, the most popular reason given for wanting to try IPTV was that it could be less expensive than cable or satellite. Viewing programs on-demand, having a broad range of choices, high-definition programming, and digital video recording were also top draws.
Frankly, I’m surprised by the results of this poll. I have grossly understimated the technological awareness of the general public, and I’m encouraged that there is such strong interest in giving IPTV a try. The results of this poll will no doubt encourage the various “triple-play” companies to redouble their efforts to bring broadband IPTV to more markets. I’m looking forward to the day when I can watch just about anything I want on my television or computer screen, and have it be as easy to do as it is to watch broadcast programming now.
SED – Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display — is a new technology being jointly developed by Toshiba and Canon. The panels are thinner than an LCD because they create their own light and don’t need a backlight. The light comes from phosphors at the front layer of the panel, so the picture looks a lot like a standard television, only better. When they demonstrated SED panels at CES 2006 in Las Vegas last month, people lined up around the block to get a chance to see them. Rich, deep blacks and vibrant colors create breathtaking images. We have been told that they would start to ship last year, then this spring. And now it appears we’ll have to wait a bit longer before we can buy one of these new displays.
Toshiba announced this week that further delays are likely, with shipments starting this summer. Mass production won’t get rolling until 2007.
Delays such as this are not at all unusual, even for mature technology. With a brand new design, there are all sorts of hurdles in terms of supplies, manufacturing yields, and final product development and assembly. So don’t be surprised if summer comes and goes before we can find out whether SED will be worth the wait.
According to a report on the NewYorkBusiness.com site, NBC reports that their NBCOlympics.com Web site has had 261.1 million pages hits since it opened. More importantly, it has delivered 6.4 million video streams totalling 72,000 hours of video. This is double the amount of video streamed during the Athens Olympics.
At a time when Olympic broadcast ratings seem to be slumping, video delivered over the Internet is taking off. Why? I think that this is an excellent bellwether for the “what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, where you want to watch it” benefits of IPTV, and signals that there is strong interest in being able to choose your own sequence and schedule. Content producers will be smart to pay close attention to the lessons learned from this Olympics coverage on the Web. Personally, I’d like to see less agressive compression (for fewer artifacts) and higher-than-standard resolution for the clips (so they show better on computer screens and HDTVs), but I’m confident that these will come as demand increases and these become competitive advantages instead of seen as liabilities.
Terrestrial Digital has released its new Lacrosse digital TV antenna. Designed for mid- to long-range reception — up to 40 miles – and available with an optional signal amplifier, the antenna is designed for multi-directional applications across a 135-degree range. The unit looks like a pair of books stacked one on the other, and is visually much less intrusive than most external digital TV antennas. The unit costs $179 without the amplifier, and $199 with it.
I have not tested this antenna, and do not have an opinion on its functionality one way or the other. I mention the news of its release because it is raises a timely topic. While we still have nearly three years until analog TV broadcasts are turned off, anyone relying on over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts should start to consider switching over to or adding digital TV reception, especially if they are getting an HDTV. HD signals are only available from digital sources, and digital OTA TV is still free. The price of one of these antennas is less than the fees for a few months of most digital cable service, so it could be a low-cost alternative to getting HD content into your home.
I recently read a report from a Merrill Lynch analyst, who makes a strong case for suspicions that Sony may miss its target launch of the PlayStation 3 this summer. The Merril Lynch estimate for the bill of material costs this summer will total $900. Those are the component costs; it would have to sell for twice for everyone to make money on it. Meanwhile, Microsoft has its competing XBox 360 selling for a list price of $400. If Sony were to try to get close to that price, the PS3 might be the biggest loss-leader of all time.
Even more interesting for the HDTV market is Merrill Lynch’s cost estimate for the BluRay drive that is to be included in the PS3: $350 this summer, declining to $100 in three years. This is not good news for Sony on a couple counts. Toshiba has already announced plans to ship a $500 list price HD DVD player; Sony will have a hard time matching that price if the drive costs $350 to make. And if Sony does slip the PS3 ship date, that will greatly lower the demand for BluRay drives, which will keep the component cost high due to low volume sales. If Sony holds back on the BluRay players as well, they let the HD DVD camp be the first with the most on the market, which could be enough for the movie studios to crown a victor.
There’s no official word from Sony about a possible delay in the PS3 launch, but if Merrill Lynch is right about this, it could have an important impact on the HD movie disc market.
Q: I bought your book and read the section on how far to sit from an HDTV. According to your example, I should sit closer to a 53-inch HDTV than the distance recommended by another site suggests. I realize that you take the resolution of the HDTV into account and the others don’t. Does that explain the difference between your recommendations and theirs? Mark R.
A: First, let me say thanks for buying my book. And while you included a link to the site you referred to for the conflicting viewing distance recommendation, I have omitted it here because there’s no need to pick on any one site. There are many sites that make similar recommendations, and I suspect that many of them are based simply on on information available elsewhere, such as CEDIA’s tables.
Many of these sites — if not all — do not explain how they calculate their recommendations. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate them or explain the difference from my results. But clearly, resolution is a major difference. Think about it; a full sheet of a newspaper and a travel poster are about the same size, but the recommended viewing distances for each are very different. If a display is made up of dots, then there is a distance at which the human vision system can’t distinguish between the dots. At that point, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a higher-resolution (and more expensive) HDTV than one the same size with lower resolution. I think it’s intellectually lazy to ignore this factor.
Also most sites — if not all — give you the information backwards. They’ll tell you how far to sit from a 42-inch HDTV. But most people aren’t starting with the display; they’re starting with a room that already has a viewing distance. So in my book, I have you measure the distance, multiply it by a single number, and you get the optimal size display for the room. Simple and easy.
Our youngest child is almost a doctor, so it has been a long time since we’ve had Saturday morning cartoons playing at our house. Yet I confess that I’ve always had a fascination with animated programming. As they have progressed from Crusader Rabbit to Yogi Bear to Rug Rats to Digimon, there have been interesting developments in artistic style and content that I think reflect some broader changes in our culture and society. Plus, some cartoons are just cool.
So if you have kids or are a toon fan, you may have already discovered Nickolodeon’s TurboNick site. There’s a lot of content available there, but of most interest to me are the free full-length episodes of many of Nick’s cartoon shows. You can find Sponge Bob segments, or even a “vintage” Ren and Stimpy. One thing I particularly like is that the viewer lets you run in full-screen mode, hiding all the advertisements and other clutter.
Disney has announced that it will be redesigning its Disney Channel site later this spring to offer free full-length episodes of some of its animated programming as well. So if you’re into toons, and have broadband, you can find shows available on the Web.
I’ll be the Featured Technical Speaker at the Trenton Computer Festival on April 22, 2006, at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, New Jersey. The show started in 1976, making this the oldest computer show in the country. There are two days of programs and an enormous computer and electronic flea market that has to be seen to be believed.
My topic is “Will Your Next Computer Be an HDTV?” The semiconductor computer processor has made all sorts of electronics possible, including the whole realm of digital television and HDTV products. I’ll cover current and near-future technology that can transform the way we receive and view entertainment and information in our homes and elsewhere. There will also be ample opportunity for Q&A with the audience, and for a chance for me to meet people after the presentation.
For more information on the Trenton Computer Festival, check out www.tcf-nj.org. I hope I’ll see you there!
Dish Networkcustomers in New York City and Los Angeles can now receive local station programming in HD from the service. The service plans to increase that to a total of 50 markets by the end of this year. HD programming packages start at about $50 per month.
In order to increase the number of HD channels provided, Dish Network is turning to MPEG 4 encoding, which is more efficient than the MPEG 2 encoding used for standard DVD movies. New set-top boxes are required to receive these signals.
MPEG 4 appears to be spreading rapidly, and seems to be a good way to make better use of the finite bandwidth available for video transmission. As with the case of the Dish Network set-top boxes, it means that some hardware is going to need to be upgraded or replaced over the next few years in order to take advantage of it, but I expect that it will play an important role in how HD content gets delivered.