Slo-Mo HDTV for the Olympics

I-Movix has announced that they will be providing their SprintCam Live 2 HDTV cameras to Beijing Olympic Broadcast for the Summer Games coverage. The cameras will be deployed with mobile units at the major Olympics venues, according to a company press release. What makes these cameras special is that they can record the action at speeds up to 8,000 frames per second, which is more than 260 times as many as normal video rates. What’s more, these clips are available for immediate slow-motion replay.

Sports fans worldwide have come to expect slow-motion instant replay, so that they can see the action up close and in detail. This feature becomes all the more valuable when the action includes questionable officiating. This feature is commonplace with standard definition productions, but it’s essential to be able to provide the same service in high definition.

The Summer Olympics will be a coming-out party of sorts for HDTV, and the I-Movix cameras will be just one of many behind-the-scenes bits of hardware that will deliver HD coverage to sets around the globe.

Laser TV Makes Green Claim

Mitsubishi has announced that it will ship a 65″ LaserVue laser TV starting in the third quarter of this year, with a 73″ model to follow. Now, the third quarter officially starts on Tuesday and ends on September 30th, but I’ll be stunned if we see any shipments before Labor Day. This does imply that these models will be available for the holiday buying season this year, but we’ve heard those promises before.

Even if Mitsubishi should meet this target ship date, is it too little, too late? A press release from Mitsubishi claims that the new sets use about half as much power as an LCD and about one third as much as a plasma. These are impressive claims, but other reports indicate that the 65″ model will be rated at 200 watts. Now we’re talking. A 47″ LCD HDTV can be rated at 250 watts or higher. And the new Vizio 32″ plasma HDTV (well, almost-720p-HDTV) is also rated at 250 watts. So here’s a laser TV with four times the screen area of the Vizio plasma, yet rated at at 20% less power consumption. That’s noteworthy.

Unfortunately, none of the reports mention price. If the LaserVue costs as much as an equivalent plasma HDTV, I don’t think they’re going to sell many units. It’s not enough to be green; if it’s not a flat panel, you’re going to have to make a compelling price argument. So the big questions outstanding for LaserVue are how much it will cost, and when will it really ship?

The Game’s the Thing!

What drives technology adoption, especially for consumer electronics products? History has shown that pornography is a major (though often unmentioned) force. I suspect that sports comes in a close second. I remember that early color television programming focused on sporting events. Sports also make up a large part of the HDTV programming that’s available today. Satellite radio and various subscription TV services stress their total coverage of one college or professional sports league or another.

So can sports be a driving force for the adoption of video content over the Internet? There are some signs that it may well be a major factor here as well. According to a report in The Bridge, just over 1.8 million unique visitors logged onto the network’s site for March Madness On Demand, which provided free coverage of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. These visitors watched a total of 2.72 million hours of live coverage.

Now make a fast break to this year. The visitor count jumped to more than 4.7 million in 2008: better than a 160% increase. And these visitors watched nearly 5 million hours of streaming content, slightly less than double last year’s figure. CBS eliminated the registration requirement that had been part of the site in prior years, but this alone does not account for the big jump in usage figures.

Now, keep this in persepective. The number of viewers would have to double more than four times before it comes close to the 97.5 million who tuned in to the 2008 SuperBowl (according to Nielsen Media Research). (And the 2008 SuperBowl drew the second largest audience of all time, behind the final episode of Mash.) Still, 4.7 million is a lot of people taking advantage of free live coverage of a sporting event over broadband Internet.

If the past repeats itself, more people will turn to the Internet for sports coverage, and in turn, will start looking at other content available online as well. If you have an Internet connection to your television and you get comfortable using it for sports, you’re more likely to start using it for other programming . I don’t expect that sports will turn Internet video into an overnight success, but the signs are clearly there that interest is growing.

Cable Transition to Digital

I’ve been doing my best to spread the word about the details of the upcoming transition to digital-only terrestrial broadcasts of television signals. One of the key points I’ve try to stress is that if you have cable or satellite service, you will not be affected by the digital changeover when it happens next February (or this coming Labor Day, if you happen to live in Wilmington, NC). I’m very careful how I state this; you will not be affected by the changeover, but that does not mean that you won’t be affected by some other change.

I’ve received some angry email from readers who say that they are cable subscribers and they already have been affected by the switch from analog to digital. And earlier this month, USA TODAY ran an excellent story about the problem many cable subscribers are experiencing as their local cable provider tries to push them to switch from analog to digital service.

Cable companies want to move to digital because it lets them transmit HDTV content. It also lets them transmit more content over the same infrastructure than they can with analog signals, just like the terrestrial broadcasters. And digital makes all sorts of interactive features possible, such as video recording and programming guides.

The problem is that traditional analog sets cannot work with these digital signals. You can get a set-top box (STB) that will connect your analog TV to digital service, but many homes have second or third TV sets that are connected directly to the cable without an STB. Some providers have been cutting back the number of “free” channels included with their basic analog service as a means of encouraging subscribers to switch to digital, but this has been a source of irritation for many customers. The solution may be a digital to analog converter box – something less than a full blown STB — that will take the basic digital cable service signal and convert it for use on an analog TV. And this is an added complication that some subscribers will resist.

The bottom line is that just because you’re a cable subscriber does not mean that you won’t experience hassles with the conversion from analog to digital service. The difference between this and the terrestrial broadcast change, however, is that it is not mandated by the federal government, but is a business decision made by the cable companies.

Due to some unexpected travel coupled with a short vacation, the HDTV Almanac postings for the past week were not put up in a timely manner. I have backfilled the missing days and now am caught up, and I intend to keep up with my weekday publication schedule in the future. So thanks for your patience, and I hope you keep reading the HDTV Almanac.
Alfred Poor

Wonderful World on the Internet

Content producers keep experimenting with the Internet, trying to find the right combination of features that make it a practical delivery system. One of the biggest names is trying something new this summer: free, full-length, streamed movies.

I remember when I was little, I had to eat dinner and take my bath early so that I could stay up and watch The Wonderful World of Disney. Now you can use TiVo or other digital video recorders to capture the show and watch it whenever you want. But this summer, you have another choice. Disney is showing seven full length movies this summer on Saturday nights on their ABC network broadcast show. You can then watch the same movie for free on the Disney Web site Monday through Friday the following week. This week happens to be one of the few empty weeks this summer, but next week you’ll be able to watch Eddie Murphy in Haunted Mansion. You can find the schedule of the remaining movies on the Web site.

These movies are typical Disney family fare, and I would be interested to find out how many people watch these streamed movies. They are not the sort of content that most adults will stream at their desks at work, and finding and watching the movies may be beyond the skills of many younger viewers. The movies will show best on a larger screen, but I doubt many homes have a broadband Internet connection to their television yet. So stay tuned to see if Disney decides to repeat or expand on this summer experiment.

Sat-Radio Merger on the Way?

It has been widely reported that Kevin Martin, Chairman of the FCC, has announced his support for the proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio services. This is not a story directly about HDTV, but it is an important data point as we rush through a rapidly changing landscape of entertainment delivery systems. We need to understand the forces at work in the XM/Sirius situation if we’re to be ready for some of the surprises that may lie just over the technology horizon.

The complaint against the merger was that it is anti-competitive. The argument for it was that there’s not enough market for the two separate services to survive, and besides, the “competition” is no longer just local radio stations. The competition now includes Web radio and iTunes and all sorts of portable entertainment devices. Apparently the FCC has worked out arrangements for new models that could receive signals from both services (at least until they combine under one broadcast system).

And this could turn out to be a story about HDTV after all. Sirius Backseat TV already offers video programming three family networks that can be captured by mobile receivers, and it only costs $7 a month on top of your regular subscription. This could be the beginning of competition for mobile TV transmissions, which also are likely to collide with WiMax services that can deliver broadband Internet connections to mobile devices, making IPTV available wherever you go. So we will do well to pay attention to the Sirius and XM merger developments as they unfold.

Optoma Shows Tiny Projector

The Optoma pico projector fits in the palm of your hand.

At InfoComm this week, Optoma showed off a new pico projector. It was in the Texas Instruments booth, which makes sense when you consider that it relies on TI’s new DLP Pico imager chipset. The tiny box is designed to project a large image from an iPod, digital camera, mobile phone, or other device. The company plans to launch the four-ounce projector in Europe and Asia later this year, and worldwide in 2009.

Is this market for real? Bill Coggshall of Pacific Media Associates is predicting worldwide shipments of 1 million units in 2010, and more than 6 million units in 2012. That’s more units than are predicted to ship for all front projectors of all sizes for this year.

I think that these tiny projectors are intriguing. There are a number of serious hurdles that the manufacturers will have to clear before they will be able to ship in these predicted quantities. If the supply chain and materials problems can be worked out, I expect that people will be captivated by the ability to show large, full-color images from their portable devices, without the hassle of setting up a conventional projector.

Blockbuster Promotes Blu-ray

I received an email broadcast from Blockbuster yesterday, touting the “good news” that Blu-ray movies are now available for rent or purchase in “every participating Blockbuster store.” That seems to be a curious way of saying that Blu-ray movies are available in all the Blockbuster stores where they are available. But I guess it’s encouraging that they see HD movies as something that their subscribers might want.

They are also slipping into the hardware business. The same mailing offers a Sony PS3 with its built-in Blu-ray player (“while supplies last“) plus an HDMI cable and the Blu-ray remote, plus a Blu-ray movie, a PS3 game, and a 12-week rental card. It doesn’t strike me as a compelling bargain — the PS3 alone is $100 less on Amazon – but it is attractive compared with the prices of some stand-alone Blu-ray players.

It’s hard to tell if this is Blockbuster’s attempt to show that it’s hip to the latest trends, or if it is trying to boost demand for its investment in Blu-ray movies.

Big Bucks for Olympic Coverage

As the saying goes, content is king. And when you have a worldwide sporting event that only comes around every four years, you can end up with some pretty impressive content. And so it goes with the Winter and Summer Olympics. According to a report in Business Week, the International Olympic Committee — IOC — has collected $2.5 billion in broadcasting fees from various media outlets around the world. That’s “billion” with a big “B”, folks!

One interesting wrinkle on video coverage of the Olympics this year is that the IOC and the Chinese hosts of the Summer Games are working hard to prevent “pirated” video from getting distributed, according to the Business Week article. That sounds a little strange, considering that China is home to industries built on the violation of copyright law. Apparently, the government is putting its foot down about unlicensed Olympics coverage. We’ll know soon whether they will be successful in protecting that $2.5 billion investment by the licensees, or if we’ll be able to watch Olympic video clips on unauthorized Internet sites.

Sharp Sells 9 Foot LCD Monitor

Okay, let’s get serious about big flat panel TVs. Don’t bother me with wimpy little measurements in inches. If you want to play this game, let’s talk about screen size in terms of feet. And Sharp has sold a flat panel to a movie theater in Japan that is 9 feet diagonal. The Shinjuku Picadilly cinema complex in Tokyo will open next month with this monster LCD (that’s 108″ if you haven’t done the math yet) in the lobby to show trailers and other content.

The Sharp LB-1085 is a nine-foot diagonal LCD screen.

The Sharp LB-1085 is the largest panel that the company can produce at their Gen 8 production line in Kameyama Plant No. 2. Don’t expect to find one in stock at your local discount electronics store. This is strictly a “built-to-order” product so you’ll have to place your order (and negotiate the price) if you’re going to replace a wall in your home with one of these.