Are You Ready for Some 3D-Fence?

Those NFL fans with the goofy hats and face paint are going to be emerging — literally — on screens on December 4th in the first ever 3D live broadcast of an NFL game. When the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders face off in an intrastate contest, fans in Boston, Hollywood, and New York will be able to watch 3D coverage in local movie theaters.

The experiment is a result of a collaboration between the NFL, RealD, and 3ality Digital. 3ality Digital is producing the content, using the RealD technology for the presentation, which already is installed in more than 1,500 movie theater screens worldwide. And 3ality Digital is the company that shot the U2 3D concert movie that grossed nearly $20 million in box office sales (one of the top-ranking movies of all time). (And the U2 film might have sold even more if it hadn’t been bumped off some screens by Hannah Montana’s 3D movie.) Live 3D broadcasts of sports in theaters is not new — the NBA has experimented with it already — but this is a first for football.

Now, I’m sure that Hollywood and the movie theater industry see this as a great way to try to get customers back into their seats (and buying those gallon tubs of popcorn) by offering live events in a way not available elsewhere. I can see how that might work in the short term. I can see how football fans might be willing to pay a fraction of the cost of a stadium ticket in order to sit in comfortable chair in a warm, indoor space. But I expect that this will be a short-lived advantage. We’ve proved over and over that if people find something they like in the theaters, they will want it in their living rooms: stereo sound, full-color images, wide format screens, and uninterrupted movies that you can watch whenever you want. Panasonic and Samsung have been selling rear-projection HDTVs with 3D support for years, so the technology is readily available. Once the demand reaches a critical mass, I expect that we’ll see 3D broadcasts of sporting events being piped into the home, either over cable or the Internet. And once the economy gets back on track, it could be sooner than you think.

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m not here today. I’m off with family and friends, enjoying the holiday, and I hope that this is a happy day for you, too.

These are difficult times for many people, and getting a flat screen TV may not be in the cards for many this year. Whatever your circumstances, I hope that you have plenty to to be thankful for on this day, and that your blessings outnumber your problems.

All best wishes,

Alfred

Bracing for Black Friday

I recognize that there are many sites that give you the “inside scoop” on the Black Friday offers. And this year — more than ever – the retailers themselves have been tipping their hand and pre-announcing their own specials. And then let’s not forget the fact that we’ve been seeing Black Friday pricing on lots of items for the past month. But I can’t let this seasonal mayhem pass without making a few observations.

1. Prices are crazy. There’s just no doubt about this. Walmart (when did they drop the hyphen?) has a Friday-only while-supplies-last offer of a Polaroid 42″ 1080p LCD HDTV for $598 (not available in all stores). A year ago, that would have bought you a 32″ 720p Polaroid set from Circuit City.

2. Retailers will try anything. I think my favorite deal is one offered by Costco on their Web site. Okay, let’s play the Price is Right. How about a Sharp 52″ 1080p LCD HDTV? Wait, they’ll bundle it with a Sharp 32″ 720p LCD HDTV. And the total package price? $1,799.99! A year ago Best Buy was selling a Sharp 52″ for $2,879.99, more than $1,000 more than the Costco bundle price. Oh, and this is not a Friday-only deal; it’s good through December 15, while supplies last.

3. It’s not going to be enough. Even Best Buy — one of the strongest retailers in the consumer electronics market — is struggling to make sales. Same store sales for September dropped 2% over last year. For October, same store sales were off 7.8%. The company predicted that at the end of November (the end of their quarter), they will have higher inventory, short-term borrowings and accounts payable than they had previously predicted.

4. Monday, December 29 could be a great day to shop. If you’ve got cash and want a great bargain on a new flat screen TV, wait until the last week of December to get your best deal. Don’t be limited to what’s on the price tag in the store; make an offer, and see what happens. At the worst, they’ll turn you down and you’ll have to buy it at the posted price. But the retailers are going to feel pretty battered by then, and looking to get whatever they can for their inventory. So if you’re not moved by the fact that prices are half what they were a year ago, you may be able to strike an even better bargain.

120 Hz Gaining Ground

A new flat panel report from DisplaySearch indicates that the proportion of LCD panels with 120 Hz refresh increased from 12% in the second quarter of 2008 to 16% in the third quarter. This is a big increase: one third more in just one quarter.

The shift becomes more significant when you break it down by size. 120 Hz panels held just a 6% share in 32″ panels, increasing to 25% in 42″ panels, and a whopping 59% for panels 52″ and larger. The faster refresh rate is coming to dominate the larger sizes.

This makes sense on a number of fronts. LCD TV manufacturers are struggling to differentiate their products. After all, once they have the same 1080p resolution and a bunch of HDMI connectors, what more can you do to make an LCD panel in a plastic case more appealing or worth more to buyers? There isn’t much, except increase peformance. 120 Hz refresh does help reduce motion blur, so this could be viewed as a premium feature by consumers. I expect that it will soon become a standard feature, however, which won’t command a premium price but instead will be expected by consumers and sets without the feature will be at a competitive disadvantage.

The fact that 120 Hz is more popular in the larger sizes is also informative. One the one hand, the larger sizes tend to be the premium products, so it makes sense that people would pay a little more for the feature. Next, the electronics of the set represent a smaller portion of the total cost of the TV when you get to larger sizes, so manufacturers can afford to spend a little more on electronic features without it affecting their costs as much as it would with a smaller set.

But I think perhaps the most important reason is that 120 Hz probably doesn’t make as much difference on smaller sets. Now, this may sound strange at first glance. After all, if the sets have the same resolution, wouldn’t motion blur affect them equally? I haven’t seen any studies on this, but it is possible that the larger liquid crystal cell size of the larger panels might result in more blurring, but I don’t expect that’s a factor. Instead, I expect that people who buy smaller LCD TVs are buying them to save money. As a result, I expect that most people watch their 32″ sets from a distance much greater than the four feet that would be optimal. At a greater distance, the blur would be less noticeable, so adding 120 Hz refresh is not as important.

The fact remains, however, that everything else being equal, 120 Hz gives you sharper results for moving images. Given two choices at the same price, pick the one with 120 Hz.

Seniors to Get DTV Help

As I’ve mentioned here frequently, the elderly are one major segment of the US population who are most likely to be adversely affected by the upcoming transition to digital television broadcasts. They are least likely to be technology-savvy, and most likely to depend on television broadcasts for their entertainment and information. Add the fact that until recently, residents of nursing homes and similar group residences were not eligible for converter box coupons, and you’ve got a big problem brewing.

Fortunately, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has recognized this problem — albeit a bit late in the game — and will be giving the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) a $2.7 million grant to help seniors make the transition. The program will run through April 2009. According to n4a, the group hopes to reach 250,000 seniors who need help with getting a converter box installed or other problems so that they can continue to get television after the February 17, 2009 transition date.

More information about the transition and seniors can be found at the n4a Web site at http://www.n4a.org/resources-publications/?fa=view-item&id=155.

Reader Question: DVRs after the Transition

Q: The transition to digital broadcasts poses a problem for some people who record daytime shows on their VCRs to watch when they come home from work. I asked the salesman at Radio Shack about the two converter models they sell, and they do not have a timer feature to set up like a VCR.

I have seen ads online for cards that could handle this, though in what seems to be a makeshift fashion. I think that what I want is a Linux or Windows setup stripped down just to do TV and recording so that it can come up quickly. Do you have any ideas?

George Rose

A: I’m not certain that “stripped down” is necessarily the way to go, but most TV tuner cards now include software that will do the recording for you. Check out ATI and Happauge’s offerings in this area. Drop one of them in your computer, and you should be in business.

You also can buy computer cases that look like VCR or DVD players, so they fit well in your living room d├ęcor (or at least they don’t look like a computer sitting there). Windows XP Media Edition or Vista Ultimate can also give you some tools to manage your TV and other content.

There are a very few DVRs with digital tuners on the market, so you also have that as an option. (By the way, if you’ve never used a digital video recorder instead of a VCR, you’re in for a real treat.)

Fireside IPTV

A new administration, and everything changes. Barack Obama has already announced that his weekly radio address to the nation will also be filmed and then posted on YouTube. If nothing else, this is a president who understands communications in the 21st Century.

In fact, he’s already started using the Democratic weekly address as an opportunity to discuss his plans for the country and the transitition issues. You can see this week’s address at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd8f9Zqap6U, or simply watch it here:

This is a brilliant move. Few people listen to the presidential address on Saturday mornings; our lives are too busy and we just don’t listen to radio that much. We’re satisfied with a sound bite or two on the evening news. But video is more compelling, and this format lets you watch whenever you want. And our younger citizens pass around YouTube clips today the way we’d share 45s back in the 60s.

It will be interesting to see if the interest in presidential positions will survive past the first 100 days, but this is certainly a bold experiment and one that I expect will be effective in getting the new president’s message directly to more of the U.S. citizens, unfiltered by the news media.

This is a long way from FDR’s original fireside chats, but I expect that he’d get it.

HDTV Transition: One More Exception

The transition from analog to digital television broadcasts in the U.S. can best be described as “exceptional“. On February 17, 2009, all TV stations in the country will stop broadcasting analog signals, and will only broadcast digital. Except some that are not full-power stations. And except for most of the stations in Wilmington, NC, which made the switch in September. And maybe except for some stations in markets along the U.S.-Mexico border (though nothing has been decided yet about that, as far as I know). And maybe except for some stations that continue use the analog channels to broadcast messages about the transition instead of the normal programing.

And now there’s one more exception. Hawaii will make the transition on January 15, 2009, just a bit more than a month ahead of the rest of the country. Now, we’re used to the 50th state choosing its own path on some issues — they don’t do Daylight Savings Time, for example — but since they’re located more than 2,000 miles from the mainland, it’s not a problem.

So why is the Aloha State making the change early? Is it to be another experiment like Wilmington? That would be a good idea, since it’s so isloated from any other TV broadcast market. But that’s not it. The answer is the Hawaiian Petrel. This bird nests on the slopes of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, and the nesting season starts in February. The analog broadcast towers that are in the nesting area are slated for demolition as part of the transition, to be replaced by other towers further down the mountain. Rather than risk disturbing the nesting birds, the transition date has been moved up so the work will be done before the birds settle on their nests.

We’re down to three months to go until the transition. I’m betting we have not heard the last “except” on this yet.

LCD TV Prices Sinking Fast

It’s not a good time to be an LCD HDTV maker. Sharp is Japan’s largest LCD TV maker — and fifth largest LCD panel maker worldwide — and they’re taking it on the chin. According to a report from PriceSCAN, the average selling price for LCD HDTVs 50″ and larger fell by 6% in October alone. That’s a huge amount, especially when you consider the manufacturer’s profit margin is only 9% to 16%, so this doesn’t leave much on the table. But as bad as that sounds, PriceSCAN reports that the prices for Sharp’s portion of that 50″ and larger segment saw prices drop 12% for the month. In some years, a total price drop of 12% might not seem unusual, yet here it happened in one month.

How bad are things going for Sharp? In another story from AFP (reported on Google) indicates that Sharp is planning to cut LCD panel production. The company will join many other major manufacturers inthrottling back production. According to the story, the company will decide on the size of the reduction after they see how the holiday sales of HDTVs turn out. Presumably, they are concerned that overstocked inventories will not be reduced as much as they’d like, which means that future orders from retailers for additional sets will be lower than might have been expected.

Need Help with a Converter Box?

February 17, 2009 is just four months away. If you have any of your TVs connected to an antenna, you should be thinking about how you’re going to get a signal after the digital conversion. Your old analog set can have a long life after the digital switch-over, but you’ll need a digital converter box. (My old Almanac entry from a year ago still gets a number one position on several Google searches.) You may even still have time to get one or two of the federal rebate coupons from https://www.dtv2009.gov/.

If you do get a converter box – or know someone who is getting one — it’s easy to set it up. Basically, you connect it between your antenna and your TV. Like a VCR, you set the box to Channel 3 or Channel 4 (depending on which one is vacant in your market), and then tune your TV to that channel to get the digital channels. Zenith is one of the brands that is supplying a lot of the converter boxes, and they have posted a good video that demonstrates how to set up a digital converter box at http://www.zenith.com/dtv/setup.html. It glosses over a few points, but it is a simple and accurate explanation of the steps.

One of the lessons learned from the Wilmington, NC switch-over last September was that people needed a lot of help hooking up their converter boxes. The local fire departments had squads that would come out and make house calls to set up the boxes for residents — and give a free check of their smoke detectors while they were there — but not every community is going to be able to make such resources available. If you can be ready to help friends and neighbors, you can help provide a welcome service.

The other lesson was that the time to make sure you can get digital reception is before they turn off the analog broadcasts. Get your converter box as soon as you can, and hook it up. Weak reception of analog signals results in a snowy picture; weak reception of a digital signal results in a blank screen. You may discover that you’ll need to upgrade your antenna in order to get adequate reception.

So for the digital transition, follow the Boy Scout motto, and “Be prepared!