Sanyo 120 Hz HDTV Projector

The new Sanyo PLV-Z4000 LCD projector has 1080p resolution and a 120 Hz refresh rate.

Earlier this week, Sanyo announced a new front projector, the PLV-Z4000. The LCD projector has 1080p resolution and a 120 Hz refresh rate, interpolating the intermediate frames from a 60 Hz signal to produce smooth motion on moving images. It can also handle the film-based 1080p24 signal (24 frames per second) that can be produced by some Blu-ray players.

The projector is rated at 1,200 lumens, which should be sufficient for home theater installations, but may not hold up well in a brightly-lit room. The projector is scheduled to ship in May with a list price of $2,495.

Front projectors are still the best value if you want a really large HD image (such as if you’re seated 10 feet or more from the screen) and can exert some control over the ambient lighting conditions.

Amazon Explains 3DTV

There’s no doubt that 3DTV is creating a lot of buzz, but it’s also creating a lot of confusion. Do you need special 3D glasses to see the images? Can you get 3D on both plasma and LCD HDTVs? How does the 3D effect happen? Thousands of words have been written to answer these questions, but Amazon apparently feels that a video is worth at least a thousand words. The company has posted a collection of ten short videos on its Web site — www.amazon.com/3d — that answer some of these questions and more.

Now, I can find a few nits to pick with some of the content, but the information is accurate and helpful for the most part without getting too technical for most people. (I’d single out the segment on no-glasses 3DTV as being misleadingly optimistic, but that’s a small quibble overall.) While the overall tone is positive, it does not stray over the line into hype.

So if you’re interested in learning more about how 3DTV works and what you need to enjoy it, check out the Amazon videos.

Would You Wear Goofy 3D Goggles?

One of the most common complaints that I hear about 3DTV is that people won’t wear 3D glasses in order to watch TV. I’m not so sure that’s true. Let me paint an alternative view for you. Let’s start with the fact that if I asked you 15 years ago whether or not you’d be willing to carry around a portable phone with you wherever you went, you’d almost certainly would say no. Back then, they were bookbag devices with heavy batteries, limited range, and lousy sound quality. And if I had asked at the same time whether you’d be more interested if it was also a computer, it probably would not have changed your mind. Of course, now we have millions of people carrying smart phones that are power telephones and computers that are also always (or almost always) connected to the Internet. What I’m proposing is a similar change in how you view the concept of “3D goggles”.

Today's MP3 sunglasses could point towards the 3D goggles of the future.

Here’s a picture of a product that you can buy today; it’s a pair of sunglasses that is also an MP3 player with 2 GB of storage capacity. Now, I’m not saying that these are the finest example of stylish eyewear, but they are a step up from the giant headgear that you often get for 3D goggles these days, especially the active shutter type that you will need for home 3DTV. So imagine that the glasses were something you might find attractive if this particular design doesn’t excite you.

The active glasses use LCD panels to block or transmit the light. They can also partially block the light. This means that they could serve as sunglasses, and they would change from dark to light in an instant (instead of the slow change with the photosensitive glasses you can buy now). As a result, these could serve as your sunglasses. With a corrective prescription, they could be the sole pair of glasses that you wear, indoors or out.

Okay, now the glasses here play MP3s. That’s fine as it goes, but let’s imagine that it can also get radio signals. Not just radio station transmissions (which would be nice) but maybe Bluetooth as well. Now, your cell phone can stay in your pocket or on your belt, and you’ll always be wearing your phone headset. Add a button or two and some voice recognition commands, and you’re in business.

This requires power, but there are lots of power-scavenging technologies being developed that can use heat, light, or motion to recharge your glasses. Let’s imagine that it powers up when you put them on, and shuts off automatically when you take them off, and never needs to be plugged in to recharge. That’s pretty convenient. And finally, if you’re ever in range of a 3D display — either at home or work or at the local mall – it will automatically go into shutter mode so that you can see the 3D images.

I contend that this could result in an accessory that you would find so useful that you’d put it on first thing in the morning, and not take it off until you go to bed at night. Like cell phones, it could acquire additional functions that we haven’t even realized that we’d want, which would make it even more useful. I can imagine a future where millions of people would wear these all day, every day. Who knows, maybe they’ll even be called “iGlasses“.

YouTube Expands Movie Rental Catalog

As reported here earlier this year, Google has started experimenting with renting films on the YouTube site. At the “YouTube Store“, you can rent feature-length films as well as shorter program episodes. Much of the content is from the Sundance Film Festival, but the offerings have been expanding to include other titles, some of which are familiar commercial films such as “Brothers”, “The Cooler”, and “Reservoir Dogs”. Rentals range from $.99 to $3.99, for which you get unlimited viewing for a limited period. Most titles are good for 24 hours, but some educational content rentals are good for seven days. There are also a number of Bollywood movies and anime programs available on the site.

This streaming service is interesting but remains somewhat short of compelling. If you only rent two movies a month, you’d probably be better off with a single-disc Netflix subscription to gain access to their streaming catalog. Netflix currently offers a much larger catalog that is likely to appeal to more people. However, the YouTube service is clearly in an experimental stage, and I’ve learned not to bet against Google. The company is likely trying to figure out what works, and may well be preparing a more complete service in the future. As a result, it will be worth keeping an eye on developments at the YouTube Store.

Panasonic Announces VT25 3D HDTV Series

On Friday, Panasonic announced delivery dates and list prices for the VT25 Series plasma HDTVs, the newest line of VIERA models with 3DTV support.

– 50″ TC-P50VT25, list $2,599.95, ships May 3, 2010
– 54″ TC-P54VT25, list $2,999.95, ships May 3, 2010
– 58″ TC-P58VT25, list$3,399.95, ships June 2010
– 65″ TC-P65VT25, list $4,299.95, ships June 2010

These will join the 50″ VIERA TC-P50VT20 3DTV that started shipping last month. The VT25 sets will come with one set of active glasses as a standard feature, with addition sets available for $150 list apiece. The sets also have VIERA CAST WiFi support, and are can be used for Skype video conversations using optional hardware.

Panasonic is managing to keep plasma sets alive as viable competition for LCD HDTVs. They do not produce as bright an image, so they work best when used in a room with controlled ambient lighting, but many people still prefer their performance over LCDs. It does not appear that plasma will go away any time soon.

Who Has the Most HDTV?

Ah, the HDTV channel wars are heating up again. Earlier this week, Dish Network announced that it was going to add eight more HD channels, bringing its “total” to 200 HD channels. Then DirecTV revealed plans to add 30 more HD channels this year, bringing its “total” to 160 HD channels. Now, I’ve put “total” in quotes because not everyone might agree with the count. For example, Dish Network includes 72 pay-per-view HD movie slots in the total. Is a 90-minute program equivalent to a channel that has 24 hours of content a day?

DirecTV can also claim some bragging rights from the fact that it also will have four 3DTV channels, including the new ESPN 3D channel and one 3D movie on-demand service. Granted, only a handful of households will be able to make use of these, but it is an important first step in providing stereoscopic content for its subscribers.

All this bragging over the number of channels seems to lose its punch when you’ve just surfed through the whole range for the second time, trying in vain to find something that you want to watch. As with most things, there comes a point where quality trumps quantity. If none of these extra channels add content that enough subscribers want to watch, it doesn’t matter who has the most.

Change of Heart by Cable?

Jim O’Neill is the editor of Fierce Online Video, and he made an interesting observation in his column today :

At the American Cable Association’s policy summit this week in Washington, several smaller cablecos posited that acting as a “dumb pipe” for the flood of online video that was moving across the system of late might actually be a better business model than the current pay TV model they’ve rallied around for the past three decades. After all, if you charge customers or program owners for delivering the content–and you don’t have to worry about DRM (that becomes someone else’s headache)–your job, and profit margins might actually be safe.

That seems to make a lot of sense to me, too. Why worry about whose content it is and how much it costs and how to pay for it? Just be a service; you provide a high quality, reliable pipe that can pour buckets of data into the home. You don’t have to worry about about what the content is; you can just meter the usage and collect your fee. The business model is a whole lot more like being a phone company than a TV station, and should be a lot simpler and sustainable.

All the same, I’d be surprised if any of the large cable companies start acting this way. They’ve invested millions — if not billions – in creating an identity where the entertainment content is the key to their service, and it’s going to be hard to turn that ship on a dime. If some of the smaller cable companies can show that it’s a viable strategy, however, we could see a totally different service and content delivery landscape 10 years from now.

Best Buy Sues Ultimate

Be careful what you say out there, especially if you’re in the consumer electronics retail business. Ultimate Electronics has been advertising that they comparison shop at Best Buy and Walmart, then adjust their prices so that consumers can be sure that they are the lowest. Not so fast, according to Best Buy, which is the leader in the business. According to a suit filed in federal court, Best Buy’s prices are often lower than Ultimate’s. According to reports, Best Buy tried to reach an agreement with Ultimate through arbitration, but when Ultimate declined to cooperate, Best Buy decided to pursue redress through the courts.

I expect that this sort of problem will get worse before it gets better. Even though we’ve seen the departure of large chains in recent years — including CompUSA and Circuit City — local and regional chains are now expanding rapidly to fill the vacuum left behind. And the result is heavy competition driving saturation advertising that emphasizes lower prices. There are going to be winners and losers in this battle, and I suspect that nobody will go down without a fight. So pay close attention to the claims made by these retailers, and verify for yourself that you’re getting a good deal. There will certainly be bargains to be had as the different chains struggle to grab and hold on to market share.

Seagate Adds Netflix

Seagate announced this week that it is adding support for Netflix streaming video content to its FreeAgent Theater+ HD media player. Existing owners of the device can add support for this new feature through a free download. The media player also now supports online access to content from YouTube, vTuner, and Mediafly. The device can connect to a local USB storage device, and since it supports DLNA, it can access photos, videos, and music files that are stored on other computers and other devices on a home network.

The media player sells for a bit more than $100, which is on a par with other similar products. The key point about these is that it makes it easy to access online content like Netflix without having to set up a computer in your living room, or buying a new HDTV that has Internet support. It provides an inexpensive way for people to experience movies and television programming over the Internet, and is likely to whet consumer appetites for more access. The fact that these new features can be easily added to the existing installed base only underscores how nimble this new market can be; Netflix may be the darling now, but it could easily be replaced tomorrow by a simple automatic download.

More LED Backlight Price Drops Forecast

Two months ago, I reported on DisplaySearch’s forecast that prices for LED backlight units for a 40″ LCD HDTV would fall about 15% this year, though LCD HDTVs with LED backlights would continue to cost significantly more than equivalent models with traditional CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent lamp) backlights.

Now another display market tracking firm has weighed in on the subject. DisplayBank has stated that they expect prices for LED backlights for 40″ LCD HDTVs to fall by 43% this year, which is a striking amount. This would represent about $100 off the bill of materials price for an HDTV.

How can this be? Currently, many LED edge-lit models use LED strips along all four sides of the LCD panel, in order to provide enough light with good brightness uniformity. Improved LED technology and more advanced light diffusers mean that manufacturers now are using LEDs just along the top and the bottom of the panel, requiring about 20% fewer LED devices. Later this year, manufacturers are expected to start using LEDs just along the bottom of the panel, reducing the number of LEDs required by another 10%. Eventually, a single bar of LEDs along one side edge will be sufficient to light the entire panel, which will reduce the number of LEDs required by more than a third.

These shifts have some important implications. LEDs are in great demand from a wide range of industries, including automotive and home lighting. In spite of increased production capacity, some analysts are concerned that supplies may fall short. As HDTVs can get by with fewer and fewer LEDs for a backlight, it reduces the risk of supply shortages.

Edge lighting also means that manufacturers may have to give up the localized dimming that some have demonstrated with a full-matrix LED backlight that can increase contrast. Dimming can also reduce energy consumption, but there is real risk of visible artifacts from the process. By giving up the dimming, manufacturers can focus on making the sets as thin as possible, which seems to be the feature that consumers prefer in any case.

The bottom line here is that the prices for LCD HTVs with LED backlights are likely to continue to decline this year, and you can expect to pay hundreds less for a 40″ set next holiday season than you would for an equivalent set today. It’s hard to see how the industry will be able to sustain these substantial price cuts year after year, but it looks like we can enjoy the downhill ride for at least one more year.