SID 2010: HDTV Take-Aways

It’s getaway day here in Seattle for me, but as always, it has been a packed week at the Society for Information Display (SID) annual conference. There were no earth-shaking developments for the HDTV market revealed here, but I want to recap the overall themes based on what I saw and heard here.

First, 3DTV is real and it’s here to stay. I didn’t see anything that changed my view that active glasses will be the only commercial solution for the living room. Passive glasses add too much cost to the TV set, and auto-stereoscopic just can’t work for multiple viewers in a living room setting. It’s great for single user situations – 3M’s clever portable 3D screen proves that — but until you have many more images than just the two used in stereoscopic 3DTV, the limited “sweet spots” are just too restrictive. (Now, when you get to the 200-camera system that has been demonstrated in Japan, that’s a different story.)

Next, the debate over “native 3D” versus “synthesized” content developed from 2D originals won’t end soon. Yes, the best content is made in 3D from the start when it is initially captured. (Note that some of the worst content is also native 3D, as content producers are still struggling to learn the basics about stereoscopic imagery.) And yes, you can get a good result (though some would not call it more than “acceptable”) if you carefully convert 2D to 3D using human graphic artists to make painstaking decisions about the details in each frame. This gets expensive, however, because it is similar to hand-drawn animation in terms of effort. And yes, the real-time conversion of 2D source content into 3D in a $2,000 home television set is not going to be as good as the best examples of the native or hand-c0nverted content. The key question is whether it’s “good enough”. I think it is for most viewers, and if I were buying a 3DTV today (which I’m not, by the way) I would definitely get one that could do the realtime conversion. I’d rather have the feature and decide to not use it than not have the feature and wish I did.

Finally, LED backlights will take over from fluorescent backlights for LCD HDTVs. They are friendlier to the environment in terms of manufacturing, energy consumption while in use, and ultimate disposal as waste or recycling material. They have better color. And they make it possible to create thinner displays that people appear to prefer. The increasing demand for LEDs for all sorts of applications, including HDTVs, is resulting in rapid growth of production capacity, which in turn should drive down costs. Between that and the fierce competition among manufacturers, I expect to see the price differential between LED and fluorescent models to continue to shrink.

So I don’t think we’re going to be buying holographic 3D HDTVs or quad-1080p super high definition sets next year. The story is that we can expect steady improvement in the technology (and perhaps a sprinkling of both useful and wacky features as manufacturers struggle to differentiate their products) along with some continued price erosion so by the holiday season, a big flat panel HDTV will be more affordable than ever.

And that’s enough good news to satisfy me.

SID 2010: Don’t Look for Panasonic 3DTV Online

At the IMS Market Focus Conference at SID 2010, yesterday was devoted to all aspects of the 3DTV market. During the session on the 3DTV Market Outlook, one of the speakers was Jim Sanduski, Senior Vice President for Sales with Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company. He made a number of interesting comments during his presentation, such as the fact that Panasonic does not feel that the current real-time 2D-to-3D conversion technology produces adequate quality, which is why the company does not include the feature in its models.

But another comment might be of more interest to the average consumer. He showed a picture of the kiosk that Panasonic has developed for retail display. The kiosk clearly was more expensive to develop and roll out than just simply putting a display on a retail shelf, but he pointed out that the in-store experience for the customer must be top quality. It appears that Panasonic is concerned that shoppers might not understand the 3DTV and could come away thinking that it doesn’t work well.

The comment that is most noteworthy, however, is that because Panasonic wants shoppers to have a good experience with the 3DTV, the company will not authorize the sale of their 3D-capable models over the Internet. Now, this certainly makes sense from the viewpoint of wanting to control the shopper’s experience, but I suspect that there’s more to that. To make room for a kiosk that looks like a smaller version of the starship Enterprise’s bridge deck, a retailer will be giving up a lot of space for just a single HDTV. It’s clear that Panasonic wants to protect its brick-and-mortar retail partners by prohibiting online sale of these models.

If the past provides any hint of the future, however, this is a genie that will be difficult to keep in its bottle. Not authorizing their sale is no guarantee that some units won’t leak out the supply channel, however. Once the unauthorized online retail sales start, you can be sure that Panasonic’s authorized online retailers will be clamoring for permission to compete. We’ll see how long the Web sale prohibition lasts.

SID 2010: Why You Won’t Have an OLED HDTV Soon

OLEDs make my heart sing. They are everything that a display should be: thin, light, great color, emissive, energy efficient, no viewing angle problems. Other people seem to agree; according to some sources, 45 million OLED displays will be sold this year for mobile applications such as cell phones and personal media players. And if you have been monitoring my InBox, you’d know that lots of people who read the HDTV Almanac are anxious to buy a large format OLED HDTV.

So it was with great anticipation that we went to the SID 2010 keynote address yesterday by Dr. Sang Soo Kim, Executive VP with Samsung Mobile Displays. This is the company that is now responsible for the research and production of Samsung’s OLED displays. The talk generated a lot of advance buzz, as it was rumored that Samsung would make a major announcement about OLED, perhaps building on the news that it was building a Gen 5.5 production line for OLED.

The biggest news coming out of the presentation, however, was that Kim predicts that OLED display shipments could reach 1 billion units by 2015. Given the increased production capacity, that seems possible though quite optimistic. The only other news was that Samsung was developing plans for a Gen 8 OLED line, though no dates were given.

The problem with Samsung’s announcements is that it did not adequately address the backplane problem. At this point, standard amorphous silicon works fine for LCDs, but does not work for OLED. OLED requires a poly-silicon backplane, which is created by heating the amorphous silicon layer with lasers so that it crystalizes. It is an expensive and slow step, and currently does not work for substrates larger than Gen 4.5. That’s fine when you’re making 3″ displays for cell phones, but expensive for an HDTV size panel. Samsung’s approach for Gen 5.5 and Gen 8 is to use the same slow, size-limited laser process to anneal the silicon in Gen 4.5 size segments. This means that the process will take about as long as if you were producing the panels on a Gen 4.5 line, so there is little efficiency gain. So it’s not going to have much impact on the costs. So the sets aren’t be even close to LCD prices.

So as much as I’d love to tell you that you’re going to have some wonderful choices for OLED HDTVs next year, I don’t believe it will happen. DisplaySearch doesn’t expect OLED TV revenues worldwide to reach a few hundred million dollars until 2013, so I’m not the only one who is thinking this way.

And after looking at displays here like the beautiful 2.6 mm thick (that’s one tenth of an inch, folks!) 42″ HDTV from LG, I wonder if we really need OLED HDTVs at all.

SID 2010: 3D Avatar on Blu-ray

All this week I’ll be reporting from the Society for Information Display (SID) annual meeting which is being held this year in sunny (not) Seattle, Washington. This annual gathering of the worldwide display industry is the best place to take a peek over the horizon at what’s headed our way in terms of displays.

The symposium doesn’t start until today, but the week kicked off yesterday with the Business Conference which was jointly organized by SID and the market tracking firm DisplaySearch. The day was started by an interesting keynote address by Stan Glasgow, President and COO of Sony Electronics, whose presentation extolled the value of 3D in cinemas and at home. He also warned that “Sony feels that poor quality 3D threatens its success.” A cynical observer might have heard this message as an attempt to preserve the higher profit margins that 3D set current deliver. He also mentioned that Playstation 3 units will get a firmware upgrade to support 3D gaming, and another upgrade later that will provide support for 3D Blu-ray discs.

This last point might be of particular interest to fans of Avatar, James Cameron’s movie that broke the box office records. Later in the program, Peter Fannon, a Panasonic VP, was extolling the advantages of 3DTV. He mentioned that Panasonic has partnered with DirecTV in bringing about that service’s three 3D HDTV channels that will launch in June, and that the company will have a 3DTV camcorder on display in the SID exhibit hall this week (which I plan to check out). He then dropped a bombshell that some of the audience may have missed. It was almost an off-hand remark, as he was talking about how Panasonic is a partner on the Avatar project. He said Avatar will be available “soon” on 3D Blu-ray. He didn’t get specific about a release date, and it certainly was reasonable to speculate that this would happen eventually, but it was still a bit of a surprise given the fact that the 2D version was released so recently. A cynical observer might conclude that this is an attempt to get fans of the movie to buy the Blu-ray disc twice.

Google TV: The Beginning or the End?

The Diffusion Group came out with a report that predicts that consumers will watch more video content from the Web than from traditional television sources (free broadcast and subscription services) by just 10 years from now. Then on Thursday, Google announced “Google TV”. I’m starting to think that The Diffusion Group might be a bit pessimistic about video over the Internet.

First, Google is a proven game-changer when it wants to go after a market segment. The idea of using its Androind operating system to open Google TV up to the riches of the Web is a cool idea. It runs completely counter to the “walled garden” approach taken by manufacturer’s to date for their Internet-connected NeTVs. Instead, the idea is not to write off the huge variety, but rather just make it simple to find what you want. Who would you want — other than Google — to help you find something? (Don’t tell me you rather have Bing!)

But the second part is just as important. Look who is partnering with Google on this project: Sony, Best Buy, Adobe, Intel, and Logitech. And there’s even a subscription TV service pitching in: Dish Network. Google TV will be built right into some televisions, or you can get a separate box (that presumably will be inexpensive) to add the functionality to an existing system.

Will this accelerate the adoption of video streamed from the Internet into our living rooms? I certainly think so, and I definitely would not bet against Google TV.

Free HD Video Codec

Okay, this one is going to get a little propeller-headed; feel free to skip this technical entry and just come back on Monday.

In order to send video over the Internet, you need to package the digital data in packets. The more you can condense the data, the smaller the data stream required, and the better your performance will be. Just like with MP3 digital music, squeeze the data too hard and you can start to see and hear the difference. One exciting development was the creation of H.264 – used in MPEG4 video compression — which was able to cut the data stream size about in half compared with the MPEG2 encoding used by DVDs. This makes it much easier to send HDTV which requires so much more data than standard definition video such as DVDs.

There’s just one problem; the intellectual property used in H.264 is owned by a bunch of companies — including Apple and Microsoft — and they sell licenses for its use through an organization known as the MPEG-LA. Many developers don’t want to incur the extra expense and hassle, so they want to avoid using H.264 technology.

Now they have an alternative. Google has released the VP8 video codec as open source, through an open media project call WebM. The open source code is available with a royalty-free license. Google has added support for WebM to Chrome, and YouTube is using it as part of its plan for an HTML5 version. Both Microsoft and Adobe have also announced their support for the new codec. Mozilla and Opera were also part of the project, and will support the codec.

One interesting aspect of this technology is that it can be used to play video and audio content from a Web site without the need of a separate plug-in.

As the demand for video streamed from the Internet grows, a royalty-free codec may well speed development of new applications. And it should help keep the costs down for everyone.

HDTV Manufacturer Fraud?

One thing I’ve learned in almost 30 years in the technology products business is that it’s inevitable that as competition gets more intense, the manufacturers play faster and looser with the whole idea of “specifications”. I saw it in the processor speeds of IBM PC AT compatibles, and in the dots-per-inch claims for personal computer printers, and in the resolution claims of picture tube (CRT) computer monitors. And it’s been a part of the HDTV market nearly from the start. (One plasma company claimed that 1,024 by 1,024 pixels was enough to be called “HDTV” even though it couldn’t show all the 1,280 by 720 pixels in the 720p image; amazingly, a federal judge agreed with the company.)

Now my friend, colleague, and mentor in display technology has taken on the manufacturers and their misleading or misconstrued features and specifications. In an article on the Maximum PC site, Ray Soneira of DisplayMate doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve weighed in on many of these same topics in the past: LED TVs are actually LCD TVs with LED backlights, contrast ratio specifications are useless at predicting what you’ll see, and LCD “viewing angle” specifications are measured in a way that renders the results pointless. Ray digs into these and more, including Sharp’s new 4-color LCD technology and 120 Hz refresh rates. And he finds good reason to criticize them all.

Now, Ray is not some crackpot or a technology lightweight who is just shooting off his mouth. He created the DisplayMate software that we used for every monitor and projector test for years at PC Magazine Labs. He taught me a lot about testing displays, which I then applied when I developed all those test protocols for PC Magazine Labs. And this recent article of his is based on hard results that he got from an extensive shoot-out project that he ran in his New Hampshire lab.

Ray Soneira tested a collection of LCD and plasma HDTVs for his latest project on image quality.

So before you buy another HDTV, be sure to check out what Ray has to say about the specifications and other manufacturers’ claims, just so you’ll know what you’re looking at when you see the emperor’s newest clothes.

Sell More, Earn Less!

Thinking about entering the LCD HDTV business? Here are some numbers that might make you rethink that plan. According to Quixel Research, unit sales were up in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, which sounds like good news. However, first quarter revenues declined from $5.2 billion in 2009 to just $4.1 billion in 2010. That’s a drop of almost 27%. Ouch! And that’s even with some impressive growth rates in the larger sizes, 55″ diagonal and larger.

There’s no doubt that the HDTV business is brutal; sometimes I wonder if the only companies making any money on them are UPS and FedEx. And sure, manufacturing costs continue to come down, so it makes sense that prices will drop as well. But there aren’t many businesses where you can have growth in unit sales paired with revenues dropping by more than a quarter in just one year. Just see what happens when you ask a car dealer to give you that kind of a deal.

The net result is that I expect to see continued consolidation in the mid-range brands, as companies decide it’s not worth trying to keep up with the big dogs in this race.

DirecTV Offers Whole Home HD DVR

TiVo created a revolution in television viewing when its digital video recorder (DVR) first showed up. In a world resigned to scrolling back and forth through an endless stack of VHS tapes, TiVo made it simple to record a show and watch it later. More than anything, the user interface made it quick and easy to set up recordings and play them back when you wanted. Now all sorts of services offer DVRs, but the latest wrinkle is a “whole home” feature: record the show on one television, and watch it on any other one in the house.

The latest entry is from DirecTV. And let’s start with the punchline; DirecTV Whole-Home DVR Service costs just $3 a month on top of your subscription (which must include HD and DVR services at $17 a month). For this, you get a box that will let you record up to two shows at once, and watch up to two shows on different televisions at once. And all this can be going on at the same time. You can manage your DVR recordings and schedule from any TV in the house, and even pause a show in one room and then go continue to watch it in another. And you can even increase the storage capacity by adding an external hard drive with an eSATA connection. You can get a 1 TB model for about $100 these days.

All this for $36 a year seems to be a pretty good bargain. It’s a convenient system that means you don’t have to buy a separate DVR for every room.