Samsung OLEDs on the Way

A report from Digitimes last week indicate that Samsung is proceeding with plans to build medium and large OLED panels suitable for notebook computers and televisions, starting next year in 2009. The article also cites a Samsung vice-president as saying that flexible OLED displays will start production in 2010.

Samsung expects to ramp up production to 3 million units per year in 2009, about double the current capacity. Reportedly, this will enable economies of scale that will make it practical to build larger panels, rather than stick to the smaller panels designed for use in mobile devices such as cell phones and MP3 players.

This news is encouraging, but for many reasons, may be overly optimistic. There are many problems that remain to be solved for OLEDs, especially if they are to be used in long duty cycle products such as televisions. One of the most serious problems is that of differential phosphor aging. This sounds complex and technical, but basically it refers to the fact that the blue phosphors used in OLEDs fade more rapidly than the green or red phosphors. If you don’t compensate for this effect, the image turns yellow before long. If you do compensate by dialing back the brightness of the red and green, then the whole image gets dimmer sooner. Neither are acceptable solutions at this point, so the “blue phosphor problem” will have to be solved before OLED HDTVs become practical. Progress is being made on this problem, as well as on the problem of encapsulating the display to keep out the oxygen and water vapor that can ruin the panel.

It would be wonderful if Samsung will have all this ironed out by next year. However, if this is another case of raised expectations as we witnessed with the Canon/Toshiba SED technologies, failure to deliver on these target deliveries runs the risk of discrediting both the company and the technology.

Ready for Your Close Up?

When we talk about HDTV, we tend to focus on professionally-generated content that is commercially distributed one way or another. But this totally overlooks another important source of HD video: user-generated content. There’s only one problem; most HDTV video cameras are extremely expensive.

The DXG-569V HD is a 720p HDTV camcorder available for a low price.

DXG USA has announced the DXG-569V HD camcorder. It comes in your choice of silver or black, and can record video at 1280 by 720 at 30 frames per second. The camera can also be used as an 8 megapixel still photo camera with an LED flash if needed. There’s a 3-inch diagonal LCD screen so you can preview your shots. It uses SD cards for storage and supports the High-Capacity SD format, so you can either plug the card into your computer or use a USB 2.0 interface to transfer your videos to a computer. You can even use the camera as a digital voice recorder. And the package includes ArcSoft’s Total Media Extreme software that lets you edit and burn home movies in HD. According to the company, the camera will be available at Radio Shack and other consumer electronics retailers.

The surprising thing about this camera is the list price: $169.99. Just a few years ago, that would have been an amazing price for an 8 megapixel still camera, let alone a full speed, 720p HD camcorder. Now, I have not tested this camera so I can’t comment on the quality of the images; at this price, I don’t expect to get professional quality results. Still, it is likely to be satisfactory for most home movie — or small business — applications. Note that many companies are moving to wide format Powerpoint presentations as their standard format, and this camera could easily be used to capture custom video inexpensively that could really punch up a sales pitch. So whether it’s a birthday party or a soccer game or the opening of a new manufacturing plant, cameras like the DXG-569V HD could open the door to a new world of HD user-generated video content.

JVC Pulls Back Further

The HDTV market continues to consolidate. The latest company to scale down operations and expectations is JVC. The company is ceasing production in Japan and Scotland, and will focus its manufacturing operations in other markets where it can make a larger profit.

There had been reports that JVC was also going to stop selling TVs in Japan, which would have been a huge step. Instead, TWICE is now reporting that the company is only going to stop selling “mass-market LCD TV models” and instead will only market models 42″ and larger.

Unfortunately, there still are a lot of companies that want to just focus on the 42″ and larger market, and I don’t see how they all can be successful. Here in the United States, I expect that JVC will continue to find it more and more difficult to get retail shelf space for their product. There is too little difference in price and quality between JVC and the step up to the top brands such as Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, or Pioneer, and too little between JVC and the step down to Westinghouse, Vizio, or Olevia. JVC is getting squeezed out of the middle, and the softening of the U.S. market for larger models is not going to help their efforts to survive in the HDTV market.

Netflix Thinks Inside the Box

Reuters reported this week that Netflix has expanded its partnerships with set-top box makers. In addition to their existing deal with LG Electronics, the company expects to announce three more partnerships that will let subscribers watch movies on their TVs, streamed directly from the Internet. The Netflix CEO stated that we can expect to see products from all four companies that incorporate the streaming functions before the end of this year.

According to the article, the online streaming will be bundled with the regular subscription plans at no extra charge. Netflix currently has about 9,000 movies and TV episodes available on their PC service, compared with about 100,000 movie titles in their DVD-by-mail service.

As postage rates continue to rise, Internet delivery of movies makes a great deal of sense, and set-top box partnerships should make selecting a Netflix movie as easy as picking a channel or any cable video-on-demand program. This is clearly where the movie rental market is headed, and it looks as though we’re going to be able to enjoy Netflix this way starting later this year. The big problem then will be how fast the company can convert its physical library for digital distribution.

Are You Spending Your Share?

A new report from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that the average U.S. household spent $1,405 on consumer electronics in the past year. The CEA is the cheerleader for the consumer electronics industry, so take this result with a grain of salt. But with the average life span of a cell phone now down to 1.5 years, plus the enormous growth in the use of MP3 players, digital cameras and GPS units, it seems plausible that we might possibly be spending this much.

The CEA also estimates that 50% of U.S. households already have digital televisions (TVs with digital tuners), and that by the end of 2008, more than 50% will have HDTVs. Chris Ely, their senior market research analyst is quoted as citing the end of analog broadcasts and lower prices as the driving forces that has led to “many consumers deciding to upgrade their televisions“.

With the end of analog broadcasts only affecting fewer than one in four U.S. households, the weakened economy, and tighter credit, it seems to me that we’re reaching a fairly high penetration rate for HDTVs, and demand could well drop off significantly over the next six months. (Summer is traditionally a slow time for TV sales.) We’re probably in a significant over-supply situation already, so the question is this: just how low are manufacturers and retailers willing to cut their prices further, even while they are faced with increasing energy and labor costs? This summer could well prove to be the time to get a great bargain on a new HDTV.

Just What Did Blu-ray Win?

The battle is over. Blu-ray is victorious over HD DVD as the high definition DVD storage format. To the victor go the spoils. But just what exactly has Blu-ray won?

A new report by ABI Research makes some interesting points. ABI Research analyst says “The studios better hope that people are playing movies on their Playstations.” Why? By the end of 2008, he expects that fully 85% of the Blu-ray players in people’s homes will be in PS3 units. Stand-alone Blu-ray players probably won’t be in the majority until 2013.

And then there’s the problem that “good enough” is the enemy of “better”. Keep in mind that study after study shows that consumers think that they’re watching HD content simply because they’re watching it on an HDTV. Nowhere is this more significant than in watching standard DVDs, especially when the image is scaled by an upconverting DVD player. According to ABI Research, 35% of all installed DVD players have upconverting features, and by 2013, that should reach 60%. Also keep in mind that a good quality HDTV should be able to do a good job of scaling DVD images on its own. As a result, most consumers are quite happy with the image quality that they get from standard DVDs; there’s no compelling reason to change as there was when making the shift from low-quality VHS tapes that had to be rewound to the digital clarity and convenience of DVD discs.

And keep in mind the recent moves by both Netflix and Blockbuster to explore digital distribution of movies for rent or sale. It’s possible that the polycarbonate DVD disc is going to exit as swiftly as it arrived, joining the VHS tape on the scrap heap of bypassed technology.

So has Blu-ray won the battle only to lose the war? Can Sony and its allies ever recoup the costs of getting to this point if consumers are not going to rush out and replace their old DVD players with Blu-ray versions? I’m not convinced that the high definition DVD market has not come with too little, too late.

Digital TV Transition: Rough Terrain Ahead?

Depending on who is keeping score, about 75% of Americans now admit to having at least heard something about the upcoming transition to digital terrestrial — “over the air” — broadcast of television signals, and the end of analog broadcasts on February 17, 2009. We’ll ignore for the moment that this means at least one in four viewers is not aware of the pending change.

But here’s a detail that most of the 75% almost certainly don’t know. For those of the 17 million U.S. households currently receiving only analog signals over the air, more than half of them are likely to experience problems with digital TV signal reception, according to a study by the market research firm Centris. The company estimated the signal reception as it might be affected by distance and terrain. Viewers in “challenging reception areas” may not be able to receive the digital signals from the same stations that they can now receive in analog format.

In some cases, it may be possible to boost reception by upgrading to a better antenna or by adding a signal amplifier. In some cases, however, it is likely that some homes that can receive analog broadcasts now will not be able to receive the digital signals.

If you use over-the-air broadcasts for some or all of your television programming, I urge you to try your digital reception now using your existing antenna. You can do this by getting a digital converter box for your television, or by upgrading to a new television that includes a digital tuner. See what your reception quality is like now, before you have to depend on it. It is true that some stations will change their assigned channels and signal strength after the transition date next year which could improve the situation, but it’s a good idea to test your setup now so that you can make any necessary changes to your antenna system now.

“This Program Brought to You by…”

In the early days of radio, the corporate sponsor was closely affiliated with the program, such as the “General Motors Symphony”, “Ford Sunday Evening Hour”, “Chesterfield Hour”, and the “Heinz Hall of Fame”. Many early television programs followed the same model, which carries forward to today in the form of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” (which happened to air a program last night). And now that content producers and broadcasters are searching for effective ways to fund programming on the Web, it may be that we’ll see a return to this sort of “branded” show.

NBC Universal issued a press release last week announcing a new production unit that will partner with ad agency Omnicom to “develop and produce brand-centric, quality digital content experiences” that will be distributed on NBC Universal’s various Web sites. Two projects are already underway, with “Gemini Division” slated to premiere this summer, and “Woke Up Dead”. The company plans to have client products “organically integrated” into the program content.

Paid product placement is nothing new, either in broadcast television or even the movies. It is a little unusual to have an ad agency so closely tied to the creative development part of the process. The fact remains that it’s an expensive proposition to produce quality programming, whether it is to be distributed over the broadcast networks, through cinemas, on DVDs, or over the Internet. If the Web can deliver enough viewers of the desired demographics to these new programs, sponsors may be willing to foot the bill.

Sony Bringing IPTV to PS3

As you may know by now, I’m a big proponent of video content delivered over the Internet, though I don’t have a clear vision of just what method — or methods — will win out eventually. The big news from Sony comes from a posting on their Playstation.Blog that is attributed to Peter Dille, Senior Vice President, Marketing & PLAYSTATION Network. Here’s what he wrote on Tuesday:

“Many of you have been hearing rumblings about a video service that will allow you to download full-length TV shows and movies via PLAYSTATION Network for North America. While I don’t have any new announcements here for the PlayStation Nation, it’s already been confirmed that we’ll be offering a video service for PS3 in a way that separates the service from others you’ve seen or used. Ultimately the goal of the PLAYSTATION Network service will be to break through the overwhelming clutter of digital media to give you the TV, movies and gaming content you want. More on this very soon …”

The key words in this statement are “video service” and “give you the TV, movies and game content you want.” That’s a pretty broad spectrum of programming, and sounds like a serious commitment on Sony’s part to deliver this content over the Internet. The market research firm iSupply predicts that there will be 20.3 million PS3s out there by the end of this year, reaching 38.4 million units by 2011. This is still small potatoes compared with the number of TV sets out there, but certainly could be enough to make a meal on… especially if you could use the same service to deliver content directly to TVs as well.

3D TV Is Coming

Back in the 50s, 3D movies with red/green glasses were a novelty that thrilled the horror film fans. 3D movies are much more than a novelty these days, however, with the amazing success of the “U2 3D” and”Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus” concert films. Disney and Pixar continue to generate animated 3D features, and are even converting “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” to 3D versions.

As I’ve said before, it will be the local cinema experience that will pull through 3D video into the home for most consumers. And many companies are lining up to provide support for 3D HDTVs. Samsung and Mitsubishi already have rear projection DLP HDTVs with built-in 3D support. Hyundai and Spectroniq have LCD HDTV products that can show 3D content. And now there is a 3D@Home Consortium that aims to promote in-home 3D entertainment, backed by industry heavyweights including Samsung, Philips, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and IMAX.

But perhaps the most interesting news came out of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention this past week in Las Vegas. A company named 3ality Digital provided a live broadcast of a sneak peak at a new game show from Howie Mandel. The event was captured at a studio in Burbank, and transmitted live as a single stream through satellite transmission to Las Vegas, where it was displayed at a digital screening room. What made this event special is that it was in 3D. The fact that it was live meant that there was no lengthy post-processing done to create the 3D effects; it was all done in real time.

The ability to broadcast live 3D content could be a huge factor in the adoption of the technology by consumers. What sports enthusiast wouldn’t want to be standing at center court with March Madness swirling around? Or be standing on the goal line as an NFL fullback dives for a touchdown attempt? 3D could add to the immersive effect of large screen television.

I’ve been a 3D skeptic in the past, but this is beginning to make a lot of sense to me.