Universal TV Tuner

In this global community, we still tend to be provincial about television. In the United States, we know about NTSC, but may not know about the PAL and SECAM video standards used in many parts of the world. We are learning about the ATSC digital broadcasts, but may not be as aware of the DVB-T, ISDB-T, or SBTVD standards used elsewhere. Just as mobile phone users have learned to have phones that can work with the different phone systems throughout the world, travelers will need to adjust for these different TV signals if they want to receive TV broadcasts on their travels.

The problem of worldwide television reception may be a lot simpler in the future, thanks to new chips developed by Mirics. Their FlexiTV product relies on software — not hardware — to demodulate the broadcast signal using a computer’s processor. This means that they can provide the parts for a notebook TV tuner for under $5, yet it is flexible enough to receive broadcast television signals almost anywhere in the world.

The Mirics chips are not yet available in any shipping product that I know of, but at this price, I can expect that notebook and DVD player manufacturers will be looking at it as an inexpensive way to add a differentiating feature that will appeal to world travelers. And getting TV broadcasts on your laptop might be appealing to some users even if they never leave home.

Blue Laser Update

In an earlier HDTV Almanac entry, I wrote about a complaint filed by Gertrude Neumark Rothschild against 31 electronics companies for violation of her patents on blue LEDs and lasers. According to a press release by the law firm handling the complaint, four companies have signed licensing agreements for the technology. Sony and Sanyo are the most notable among the four.

The significance is that this agreement is likely to put Blu-ray DVD players back on track for distribution in the US. It also means that the remaining companies are more likely to seek a settlement. And when the licensing for intellectual property is worked out in the conference room instead of the courtroom, it’s a good thing for everyone. (Well, maybe not the lawyers, but everyone else.)

Sony Chooses tru2way

There’s a big media splash today about Sony building new TVs that can plug directly into your digital cable service — without a separate set top box — and access all the two-way cable services such as pay-per-view and video recording. The announcement makes a point of listing the major cable companies that support tru2way: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, Cablevision and Bright House Networks. Together, they represent “more than 82 percent of all U.S. cable subscribers.”

What is “tru2way“? It is the new, more marketable name for the technology previously known as Open Cable Application Platform, or its equally hard-to-love OCAP acronym. The technology was developed by the cable industry’s CableLabs facility, in response to federal legislators’ attempts to introduce competition into the cable set top box market. One approach was the ill-fated CableCard hardware solution. tru2way provides a software solution, so it is indeed news that Sony has reached an agreement to build it into their sets.

What’s lost in the shuffle is that Sony is not breaking new ground here. Panasonic, Samsung, and LG already have announced support for tru2way, and even had demonstrations at CES 2008 last January in Las Vegas. You should expect to see products with this feature in the second half of this year.

As the price war between Sony and Samsung heats up — while consumer confidence has plunged to a 16 year low — expect to see features such as tru2way to be trumpeted as competitive advantages. This summer could end up being an excellent time to purchase your next TV.

The Netflix Box Bombshell

Okay, there are still dozens of stories from SID that I could write, but it’s really time to move on. And to play catchup, I need to cover the biggest story from last week; a week ago, Netflix announced the Netflix Player by Roku. This box is simple; it connects your TV to the Internet so that you can watch movies and recorded television shows. It gives you access to the same 10,000+ titles that you can stream to your PC if you’re a Netflix member. The big difference is that after you pay $100 for the Netflix Player (and your monthly Netflix subscription), you can watch as many movies and TV episodes as you want… for free.

According to the Netflix Player site, Netflix is working to provide HD content in the near future, and the player will be able to handle it when it becomes available. It has component video and HDMI connectors that will support high definition images. The box also includes a remote control that makes it easy to start, stop, fast-forward, and rewind as you watch; just as you would with a DVD. The image quality is affected by the bandwidth of your broadband Internet access; according to the Web site, you need at least 1.5 Mbps download speeds, but 4.0 Mbps is recommended to get DVD-quality images and sound. And you also need a Netflix subscription that offers unlimited DVDs; currently, this starts at just $9 a month.

The Netflix Player is big news, because it signals a big jump in delivering commercial content over the Internet. The “marginal cost” — how much it costs Netflix — to send one more movie after it has the infrastructure established is essentially zero, which is why they can provide the movies for free. They’re counting on the subscriptions to cover the costs and provide a profit, and if they don’t have to manage the physical inventory and pay all the postage required for their DVD service, you can see why they might be eager to move all their customers to the Internet service.

Now the big question is “how will Blockbuster respond?” Not to mention whether or not this is the beginning of the end for DVDs in general, and Blu-ray in particular. Stay tuned….

War Funding Funds Low-Power TV Broadcasts

It’s business as usual in Washington, DC. According to a report by TVTechnology.com, an emergency supplemental appropriation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq included measures for low-power television broadcasts. One provides grants to help these stations continue to broadcast analog signals after the February 17, 2009 deadline for the full-power stations to cut off their analog signals. The other moves the funding up a year to help the lower power stations convert to digital broadcasts. Both of these provisions were included in a version of the funding bill that the Senate passed by a broad margin last week. These measures still need House approval.

Not many people are aware of low power and translater stations that broadcast television in many parts of this country, or that these stations are not required to cease their analog broadcasts next February. I find it curious that the government wants to help them postpone the transition at the same time that it’s providing funding to aid with the change-over. The low-power stations don’t have the resources available that the big stations have, but it would seem that the confusion over the country’s television broadcasts will be resolved a lot sooner if we can get all the stations to make the switch. If it takes adding measures to a war funding bill, then perhaps that’s for the good in the long run.

SID 2008: Thinner LCDs

I’m not sure that the consumers agree, but LCD makers appear to think that the way to the hearts (and wallets) of HDTV buyers is to make their panels thinner and lighter. At SID 2008, there were plenty of efforts on display that indicate some interesting developments along this line.

The key to thinner LCD panels is to make thinner backlights. Traditional designs rely on multiple fluorescent light tubes snaking behind the LCD layer. Using LEDs as the light source make it possible to trim some of that thickness away, by putting the LEDs along the edge and using sophisticated diffusers to spread the light out across the whole panel.

OSRAM was showing their MicroSIDELED technology that uses an array of LEDs in an edgelight design that is just 0.6 mm thick. A joint project between Global Lighting, Luminus (makers of the PhlatLight high brightness LEDs), and Jabsco has resulted in a “blade” diffuser design that can light up a 46″ LCD panel with just 24 LEDs. There is one each of red, green, and blue in the eight blades it takes to make a complete backlight. Samsung showed two prototype thin LCD panels: a 19.5 mm thick 52″, and a 10 mm thick 40″. 10 mm is less than 0.4 inches, so this 40″ panel was less than 13/32 inch thick.

At SID 2008, AUO showed a 42

Perhaps the most impressive of all the thin LCD HDTVs was a panel on display at the AU Optronics booth. Less than 10 mm thick, the 42″ LCD panel was rated at an impressive 450 cd/m2 brightness. Observers were clearly impressed by this bit of clever engineering.

Unfortunately, most people look more or less straight at their flat panel televisions. As a result, I don’t think even an inch difference in thickness is going to be a feature that most people would pay a lot more to get. Tell me if I’m wrong; say you could buy a typical 42″ 1080p LCD HDTV for $1,000, how much more would you pay for the identical panel that was only half as thick? Write me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and tell me what you think.

SID 2008: In Touch with HDTVs

Blame it on the iPhone. Or maybe blame Tom Cruise in “Minority Report”. Touch screen displays used to be simple affairs for airport kiosks and bank ATMs, but now everyone wants “multitouch”. This means that the screen is able to recognize when the screen is being touched in two or more places. Multitouch makes it possible to do much more than just push a virtual button. As the iPhone has demonstrated, touchscreens can now respond to gestures to shrink or expand images, or to flip through a series of items.

So it’s little surprise that the SID exhibit hall is filled with some fascinating examples of multitouch displays. One of the the most impressive was at the Samsung booth. The multitouch screen was 82″ diagonal. That would be impressive enough, except that it had “QFHD” resolution. This means that it has 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, or the same as four 1080p sets. The clarity of the image was astounding.

There were many other multitouch panels on display. I take this as an indication that manufacturers see touch as a good way to differentiate their products. It also makes it possible to create new and more effective user interfaces, which will be necessary as the possibilities offered by display devices (and the devices that they control) continue to become more complex. As we want to access more types of content from more sources — both on our home networks and on the Internet — multitouch could well make it easier and more intuitive.

SID 2008: Display Industry Tackles Energy Use

According to Paul Drzaic, President of the Society for Information Display (SID), consumers worldwide use tens of terrawatt hours of electricity each year, just to watch television (citing information from the Consumer Electronics Association in a free report). That’s an enormous number, and if we can get each set to save only a little more energy, a tiny percentage drop in the usage will result in a measurable decrease in energy consumption.

The display industry is responding to the call for conservation and better power efficiencies, and is showing off some technological advances at the SID 2008 conference in L.A. this week. For example, LCD HDTVs require very bright backlights to create an image. Many backlights lose as much as half the light that shines into the back of the panel, rather than through the LCD layer. DuPont has developed a backlight design that reflects as much as 98% of the light through the LCD layer, almost doubling the efficiency. This means that the backlight can use one half to one third the number of fluorescent light tubes behind the panel, saving cost and reducing energy.

Many companies were also showing panels that use dynamic backlight dimming. This refers to designs that will lower the light output of portions of the backlight in response to the content of the image on the screen. Not only can this increase contrast, it also can also reduce the power needed to display typical television and movie content. Chi Mei Optics and LG Electronics were among the companies demonstrating this approach. The result is a savings of as much as 50% of the electricity used.

How are you to know if your LCD TV will save energy? The LCD TV Association hopes to have the answer, with their “Green TV” initiative. This is a program that will put the “Green TV” logo on qualifying LCD HDTVs, which are designed to reduce power consumption. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also planning to release their new, more stringent Energy Star program for flat panel TVs by then end of 2008. You can read more about it here.

SID 2008: How to Pick an HDTV

The Society for Information Display (SID) 2008 annual conference really doesn’t start until today (though it gets started early with a 7 AM press breakfast). Yesterday was the SID 2008 Busines Conference, which focuses on the business of the display industry. Participants got to hear many insightful and inspiring presentations, but the one I think that may be of most interest to HDTV Almanac readers was the one by Paul Semenza, who is Vice President for Display Research with iSupply Corporation.

iSupply conducts frequent surveys among a sample of consumers who have recently purchased an HDTV. One series of questions asks about what factors were important in making the purchase decision. The number one factor was “picture quality“, with “price” coming in second. The “brand” was close behind in third place.

Equally interesting to me was the fact that “sound quality” was dead last on the list of factors. I’ve always said that the speakers in almost all flat panel HDTVs are better than those found in most computer monitors, but that is still damning them with faint praise. The least expensive home theater audio system has better sound quality; in fact, most stand-alone computer system speakers with a sub-woofer will sound better than the average HDTV speakers. So it was no surprise to me that consumers don’t pay attention to speaker quality.

A bit more surprising — but encouraging — was the news that “positive reviews” also ranked very low on the list of factors. I’ve long said that nobody can review the HDTV market thoroughly and consistently enough to be able to name the “best” HDTV. In fact, the lack of consist test protocols — and the frequent absence of rigorous testing altogether — makes most reviews of little use to me. The good news here is that most consumers apparently agree with me. They would rather judge the image quality for themselves than rely on someone else’s observations. (Judging the price and brand are also factors that most consumers can handle just fine on their own.)

So don’t let others spend your money for you.

SID 2008: Here We Go!

Each year, the Society for Information Display (SID) holds their major conference. You may not have heard of SID, because this is not a flashy show like CES or InfoCOMM or CEDIA that are filled with shiny products for end users. The SID conference is by, for, and all about the display industry. You’ll see some esoteric stuff like machines that use lasers to cut LCD panel glass substrates, or displays designed for us in fighter aircraft cockpits.

This is the show where engineers from display companies around the world present research papers announcing their latest breakthroughs (or in some cases, their baby steps) in advancing the state of the art for displays. This is the show where you’ll hear about new developments first. A dozen years ago, I saw the first demonstration of a SED panel at the SID conference. True, that hasn’t turned out so well for Canon, but it was a technology that had a lot of promise, and we heard about it at SID long before anyone else knew about it.

So I’ll be here in LA all week at this year’s SID conference. I already have a number of items to look for, such as Samsung’s new “Blue Phase” 240 Hz LCD panel technology. And I’ll be talking with a number of companies to find out where they stand on production of large OLED panels that would be suitable for HDTVs; there’s been a flurry of brave talk lately, and some companies may be willing to make new predictions about commercial production. And I’ll be looking into the state of the art on the miniature projectors that could be large image HDTV to your next cell phone.

Sure, it’s geek heaven here, but this is going to be a lot of fun. Stay tuned!