Return of Smell-o-Vision!

I know that lots of people are of the opinion that most of Hollywood’s movies stink, but filmmaker Robert Rodriguez apparently wants movie goers to come to that conclusion about his films, literally. His new 3D version of “Spy Kids” All the Time in the World” will provide simulated scents to enhance the cinematic experience.

The 1960 technology Smell-o-Vision pumped the odors into the movie theaters, but Rodriguez is using a simpler “Aromascope” technology for his production. Audience members will be issued a card with numbered circles. At appropriate points in the movie — where a character is obviously pausing to smell something in the scene — the number will appear on the movie screen and viewers will then rub that circle on their card to get the desired scent. One advantage of this approach is that it can also work at home; if the scent cards are bundled with a DVD, for example, the viewers can still get the same olfactory experience as at the local cinema.

Clearly, there is not a groundswell of market demand for smelly movies, so I don’t expect this trend to take over living rooms any time soon. (Or ever.) But it apparently is still novel enough that it works as a publicity ploy. It got me to write about it here, after all.

A 3D Apple for the Teacher

“There’s not enough 3D content available!” That’s the main complaint from consumers, and is one of the main reasons for the slow uptake on 3DTV-capable sets. (The other is price, but that difference is going away.) But lack of content is not just a problem for consumers; it also affects teachers.

XPAND is coming to the classroom’s rescue, however. The company that makes “universal” active-shutter 3D glasses is making an effort to support educational applications for 3D video. (And why wouldn’t they, when you need 20 to 30 pairs of glasses for each classroom that uses 3D video?) In addition to offering special packages for educators that include 3D plug-ins for PowerPoint, the company has announced the XPAND 3D Educational Network. When a school joins, teachers get access to public-domain 3D educational content that can be used for free. The company expects to offer additional content for sale from other sources through the network as well.

Does 3DTV have an impact on learning? According to the XPAND website, a study was done to determine the impact of the technology. A lesson that normally took several class periods to teach was taught in a single period using video. One group used standard 2D video and their scores were 9.7% higher over the normal scores. The scores for the group that used 3D video increased by 35%, however. (The site doesn’t provide details on the study; these are impressive results, but a significant portion of the gains could be simply the result of the novelty effect.)

It’s a tough time for most schools to find money for new technology like 3DTV educational content, so it’s a good thing that XPAND is helping make public domain content accessible to schools. I expect that adoption in the classroom will still be slow, but it’s good to see a company providing support like this to schools.

Large Screen Photo Album

I suspect that many of the readers of this column don’t remember the sinking feeling of arriving at someone’s home in response to a dinner invitation, only to find a Kodak Carousel slide projector set up on the living room coffee table. It meant that you were in for hours of post-meal “entertainment” of reviewing all the family’s photos of their latest trip to somewhere or other. And most people seemed to be of the mindset that if they paid to get a slide developed, then by gosh they were going to show it. Even worse was seeing a Super 8 movie projector waiting for you to finish the meal.

Well, most people don’t have slide projectors anymore, but the new Internet-connected entertainment environment has given you something better: your livingroom HDTV. Most people find it too difficult to locate their digital photos and home movies, let alone figure out how to get them on their big screen. Now you have a solution for that problem. Snap for TV is a Yahoo! Connected TV service that lets you access your photos from 16 of the most popular photo storage and social media service on the Internet, including Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook. You can also access pictures that other people have shared with you on those sites. You can create albums or slide shows to make it easy to share them with friends or guests.

Just remember to feed them a good dinner first. It’s only fair.

Here’s a brief video about the Snap service, which also is available for other devices besides your TV:

Snap from Exclaim Mobility on Vimeo.

Does Passive Glasses 3DTV Add Cost?

Up until Vizio’s stunning announcement at the end of last year, I was convinced that we would not see 3DTV flat screen TVs that use passive glasses any time soon. My reasoning was that the patterned polarizing retarder required to make this work was an added material expense, and panel makers are fighting to reduce costs, not increase them. Also, this extra film layer must be precisely aligned, which adds to the assembly costs. In the hypercompetitive flat panel market, who could afford to add to the cost? Consumers would be willing to pay extra for the active glasses to get 3D, but wouldn’t want to pay more for the TV itself. And I was wrong.

Now we have news of a report from DisplayBank that analyzes the costs of the new LG 47LW5700 television which uses passive glasses. The report compares this set with last year’s LG 47LX6500 that uses active glasses. According to the analysis, the total parts cost of the newer set is $711.20, compared with $871.90 for the older model. If you look at the cost breakdown by category, the new model only has a slight advantage in all areas but one. Almost all the difference comes just from the panel cost: $490 versus $640. LG has managed to reduce the material and manufacturing costs so much that they can produce the panels for less than it cost to create an active glasses panel of the same size last year.

This is an impressive indication of how much innovation continues to happen in the LCD television panel market. The fierce competition among many manufacturers continues to drive down costs while adding new features and technology. And I’m thrilled that I was wrong.

Cisco: Video is the Killer App

Cisco has released its Visual Networking Index and it has some interesting data about video and the Internet. For example, video accounted for 40% of all the consumer data traffic on the Internet in 2010, and is forecast to reach 50% in 2012. When you consider all the emails, all the music downloads, and all the peer-to-peer data transfers (which includes a lot of pirated video), this is a mighty impressive milestone.

Once you get past that key piece of information, you rapidly get into some of the blow-your-mind data points. For example, a million minutes of video will cross the Internet every second by 2015. It would take more than five years to watch that second’s worth of content. High-definition video on the Internet is growing and will pass standard definition by the end of this year. By 2015, HD content will make up more than three quarters of the Internet video-on-demand (VoD). By that time, Internet VoD traffic will be the equivalent of three billion DVDs a month.

All of this is good news for Cisco, which is one of the leading companies in making the hardware that makes the Internet possible. The company forecasts that by 2015, there will be two Internet-connected devices for every man, woman, and child in the entire world. The annual global IP traffic of all data combined is forecast to hit nearly a zettabyte by the end of 2015. (I had to look up zettabyte; it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Can you imagine a trillion 1GB hard drives full of data? I can’t.)

So Internet video is growing rapidly: tripling in 2010 and increasing 17 times more by 2015. Could it be the application that kills the Internet? I’ve lived through too many doomsday scenarios with the Internet to bet against it at this point. When there’s demand, the networking industry finds ways to meet it. My guess is that the data pipes are just going to get bigger and faster, and we’ll find all sorts of new ways to enjoy instant access to unimaginable amounts of data whenever and wherever we want. I’m looking forward to it.

Reminder: I write for a lot of other places besides the HDTV Almanac. If you’d like to know about the other pieces as they get published, follow me on Twitter @AlfredPoor to get the latest updates.

Is Broadcast TV Going Away?

I mentioned topic this in passing during my discussion of the dustup over wireless broadband vs. GPS, but I think the time has come to officially recognize this as a subject of interest.

Here’s the situation as I see it in a nutshell. Some 8% to 15% of the U.S. population relies on the free terrestrial (local) broadcasts for their television content. They do not have cable or satellite subscriptions. (There are also people who have subscription television service and also watch the free broadcasts, but they are not included in these numbers.) According to a study by Knowledge Networks, this amounts to more than 45 million people in 17 million households. It is worth noting that about 40% of these people are minorities, and that nearly a quarter of all households with annual income under $30,000 rely solely on broadcast TV.

Some people look at the radio spectrum assigned to local television broadcasting and argue that it would be much more valuable to society if it were to be used for other purposes, including wireless broadband. They argue that another shopping channel or reruns of 1980s sitcoms do not provide significant societal benefits.

In the middle are advocates who want the local broadcasters to sell off the parts of their assigned spectrum that they aren’t using. The radio spectrum in this country belongs to the people, and the Federal Government is charged with managing that resource. The FCC wants to auction off this unused spectrum in a sale where the TV stations would volunteer to give back spectrum in return for a share of the revenues. Some in the TV industry want to hang onto this spectrum for new applications such as digital mobile TV broadcasts.

One factor that is bringing this issue to a head is that the old model of networks and local channels is falling apart. Federal regulations require that subscription television services carry local programming, which is part of the negotiating advantage for the stations during the retransmission fights that have become so common. And now the networks are demanding a share of those retransmission fees from the local stations. All the while, network viewership is declining which leaves them scrambling to find new revenue sources. According to some sources, it is possible that some of the major networks are looking into transitioning to cable-only channels, leaving the local stations on their own to obtain programming content.

How serious is the possibility that big changes are ahead for broadcast TV in this country? It is way to soon to know for sure, but here’s one interesting data point. A company named Modulation Sciences announced this week that it is exiting the the U.S. market. The company makes signal processing products for the television and radio markets. Here is a quote from the company press release:

Citing the near demise of the United States over the air broadcast marketplace and MSI’s continued growth and acceptance in Latin America and Mexico; Modulation Sciences will no longer manufacture or support U.S. standard products.

I am not saying that the sky is falling, but it certainly is starting to look cloudy. The people who rely most on terrestrial TV broadcasts are the poor, minorities, and residents of sparsely-populated rural areas. None of these groups are known for their political clout, so it’s not clear how much influence they will have in the growing debate. The voices of the folks with smartphones and tablets and other devices that are hungry for high-speed wireless data access are likely to be heard more loudly in the halls of power. We have a long way to go before we’re likely to see any definitive changes, but it is a complex issue that is likely to affect all of us before these issues get resolved.

3DTV No Longer a Premium

The Westinghouse W47S2TCD offers 3DTV support without the premium price.

Westinghouse Digital has announced its new 47″ LCD HDTV, the W47S2TCD. This set has LED backlighting and a bunch of other features that you’d expect to find in a 1080p flat panel television. It is priced at $1,199, which is the same price as the 46-inch UN46D6050TF from Samsung which also has LED backlighting. The big difference is that the Westinghouse model also has 3DTV support. Not only is it 3D-capable, but it uses the same patterned retarder technology as LG and Vizio so that it uses inexpensive passive glasses. Westinghouse includes four pairs of glasses in the box.

This is a fairly stunning development, as it means that the additional cost for 3DTV support is approaching zero. Granted, there is a difference in brand value between Samsung and Westinghouse, but the passive retarder feature is state of the art.

I still don’t think that there is enough 3DTV content to warrant buying a new television, but if I were buying a new set for some other reason, prices are getting to the point where I’d probably get 3D support because I expect that I’ll want it starting in just another year or two.

Hide in Plain Sight

One of the most common mistakes that people make when choosing an HDTV is that they get one that is too small for the viewing distance. Insufficient budget for a larger one is certainly a good reason for going with a smaller model, but too often I hear people complain that they don’t want a “big ugly television” dominating their living room decor. I’ll grant that it is not easy to find furniture to enclose a large flat screen TV, but that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a small screen either.

A blog called “Elements of Style” has an entry titled “Concealing the Evil Necessity” and presents some stunning examples of ways to hide or incorporate your television in your room design. (It also has a few examples that didn’t particularly work for me, but you may like them.) Choices range from pairing the wall-mounted set with a dark wallpaper to adding a picture frame around the flat panel. In general, the designs show that it is possible for an HDTV to work with the other visual elements in a room, rather than just be plopped into the middle of them. See if this doesn’t give you some design inspiration!

Hello Comcast, Skype is Calling

Last week, Comcast and Skype announced a partnership that will make Skype’s video calling available to Comcast customers. Subscribers will be able to make and receive video calls through their television with other Skype users. This means that you’ll be able to connect for free with other televisions, computers, tablets, or even smartphones. The plan includes the ability to place or receive Skype calls while watching programs on your HDTV.

According to a Skype press release, the service will be made available through a separate adapter box. It will also include a “high-quality” video camera; the release does not make it clear whether or not the images will be in high definition. The system will also come with its own wireless remote that can be used to enter text and to control the television. There was no mention of the cost, but the customer trials are slated to begin in the coming months.

Using Skype on an HDTV is a match made in heaven, in my opinion, and I thought it was a brilliant move when LG, Panasonic, and Samsung all announced support for Skype on certain models of their televisions last year. I think that these companies missed a trick by not marketing this feature heavily to seniors; I think that they would welcome an easy way to visit with distant children and grandchildren without having to deal with a computer and other techn0-geeky components. I hope that Comcast makes a better effort to market to this segment, because it could be a good differentiator for its services. I’ll be watching for more details about this later this year.

China Passes Japan in LCD Production

Korea is first (thanks to LG and Samsung), and Taiwan is second in terms of producing LCD panels, including those used in LCD HDTVs. Now comes word from Displaybank that China has taken over as the third largest producer of LCD panels, pushing Japan out of the money and into fourth place. This is in spite of Sharp having the world’s largest LCD plant — Gen 10 — in operation.

One factor is that the Korean and Taiwanese companies are building plants in mainland China to take advantage of lower costs. One company already has a Gen 8 plant in operation in China, and another company has Gen 8 lines in production. Several more plants are planned for the next couple of years, so we can only expect China’s share of the total production to grow.

This development only underscores the importance of China’s internal economy and power needs for the rest of the world.