Alfred Poor on Video about HDTV

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing HDTV and related topics with David Gewirtz of ZDNet, which he captured on video. We covered a wide range of topics, including OLED HDTVs, 3DTV, screen sizes, Smart TVs, and “direct LED” TVs. The video runs almost a full hour and was made during a Skype video call. (David has invested a lot of time and effort to develop a pretty sophisticated “Skype Studio” for recording interviews like this, and he gets some impressive results.)

So here’s the video if you want to hear more about my latest thoughts about buying HDTVs. If you or someone you know are thinking about getting a new set, you’ll probably find some helpful information here.

If you have any questions, you can email me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or send a Twitter message to @AlfredPoor.

Mitsubishi Chooses the Big Picture

It’s tough to make money in the HDTV business these days. It’s even tougher if you’re trying to push the boulder of rear-projection HDTV up the mountain. Rear-projection DLP has been the focal point for Mitsubishi’s product line, and the company has finally decided not to try to compete with the $500 flat panel market. Instead, they will only make consumer televisions that are 65″ or larger, and will also pursue commercial applications for their sets. Both will be handled by a new company named Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions America Inc. (MEVSA), which has a new website of its own.

So if you’re looking for a little LCD screen for the guest room, you can cross Mitsubishi off the list. If you need a projector or a 3D-capable set with a 95″ diagonal screen, however, they’re still looking for your business.

XPAND 3D to Tame Chaos

XPAND 3D is leading the charge to bring some sense to the active-glasses stereoscopic 3DTV market. Yesterday, the company joined with Panasonic to announce the M-3DI standard for 3DTVs, computers, and home projectors, as well as digital cinemas that rely on active shutter glasses technology. This new standard provides a communication protocol for the signals between the display and the glasses. This means that one pair of glasses will work with all frame-sequential stereioscopic displays that conform to M-3DI.

This broad standard eliminates the need to get different glasses for every different manufacturer. As a result, third-party glasses makers should be able to focus on M-3DI compatible models, which could drive down costs by increasing manufacturing volumes.

The new standard has been endorsed by a long list of major players in addition to XPAND 3D and Panasonic: Changhong Electric Co., Ltd., FUNAI Electric Co., Ltd., H isense Electric Co., Ltd., Hitachi Consumer Electronics Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Seiko Epson Corporation, SIM2 Multimedia S.p.A., and ViewSonic Corporation. There are some big names missing from this list, but these should have enough clout to make this new standard stick. We may see the others sign on before long.

CEA Offers Individual Memberships

The Consumer Electronics Association hosts a little event in Las Vegas every January called the “Consumer Electronics Show,” better known by its initials: CES. The original intent was to hold a trade show for electronics dealers, such as home stereos and televisions. Then the corporate side of the computer market got boring and Comdex went away, so the slack was picked up by CES and it became the biggest personal computer show in this country as well. And now it includes car electronics and mobile phones and digital cameras. If it has digital chips and is intended for consumer markets, chances are that it’s represented at CES.

The problem is that the CEA exists for the dealers and the manufacturers. It’s not really for the consumers (who figure so prominently in the organization’s name). If you are part of an eligible company, it is still an expensive proposition to join the organization. At least that was the case until now.

Last week, the CEA announced a new “Tech Enthusiast” membership. For $29 a year (discounted from $49), you can now get an individual membership. The organization is setting up a special website for these members where you’ll find news on the latest trends, discounts and give-aways, and more. You can find out more at www.CEAtechenthusiast.com for more information; enter the promotional code “CES2012” to get the discounted rate.

What does this mean for the CEA and the CES? In the short term, it’s probably a good move, but I’m not so sure about the long term. I went to Comdex (once; nobody ever said I had to go again). I also went to PC Expo in New York City many times; it was one of the top trade shows in the personal computer market for many years. PC Expo declined rather rapidly from its peak. The show floor got incredibly crowded. The show organizers seemed more interested in collecting admission fees than screening for the dealers who were the intended audience. As a result, an increasing portion of the crowd was made up of individual consumers, not dealers and corporate buyers. The aisles were clogged with people who were not prospects for large sales. This held little appeal for the exhibitors, and many of them moved to private display spaces in area hotels so that they could meet with their key prospects. As major exhibitors abandoned the show floor, the crowds thinned and other exhibitors dropped out, and the return on the investment shrank. And before long, the show blew away like dust over the Hudson River.

If the CEA encourages more consumers to attend CES (which is plenty crowded already), what implications will this have for the exhibitors who are trying to fill their order books? I have already seen more and more major brands move off-site, often into spaces that are not part of the official CES which means a loss of revenue for the CEA.

I can see how this new membership category will likely create new revenue for the CEA, I wonder if the gains might not be offset by decreased revenues from exhibitors who flee the exhibit halls and set up their own parallel event. I don’t expect CES to disappear any time soon — there isn’t any real alternative available in this country — but it will be worth watching to see the exhibitors’ reaction if the crowds increase.

Japanese Disaster Has Worldwide Impact on CE

Words fail. Disaster, devastation, catastrophe; nothing seems adequate to describe the situation in northern Japan. The triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and electrical power plant failures has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and untold billions in damages. No doubt, it will be weeks or months or even years before the magnitude of the losses can be tallied.

But already the consumer electronics industry is marking the impact of the events, which may have far-reaching impacts on all companies involved. For example, Sony reportedly has six manufacturing plants in the stricken area, all of which have been shut down. Factories in the region make everything from lasers used in Blu-ray players to Flash memory chips. Production will be disrupted, which in turn will have an effect on products farther down the supply chain. Component shortages could easily lead to higher prices for the finished products, even for companies that were not directly affected by the disaster. And if Japan’s electrical grid remains crippled for an extended period of time, the disruption of the supply chains could be lengthy and significant.

It’s too soon to tell where the greatest impact will be felt, but you may not want to wait until next fall if you’re thinking about buying electronics products. If you see a deal on a consumer electronics product that you want at a price that is right for you, know that we no longer can be certain that prices will continue to fall as they have in recent years.

3D Avatars on Stage?

Last week, I stumbled across the phenomenon of Hatsune Miku, a teen-idol Japanese pop singer. One important attribute sets her apart from other performers; she is entirely computer generated. Not only is her anime-style person digitally drawn, her voice and dance moves are also synthesized from the musical score and lyrics. And perhaps most impressive of all, she performs in “live” concerts that draw thousands of glowstick-waving fans. One of the delightful ironies is that she is backed up on stage by a rock band made up of living, human musicians.

Miku is a computer-synthesized Japanese pop singer who performs

What caught my eye were the many references to her “holographic 3D” stage avatar that delivers these performances. I had my doubts about the accuracy of that description, so I dug in further. I did not reach a final conclusion, but I failed to find any evidence at all that the image is projected in 3D. Instead, it looks pretty clear that it simply is a 2D animated image projected onto a rear-projection screen that is stretched across the stage. Here’s one of her performances:

As you watch this video, you’ll see that there are times when the camera trucks left or right through the crowd. It’s hard to tell with the dance movements of the avatars, but it doesn’t look as though there are multiple views available. As you move across in front of the stage, the avatars still seem to be looking at you.

The performances are impressive, but not as impressive as they would be in 3D. The rendering required to create the additional views so that you could see the synths from the side while others see their fronts would be demanding, and the projection system would require more than just a simple rear projection screen. It’s still possible that this is 3D, but I’ll need more information before I’ll believe it. So at this point, I’m not ready to pick this as an exciting breakthrough in projection technology.

Universal 3D Glasses Are Here

I first mentioned XpanD’s plan to make “universal” 3D shutter glasses back in March. At the IFA conference in Germany last week, the company unveiled the new glasses. The X103 model sells for about $145 a pair.

New universal shutter glasses from XpanD will work with 3D HDTVs from major brands.

The company also revealed a list of compatible sets on their Web Site. This list includes models from Sony, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, among others.

Yes, the price is still high, but we expect high prices for the early adopters. By the time that there’s enough content to make it worth buying a 3D capable HDTV (and the price premium for 3D support had dropped to near-zero), I expect the cost of these glasses to drop to about $50 a pair, which is less than lots of people pay for a pair of sunglasses, or even on taking the family to the local cinema to see a movie. So if you can wait two years, you’ll get a much better price.

New Laser HDTV

You may have heard the buzz about Prysm and its new “laser phosphor display” (LPD). The short take-away points on this story are (1) this is a new and different approach to flat screen displays, and (2) it is not likely to be a consumer product any time soon.

Here’s how the display works; an array of lasers behind the screen scans an image onto the screen. Where the laser light hits, it excites a colored phosphor which then emits light. Using red, green, and blue phosphors, it can create a full-color image. The beam is steered using a spinning, multi-sided mirror, which is similar to how a laser printer works. The end result is that you have a display that is functionally similar to a standard cathode ray tube (CRT) except that lasers replace the electron guns, and you don’t need a large vacuum tube. The emissive nature of the display means that you should have almost no viewing angle limitations.

One fascinating aspect of this design is that it uses off the shelf components as much as possible. For example, the laser used for the display is a simple blue laser that is designed for use in a standard Blu-ray player. Another interesting detail is that the display could use as little as one-quarter the power required for a display of similar size using another technology such as LCD.

The new displays won’t be inexpensive, however, and as a result are likely to be targeted for commercial applications at the start. These include digital signage, large screens at sports venues, and public information displays in places such as airports. Initial designs call for 25″ diagonal modules with 320 by 240 pixel resolution. A 1080p-capable configuration would require 30 individual modules, making a 142″ diagonal display. Whether the display engine can ever be produced at a price that can compete with LCD and plasma for consumer applications remains to be seen.

DLP Wins Award from Academy

Two weeks ago, the Academy Board of Governors gave the 2009 Scientific and Engineering Award (Academy Plaque) to four of the people who helped develop the color accuracy for DLP Cinema projectors. The Texas Instruments technology has become an important part of digital cinema, with installations at more than 17,000 screens worldwide. IMAX digital projection systems using DLP technology is now installed at 155 locations worldwide.

DLP uses micro-mirrors on semiconductor chips to create an image, and has a number of advantages over competing microdisplays. For example, it does not require polarized light, which helps increase light output and makes it well suited for 3D cinema displays using passive glasses.

The low demand for rear projection HDTVs has meant that DLP has not been as popular in home entertainment as might have been hoped. However, in addition to digital cinemas, the technology holds a strong position in front projectors for both business and home theater applications. And the newest, tiny imagers are a driving force behind the pico projector movement, which is making it possible to fit a full color projector in a cell phone, digital camera, or portable media player. As a result, you can expect to be watching images created by DLP devices for a long time to come.

California Pushes Energy Savings

It used to be that a 35″ TV was about as big as you’d get for home use. Now many people are buying rear-projection and flat panel displays that are much larger, and there are concerns that these sets are more power hungry than the TVs that they replace. As is often the case, California is trying to get out in front on this issue. While the federal government has its optional Energy Star program, the California Energy Commission (CEC) wants to legislate energy consumption requirements for television sets.

The state already requires that all TVs sold in California (manufactured after January 1, 2006) consume no more than 3 watts of power when in standby mode. The proposed new regulations cover maximum power on usage. Sets built after January 1, 2011 with a screen area of 1,400 square inches or less will have to consume no more than 0.2 watts per square inch plus 32. For a 42″ set, that works out to about 183 watts, or about the same as three typical incandescent light bulbs. On January 1, 2013, the formula changes to no more than 0.12 watts per square inch plus 25. For a 42″ set, that will be about 115 watts, or about two incandescent light bulbs.

One interesting fact is that the CEC indicates that there are 848 sets already on the market that meet the 2011 standard, which would seem to imply that manufacturers could probably bring their products into compliance with next year’s models. The CEC also indicates that these new standards are likely to save consumers $18 to $30 a year, which hardly seems like a compelling incentive on a $500 or $1,000 purchase, until you consider the average lifespan for a TV set is 10 years or more. The CEC action has triggered strong reactions, both in favor and opposition. Some complaints predict doom, with massive job losses resulting from the new rules. One interesting complaint is that the new rules don’t allow for additional features that are not directly part of the TV functions and that could consume more power, such as Internet connections, on-screen caller ID features, or video calls.

You might be curious about the 1,400 square inch cap on the proposed regulations. This corresponds to a set a bit smaller than 58″ diagonal. The CEC determined that while sets 58″ and larger make up a tiny part of the overall sales, they are the major part of the sales for the custom installers and home theater integrators. The CEC intends to issue separate requirements for these larger sets, hoping to balance the desire to conserve energy with minimizing the impact on these small businesses.

The CEC will be holding a hearing on the proposed regulations on October 13, and you can find find related documents available for downloading at http://www.energy.ca.gov/appliances/2009_tvregs/documents/index.html.