Thursday, June 28, 2012

TV New Technology

Trinitron, Black Matrix, 36% Transmission (black) glass... In 40 years (1964-2004) the TV had relatively few new technologies that were native to the set that stuck. Of course, there was the VCR and Home Theater, which were literally outside of the box that had tremendous impact. But there was also blue glass, picture in picture, and numerous other must have features that came and went.

Since 2004 and the near simultaneous introduction of HDTV (encapsulating both digital broadcast, aspect ratio change and resolution increase)and flat panels there have been a number of continuing developments. A few of them are discussed here:

Mobile TV/Video
Originally introduced in low resolution formats, resolutions have been increasing as the number of pixels on mobile devices have grown. The capability now equals or exceeds the HDTV in your living room. Video response speed have also increased so that the golf balls don't disappear when they are in flight. However, the big challenge remains sunlight response. How many commercials have I seen of people enjoying their mobile device in bright sunlight when, in fact, the screen would be completely washed out by the sun. An invention or a new approach is needed.

OLED, or Organic Light Emitting Diode, may be one answer. OLED technology has been the display technology of the future since FEDs (filed emmision displays) proved a failure. FEDs were originally supposed to give better energy efficiency and improved (CRT-like) viewing than LCDs. However, during the long development cycle, LCDs got better to the point where there was no longer any point to FED technology. OLEDs offer, potentially, better overall viewing characteristics, better energy efficiency, and potentially lower costs as they can be printed on flexible substrates and made in highly efficient roll-to-roll manufacturing. However OLED has been plagued by LCD technology's 40 year head start; the lack of an industry infrastructure to support OLED manufacturing, continuing improvements in LCDs, and a life issue where the colors age differently and produces color shifts as the OLEDs age.

However, the flexible and less breakable OLED has survived and has been implemented in some mobile devices where energy efficiency and break resistance are important. Large TV manufactures are now introducing OLED TVs. The new TVs are coming in at high price points and the success of the technology will depend on riding down the manufacturing cost curve.

At one point, one of the larger US electronics companies spent years and huge sums of money developing LED technology to make televisions. That effort failed. But it did help to generate new technologies that are rapidly growing today. LED signs, the big video signs that you see on buildings or billboards, are the manifestation of the original LED effort. LEDs have yet to get small enough to produce resolutions appropriate for a home TV; but if you are making something really big, like a large digital billboard, they are now the technology of choice.

In addition to the signage application, LED technology has revolutionized the lighting industry. They are solid-state and have the advantage that they are not susceptible to shake and impact as light bulbs are. They also have the advantage of being a semiconductor, manufactured in semiconductor processes. This, in itself, has two advantages. First, they are on a semiconductor cost reduction curve rather than a standard cost down curve. This can drive as much as a 29% per year cost reduction vs. an 18% year reduction that would be available with even the best mechanical part cost reduction. Second, this also implies rapid performance improvement as LEDs are now more efficient than conventional light bulbs.

The continued improvement in LED technology has had its effect on the display industry, though not the product that was originally intended. LCD technology is essentially an elaborate light filter that takes white light and convert it to the image desired. The white light, until LED TV was universally supplied by very thin florescent tubes in the back of the LCD. LED TV is a conventional LCD with the florescent tube replaced by LEDs. In some cases the LEDs are on the edge of the LCD and in some cases they are spread behind the LCD. With the change of light source from one (or a very few) florescent tubes to multiple LEDs, the LCD performance has been further improved by the implementation of local dimming. Rather than metering the light solely with the LCD, the light sources in the dark regions of the image are dimmed as well. This both increases energy efficiency and improves contrast.

3D TV produces a 3D image by giving one eye a different view of the image than the other. Since there is only one screen, this is accomplished by glasses that aid in filtering the image each eye sees. There are two major types of 3DTV, active glasses type and passive glasses type. The active glasses type actively switch the lenses from transmitting the TV image to blocking (one lens is transmitting while the other is blocking). The passive glasses type rely on the polarization of the LCD light to give different images to each eye.

Auto-stereoscopic (glasses free) 3D TV
For those of us that wear glasses all of the time, wearing glasses to watch 3D TV is not much of an issue. However, for many, it is uncomfortable and the glasses can also be expensive. Further, if the flat panel is being used as a digital sign, where passers-by will not have on 3DTV glasses, #D becomes much more problematic. Consequently, there has been much attention paid to auto-stereoscopic or glasses-free 3D. I have seen many examples that mostly rely on lens stripes on the screen. The lens stripes (lenticular lenses) tend to work only if the viewer is standing in a particular location or one of several locations that align with the lenses. This in not a solution that generally works well and an invention is needed to make this technology real.

Connected TV
Connected TV has been around in some sense since the 26" CRT was introduced. The 26" was a flat square version of the 25" that was designed to be more suitable as both a TV and a computer monitor. Today, of course, if you have a game or DVD connected to your TV then your TV can access internet content.

Smart TV
Smart TV is a step beyond (a big step) connected TV in that there is more intelligence built into the TV. It can recognize who is watching, remember your favorite shows, even suggest TV content that you will probably like given your viewing habits. Smart TV is the migration of the TV from being just the display in a home entertainment system back to being the central platform of an intelligent house.

Quad Resolution (4K) HDTV
When HDTV was first conceived, the resolution was much higher than the then standard NTSC television signal and rivaled standard computer resolutions. Of course, computer resolutions have grown since then as has LCD production capability. As stated above, even some mobile devices now have more resolution than your HDTV. In that sense quad resolution is TV catching up.

Cinema Wide TV

Although HDTV is made in a 16:9 format (the screen is 16/9 times as wide as it is high), movies are commonly made in much wider formats. The original TV was in a 4: 3 format, almost square. If you recall the movie "The Graduate", in the most famous scene in the movie Anne Bankroft undresses in front of Dustin Hoffman. You can not see that scene on a 4:3 screen because Anne Bankroft and Dustin Hoffman are at opposite ends of the screen as it would be shown in a theater. The move to 16:9 makes some improvement. However the 16:9 aspect ratio was something of a compromise as it was square enough that CRTs could be made with that aspect ratio. (There is a fixed ratio between the depth of a CRT and its width, the wider it is the deeper it is. Ratios wider than 16:9 were impractical for CRT manufacture, as even 16:9 proved to be.) Since the CRT has passed into history, there is not much utility limiting televisions to the HDTV standard. Although all content made for broadcast is in 16:9 format, enjoying a movie without leterboxing or having the edges cut off is now possible.


Monday, June 25, 2012

User Generated Content

An oft-told story... When color TV was first introduced around 1964, the median price was around $400. TV set pricing stayed almost exactly the same until the CRT was replaced by LCD and Plasma. However, after a brief run up, set pricing has been gradually inching its way back down to a median of $400. When color TV was first introduced, programing was limited (3 channels if you lived in an urban area) but it was free. And, your stereo system was completely independent of your TV. This article is about the loss of revenue by the the TV set hardware providers to video content providers and other types of hardware.

Loss of Share of the Consumer Dollar
Cable TV
In the interim, cable TV was introduced. At first it was a way to get content to those that were out of reach of a broadcast signal. The very first cable TV system was implemented solely as a way to sell Television in a market that was not reached by broadcast and therefore had no TV set demand. In addition to providing basic network TV, of course cable eventually enabled much more variety than just the TV network content as well as a way to charge for content.

The next big development around TV viewing was the development of the VCR. The VCR (or Video Cassette Recorder for those of you unfamiliar with tape media) revolutionized the TV market. It enabled not only charging for content but charging for specific content. Rather than negotiating with the networks, moviemakers could albeit indirectly, sell their content to end users without getting bundled together with other content in a content services agreement. This further enabled smaller producers, too small to have network contracts, to make and distribute content down to individuals that could make, show and share their own content. This created the video rental channel as well as enabling the making and distribution of more exotic content that would not be handled by any large/shareholder owned corporation. The variety of content available became limited only by what could be stocked in the local video store, the opportunity to charge for content was narrowed specific creations, and the range of content providers grew substantially.

Flat TV
The arrival of flat TVs and certainly the transition to HDTV that flat TV enabled was a great boon to the Consumer Electronics industry. It virtually required that everyone replace their TV set. However, it did have one disadvantage in TV sound. In general,consumers will associate the sound quality of their TV viewing experience more closely with picture quality than actual picture quality. The development of the home theater concept capitalized on that as well as the move away from broadcast content to removable media and digital content. The implementation of flat TV meant that TV set speakers got smaller and, in some cases disappeared. This development didn't require that separate speakers be purchased, but it certainly encouraged consumers to consciously split the TV hardware dollars between the screen and the sound system. Further, as most LCD TVs have complex image enhancement schemes that necessitate a sound delay to accommodate the video processing, removing the speakers from the TV add to the complexity of TV setup. In order to have the TV sound synched with the image as the setmaker intended, the sound signal must be taken from the TV rather than other points in the device chain in order to get the proper delay. But complications aside, overall, the move to flat TV encouraged more spending on hardware other than the TV set itself.

The flat technology also enabled mobile video devices. Although watching video on a mobile device is somewhat limiting, these devices do offer a variety of games that obviate the need for a gaming console and TV screen to view it on. A common destination and partial reason for purchase of a new TV is in order to move the livingroom TV to the kids room for watching and games.

Internet Connected TV
The video cassette was replaced improved forms of removable media, in-turn: CDs DVDs, then BluRay. However, all forms of removable media are just means of communications, so it was inevitable that improved high-speed internet availability would replace the need for physical media altogether. The disappearance of physical media further expanded the range of individuals that could produce and distribute content as the need for any intermediary (TV network, video store, etc.) vanished as well. With virtually no content distribution costs, content owners and content bundlers command the vast majority of consumer TV viewing spending.

The Consumer TV Dollar
Though the price of a TV set has been virtually flat since 1964 the price of TV view has risen substantially. The stand-alone TV set has been replaced by a home theater system with multiple components. Traditional home TV viewing is being augment by mobile devices. However the bulk of the consumer TV dollar now goes to content purchases. With the TV set/consumer electronics industry mired in the doldrums of the current weak economy rather than focusing on more features to add to the TV set, it seems that the hardware makers would most benefit by envisioning some way to lower content costs.

A digression... my first experience with anything that was internet-like was viewing Mini-Tel in France. Mini-Tel was an internet like service provide by France Telecom. It had a lot, but limited, information such as what was showing at the local movie house and show times. On my viewing of Mini-Tel, I thought that it was a nice service but I could not see the leap between that and the life altering implications of the internet. Mini-Tel was a centralized service with limited content. The internet is a similar service but with virtually unlimited content. The big difference is the decentralization and the opportunity for user generated content as well as that from established big business. Although you pay something for an internet connection and you can obviously pay as much as you want for whatever you purchase over the internet, be it product, services or content, the internet essentially provided free and unlimited data content. If there were a service that provided free and unlimited entertainment content, suitable for a standard US coach potato, then that would have as big an impact as anything else mentioned here. And If that service were embodied in hardware, there would be quite a bit of value there.

The Smart TV Alliance is something of a move in that direction. It enables apps to be written that work across a variety of TV brands. It enables the grass roots type of content development that made the internet what it is. It provides an operating system that makes the TV a platform rather than just an output device. Ultimate, I expect that it will encourage input component integration (microphone, camera, maybe even touch) on the TV itself much as has happened with the notebook PC and cell phone. It maybe even will bring the excitement back to the category that other platforms have enjoyed over the past few years.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wither Pixel Qi (pronounced "Chi")


Yesterday, Microsoft announced its belated response to the IPad(r) with the Microsoft Surface(r). The Surface seems targeted to those that have been considering a tablet but who still like the convenience of a keyboard. Microsoft seems to have learned something from Apple's marketing in that the announcement itself was done with a lot more flash. However, the Microsoft announcement was more engineer oriented (mentioning a vapor deposited magnesium case) whereas announcements from Apple tend to be purely consumer oriented focusing on the visual aspects of the device.

Recently, there has been much discussion about the next version of the Apple Retina screen, possibly going to an IGZO (indium/gallium/zinc-oxide) with increased resolution, lower power and greatly increased response time. Having used a tablet myself, although LCD technology can still benefit from these improvements, I find it surprising that neither Microsoft nor Apple seems to be going after the big problem with mobile device screens, sunlight viewability.

For us old codgers (meaning anyone over 30) the benefits of increased resolution start to peter-out above 200 dpi. And, the response time benefit, while important for viewing video, does not matter for those of us that rarely use our mobile devices to watch video. (Though, admittedly, mobile video is gaining in importance and my own user habits may be stuck in the old model.) However, a good part of my own mobile use, an a good part of mobile use generally, is outside usage. For that, the big deficit in LCD screen performance is the loss of contrast in direct sunlight. Indeed, I was recently using a tablet to take some photos outdoors, after pressing the button to turn on the device, it appeared to have not turned on. Shading the device with my hand, I could see that it was, in fact on, but the screen was completely useless in that location. This was reminiscent of one of the first mobile computers, the Data General One, that came with a screen that was of such low contrast, it was difficult to tell when it was on.

Pixel Qi

Sunlight, or even bright room, visibility has always been a problem with LCDs. This issue came to the fore with the development of notebook PCs for third world audiences and e-readers for the developed world. While an expedient solution for the e-reader market, where video speeds were not required, was to go to an e-paper screen, for the third world PC solution, transflective technology was developed that could be incorporated into conventional LCD manufacture.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see the Pixel Qi screen. Pixel Qi is a company that was formed to commercialize the screen technology that was developed for the "One Laptop Per Child" project. The screen was incredible; easily viewable in direct sunlight. When I saw it, I expected that I would start seeing this technology on notebooks within the year. Since then, although there have been a number of sample and customer announcements from Pixel Qi, the industry, in general is focusing on other areas of screen improvement with, I think, decreasing relevance to the new usage models the mobile device industry is intending to create. Again, the Pixel Qi technology has been around for some time and to my own tastes, it would have been universally implemented the very next design cycle.

Additionally, beyond the mobile market, there is an emerging Public Information Display (PID or "Digital Signage") that can make good use of the technology. PID is increasingly an outdoor technology and one of the great difficulties in engineering an LCD for outdoor usage is rejection of solar radiation. This is across the entire spectrum, UV, visible, and IR all cause problems for an outdoor LCD. Further, to make up for the washout caused by the visible light, Outdoor PIDs must be run at at-least 1000 nits and even then can have low contrast. (A Nit is a level of brightness. A conventional notebook screen probably runs at a level between 120 and 200 nits.) The LCD pictured here runs at 1000 nits and is being used to provide weather, advertising, and other information at a bus stop in Las Vegas. The display, facing north and sheltered, is readable but could be greatly improved.

The additional heat and energy required for a 1000 nit display further complicate outdoor PID design. A display that operates on reflective technology should be a natural here. So in addition to relatively small mobile displays, I would expect the Pixel Qi technology to appear in much larger PIDs. Again, I am surprised that the industry has not jumped on this technology.