Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Trinitron, Retina, & What do you call an Apple TV Set?

A Trinitron® TV is distinguished from the outside by the cylindrical shape of the front of the tube. This cylindrical shape reflects some important internal differences from traditional CRTs that have a roughly spherical shape. When the Trinitron was first introduced, it was a great step forward in color CRT image quality. However, it was followed shortly on by the Zenith innovation of Black Matrix which leveled the playing field. Actually, Black Matrix may have been an enabler for Sony and Trinitron as well as the first Trinitron sets could not show black and white content very well. This was a big draw back in the 1960’s as most of the available content was still Black and White. Applying Black Matrix to Trinitron tubes vastly improved their black and white image quality. As the technology developed the original “aperture grill” inside a Trinitron grew to be more like the “shadow mask” in a conventional CRT. Further detracting from the uniqueness of the Trinitron, Mitsubishi offered a Diamondtron ® set with identical technology.

The Trinitron TV set was first before Black Matrix and before competing Trinitron-like sets. It distinguished Sony in the minds of consumers as providing the best image quality even when their competitors made up the difference. It was neither unique nor all Sony’s technology. Sony also grew its brand image with platform innovations such as the Walkman® and Watchman®. However, when the main stream of television switched from CRTs to flat panels, the Trinitron mark went by the wayside as it seemed to be viewed by the company as a technology rather than an important part of the Sony brand.

The effective loss of the Trinitron brand coincides with the decline of Sony as the top consumer electronics brand. It also coincides with the emergence of Apple as a mainstream CE brand rather than a computer company. Indeed, Apple’s recent history shares much in common with Sony‘s past glory. Apple introduced the Retina display to the mobile phone market, in-part contributing to a remake of the platform by a significant increase in image quality. Similar to Trinitron, the core of this new brand depends in major part on technological contributions of would-be competitors; Apple does not make LCDs, Samsung does. Apple introduced new platforms, notably the iPod® and iPad®. The iPod directly displaced the Walkman. More importantly, the i-blank meme replaced the blank-man meme in mobile electronics. Where blank-man implied a supreme level of compactness, i-blank implies a supremely developed human interface. As much as the actual technology, what was at stake in the recent patent dispute with Samsung was the i-franchise. Though much of the subsequent commentary centers on a loss of consumer choice and potentially higher prices, the innovations that Apple created and the subsequent brand image where really what was at stake.

Some time ago, I attended a lecture by Gene Amdahl, founder of Amdahl computer. During the lecture, Mr. Amdahl described why he left IBM in order to build supercomputers at his own company. It was not his entrepreneurial spirit but his desired to build really high powered computers, a desire that he could not pursue at IBM at that time. He described a meeting that he had with the pricing manager for IBM mainframes. The pricing manager told how the price structure that IBM had in place for its mainframe product would be destroyed by providing too much computer in one package.

Apple may have a similar issue with the speculated Apple TV Set. While price management was the supercomputer issue at IBM (preventing them from developing an obvious product extension), I believe Apple has a brand management issue with a TV set. Although the Apple name carries considerable panache, as Sony still does, much of the value of the company is in the sub-brands as much of Sony’s value was in Trinitron…. What do you call and Apple branded TV set? Though the delay in launching such a set may be due to inaccurate rumors, technical issues, or the desire to ensure an absolutely distinctive product on first launch, there is some logic that says it is a marketing issue not a technical problem.

iTV already exists in the form of a TV news network. They use the little “i” in their logo as well. The image at the top of this article is the iTV logo from their web page; it demonstrates how an Apple product of the same name could cause confusion as to what the subject is. Retina is also in use of a sort. In the 1983 movie, “Videodrome,” the TV screen is several times referred to as the “Retina of the mind’s eye.” Apple TV is already taken as well, by another Apple product. Apple is free to transfer the brand name from one product to another, as Microsoft recently did with their Surface® brand; however, it seems to be the Apple sub-brands that have the consumers’ attention. Creation of a new brand, either for the TV itself or the TV screen is possible, but brand creation takes money and time. Further, having too many brands or overlapping brands can be damaging to the existing brand structure. Again, what do you call an Apple TV set? For a company that is its branding, this is not a trivial issue. An Apple product without the i-**** or retina co-brand is like a Sony product not labeled Trinitron or ****-man.

When I was a student, the school radio station at MIT was WTBS, the “Technology Broadcast Station”. At that time, the FCC mandated an upgrade to low power radio stations and there was no money to upgrade WTBS. The school had obtained an unsolicited offer for its call letters from the New York Times; potentially launching the “Times Broadcast Station”; however the Times offered no money for the deal. Ted Turner offered a much better deal, paying for the school radio station upgrades with some money left over. Hence we now have the WTBS that everyone is familiar with. At MIT, WTBS was not a business, not a profit center. The objectives of those involved with the station were just to keep it on the air. The iTV network is an ongoing business that has been building their brand since the 1950’s…. Wonder what their stock sells for these days?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why there are 31 days in August

Many things that seem arbitrary or even sinister, are in-fact done for pragmatic reasons. Although there is a common rhyme for remembering which months have 30 and which months have 31 days, and the arrangement seems arbitrary, remembering which months have 30 and which have 31 days is easy if you know why.

Originally the calendar was much different. March was the first month of the year, which seems logical, having the year start in the Spring. However there had been some issues with the calendar and when the changes were decided, the new calendar was implemented the next month, which happened to be January. That is how December went from being the tenth month (the prefix "deci" implies ten) to the twelfth month. As the new calendar was set, March had 31 days followed by alternating 30 and 31 day months except for the last month of the year which only had 29 days.

It stayed that way until Augustus Caesar died. When Julius Cesar was killed, his successor, Augustus later had the month of his birth renamed in his honor, July. When Augustus died, the roman senate conferred a similar honor on him. However with only 30 days in August and 31 in July, it could be considered a smite to Augustus and his family. So August was lengthened by a day and that Day was taken from February which was already a short month. The months after August were adjusted as well to keep the 31/30 pattern.

Another artifact of history is the diagonal measurement of television screens. Previous readers of my writings will know that TV tubes started off as round bottles with the screen being imaged on the bottom of the bottle. The size of the screen was the inner diameter of the bottle. Later this became the diagonal measurement we have today.

Comparing diagonals does give the consumer a straightforward picture of the relative sizes of display screens when all displays have the same aspect ratio. Until now, it has either been 4:3 and since 2005, 16:9 for televisions. Vizio has recently introduced a Cinema-wide TV with a 21:9 aspect ratio. I read a review that attributed the new aspect ratio as something sinister on Vizio's part, trying to inflate the size of their screen. The article listed the square inches of the screen against the area of a 16:9 screen of the same diagonal.

The truth is, in a world where there multiple aspect ratios, the consumer will need two numbers to describe the screen size. This can be height and width or diagonal and aspect, which the company provides, actually it is what Vizio is promoting. Sometimes the press can go a bit overboard. Giving the diagonal was never intended to be misleading or confusing. As with the days of the month, it started as a way to simplify before other events made it more complex. The Cinema-wide set is a great innovation and will be great for the consumer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why an Apple TV Set Will be Good for the Market

Once cell phones moved beyond alpha-numeric displays to high information content displays, they very rapidly evolved from being just a device to make phone calls to an interactive link between the cell phone user and the world. TV sets were, by nature, high information content. Although there have been improvements in the image quality, there have been scant developments in TV usage models that are native to the set itself. All of the development has been in the form of attachments to the set, leaving it as just a display. A priori, I would have expected video cameras to have been built into TV sets before being included in notebook or cell phone platforms. Much of the reason for this is the extreme cost competitiveness in the TV business. It is difficult to charge for anything added to the platform as the business is a constant phyrric battle for marketshare. As I have noted elsewhere, for the first 40 years of color TV set sales in the US, the average price never moved from $400. The average size did not change much either. Consumers were taught to expect every innovation and every improvement for free. This changed in the conversion to HDTV, but average prices paid have been gradually inching their way back down to $400.

Part of the blame has to also go with the platform's orientation around traditional content providers. This orientation is the answer to the question asked by the Washington Post, "so who is killing TV Innovation?" Apple's entry will spark a round of genuine innovation. More importantly, Apple will most probably charge for their innovations rather than give them away for marketshare. Presumably, this will give cover to other brands to also start charging for their innovations.

Ahead of Apple's entry, the incumbents are stepping up their own innovations. The connected TV idea (again attachment focused) has given way to "Smart TV". Vizio has introduced its Cinema-Wide TVs with aspect ratios that match theatrical display. Although much of TV promotion is based on published specs, features that the consumer can see always have more impact than features the consumer only reads about. When not in use showing a cinema-scope movie the extra acreage on the side of the TV screen can be put to use providing interactive or control features. This is much the same concern prompting the preference for 16:10 vs 16:9 for computing devices. The extra screen area provides for control functions without cropping the 16:9 broadcast image.

The image above is a relief of a battle between the Roman and Germanic Armies.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Bigger iPhone and a Smaller iPad

When the standard size for a notebook screen was 10.4”, I visited a PC maker that was planning to introduce a notebook with a 15” screen. The planned notebook was termed a “Resider”, too big to actually carry around. By the time 15” notebooks were introduced, bezels had gotten thinner and overall notebook technology had improved to the point where a 15” notebook could be carried around. However, the continued technological advance has indeed made the 15” class something of a resider. It is more and more likely that if you carry a computer around with you (other than your smart phone) it is a tablet with a significantly smaller screen. That screen will have many more pixels and much higher visual bandwidth than the 1990’s resider.

There is nothing magical about any particular screen size. It is a trade-off among the 3 dozen or so other factors by which a display will be measured. For mobile devices, cost, convenience, and battery life consumption are the main factors in the equation of which screen size is a result. As thinner and lighter notebooks allowed for bigger screens, thinner and lighter screens allow for bigger screens in smart phones. Improved resolution in screens allows for smaller screens with increased visual bandwidth in tablets.

The introduction of a bigger iPhone and smaller iPad, narrows the gap between smart phone and tablet devices ever so slightly. If rumors are to be believed, Apple initially rejected the idea of a sub 10” tablet due to the difficulty of inputting data (typing). That and the ability to conveniently be viewed by multiple viewers are the prime differences between a Tablet and smart phone today. As smart phones run into the resolution limit of the human eye, about 220 dpi for older folk, increasing the display size becomes necessary in order to run more visually complex apps and display advertising. However, although there is no magic barrier that determines what is a pocket sized device; smart phones are already quite large for most pockets.

In “The case for a flexible touch panel keyboard,” (published in Touch Panel, Sep 20, 2009), I make the case for a second, roll-out, screen for phones. The roll-out screen could serve as a keyboard or as the primary viewing device when there needs to be multiple viewers. Such a configuration would narrow the Tablet/Smartphone gap even further or eliminate it entirely. In other articles, I have argued that due to the increased cost, the market making application of OLED technology will be one that makes use of the technology’s physical flexibility. The scroll design will find some application long before it is needed to rescue the crew of an unfortunate Mars landing (reference the movie "Red Planet"). I expect that it will be a new form of the tablet rather than just as a display.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Short Reach Communications: Can we Talk?

Breaker-one-nine, short reach communications have been around for some time. They have also involved social networking, 10-4.

As digital signage becomes more talented in recognizing the consumer, is displaying "push" advertising on the screen the best way to interact with viewers. As home viewers sit in front of their TVs with their cell phones, how long until the TV learns to interact through the cell phone as well.

Cell Phones
There are four radio receive functions on a smart phone (Cellular, WiFi, Blue Tooth, and GPS). In addition the phone has other sensors that can be used to receive data (microphone, camera, touch panel, and motion sensor). In some cases the data rates are low, but the tiniest amounts of data can be used to set up a WiFi connection. The popular app Bump uses the phone’s GPS (providing location) and motion sensor (providing a time-stamp and impact signature) to set up a WiFi connection between two phones that are "bumped" into each other.

Smart phones also have a variety of data output options. There are the three radio output protocols Cellular, WiFi, and Blue Tooth). There is also the speaker, the display, and the camera flash. The display and speaker are principally for output to people and the camera flash is not principally a communications device at all. However, as with Bump’s use of the motion sensor, co-opting these as digital communications devices is foreseeable. Both inputs and outputs can be characterized by their data rate, range, and security (or sometimes more appropriately, privacy).

In addition to these channels there are others that could be added to the smart phone platform. Near Field Communications (NFC) is an updated version of RFID. It now comes in the traditional static version (conveying a never-changing ID for either the phone or the user) as well as an active version that is a genuine data link. Infrared (IR) data transfer used to be on the palm-top computers and some phones, but has mostly been dropped from the phone. Tablets, however, commonly do have an IR port as, of course, do TVs and remote controls.

TV and Signage
Currently, the most common mode of input from a person to their TV is via the IR link between the TV and remote control. In digital signage, it is either through a touch panel or the person accessing a displayed QSR code, opting in for more information. As signage grows smarter, the consumer’s very face becomes a mode of input as the signage recognizes the person to some degree (age, gender, etc.) and crafts specific content for that person. However, push advertising can be intrusive, especially if it singles out an individual in a public place. Even if a consumer opts in to interact with a digital sign, how best should they signal that and over what channels should the link be established. The sign could just display the requested content. It could also communicate via the consumer’s smart phone, not necessarily though the cellular or WiFi connection.

With the consumer's home TV, most cable systems have "push button to obtain more information" function. Advertisers do not use QSR codes as most sit to far from the TV to read a QSR with their camera phones. There is also the same question as in digital signage, should the requested information be put on the main display or delivered to the cell phone.

Conclusion Displaying push, or even opt-in information on the main display may not always be appropriate or welcome for either digital signage or TV. The cell phone offers a convenience and multiplicity of channels to deliver custom information securely and privately. Though the home TV solution does not necessarily have to be the digital signage solution, Having the same interactions at home and out of home would have some benefit. Particularly for the digital signage industry, some though should be given as to how interactions should take place.


Friday, August 17, 2012

My Top Ten Display Movies

1) Minority Report: “A Day Made of Glass” comes to fruition. Similar amounts of digital signage can be found in “Blade Runner,” “1984”, “Ultraviolet”. Actually ubiquitous display technology is a common theme in many science fiction movies. One question the movie raises... A store window is kind of a display itself. At what point does that real estate become too valuable to leave it as a window and stores in high traffic areas routinely cover the front of their business in digital signage. The image here is not from the movie but the present day Akihabara. In pricier areas of Tokyo, the signage is just as dense but has been some form of electronic display for some time.

2) Poltergeist: Your mother always warned you about watching TV in the dark. This movie shows how hazardous it can really be. Similar themes are in “The Ring,” “Videodrome.” Something evil coming out of the TV is again a common theme. Consumers will not necessarily want the screens they are passing buy to recognize them or try and interact with them without first being invited. As digital signage learns to recognize passers-by and launch custom "push" advertising, an older person would not necessarily want every sign they pass to flash an ad for adult diapers.

3) 2001 A Space Odyssey: Not a display-centric movie like the others but featured lots of computer graphics that had to be created by hand as the technology did not exist when the movie was made. It also conveys some of the dangers of home automation. In the movie, HAL has a holographic processor. His system design would more resemble a massively parallel GPU than a CPU. As the embedded processing power in a TV set increases, it would be expected that that brain power would be put to other uses.

4) Strange Days: The display has no screen but plays directly in your head. However, the display is not interactive, you just sit there and watch/experience. The 1983 movie “Brainstorm” is centered on a similar device. "The Matrix" was also centered on such a device but was highly interactive; it incorporates social networking as well. There is always a market for a more lifelike display, hence the current interest in 3D. Presumably holographic displays will come between now and such an invention. There is some current development work being done on "smellivision," expanding the sensory input of a TV. Being the most primitive of the human senses, smell/taste bypasses most of the higher, logical, functions of the brain and can elicit a purely emotional reaction. Some restaurants utilize this by purposely venting their kitchens out of the front of the store rather than the back. With a selective venting system or a device that could adsorb smells and selectively release them on-que and digital signage, it could be possible to both display and smell individual menu items electronically.

5) Stay Tuned: As things can come out of your TV such as in “Poltergeist”, you can also fall in.... Actually they fall into the satellite dish but wind up in the TV. "Tron" is also in this category. Virtual reality headsets can give the impression that you are inside a digital creation or at some remote location. (Inherently, this is what a flight simulator does.) However, repeated launches of near-to-eye product have met with a ho-hum from the consumer. My own belief is that a holographic solution is needed to get around eye strain issues.

6)Red Planet Again, not a display centric movie but it does feature a flexible high information content display. Although very different, Dick Tracy has a similar device. OK, Dick Tracy is more famous as a newspaper cartoon rather than a movie. However, it is probably many folks introduction to the idea of a cell phone. With all of the knobs, it definitely did not have a touch panel, but being located on his wrist and having a curved screen, it probably uses an OLED rather than an LCD; very hip. This August 20 headline from the NY Times shows just how hip, "The Next Wave for the Wristwatch."

7)V for Vendetta registers on three counts. With all of the public information displays in London wired to a central system, it shows the need for network security to avoid having the system hijacked. The characters in the movie also make extensive use of videoconferencing and one of the key scenes takes place in a bathroom that is amply fitted with TV screens.... I believe that bathroom TVs will be one of the consumer spin-offs of the experience gained weatherizing LCDs for outdoor digital signage and outdoor TV. TVs in the bathroom have been standard in Westin hotels for some time.

8)Snow White I mentioned earlier that a shop window is a kind of display; so are the mirrors, especially in a clothing store. I think that Digital Mirrors are an inevitability. They can be signage as well when they are not working as mirrors. For the more color conscious, they can also show the appearance of clothing under different lighting conditions and can show the consumer against different backgrounds. In the home, the bathroom medicine cabinet offers a standard footprint that is begging for a product.

9)Amazon Women on the Moon: This movie is very similar to "The Boob Tube" but strangely not at all like "Amazon Women in in the Avocado Jungle". In the era before High Definition Content Protection (HDCP) the order to "Defend Borders" was ultimately a failure. However, the brick and mortar retailers have been able to mount a defense against "showrooming".

10) Couldn't think of ten, other than using some of the duplicates mentioned earlier. Check back and I will add more if I think of them. Please feel free to make suggestions in the Comments section.

I expect electronic displays to become ubiquitous in urban environments. I also expect these display to become increasingly smart, interactive, and more engrossing as well. However, human privacy must be respected. I expect OLED technology to have the greatest impact in the mobile market. Also, I mentioned holography quite a bit.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Will CCFL Baklights be around Next Year

Cold Cathode Florescent Lamps (CCFLs) provide the light that most LCDs use to produce an image. Sometimes technology transitions are subtle and take place over many years. More often than not they are dramatic, sudden, and absolute.... especially in display technology. Sam Matsuno of DisplaySearch, first came to prominence when he described the tipping point when LCDs would not only start replacing CRTs but that the transition would proceed rapidly. In notebook technology, the transition from the market being 80% monochrome to being 95% color only took about 9 months. (The transition from 4:3 to 16:10 followed a similar path.) Color LCDs reached a tipping point where there ceased to be any cost advantage to monochrome. Now we may have just such a tipping point in LCD backlights. "CCFL and LED price gap closes as CCFL costs explode"

For the CCFL suppliers to this market, "I just want to celebrate another day of livin, " from the band Rare Earth.


OLEDs and Swords

At my undergraduate college, one of the first things you are given to do in materials science lab is to make a small version of a samurai sword. Though the student body is certainly smart enough and they understand the principles, no one ever makes one that works, at least not to my knowledge. Success depends on getting the edge of the sword to follow the water quenching curve on the diagram while the time-temperature-transformation profile of the back of the sword more resembles the air cooling curve. Of course, the entire sword has to be water quenched at once. There is a story about a samurai sword maker that cut off the hand o his apprentice when the apprentice stuck his hand in the quench water to see what temperature it was; the water temperature was a secret that the master was not ready to reveal. The diagram above is referred to as a Time-Temperature-Tansformation (TTT) curve.

The entire process is very dynamic and analysis of the end product does not necessarily tell you what went on. The problem with a student sitting down and figuring this all out is that there are multiple variables and the entire process is very non-linear; the difference between being very close and being a million mils away is not always apparent. Sometimes it does not matter how smart you are, you have to have the right recipe. That is why a number of companies have sprung up in silicon valley that offer a process for testing multiple micro-samples at once, to speed up the process of finding the right recipe. This differs substantially from a normal product development where all of the sub-components can be tested separately. A valley VC that specializes in materials based companies once told me that he never actually invests in a company that has yet to complete their materials development. This is in part, why there are so few technical glass companies in the world. A lot depends on their experience and catalog of recipes (glass chemistry, furnace chemistry, heat treating, etc.) that they have built up over time. Sometimes tramp chemical elements in the parts per billion range can have a dramatic effect on the product outcome. As semi-conductor makers are aware, softly whispering the word alkali in the fab can put enough sodium in the product to kill production. It was a parts per billion chemistry issue (with a phosphor poison) that originally put Westinghouse, the inventor of the active matrix LCD, out of the TV business.

OLED process development has exactly the same issues.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Glass can be Hard for Digital Signage

Tutorial: Samurai Swords
Many crystalline structures actually get stronger under compression rather than weaker. A samurai sword is actually made from a straight piece of metal. It is the heat treating that causes the distinctive curvature and it is the heat treating that is responsible for the incredible sharpness. Iron forms different crystal structures at different temperatures and, like water, forming a new crystal structure at a lower temperature sometimes mean a volumetric expansion rather than contraction as in water to ice. The samurai sword heat treating process involves freezing in one crystal structure on the cutting edge of the blade while the body of the sword first contracts (forming the curvature) then goes through a final transition where it wants to expand. This leaves the edge under permanent compression and enables the edge to be polished to incredible levels of sharpness. Even though the process is centuries old, the metallurgy was not understood until the 1970s as nothing is at equilibrium. The image above is from the movie “Kill Bill” which provides ample demonstration of just how sharp samurai swords can be.

This principle of having the surface under compression from the internal structure is also used in glass. Correlle dinner ware is made from two separate glasses, a high expansion inner glass and a lower expansion outer glass. After the plates are formed from molten glass, the inner glass wants to contract more than the outer glass leaving the outer glass under compression. In chemically strengthened glass the outer layer compression is accomplished by substituting some of the atoms in the surface layer with atoms of a larger ionic diameter. Stuffing in these larger atoms leaves into the glass lattice leaves the surface under compression. In tempered glass, the compressive layer is due to freezing in an expanded, high temperature structure on the outside, while the interior cools more slowly and wants to contract.

Just on its own, glass can be pretty hard. Making it thicker makes it more rigid and less likely to break. The extra thickness can be either a monolithic structure or a laminate. It can also be over coated with materials that are even harder. Finally, for many applications, you can use a transparent plastic. Each approach has pluses and minuses.

Until now, glass has been the only material used in mainstream high information content displays. The displays themselves are going into different environments and designers of both digital signage and mobile devices (solar as well) are having to comprehend issues that they have never had to deal with before. This posting delves into some of these issues.

Coverglass Choices
Chemically strengthened glass can be made ultra-thin and is most commonly used on mobile devices where thinness is at a premium. However, the forming processes for very thin glass are limited and the ion exchange process to do the chemical strengthening is slow and therefore expensive. Also, the chemical strengthening must be done after cutting the pieces to size, further adding to the expense. (An earlier version of this post inadvertently stated the opposite. However the point is that the processing must be dome with individual parts rather than a motherglass, adding to the expense.) A Correlle-like structure could be tried but if you have ever owned Correlle, you may be aware that although the bi-glass structure works well, it does not work particularly well on the edges or any corners. Also, when the glass does break, due to the stored energy of the purpose built-in stress, it tends to shatter. (A well known book on WWII, concerns the Japanese defeat at Midway, “Shattered Sword”. The title of the book refers to the tendency of a well made samurai swords to shatter rather than just chip or bend.) Particularly for digital signage applications having a cover glass shatter rather than just break could be a consumer issue.

Tempered glass can not be used for LCDs due to the pattern of birefringence the tempering leaves in the glass. Birefringence is a polarization dependent optical effect that would interact with the polarized light coming from an LCD. An LCD viewed through thermally tempered glass would appear to have a mottled image. Coating the glass with an even harder substance is an option. But here again, the product would have optical issues. As far as I know, every material that you could coat the glass with has a higher index of refraction than glass. This would result in increased surface reflections.

Why not use Plastic?
Years ago, I read an article title “The Dream of an All-Plastic Car”. The article was published in ine of the chemical industry magazines and covered opportunities such as plastic bodies and plastic windows. However, it turns out that the dream of an all plastic car was the chemical companies’ dream, not the auto makers or consumers. There were a few models made with plastic bodies and one made with one plastic window (the side window on the back of a CRX. However, plastic does not age very well in the sun and has very very limited abrasion resistance. The auto industry did largely move to plastic headlamp covers. However, these often turn cloudy after a few years and the the cloudy appearance would not be acceptable for a window or auto-body.

Plastic does not have nearly the hardness of glass and can’t handle even moderate levels of abrasion without a grossly diminished finish. It also degrades under UV.

Plate Glass for Digital Signage
Currently, in the digital signage industry, most use plate glass to protect their signage where it is required (anywhere the public can actually touch the screen). UL provides a minimal level of guidance as to the thickness with its ball drop test. Meeting UL 6950 requires about 2mm of chemically strengthened glass or about 2.5mm of plate glass. Other architectural or automotive standards (ASTM or SAE) or practices may be applied leading to thicker glass and site architects my specify vandal-proof or even bullet-proof levels of protection. Thicknesses in actual use in the industry range up to 13mm, frequently either bonded to the LCD or two separate pieces of glass laminated together. The lamination adds strength and also protects the public from broken pieces should he cover glass do break.

The UL standard is a strength standard rather than a dimensional one that buyers of digital signage can test for, non-destructively. It provides minimal protection. Other standards may come from the architectural community, the materials suppliers, or groups like the SAE that are used to dealing with glass safety. However, it would be beneficial if the digital signage industry were to agree internally on standards for both product and consumer protection.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is the "Killer App" for Smart TV

When IBM fist introduced its PC, Apple placed a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal saying that they were glad that this happened and how it would be great for the PC market. Of course it was great; but after having the market virtually to itself, Apple's own share of the PC market shrank well below 5% before rebounding on Apple's strength in other products. As with any technology, radical change is needed to keep the technology fresh. But radical change is frequently a great hazard to the major incumbents.

The first computers were behemoths. They were physically large and had very large, in many cases water cooled, specialized processors. Later, came both smaller computers (mini's and PCs) as well as even larger supercomputers. The supercomputers initially had specialized central processing units (CPUs) as well but eventually the high performance computing (HPC) world figured out that they could make very effective supercomputers using arrays of generalized processors, such as what was found in PCs, acting in parallel. Indeed, many of the more interesting problems that supercomputers were destined to work on were more appropriately addressed by parallel processing than by one large, supercharged, CPU. This contributed to the decline of companies like Cray and the rise of Intel in the HPC world.

Eventually the idea of parallel process was carried a step further. The generalized PC CPUs in supercomputers began to be replaced by Graphics processing units (GPU's) that are themselves inherently parallel. Most supercomputers being built today are being powered by GPUs rather than CPUs and the world's fastest is being created with GPUs. As the use of GPUs beyond the basic application of image rendering has grown, so too has the population of programmers familiar with GPU programing.

And how does this relate to television??? With the arrival of LCDs and digital images came digital image processing. There is a significant amount of computing going on in the background of your LCD in order to deliver the image that you see. In addition, TVs have gotten "Smart" with the introduction of such features as voice, facial, and gesture recognition requiring modern TVs to significantly boost their computing power. Although TVs remain as one of the most price constrained of any consumer electronics platform, they are also one of the most given to being sold based on specs. TV brands have done battle based on brightness, color fidelity, contrast, thinness, etc. What would happen if the industry borrowed a page from the computer world and started competing based on processor speed. Probably not much unless there were some application to drive it.

The Killer App
MiniTel was recently switched off. For those of you that are unaware of MiniTel, it was the first internet-like service. It was the brainchild of France Telecom and was up and running in the mid 1980's before there was an internet. I saw MiniTel and thought it was a useful but fairly limited service, which it was. However, what I failed to see was how such a service could blossom going from a limited and centralized service to the inherently decentralized internet of today. So, given my admitted limited abilities to comprehend technological advancement, here are some applications that I think will drive smart TV sales in the future.

Social Interaction
As TVs became cheap and the nation went from one TV per household to one TV per room, watching television went from a family affair to a solitary activity. Indeed, the whole social media revolution has bypassed TV for the time being. As sets gain in computing power and input devices are added (cameras and microphones) TV sets could adopt some of the same applications as in the mobile phone market. Also, similar to what is going on in social media in general, user generated content could become a significant part of what gets viewed.

2D to 3D Upconversion
At some point 3D will become common and even usual. At that point, most content will still be in 2D and with the market for 3D content growing, there will be, or is now, a market to convert 2D content to 3D. As with colorization of black and white films, the initial results may be less than spectacular, but as an audience grows up with an expectation of 3D availability someone will satisfy that need.

Home Automation
Some years ago I was involved in fundraising for a start-up called Toprover. I was able to get Mr. Jobs to look at it (he apparently visited their web site several times) but he apparently did not bite. What Toprover had was a comprehensive home automation program and device. It actually made use of large HDTV screens with a comprehensive control panel and had enough embedded computing power to do all sorts of useful things around the home. Like 3D, I consider home automation to be an inevitability. I think that control modules, device intelligence and communications are cheap and easy enough that now could be the time.

Voice and Gesture Control
Another inevitable technology, however, it can be more than an improvement to the remote control. As with Pandora, increased feedback from the user could tailor suggested content, switch the image to different perspectives, maybe even customize general content in some way. This could include changing the visual perspective on image content, customizing the news to skip uninteresting matters or provide more detail on others, or customized weather reports for the particular micro-climate in your neighborhood. As with most things involved with display technology, the innovations are not as likely to be involved with an improved display as with improved human interaction.

This article began with a longish introduction, mostly about the development of computing power, particularly the development of parallel processors useful in image processing and now other applications. What followed was some speculation about what sort of applications this computing power could be put to use on, most of which I consider inevitable. However, this is coming from an observe that did not see the seeds to the internet in Minitel. I have, however, had my share of prognostications including the rapid increase in pixel count for mobile devices. ("The case for a flexible touch panel keyboard", in Touch Panel, Sep 20, 2009) No doubt at some point the rise in available processing power will enable holographic 3D; but no time soon. However, there undoubtedly will be other apps that are completely new that few can envision now.

From the movie "The Meaning of Life"
Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: "The Meaning of Life" Now uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive...
... However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?

The image above is from the movie "The Ring" about a videotape that will kill you if you watch it.

A Projection Avatar Lands at La Guadia

At La Guardia, a Smiling Helper Materializes, Digitally

" Marie is an avatar, a life-size image of a woman digitally broadcast from a projector onto an inch-thick glass screen coated with a special film, said Luis Vega, 39, the vice president of Parabit Systems, the company that built Marie. The device uses motion sensors to prompt Marie’s 90-second script whenever anyone comes within 30 feet of her. Marie stopped many travelers in their tracks on Wednesday morning, and some walked a circle around her to see how she worked. Others took photos. “I thought it was really a person at first glance,” said Alex Reiss, 21...."

Of course, the image is flat, and it is restricted to whatever shape the glass cut-out is (so the person filmed for the content must remain still) but it does look quite a bit like the holographic images from the "Star Wars" movies. Being able to see behind the image gives the illusion of 3D. One was on display at Digital Signage Expo and attracted a lot of attention.

Airports were early users of public electronic information displays, even before the flat panel era. It is not surprising that they would adopt this unique but somewhat expensive but striking technology. Projection type displays are increasingly "off the radar" in many markets. However, that may be due to not having quite the right product as projection can still provide great value and unique form factors.

The placing of this particular technology at the airports around New York give some indication of just how large the digital signage market can be. In-spite of the substantial price, the avatar does not replace a person as having a person there full time would be unaffordable. This bit of digital signage provides a new service at an affordable cost even at tens of thousands. Simpler signage can be envisioned at virtually every sort of commercial outlet even down to the smallest mom & pop.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Digital Signage as a Retail product

From Today's
"Is the future of digital signage for sale, retail?"
"LG Electronics USA recently announced that it had struck a deal with retailer Fry's Electronics Inc. to feature an LG digital signage solution at the chain's 34 nationwide locations and on the retailer's website."

In an earlier article "Unaccounted and Digital Signage" (High Resolution November 13, 2009, I argued that the LCD makers should produce a dual mode LCD platform, one that is capable of performing both as digital signage and as a consumer TV. LG actually has offered such a product and has now gone a step further, the important step, in offering digital signage displays through an electronics retailer. This solves several important problems both for the LCD maker, for brick and mortar retailers, and for the consumer.

With TV volumes stagnant and with increasing sales through on-line retailers, digital signage sales offer a new category and new volume to the retailer. Digital signage LCDs, with all of their unique features such as extra brightness for outdoors, offer a new up-sell opportunity for the retailer to home TV set consumers. For the digital signage purchaser, availability of digital signage displays through local retail outlets offer immediate availability of both displays for new installations, spares availability, and lower overall distribution costs. For the TV Set consumer, digital signage in retail offers the opportunity to take advantage of some of the digital signage features, some of which may not be so obvious.

I have previously argued on one of the digital signage LinkedIN blogs that since most large TVs are delivered (either by purchase on-line or by brick and mortar store delivery) to the home, Individual packaging for TVs was somewhat wasteful. With retail availability of digital signage, presumably, some of the signage will come in multi-packs and I would expect 55" and larger TVs to be available in multi-packs as well.

Beyond that, as I have related elsewhere, At Digital Signage Expo, I asked one of the display industry luminaries if digital signage could ever be as big for the display industry as TV. He gave me a blank stare and could not answer. With US growth rates (in number of screens deployed per year) exceeding 30% through the recession, certainly going forward the volumes could be substantial. Channeling much of this volume through retail will re-energize the entire TV category and lead to increased innovation as new features that are first introduced in commercial product, find their way into the home. In the end, the decision to offer signage through retail may be the biggest innovation in TV since the introduction of flat panels.