Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More is Better II (more of the same)

An old joke…. A man sees another man standing under a streetlight staring forlornly at the ground. The first man asks, “What’s wrong”? The second responds, “I dropped my car keys and can’t find them.” The first man looks at the pavement, clean and uncluttered, no sign of the keys. He asks the second man, “Are you sure you dropped them here?” The second man responds, “No I dropped them over there”, pointing off in the darkness. The first man, confused, asks, “Then why are you looking here?” The second man responds, “The light is better here.” (Image from Monk Wisdom.)

The joke is an illumination of the sometimes absurdity of looking for answers in a place of convenience rather than where you are most likely to find them. I once worked on a product, an optical film that had severe manufacturing issues. Unfortunately the work group was arranged so that all of the chemists were on the east coast where the factory was located and all of the optics expertise was on the west coast. The factory continued to look for a chemical solution to what proved to be an optical issue until the business was closed, a possible optical solution waiting, untried.

The LCD and TV industries do not have fatal issues keeping the product from the market, but the industries do suffer from a lack of innovation. Tim Cook’s recent pronouncement, “When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years” refers to a product that has some considerable staleness. If you follow the industry, there has been no lack of innovation, but much of it has been as effective as looking under a random streetlight instead of looking at the issues. Indeed, Tim Cook’s own company is guilty of this. In a previous posting, “More is Better”, I refer to the continued growth in pixel count in mobile devices when they obviously have severe sunlight viewability problems. Although a shortage of pixels was a real impediment to running complex apps (Graff Spee) for mobile devices, that seems to be a solved problem as pixel densities exceed human eye resolution.

In TV there have been even more innovations: ever improved image processing algorithms, “Connected TV,” “Smart TV”, 3D, and as if the TV also suffered from a pixel deficit 4K. Raymond Soneira deals with the efficacy of the 4K set quite succinctly in “Your existing HDTV is already a true 'Retina Display' ” . 3D seems to have arrived ahead of its time. “Connected TV” and “Smart TV” seem to be getting some yawns from Apple that, if Mr. Cook is to be taken seriously, has a mind to upend those developments. As to the algorithms, every digital manipulation of the image leaves its own set of digital artifacts. Particularly, as now when people are watching both digital and analog content, the digital manipulation of faces can leave a flat and cartoonish image with the wrong content source. Further the delay caused by the image manipulation can leave the picture out of synch with the sound if the sound source is not the TV itself. Interestingly, on higher end sets, they frequently have a gaming mode where you can turn off the image manipulation to keep the delay from disrupting your game. In many cases, video content looks better in gaming mode as well.

If you look historically at what innovations in LCD and TV have and have not made a difference, there is something of a pattern. In CRT real improvements were made with improved design: Trinitron and Black matrix, improved materials: invar shadow masks, black (36% transmission glass), new sources: cable and the vcr, and an improved usage model: home theater. There were also, of course more minor tweaks in design and materials as well as such things as Picture in Picture (PIP) the came and went. In LCD there was improved design: IPS and overdrive, improved materials: BEF, LED backlights and the optical rubbing that enabled multi domain, improved usage models: touch and going to wide screen, and any number of other innovations that have yet to leave a substantial permanent mark. Although there are occasionally electronic manipulations that prove to be indispensable such as overdrive, the big changes are frequently the introduction of new materials that materially change the optics of the device.

The TV may be in for a round of innovation as Apple threatens to fundamentally re-think the TV usage model. If Apple follows true to form, they will certainly push the technologies but will not hinge their new product on fundamentally new technology or more pedestrian approaches such as improved software. In Digital Signage, there is substantial room for innovation as well. Though it is still common for new implementers of Digital Signage to use TVs, the design requirements are different. Indeed, even for purpose built Digital signage screens, many of the design trade-offs embodied in current LCD production are optimize around the TV application but may not fit well with the varying environments and applications of Digital Signage. A re-thinking of digital signage design may be in order and some of that re-thinking may find its way into the general TV market as well. Much of this may be connected with the optics and materials used in the display rather than just the electronics.

Of the more prominent hiccups with the iPhone 5, two of the three (the choice of the sapphire lens cover and the anodized aluminum case) involved some new materials experimentation. The original choice of Gorilla Glass, is a materials experiment that went well; it was helped by the glass expertise of those familiar with that materials system. The challenges of mobile devices are different from the challenges digital signage but the idea of looking for a solution in the materials may be common. This does not mean waiting for IGZO or large size OLED technology to come down in price.

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