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CICIORA’S CORNER: Display technology evolves

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 8:10pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

It’s hard to believe, but video display technologies continue to accelerate. It’s time again to visit the consumer electronics store and see what’s available and try to figure out what that means for cable.

Walter S. CicioraMost recently, the LCD displays seem to have taken over, and the plasma flat panels are in the minority, with the projection sets further disadvantaged in the competition. They are nearly all “full HDTV,” meaning 1080p. The really big displays are still plasma and projection, but the LCDs are rapidly catching up. And while all of these displays used to show a lot of pixelization just a couple of years ago, the pictures are now very clean. You can still see some of the older display problems in the frequent flier lounges of some airports. Ethernet and even USB ports are becoming common on high-end products.

The progress in consumer electronics displays will translate into even keener competition between video service providers for the best video. We can expect a video-quality horsepower race to develop. Those who “dumb down” the video quality to save bandwidth will lose out to those who have the best video. It’s important to keep up with what our subscribers will be using to view our services. Bigger and better translates into more intense scrutiny of our video.

The consumer electronics industry provides an interesting example of the response to competition. Just a few years ago, projection sets based on the micro-mirror chip were popular. They were bigger and much less expensive than the flat panels and had a video quality advantage over some of them.

Because the quality of panels has gone way up and the prices have gone way down, the projection sets have lost nearly all of their former advantages. So the micro-mirror producers need other competitive advantages. First, they need to remove a major disadvantage – the expensive lamps that need to be periodically replaced are on the way out. High-intensity LEDs will end that problem. But still, something more is needed to capture the consumer’s attention. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, a new feature was shown: “His and Her” TV. Because the micro-mirror displays are very fast, two channels can be interleaved on the same display, switching between the two video streams. The viewers can separate the two images using LCD glasses that are synchronized to the display. Both viewers can watch the same display device and see their own separate programming. This is very clever. There are even commercially-available television receivers which will display in three dimensions using the same technique to provide left and right eye images.

This responds to the recent popularity of 3D movies in theaters. Who knows if this will be enough to extend the life of these micro-mirror displays? But the competition is fun to watch, and it’s a bit sobering to try to understand what it means for our industry.

Just a few years earlier, flat panel TVs were extremely expensive and in the minority. They were all plasma and, if they were high-definition, they were the 720p version. Most of the TVs were still cathode ray tube (CRTs).

A historical note from about four years ago: my aunt’s television tuner failed and she asked for my advice. The TV would only tune channels in the upper part of the VHF and all of the UHF range. I realized that part of the tuner failed and that fixing it would be very difficult. Because the receiver was quite old, faithfully providing service for well over a decade, I knew that getting parts would be nearly impossible. A friend has a cute way of stating this particular problem. He says that it’s built with a rare element called “unobtainium,” meaning that we simply couldn’t obtain the part even if we wanted to. This venerable old TV had a built-in VCR, making it easy for her to play videotapes and not worry about connections and which remote control to use. So I looked for a TV with a built-in VCR. Even then, I couldn’t find one. The TVs either had no VCR or came with both a VCR and a disc player built in. The disc player in the TV we selected did CDs, MP3s, video CDs and DVDs of all flavors. There were even a series of sockets for digital camera cards – all this for about $250. Amazing! If that TV were to fail, we likely wouldn't be able to find one with a built-in VCR anymore. They are almost all stand-alone flat panel sets now.

As an interesting tribute to the vacuum tube, see: www.grump.org/2008/01/on-elegance-of-homemade-vacuum-tubes.html. This Web video clip shows a French hobbyist making a triode vacuum tube in his home shop. The steps are fascinating. He eventually puts his homemade triode on a curve tracer and displays its characteristics. He also made a radio receiver out of his homemade vacuum tubes. The video runs about 17 minutes. (But no home-made television receiver yet.)

wciciora@ieee.org

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