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Ciciora’s Corner - Be amazed ...

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 2:03am
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Apparently there was amazing stuff on display at CES this year.

Walt S. CicioraI wish I had gone to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year. Apparently there was some amazing stuff on display. Last year was incredibly busy from a number of perspectives, and several family members decided to go on a cruise (fortunately the ship didn’t sink), so I was in the Caribbean during CES.

Apparently HDTV is old stuff now. According to USA Today, HDTV receivers are now in 87 percent of U.S. homes, even if some of those homes don’t have HDTV programming. An earlier article said that the manufacturers and retailers are struggling to survive. There is production overcapacity, large inventories and falling prices. So it’s time for more innovation to “recapitalize the living room.”

The big bucks are in the displays. So that’s where the focus is (hard to avoid accidental puns). Apparently 3-D is a disappointment. It hasn’t quite fallen flat (oh, stop it). It just hasn’t taken off. Some folks get headaches, and the glasses are an expensive pain. Part of the headache is due to the brain and eyes struggling to focus on a flat surface while attempting to see an image in three dimensions. Some people have problems with this.

Recently, Sharp introduced displays with four colors in each pixel – the usual red, green and blue (RGB), plus yellow. A bright yellow is a bit of a challenge with just RGB. You might want to ask for a demonstration of this the next time you are in a consumer electronics store. I have to admit that my eyes didn’t see a huge difference. But, then, I don’t see that much difference when my wife asks about which paint shade to choose.

Three other trends are higher field rates, LEDs and size. The normal (transmitted) field rate is 60 per second. There are TVs that compute this up to 120 fields per second, and even 240 fields per second. The least expensive LCD TVs have a noticeable judder during rapid pans that doesn’t appear on the higher field rate sets. You might also look for that the next time you’re in the store.

LED backlighting has been around, even sectioned backlighting that attempts to get higher contrast ratio by dimming in the dark areas. High-contrast ratio causes a subjective impression of sharpness. And LCD displays have had a problem with the blacks not being black enough. The more exciting news is over organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays. They are thinner, brighter, lighter and have a much higher contrast ratio. They have virtually none of the blur of LCDs. From the manufacturers’ and retailers’ perspectives, they are still expensive and have higher margins.

Size does matter. Eighty-inch displays are now offered. That’s more than twice the screen area of my 55-inch display. If my arithmetic is right, that’s almost 6 feet wide (69.7 inches) and a little more than 3 feet high (39 inches). That’s huge. This begs the question of whether it’s so big that HDTV isn’t good enough. HDTV with progressive scan has 1080 lines with 1,920 pixels each. That’s just over 2 million pixels. How many pixels does your digital still camera have? Even my cell phone camera has 3.2 megapixels. Anything less in a dedicated digital camera would be an embarrassment. Yet we expect to spread 2 megapixels across an 80-inch display and be happy about it.

This brings us to the next big thing in television: Super HDTV. Four times the resolution is being considered – twice the horizontal and twice the vertical. For reasons I can’t understand, this is called 4K TV, with the ordinary HDTV termed 2K. The Toshiba model Regza 55X3 is a 55-inch display with twice the vertical and horizontal resolution and an interesting feature. This receiver puts its extra resolution to work giving you glasses-free 3-D in ordinary HDTV. A lenticular sheet is placed on the screen. Face recognition is used to identify where viewers are located, and the image is adjusted to provide 3-D viewing. Nine viewers can be simultaneously supported. This requires some explanation. If it works, it will be amazing.

Of course, the availability of these higher resolutions begs the question of where is the programming? And how will the programming be provided? Where will the bandwidth come from, especially in broadcast? Two issues: How much bandwidth will this require, and will it be done in a compatible manner? Or will we need another simulcast exercise?

Advanced compression technology may be the answer. My first HDTV camcorder used tape and pushed the limits of technology too far. After a few hours of use (but after the warrantee expired), the tape mechanism failed, and it seemed pointless to have it fixed. My new HDTV camcorder cost just 30 percent of the original and uses 32G memory chips. The pictures are amazing. So there is hope for a reasonable way to squeeze Super HDTV into reasonable bandwidth. It’s just the question of phasing it in, and whether to phase out the old technology and how to handle the transition.

It doesn’t get simpler, does it?

E-Mail: wciciora@ieee.org

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