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High-Definition at the Turning Point

It has now been more than six years since the official start of HDTV broadcasting back in October of 1998. Since then weve seen many firsts for the new technology. Whether it is a sports event or championship, a regular series program, a movie, a special, a parade, a political convention, the Olympics or a concert, chances are it has been broadcast in HD by now. Hi-Def can be received, displayed, stored, recorded, time-shifted, and it isnt even all that expensive. What was once something available to and affordable by only a limited high-end clientele is now quite affordable, something for most any room in the house and available in terms of programming from sources that seem to increase almost daily.

OK, there are still some things to be overcome. We still await resolution on what format (or formats) will be used for optical format distribution of hi-def programming, and decisions on a firm analog turn-off date and other things that the FCC, Congress or the courts will have to deal with. But, at a quick glance, it would seem that HD is done, right?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. While the digital television transition has come a long way since the early experimental demonstrations of the 1980s to todays HD is Everywhere, there is still a long way to go. While the digital transition is a fact, and the switch to HD is inevitable, as another new year was marked by yet another International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early last month, it is clear that while there is no turning back, HDTV is at a turning point.

What defines this turning point? It may perhaps be the fact that while within a few years we may have no choice other than digital and high-definition TV, CES symbolized better than any event before the number of choices one can turn to in purveying HD.

Manufacturers are giving us all, designer/installers and consumers alike, a wide range of choices. How we, as the collective marketplace choose from among those options will define the direction HD will take in the next five years. That is to say things are turning, and we are at the wheel that determines the direction of the change.

The Future of CRT. One turning point that has certainly been passed is the transition from CRT to microdisplay-based rear-screen projection systems. Yes, CRT-based RPTVs are still available in most manufacturers lines, and they represent both a strong value and credible image delivery system. However, the appeal of thinner, brighter DLP, LCD and LCoS RPTV systems marks a turning point for certain. The end of CRT products in that category is as inevitable as it has been in front-projection, with perhaps 24 to 36 months as a timeline for a full change over to fixed-pixel systems.

Choosing the Microdisplay Winner. To be determined as much by the marketplace as by the brands is which way the microdisplay world will turn. Texas Instruments has created a strong branding identity for sets containing DLP light engines, emulating the successful Intel Inside campaign. To strike back and help protect its market share, the brands offering LCD-based sets have banded together under the 3LCD banner, with Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, Epson, Sanyo and Fujitsu General among those leading the charge. Pointing to the benefits of using three light valves instead of a single imager and a color wheel, and promoting what they perceive as the benefits of LCD over other imaging solutions, this promotional blitz will attempt to influence your customers to the technology and the brands that offer it.

Will the 3LCD consortium help turn sales one way or another? At this point it is hard to tell. At the very least, it points to a critical need for you and your sales staff to be able to address the benefits of the technologies that you sell, and why in your estimation one or the other is proper for a given installation. If you let the vendors do all of the work for you, the results may be uncomfortable.

Be assured that TI will not let this turn customers away, and they will continue to press their agenda. Responses from them will continue to make it a technology horse race, and new products featuring 1920×1080 native DLP chips will stoke the fires. TI will also press what they see as better life span and reliability for DLP over LCD. Which way will the customer dollars turn? To some degree that is up to you.

An interesting turning point for DLP that was on display at CES were some pocket projectors using three high-intensity LEDs as a light source for the projector, eliminating the color wheel and light bulb. At the moment, these units have neither the brightness or image size and quality to make them viable for home theater applications, but their appearance may mark a future turning point for smaller projectors that use less power and eliminate bulb replacement costs. Another turning point that marks the maturity of DLP is TIs change to a more logical nomenclature system that moves away from the confusion HD-2 and HD-3 designations to a system that is based on the chips resolution and its features. This will be a change for some of your more knowledgeable clients, so be prepared for this and work with your DLP set suppliers to get the details.

Some observers were prepared for CES to mark a turning point for LCoS, but those predicting the turn to be down and away were somewhat surprised. Yes, Intel has bowed out of LCoS, but others such as JVC, Brillian and Sony (with their SXRD technology) are very much in the game with LCoS or derivative takes on the basic technology. All do, or will, have 1920×1080 RPTV sets using LCoS, and other brands are lurking in the background. Dont count LCoS out; here, the turning point may be in an unexpected direction, right back into the thick of the marketplace. All three of these brands had stunning sets in Las Vegas that were very much the match for DLP- and LCD-based products.

Which Flat-Panel Display Will Rule? While the public obsessed about the worlds largest 102-inch-wide PDP from Samsung, and the 71-inch-wide PDP from LG and 80-inch-wide PDP from Samsung that will reach the market in the months ahead, the real action is in the popular sizes. For the year ahead, 50 inches wide and above will remain almost the sole province of PDP, despite a 65-inch-wide LCD shown by Sharp and a 57-incher shown by Samsung. In the mid-40-inch size range, LCD will not yet be able to compete with the 42-inch-wide ED-PDP panels that are widely available at retail under $2,000.

Where everyone is waiting for a turning point, however, is to see what happens when new Gen.6, Gen.7 and even Gen.8 LCD fabrication plants come on line during the next 18 months. At last years show it was widely expected that lower cost LCD panels in the 46-inch-wide and 47-inch-wide sizes would be offered from brands sourcing their glass modules in Taiwan. That didnt happen last year, but by the end of 2005 those larger panels may well enter the market with potentially disruptive effect. Pricing is already starting to drop dramatically for LCD panels in 30-inch-wide panels and throughout the 20-inch-wide to 26-inch-wide size ranges. There, where PDP cannot effectively compete, you will either need to bring in a low-cost brand or be prepared to validate the cost of the products you do carry against commodity products. Not an impossible task, but again you have to be prepared to do it.

A potential turning point? At CES, a Sharp spokesman said that this would be the year that the pricing for a 45-inch-wide LCD will match that for a 50-inch-wide PDP. Be prepared to adjust your inventory and sales pitch as things develop. Another possible turning point in this category? As the newer fabs come on line to economically churn out large-size LCD direct-view displays, look for the current capacity that is freed up to be put to work to result in dramatically reduced pricing for LCD displays in the under-20-inch category. As this happens you will have more freedom to convince customers to replace existing small-screen, direct-view CRT sets in bedrooms, kitchens and other non-critical viewing areas with thinner displays that are HDTV compatible. This is a turning point, for certain.

Indeed, some might see the spread of more affordable small-size, HD-ready, direct-view LCD as a turning point that will mark the beginning of the end for the oldest form of video display, direct-view CRT. Perhaps, but that old dog is not going to give up without a fight. Of particular interest in the Samsung and LG booths at CES were CRTs using new technology that enables CRTs to shrink about six inches, with the end result being a 30-inch-wide, HD-resolution direct-view set that is well under 16 inches deep, where todays sets are almost 22 inches deep. Look for these tubes to appear in production products this year, and to deliver yet another option to you for secondary viewing locations.

The Arrival of SED Displays. A final turning point in the world of displays was the first North American appearance of an SED display, co-developed by Toshiba and Canon. The invitation-only preview revealed that when this technology hits the market late this year it may well be a true turning point. SED is an acronym for Surface Conduction Electronic-Emitter Display, and a quick way to explain it would be to visualize a panel with the phosphor coating and individual pixel cells of a PDP, but with an individual micro-emitter lighting the pixel cell rather than gas driven to a plasma state. The benefits are increased brightness and contrast, a lack of the various artifacts that plague both PDP and LCD, and power consumption that is 40 percent less than an LCD and less than a third that of a plasma. In a word, the image quality was stunning. SED will be a premium-priced product, but that wont scare your early adopter clients away at all. The pictures will be well worth the cost. If production technology delivers the promised cost reductions, SED promises to be more than a turning point, it is a classic example of a disruptive technology.

Satellite Distribution Changes. Beyond displays, there were some HD announcements at CES that will mark further turning points throughout the year. In the world of satellite distribution, a major turning point will come later in the year when both DirecTV and EchoStar move from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 as their compression scheme. There is both good and bad news in that. The good news is that the increased efficiency of MPEG-4 will enable more channels to be transmitted in the available bandwidth, in turn, meaning that along with more satellites in their fleets, the two DBS competitors will be able to offer many more HD channels, including the first satellite-delivered local into local HD stations.

More HD, and more local HD over satellite is great, as is increased DVR capacity from current hard drive sizes. The downside, however, is that the HD receivers currently being offered by both services are not MPEG-4 compatible, and all will have to be replaced. It remains to be seen how DirecTV and EchoStar will handle this, particularly for your clients who may have just plunked down close to a grand for an HD-capable, satellite receiver/DVR set-top.

The HD Packaged Media Fight. Yet another turning point for HD will come when pre-recorded packaged media content is available in an optical media form. This means that yet another thing that will push the HD revolution forward will be HD programming on DVD. It appears that we will see just that before the end of the year.

At present, two competing formats are positioning and posturing, each claiming a list of studio supporters, component manufacturers, disc replicators and product brands that support them. BluRay and HD-DVD both tout their capacity, ease of replication and in an important play to the content owners, the security of the content. Both claim that they will be in the market, and neither gives any public indication of giving in to the other side.

Indeed, the one turning point that many were hoping for was an announcement that the two competitive formats would somehow merge into a single, consolidated format. Rather than a consolidation, however, what we are left with at this time is what might be one of the greatest games of chicken in the history of consumer electronics, if not in the general business and technology world as a whole. Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars are at stake as the two camps appear to rush toward each other in a collision course aimed at the marketplace. At this point no one knows what will happen, but it has all the earmarks of a story that will keep dealers and consumers on the edge of their home theater seating throughout the year. No matter which way this one is resolved, the decision is a huge turning point whose outcome no one can predict.

Other Turning Points. Of course, not all turning points are major ones, but in the aggregate they do add up to push the HD transition forward. Some examples of that at CES were things such as TiVos announcement that they will have a high-def DVR with two CableCard-equipped tuners, giving you an alternative to those Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta DVR set-tops the cable companies are supplying to your clients.

Another turning point could be the widespread demonstrations of both UltraWideBand (UWB) and Power Line (PLC) technologies as a means of delivering high-bandwidth HDTV signals from sources to displays either without wires at all, or with no new wires.

Was there a single big turning point for HD at CES? No. At the end of the day perhaps that is the greatest turning point of all: the fact that it is here in a big way, ready to continue to power new system sales and as importantly, existing client system upgrades in the year ahead.

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.