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Picture This: Plasma Advantages

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

The case for plasma is all in the eyes.


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For me, a technical guy, one of the more interesting conversations I had at the CES show earlier this year was off the main show floor in a private suite at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. There, the Advanced PDP Development Center (APDC) held demonstrations designed to try to quantify plasma's image-quality advantage over competing technologies. Obviously, that's interesting stuff to a technology journalist who already spends way too much time giving such inanity a fair amount of thought.

The APDC, a private Japanese company initially funded by the three leading plasma manufacturers (Hitachi, Matsushita, and Pioneer), is literally in the R&D business of improving plasma technology and picture quality, and licensing the resulting intellectual property to companies that manufacture plasma panels. Part of that R&D is to conduct experiments on existing technology, and one of the highlights of the CES suite was a new test to measure the resolution of a moving image, rather than a static image.

We usually think of resolution as a fairly straightforward number of pixels — the higher the better. That's true enough for still images, but if you add motion, the results are less predictable. Different imaging engines are able to change pixels at different speeds, and there are really no industry standards for measuring and reporting response and refresh rates. In other words, manufacturers often tend to report those speeds as aggressively as possible. For example: the speed of changing from gray to darker gray, rather than from full on to full off.

The APDC's motion-resolution test synchronized a high-resolution video camera with a panel showing a resolution chart repeatedly moving across the screen, from left to right, at a speed of roughly once every 3 seconds to 4 seconds. The resulting pictures of the resolution chart showed what resolution — expressed in old-fashioned photographic “lines” — a given display can actually achieve.

LCD, for example, has been fighting a reputation for slower responsiveness — even image ghosting — but this test showed there's still work to be done there, compared to plasma. The LCD panels used in the demonstration were current models, but it should be noted that several LCD makers at CES did announce new models with doubled (120Hz) refresh rates. By synthesizing an in-between frame, these newer LCDs are able to force a more graceful handling of moving images because the changes to each pixel are usually less dramatic.

Another display at the APDC suite was an exposition of scientific research done on eyestrain caused by watching different technologies over time. Simply, the constant brightness of an LCD backlight, according to the study, causes more eye movement, and thus, more strain than plasma. That's because plasma, due to the distribution of the electric charge, gets dimmer if the entire screen is bright. In an indirect way, that makes plasma more akin to the irises in our eyes adjusting and adapting to high brightness. Of course, if you stare at anything too long, your eyes are going to get tired.

PLASMA WORTH FIGHTING FOR

While R&D, rather than marketing, is the primary focus of the APDC, there's no doubt that the demonstrations at CES were geared to accentuate plasma's advantages over competing technology, albeit in a wonderfully left-brained manner that probably only a technical guy could love. And that brings me to one of the more surreal moments I experienced at CES — which, not so coincidentally, also dealt with plasma.

There are always a lot of press conferences at CES, and most talk about exciting new products and visions for the future, with plenty of hype about what makes those products and visions the industry's best. This year, a surprising amount of Panasonic's press conference was dedicated to proving — in a similarly left-brained approach — that plasma is the better display choice.

First, a very formal, faux-living room chat plodded through dispelling the seemingly age-old myths about plasma burn-in, high-altitude performance issues, power consumption, etc. That was followed by an even stranger video testimonial by a scientist — complete with white lab coat — who performed the aforementioned eyestrain research study.

Of course, it's pretty clear why Panasonic chose that tactic for its 45 minutes with the most influential journalists in the high-tech world. Myths, after all, die hard — particularly when fueled by misinformation and marketing hyperbole from competing interests.

Domestically, the Plasma Display Coalition (www.plasmadisplaycoalition.org) still expends a great deal of effort on behalf a several plasma makers to convince salespeople and potential purchasers alike that burn-in was a much bigger issue with early generation picture tubes in the 1950s than it ever was with early generation plasma. Like with the picture tubes that followed in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, burn-in, plasma makers claim, isn't something that prospective plasma buyers need to worry about with current technology.

What made the Panasonic press conference feel so awkward were the expressions I saw around the room that ranged between puzzled and fogbound. Indeed, they are expressions I've seen before.

As a technical writer and reviewer, I've had the fortune on several occasions to view competing display technologies side by side, and it's a great way to compare. You can do it at tradeshows and electronics stores, but you can never totally be sure that the displays are configured properly or where the source material is really coming from. It's particularly revealing to me — in an objective way — to invite non-industry acquaintances to see these side-by-side comparisons because it often yields such a clear, unbiased perspective on what looks natural.

Sure, they'll ask questions about why this one looks better than that one, and what's the best technology. Because I'm a technical guy who spends a lot of time explaining those very things, I'll go into the same kind of left-brained analysis of the features and benefits, but more often than not, I'll start to see those same expressions of puzzlement and fogboundedness. As much sincere curiosity my friends might have about the technology, it's their eyes that have already told them the story — that plasma is just a better-looking picture.

Of course, there are caveats, particularly in the pro AV world. Plasma is much heavier to hang, and often for public display, LCDs are a better choice for combinations of text, graphics, and video clips. LCD is the obvious choice for airport flight monitors and other text-heavy content, for example. But when it comes to straight moving video, the eyes — more than all the arguments — tell the story.



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