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Picture This: Consumer Confluence

Feb 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Format wars, size wars, and wireless breakthroughs at CES 2005


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The annual Consumer Electronics Show has a reputation for having all the latest gadgets, and that's well-deserved. Unfortunately, that perception ultimately diminishes the show's current importance for the flat-panel display industry. New flat-panel technology is no longer shown first at InfoComm but at CES, because the consumer market is now larger and more important to the manufacturers than the professional market. And that's not the only reason for AV pros to watch the news out of Las Vegas in January. Today's consumer electronics have become more sophisticated, and they're having an increasingly direct impact on professional markets.

While the latest mobile phone colors and ring options are little more than the passing fancies of adolescents, the broader wireless culture is spawning new video solutions that could become important options in many future video installations. For example, last year's show introduced Philips' Streamium and ViewSonic's Wireless Media Networks, which can stream data, including audiovisual data like downloaded movies, from a central PC to a wireless receiver/decoder attached to a display and sound system. They're home-oriented solutions, but when wireless networking makes it to the consumer level, it has reached a point of minimal maturity.

WIRES ARE SO 2004

At CES 2005, rather than streaming mere stored files from a PC, several companies were exploring ways to move “live” video in realtime from source to display. Belkin's PureAV RemoteTV is a wireless transmitter and receiver combination that plugs into a DVD player or set-top box on one end and a display monitor on the other. Using 802.11a, it can send up to 40Mbps up to 350ft., and that's enough for HDTV using MPEG compression. PureAV RemoteTV's form factor is a little large and clunky for permanent, professional wireless installations, but it's a first-generation solution that will clearly benefit from the increasing interest by chipmakers.

ViXS Systems is one such chip company, but a company that's also uniquely positioned for wireless video distribution as it has both wireless products and MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 encoding solutions. Combining the two makes ViXS an intriguing player moving forward in the wireless era. Using MPEG-4 compression, ViXS was showing two streams of full-resolution HDTV streams being encoded by the same transmitter, then sent independently to two separate displays.

At CES 2005, ViXS Systems used its XCode II and Matrix II chips to move dual HD MPEG-4 streams simultaneously—and wirelessly.

ONE RAY OF LIGHT FOR HD DVD

Just last month I wrote about the potential format war brewing between two technology camps: HD DVD and Blu-ray. With technology companies and movie studios taking sides, it has all the makings of a consumer nightmare. None of that was resolved in Las Vegas, but I came away from CES with much more hopeful of a resolution, as least for consumers.

The Sony-led Blu-ray Disc Association had an enormous presence at the show, with several major players making strong demonstrations of support. Rivals in so many other contexts, Panasonic and Sony both showed an unwavering commitment to Blu-ray. Pioneer, on the opposite side of Sony/Philips in the DVD+RW vs. DVD-RW format war, also claimed superiority for Blu-ray. Spirited flat-panel rivals Samsung and LG are both behind Blu-ray, as are a number of computer industry giants. Even Microsoft, whose Windows Media video format has now been endorsed by the Blu-ray Disc Association, voiced its support. And Sony Pictures announced the completion of its acquisition of MGM pictures, including its massive library of some of the most important films in history. That entire library is now available for potential release on Blu-ray.

Meanwhile, HD DVD had little more than a single booth of partner companies and garnered considerably less fanfare. That could simply mean that the Blu-ray Disc Association just had a better marketing plan heading into CES, but in terms of momentum, Blu-ray now seems way out in front.

THREE BEATS ONE?

Another multi-company alliance making noise at CES was the newly announced 3LCD Group, a consortium of Epson and five leading LCD projection partners: Fujitsu, Hitachi, Panasonic, Sanyo, and Sony. The goal of this new group was clearly to start answering the relentless marketing push of Texas Instruments' DLP and the resulting perception that DLP might have better image quality. Demonstrations and collateral material were created to get the word out about 3-panel LCD technology's advantages over DLP, including the lack of any “rainbow effect” or color break-up, a superior grayscale range, increasingly strong contrast ratios that now top 6000:1, and “brilliant images.”

The aim of this new 3LCD Group is simply to even the propaganda war between DLP and three-chip LCD projection products and increase true competition. Coincidentally, both technologies spawned new products with native 1920×1080 resolution. Fujitsu showed a prototype of a native 1920×1080 three-panel LCD projector at the booth for the newly announced 3LCD alliance, while both LG and Samsung showed 1920×1080 rear-projection TVs. Samsung's 67in. HLR6768W was the largest.

DLP won the small size war for front projectors a long time ago, of course, but InFocus and Mitsubishi both showed prototypes of a new 0.88lb. front projector that could literally fit in the palm of your hand or the pocket of your winter coat. Both use an LED light source that generates something in the area of 400-500 lumens (formal specifications were not available) and runs off a battery.

ALTERNATIVE LIGHT SOURCE

LEDs were also the light source behind the best-looking LCD monitors at the show. Sony and Samsung jointly developed, and both demonstrated, an LED-backlit LCD. By combining red, green, and blue LEDs to form a white backlight, these LCD panels achieved a greater color and grayscale range than the traditional, but less pure, white CCFL backlights. Admittedly, judging quality at a trade show is often a fool's game, but the color reproduction was eye-popping.

SIZE STILL MATTERS

Last but certainly not least, there's size. Samsung and LG continued to push the literal and figurative boundaries of flat panels and introduced, yet again, the world's largest televisions. A Samsung prototype of a huge 102in. plasma, the Z-102, topped all others, although LG claims its 71in. MW-71PY10 is the largest plasma currently in production. It wasn't quite shipping at the time of CES in early January, but was available for sale in limited quantities for a list price of a baffling $75,000. Still, LG insisted it had received at least a few orders.

Samsung's 70in. HL-R7078W was the largest LCD panel TV at this year's CES, but neither that nor the 102in. plasma are expected to ship before the middle of the year at best. Sharp introduced a new 65in. AQUOS LCD, and LG showed a 55in. LCD. All these monitors, including the two enormous plasmas, thankfully will offer a high native resolution of 1920×1080 — if you can afford them.



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