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Picture This: Primary Focus

Nov 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

At CEDIA EXPO 2004, consumer products came first.


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Contrary to its annual trade show's reputation, the “C” in CEDIA doesn't stand for “consumer.” The Custom Electronic Design Installation Association's show, held this year in September in Indianapolis, does target installers of both custom home and business AV and control systems. But you'd hardly know it looking at the video-oriented products. This is a consumer show, and a high-end consumer show at that. As such, it's becoming increasingly important to video product manufacturers.

Sony VPL-HS51

With prices on plasma panels, LCD monitors, and projectors reaching acceptable levels for consumers, the enormous lure of mass-market sales volumes has driven manufacturers to focus on consumer-oriented product lines first. R&D efforts once centered around commercial products with expanded I/O, public signage features, and LAN connectivity, and these spawned consumer models eventually. Today, the innovation focus is on the consumer versions. That point was hammered home at this year's CEDIA.

CONSUMERS FIRST?

Several manufacturers of flat panels introduced new consumer models of plasma and LCD TV products, and almost to a company they promised professional AV models to arrive some two to four months later. For example, Samsung showed the 46in. LTP-468W, a new 1920×1080 high-resolution LCD TV with built-in side speakers, with shipping expected within a couple of weeks of the mid-September show. The professional division was not present at CEDIA, but company representatives suggested it likely would be after the end of the year, if not well into next year, that a professional AV version of the panel would be available.

Sharp's message about its LC-45GX6U, a 45in. AQUOS LCD television with a 1920×1080 native resolution, was similar. Sharp expects to ship consumer units in October, but it will be the end of the year before the pro AV version, the LC-M4500, is available through dealer channels.

Of course, the move to higher resolutions is nice, but it's nothing particularly new for LCD technology — even though most consumer models to date have stayed at a more affordable 1280×768 resolution. The real focus in consumer products, products destined to show the motion video of television rather than the spreadsheets and slides of typical business usage, is on producing better images through improved image scaling and image processing. Sharp has done that through proprietary video processing circuitry called CV-IV System III.

The trend is true, too, for Fujitsu. The newly announced latest-generation PlasmaVision product line includes two 1366×768 models, the 55in. P55XHA40US and the 50in. P50XHA40US, as well as two 42in. models, a 1024×1024 P42VHA40US and the 852×480, SD P42HHA40US. Those aren't new sizes for Fujitsu. The upgrade here is to the second generation of Fujitsu's Advanced Video Movement (AVM) digital processing technology.

Fujitsu developed AVM signal processing to accommodate some of the common needs of video signals displayed on fixed-resolution monitors, like flicker reduction, 3:2 pulldown for film-source material, phase adjustment, and scaling. The second-generation AVM-II enhances video images by reducing digital artifacts, in part by processing on-screen text and graphics differently from motion video for cleaner-looking graphics, and improving color. AVM-II also leverages a new built-in light meter that can automatically adjust the brightness of the panel to accommodate different ambient light situations. AVM-II is likely to appear in professional PlasmaVision models — but, not surprisingly, not for a couple more months.

The exception to the consumer-products-first trend might be Pioneer. The company announced new versions of its Elite consumer plasmas, including a new large 61in. model, but pro versions of the same should be available almost simultaneously. Interestingly, while Pioneer was adding a 61in. plasma to its consumer line (thanks to the Pioneer's acquisition of NEC's plasma production), Fujitsu was holding back on a new version of its 63in. plasma, likely due to limited demand. That shows that even custom-level pricing needs to get below five digits.

READY WHEN YOU ARE

The best news about the new flat panel products at CEDIA is the broad support for both HDMI and Cable Card technologies. HDMI is essentially the successor to DVI, adding multi-channel audio and HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) to high-definition digital video as it's sent over a single connection cable. That both simplifies consumer connection issues and maintains a higher-quality, noise-free digital signal between source and display. The large majority of high-profile flat panels this year included an HDMI interface.

Few peripherals (such as DVD players) yet include that same HDMI interface, however. Unfortunately, those peripheral products still must fight the brutal price war typical of commodity products, and adding a new interface that most consumers will neither use nor understand ultimately leaves dollars on the table. Some higher-end DVD players do offer the digital interface, but they represent a small minority of available players. Therefore, it's questionable whether consumers will use many of those display-side HDMI interfaces. But the display industry understands the need to push forward with HDMI. Buyers certainly pay more attention to detail when purchasing a display for a few thousand dollars as compared to a DVD player for a few hundred, and consumers are starting to recognize the need to future-protect their larger display purchases.

AFFORDABLE PROJECTORS

It's somewhat surprising that given the broader industry trend toward sub-$1,000 projectors, there were few such products on display at CEDIA. Admittedly, those involved in “custom installations” are almost by definition less price-sensitive than the average electronics superstore customer. Still, an affordable projector often is just a single component in an installation that includes audio, a projection screen, as well as lighting and environment controls.

To that end, a few lower-priced projectors were announced at CEDIA, including Panasonic's new PT-AE700U, a native 1280×720, LCD-based home-theater projector for less than $3,000 ($2,999). It includes a 2X optical zoom lens and is rated at 1000 lumens. Its contrast ratio of 2000:1 is a remarkable number for an LCD-based projector. And it has an HDMI digital interface.

Sony claims an even more shocking 6000:1 contrast ratio for its VPL-HS51 home-theater projector. While it's not at all clear how that figure was calculated, it is clear that with an LCD projector, Sony is claiming to have neutralized DLP's generally acknowledged contrast advantage. Also a native 1280×768 model, the VPL-HS51 is expected to carry a price of about $3,500.

OTHER ADVANCES

Sony also showed the first rear-projection TV that uses SXRD, Sony's version of LCoS. This 70in. Grand Wega's 1920×1080 resolution is the same as that of many of the new 60in.-plus plasma TVs, but Sony's price will be under $10,000, much less than what 60in. plasmas cost.

Finally, there's a new image-processing player in town to compete with Faroudja, Gennum, and others. Silicon Optix's recent acquisition of Teranex has yielded the new Realta video processing, a single-chip, programmable processor. Realta is designed to bring Teranex's “Hollywood-quality” image processing to price levels suitable for consumers — well, at least for CEDIA's custom consumers. No prices have been announced, but Silicon Optics expects the Realta engine to yield better quality and cost a little more in build-of-materials than Faroudja's DCDi chipset.


Jeff Sauer writes the “Picture This” column for Sound & Video Contractor and is a contributing writer for Video Systems. He's a video producer, an industry consultant, and director of the Desktop Video Group, a video and computer products testing lab in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at jeff@dtvgroup.com.



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