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The Shape of Things to Come

This year's International Consumer Electronics Show was jammed - as usual. Although attendance was down about 5 percent from 2007, based on preliminary figures, you couldn't tell by looking at the ground transportation and monorail situations.

THIS YEAR'S INTERNATIONAL CONSUMER ELECTRONICS Shows was jammed — as usual. Although attendance was down about 5 percent from 2007, based on preliminary figures, you couldn't tell by looking at the ground transportation and monorail situations. Both were packed with convention-goers and rendered almost useless at times.

Still, I managed to spend two full days at the show. What I discerned: There were very few breakthrough products this year. The emphasis was on lower prices, faster speeds, greater memory, and larger screen sizes.

In other words, the show was more about evolving products, rather than emerging products. And it's a safe bet that plenty of the technology I saw will appear in the pro AV channel shortly. It's especially true that the consumer display industry drives our choices for commercial displays, and that situation isn't going to change any time soon.

HERE'S THE SKINNY

If you needed proof of the evolution-versus-emergence trend, there were only two of the “we've got the biggest display” exhibits this year — Sharp's largest-in-class 108-inch LCD HDTV, an encore performance from 2007, and Panasonic's 150-inch plasma monitor, which wasn't much of a surprise as it's easier to manufacture plasma in larger sizes. Once Panasonic broke 103 inches, the shock value was lost.

Instead, innovation was in display shape and mass. Hitachi and JVC showed 1.5-inch-thick production LCD HDTVs, with screen sizes from 32 to 46 inches. Both are coming to market shortly. Hitachi showed a 1.5-inch-thick, 50-inch diagonal plasma HDTV, presumably a prototype for its 2009 line.

Sharp and Samsung offered demonstrations of LCD HDTVs as large as 52 inches that were just two-thirds the depth of the Hitachi models, while Pioneer showed the thinnest flat-panel at the show — a 50-inch 1080p array measuring one-third of an inch deep. That's about the thickness of an iPod. Needless to say, all of the driving electronics were outboard.

LG.Philips' demo room also included examples of super-slim LCDs, made possible by redesigning the backlight and reducing LCD module thickness to three-quarters of an inch (before the frame is installed). It's pretty clear that super-thin LCD and plasma modules will be very popular for all markets. And that's not good news for the rear-projection marketplace.

As of this writing, only two mainstream brands remained in the rear-projection space — Samsung and Mitsubishi. Sony announced in December 2007 that it was pulling out of LCOS rear-projection, while Hitachi and Toshiba had announced their departures earlier in the year. JVC's line at CES featured no RPTVs, only LCD HDTVs.

Both Samsung and Mitsubishi employ Texas Instruments' DLP technology, and both have come out with products that put a new twist on DLP imaging. Mitsubishi launched a 65-inch RPTV with a laser-light engine, the only such product in the category. And both companies showed off 3D imaging for home theater and gaming applications, which should spark increasing demand.

TI's DLP booth, its largest ever, took the 3D angle to a new extreme. Using fast refresh and active shutter glasses, it has made it possible for two viewers to watch different programs on the same HDTV at the same time. It's called DualView and works amazingly well. TI also showed a super fast refresh rate of 240 Hz, twice the rate of current 120 Hz LCD technology, which still doesn't render fast motion with enough detail to suit my tastes.

CUT THE CORD

Beyond display technology, wireless was everywhere in Las Vegas, from media distribution systems to simple display interfaces. There are plenty of reasons to cut the cords, but the question remains, which systems will be the winners? Amimon showed its WHDI system in the Las Vegas Hilton, streaming uncompressed HD (so it said) over a 100-foot path to a Sony 40-inch Bravia LCD HDTV.

DisplayLink showed its USB-based video interfaces, which are targeted at tiled or daisy-chained monitors using on-board software and a simple configuration. There's something to be said for this approach, considering the universal availability of USB ports on laptops and PCs.

WiMax fans had an entire pavilion full of cordless interfaces, including for streaming video and audio at bit rates well over 100 Mbps in personal area networks (PANs). WiMax, which appears to be gaining traction more quickly in Europe than here, could take off simply because so many companies are members of the WiMax Alliance.

The same thing could be said for WirelessHD, a consortium that includes Intel, LG, Panasonic, NEC, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba. Panasonic was demonstrating 1080p over wireless using this interface, while Samsung's demo employed elements of DisplayLink. Westinghouse Digital had yet another system pumping HD content from server to screen.

What's really significant here is not necessarily the different solutions being pushed, but the simple fact that so many companies are pushing wide bandwidth wireless interfaces. This much interest in wireless signal distribution almost guarantees it will be mainstream by the end of the decade and will start showing up in commercial products soon afterwards.

FEELIN' BLUE

All that said, one of the biggest stories at CES happened before the show even started. The Friday before, Warner Bros. Entertainment announced it would start backing the Blu-ray disc format exclusively in June. Warner is a giant in packaged media, capturing 18 to 20 percent of the total market, so its decision set off numerous shockwaves. (For more details, see “Blu-ray: 7, HD DVD: 1,” on page 16.)

But Toshiba isn't going to roll over quite yet. The Monday following CES, the company announced further price cuts on its entry-level HD-A3, mid-level HD-A30, and top-line HD-A35 players, bringing the cheapest model down to the price of a decent, upscaling red-laser DVD player (about $150).

Supposedly Warner Bros.' motivation for choosing Blu-ray is its belief that a format war will impair the transition to next-gen DVD players. Is it possible that movie rentals via Internet set-top boxes like Vudu and TiVo will do far more damage? Probably. Consider this: Although DVD sales are dropping year-to-year, DVD rentals are increasing significantly. Apparently, it isn't as important to many consumers that they own a physical copy of a movie or TV show; it's important that they view it when they want to.

And that could mean that electronic file distribution is the real future of HD content, not optical disc distribution. If so, then interfaces such as USB and TCP/IP and media storage on HD DVRs and portable flash memory will be the order of the day. None of these technologies are proprietary; all are ubiquitous and cheap. And that's what consumers really want.

Contributing editor Pete Putman is president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached atpete@hdtvexpert.com.

 


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