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Picture This:
CES 2006

Feb 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

A new lineup of display technology hints at a surprising future.


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I have to confess that I didn’t go to the annual Consumer Electronics Show this year with high expectations for new display technology. After all, how much bigger do plasma and LCD flat panels really need to get? And it’s pretty clear that neither of those technologies is going to eliminate the other anytime soon. But, as always, when so many companies assemble in one place after a year’s worth of R&D, there were some pleasant surprises, including many that give strong hints at the future of display technology.

Samsung HL-S5679W

IS BIGGER BETTER?

Panasonic introduced a 103in. plasma, which beats Samsung and LG by one diagonal inch. With a new “rib” cell structure that minimizes pixel-to-pixel interference, this huge panel boasted a very impressive picture. Of course, no price, delivery information, or even a model name was yet available, but that’s usually the case with such showoff pieces.

More importantly, Panasonic’s 103in. was just one of several full 1080p plasmas on the show floor. Panasonic also had a 65in. and a 50in., available later this year, with 1080p native resolution. Both Pioneer and Hitachi showed their respective 50in. and 55in. 1080p plasmas, although Hitachi’s was solely a technology statement with no actual product yet announced. Pioneer expects to ship as early as this spring. Still, all three companies have now helped plasma join the 1080p trend-du-jour that made a strong appearance in RPTV, front projection, and LCD at last fall’s CEDIA show.

LCD MARCHES ON

The addition of 1080p helps plasma negate LCD’s high-resolution advantage, but LCD wasn’t standing still. New technologies could help LCD move closer to plasma in color depth and contrast. For example, Sharp demonstrated an LCD panel with a reputed contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. That may sound ridiculous (and it is, see Picture This, January 2006), but at least Sharp is getting there the right way.

Instead of digital or electronic trickery clamping blacks and dark grays (which begets the impression of high-contrast at the expense of grayscale range), Sharp meticulously eliminates almost all light leakage, both through the closed liquid crystals and from the sides and rear of the physical chassis. Sharp claims to have effectively reached zero lumens on black, or at least something less bright than light meters can measure, thereby achieving a mathematically infinite contrast ratio—although Sharp called it 1,000,000:1. While that number is statistically awkward, the R&D effort deserves praise.

More novel: Sharp also demonstrated an LCD panel that can show two completely different source inputs simultaneously depending on whether you’re looking at the screen from the right or from the left (straight on is garbled). It’s not a technology for traditional TV viewing, of course, but could have interesting application in airports with one monitor displaying both arrival and departure information. Or, on a dashboard with a GPS navigation system split to show a map to the driver and entertainment content to the passenger. Technically, Sharp is splitting the screen’s native resolution between the two sources.

Finally, Sharp has now launched a professional AV version of its 65in. LCD panel.

LED-backlit LCDs made it to last year’s CES, but only as technology demonstrations. This year, Samsung had three LED-backlit LCD demonstrations: one showed how LEDs can increase LCD’s color depth; another showed how leveraging LED’s fast-duty cycle can virtually eliminate LCD’s stereotypical blur on moving images; and the third was an 82in. LED-backlit LCD panel. Samsung again boasted the “world’s largest” LCD panel, but no pricing or availability has yet been determined.

DLP TVS HOLD STRONG

More intriguingly, Samsung (as well as Texas Instruments in its own booth) demonstrated a new LED-lit DLP rear-projection TV that’s expected to be available in May for $3,999. In a way, it’s a derivative of last year’s LED-lit pocket-sized projector from Mitsubishi (add Toshiba and Samsung to that list this year). However, because the light output demands are significantly less for rear-projection than front projection (and because LED light output has increased through R&D during the last year), Samsung’s DLP TV suffered no apparent brightness problem. And, while it’s hard to judge tradeshow demonstrations, the color seemed greatly enhanced over a traditional lamp-lit DLP TV. Depending on economies of scale, it’s possible that LED-lit DLP TVs could become the norm within a couple of years, save for the most affordable models.

SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display) came out from behind closed doors this year. Both Toshiba and Canon demonstrated this new technology. If you get a chance to see SED, do. It’s a stunningly realistic picture. However, big questions remain about high-volume fabrication, and it could be several more years before it’s truly ready, leaving a lot of time for plasma, LCD, SXRD, DLP, and other technologies to enhance image quality and achieve even greater economies of scale.

BLACK AND BLU-RAY

HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc were at it again this year, each claiming to have an edge. However, this year both camps were talking about actual products being delivered during the first few months of the year. Unfortunately, that’s probably not a good thing.

Toshiba, with the most technology patents on the line for HD DVD, announced it will ship two consumer players this spring for $499.99 (for the HD-A1) and $799.99 (for the HD-XA1). That almost certainly means it will have an edge as the first to market. Unfortunately, seven out of eight major motion pictures studios (Warner Brothers is the exception) have announced their support for the rival Blu-ray Disc format. And several technology companies, including Panasonic, Pioneer, Sony, Philips, and LG, have announced forthcoming Blu-ray Disc players for this year. Pioneer will release a professional-grade player for about $1,800 sometime this spring.

Discouragingly, the two sides have been unable to reach a technological or patent-ownership compromise and, given the aforementioned announcements, it now seems that a format war rivaling VHS-Betamax is unavoidable. Hollywood will likely release movies that will play on one format and not the other, and consumers will be caught in the middle. Unless you have a direct need for a high-definition player and can’t rely on a PC Windows Media HD player, I’d suggest watching from the sidelines until the bickering ends.



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