Are Ultra-Wide Flat-Panel TVs in Our Future?

Don't get us wrong - today's top TVs are great. But where do we go from here? What's going to get us video enthusiasts really excited? Broader color spectra arising from LED-based technologies? Frame rates moving up to 240 Hz? Those would be nice additions, but they won't give you bragging rights over your next-door neighbor, who just paid $1,000 less than you on a TV he bought last month at Costco.

Rainbow-colored bezels? No. Disco lights around the screen? Nah. Built-in 15-inch woofers? Negatron. The correct answer: a flat-panel TV in the super-wide, CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. That's 32% wider than the 1.78:1 (or 16:9) aspect ratio used for almost all flat-panel TVs these days - and it's a perfect fit for most blockbuster movies, which tend to use the 2.35:1 ratio.

Anybody could walk into your den, see a 2.35:1 flat-panel TV on your wall, and know there's something different about it. Play a scene from a 2.35:1 action movie on it, then play the same scene for them on the 16:9 TV you just banished to the bedroom, and they'll notice the black bars at the top and bottom of the picture right away. And they'll instantly hate those black bars - and the 16:9 TV they own. And they'll wish they were you. Or at least they'll wish they had your TV.

From a technical standpoint, a 2.35:1 flat-panel TV is not at all far-fetched. After all, 2.35:1 video projection rigs have practically taken over the high-end custom home theater market. These setups use a 2.35:1 screen, a special anamorphic lens on the projector that stretches the video image to fill the screen's width, and a processor in the projector or a standalone box that expands the image to compensate for the distortion caused by the lens. Usually, motorized masking moves in to cover the unused side sections of the screen when you watch 16:9 or old-fashioned 4:3 material. Video geeks call these "constant height" systems, and once you've seen one, conventional 16:9 projection rigs seem second-rate.

COULD IT REALLY HAPPEN?

Technically, a 2.35:1 flat-panel TV could be made. Practically . . . well, that's a different matter. According to the execs we spoke with, even though 2.35:1 flat-panels would be possible, it's doubtful there would be enough interest among consumers to make the technical investment pay off.

Toshiba VP of TV marketing Scott Ramirez shot the idea right down: "As most of what people watch is in 1.78:1, not 2.35:1, it is unlikely that mainstream TVs will move to 2.35:1," he says. Sony left the door open, but only a crack: "We do not have any plans [for 2.35:1 flat-panels] at this time, but as always, we're studying the market to best understand what consumer trends are viable," says Greg Belloni, a public relations manager at the company.

The only TV guy we talked with who seemed intrigued by the idea was Dan Schinasi, Samsung's senior marketing manager, HDTV product planning.

"We have no plans to do that in the near future, and we're not aware of anyone else who's planning to," he begins. "But even if someone jumped up and down and said, 'Hey, we want 2.35:1,' there are manufacturing challenges.

"When you make LCD panels," he continues, "you deal with a certain size mother-glass [the large piece of glass from which several screens are usually cut]. The yield - how many panels we can get from a single mother glass - is important. If you go to 2.35:1 with the existing mother glass we have, it will [negatively] affect the yield. The glass suppliers will need new equipment and will have to make other changes, too."

Shinasi confesses he'd never heard the idea of a 2.35:1 flat-panel TV before, "but that doesn't' mean there's no interest," he points out. "That would probably be a small group of folks, though. The transition from 4:3 to 16:9 sits quite well with a lot of people. Wider isn't necessarily better. And there are still people who aren't happy with the change to 16:9."

One electronics expert, though, sees a wider future in the flat panel business. "I was at a roundtable discussion at the University of Southern California's Entertainment Technology Center," recalls Richard F. Doherty, research director of The Envisioneering Group on Long Island. "One manufacturer - I can't identify him by name - said, 'Every time a consumer sees black [bars] around a picture, they think something's wrong and they're not getting their money's worth. And then the phone lines light up.' The other CE guys nodded in acknowledgment."

As for that "mother-glass" problem, Doherty sees coming technologies that can circumvent that obstacle. "There are some efforts that can lead to scroll-out or pull-out displays that could be rolled out to just their aspect ratio then stopped, like a screen in a movie theater," he explains. "There are real efforts to commercialize this within five years. OLED and Electric Ink - both these technologies were shown at the Society for Information Display, and these are being advanced for portable - like for an electronic magazine - and for the home - tabletop displays - so they rise just to the aspect ratio you want (the width is fixed). It certainly will start out as something for videophiles, but I think it will go mass market."

Meanwhile, though these technologies may take some years to roll out, expect to see them much sooner - perhaps as early as next year. "I can't name companies," says Doherty, "but these pull-up, roll-out displays will probably be shown at CES in January. One uses lasers: Imagine a pull-out screen where a 4 x 6-inch deep box sits on a table. That box houses a laser which has a beam that can project to the top of the screen."

So if you want 2.35:1 in your living room, you'll have to settle for a front-projection setup for now. But if, come 2009, you start seeing photos of some new, ultra-wide screens, remember: You heard about it here first.

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