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The State Of HDTV

In mid-2005 the average selling price of a 50" plasma display began its yearlong plunge from over $5,000 to a June 2006 average of just above $3,000. The number of sets sold at the new prices more than tripled, even accounting for the traditionally hot fall (2005) selling season.

This was just one of a flurry of statistics presented at the DisplaySearch 4th Annual HDTV Conference held last week at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, CA. DisplaySearch (www.displaysearch.com) is a service that conducts market research—forecasts, technology assessments, surveys, studies, and analyses—of the video display business. The conference touched on a wide range of related topics, including high-definition discs, HD programming, the sales and outlook for various categories of high-definition televisions, and even a session on audio for HDTV.

Most of the major video companies provided spokespersons for the event, most of who managed to squeeze in more than a little promotion for their own company's products! When Toshiba's Scott Ramirez called up one of his slides that promoted his company's products, he noted the conference rules that only two slides per presentation should promote one's own company. But he added, half jokingly, that he was apparently the only one who read the guidelines! Scott did make the only mention of SED flat panel technology I heard at the conference, noting that Toshiba expects its first SED set to be available by the end of 2007.

While some promotion was inevitable, it was at worst a minor distraction in a conference that provided a lot of interesting and useful information.

It is forecast that 18.7 million DTVs of all descriptions will be shipped to U.S. dealers by the end of 2006. This is expected to increase to 33 million by 2010 as consumers replaced their analog televisions with digital models (over-the-air analog broadcasts are scheduled to cease in 2009).

For many years the average selling price of a television ranged between $300-$400. But in 2006 it increased to nearly $800, pushed upward by the higher cost of HDTVs. In fact, 30% of the TVs sold in 2006 are expected to cost over $1,000. Despite the generally higher prices of HDTV sets, consumers apparently now see them as offering higher value since their prices have fallen dramatically in recent years and continue to plunge. One presenter predicted even more significant price erosion after Labor Day as we enter the holiday buying season.

Until recently plasmas have been less expensive than LCDs in equivalent screen sizes- generally 42" diagonal and up, since high-definition plasmas don't lend themselves well to small screen sizes. That's beginning to change, as an oversupply of LCD panels, which shows no sign of abating, is closing the price gap. (Oddly, however, one interesting fact I learned at the conference is that although the panel is the key component in an LCD display, the single most expensive component is the fluorescent backlight.)

Look for more choices in larger displays using both technologies. The 42" size, long the sweet spot in flat panels for performance, price and value, is yielding rapidly to 50" models as cost reductions have begun to swing buyers to larger screens.

Samsung's Jonas Tanenbaum believes that sales of HDTVs—flat panels in particular—present an unprecedented business opportunity that may not be repeated in our lifetimes, and that the next five years will determine the market leaders for the coming decades. He listed four key criteria that, in his opinion, influence a purchasing decision: performance, price, form factor (style, integrated speakers, etc.), and size. He also noted, in reference to the growth in interest in 1080p, that buyers respond to new technology even if its benefits are not readily demonstrable. This is in contrast to the many CE pundits argue that the benefits of 1080p are only visible on larger sets.

But 1080p is an increasingly important factor in the market, and the growth in 1080p flat panel displays will likely be faster in LCD than plasma, as panel production costs for plasmas using this resolution are still much higher. If you see a flood of 1080p LCDs flooding the market over the coming months, while few 1080p plasmas crowd the shelves, it's because of LCD's lower production costs, not necessarily performance. But more 1080p plasmas should start turning up in 2007.

Philips' Scott Levitan declared that picture quality was the key factor in a purchase decision. But he also downplayed the importance of 1080p, insisting that a set's processing power is more important. If the processing power is not sufficient, he argued, 1080p could actually make the picture worse.

While there is a definite rush by consumers toward flat panels and away from rear projection displays, the latter remain an important part of the market, especially in larger screen sizes. As Toshiba's Scott Ramirez put it, everyone wants a flat panel TV, everything else being equal. But he quickly added that everything else is never equal—at least not yet. As a flat panel's screen size increases, its price increases in rough proportion. But as the screen in a so-called microdisplay rear projection set (or MD PTV) gets larger, its price increase is much smaller because the cost of the core components—the light engine, optics, and electronics—change little. Only the increased screen and cabinet size represent significant added costs.

That's why manufacturers such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi still build and promote a wide range of rear projection sets. They see screen sizes of 55" and larger as the future of MD RPTV. While flat panels will dominate the market, there is still a place for rear projection sets, at least for now.

(The term microdisplay, or MD, refers to the fact that these pixel-based digital sets are built around an imaging chip(s) and a light source—usually a lamp. The chip may be based on one of three main technologies: DLP, LCoS, or LCD. The image formed on this small chip is then enlarged by a lens and projected onto the back of the screen. This is very different technology than the classic rear projection CRT which, while built around the same general configuration of a light source projected onto a screen, uses three large cathode ray tubes as its combined imaging elements and light source. One of the problems that plague manufacturers of MD PTVs is that many, if not most, consumers confuse these sets with CRT PTVs, and thus dismiss them as "old" technology compared to those lighter, zoomier, 21st century, flat panel displays!)

John Reder of Texas Instruments argued for the production flexibility of the MD PTV concept (using DLP, of course). These sets offer manufacturer a wider range of design options, including the screen, optics, imaging panel, filters, and illumination. He also predicted that DLP sets with much slimmer cabinets are coming soon.

Alexei Erchak of Luminous Devices discussed PhlatLight (Photonic Lattice Light Emitting Diode), a new light technology his company has developed that is just beginning to show up in MD PTVs as a replacement for the projection lamp. It can also be configured as a backlight in flat panel LCD displays. He discussed its advantages, including increased color gamut, high reliability with long life (essentially the life of the television, with no periodic lamp replacement required), instant power up, and a simplified light engine with no moving color wheel and a simpler light path from the light source to the imaging chip(s). While Phlatlight is derived from LED technology and uses separate red, green, and blue devices, it is, according to Dr. Erchak, very different from standard LEDs, which he argued are not well suited to rear projection televisions.

Gregory Niven of Novalux discussed laser illumination, another technology being touted as a light source for PTVs though it's over a year away from commercial realization. Lasers, he argued, will last indefinitely with no change over time, may be designed with lumen output scalable to very high levels, including the 20,000 Lumens or higher needed for D-Cinema. It also boasts a wide viewing angle, high contrast, a wide color gamut, low power requirements, reduced weight, and, presumably in production quantities, lower cost. He predicted that 7-10 companies are likely to show laser display prototypes at the January 2007 CES, with commercial designs becoming available by the end of 2007.

One last important topic discussed was HDMI 1.3. Rob Frizzell of Silicon Image said that the ideal of video technology would match the capabilities of the human eye. While we are still a very long way from that goal, he argued that HDMI 1.3 represents a significant step forward. It offers a possible total resolution (horizontal multiplied by vertical) of 5-14 megapixels, a color depth of 10-16 bits, a refresh rate of 120-240Hz, and a color gamut wider than the 1931 CIE color chart. It will also support transmission of the new high resolution audio formats from Dolby and DTS, including lossless formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Of course, the HDMI 1.3 pipeline won't matter unless we have sources to fill it and the displays to make use of it. Although HDMI 1.3 will be backward compatible with earlier versions of HDMI, Frizzell suggested that we might see HDMI 1.3-compatible products as early as late this year or early 2007. The hot rumor in the industry is that Sony's PlayStation3, scheduled for release on October 25th.

We expect to see announcements of more HDMI 1.3 products and/or trade demonstrations at the 2007 CES. But it's unlikely that HDMI 1.3 products will become widely available to consumers before mid to late 2007.

Products and formats able to take full advantage of some of HDMI 1.3's more esoteric capabilities are, in my opinion, even further down the road. While there is a lot of talk, for example, of new color spaces like xvYCC, which HDMI 1.3 is capable of handling and offers a gamut exceeding what the human eye can see, this sort of change would require a huge investment in new video processing and display infrastructure both at the production and playback end, not to mention airtight backward compatibility. The fact that many video facilities are still making decisions for HDTV production on displays that use SMPTE (NTSC) color phosphors tells us just how hard it is to make such significant changes.

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