CEATEC Japan 2006

The Tokyo-based CEATEC, held each fall about this time, is sometimes referred to as Japan's CES. While the analogy doesn't fit when applied to finished goods (the show is far smaller in that respect than even the CEDIA Expo, much less CES), it certainly does apply if you include component parts. You can roam the eight or so exhibit halls and find all sorts of things, from cell phones to capacitors to integrated circuits. There was even a small, lonely booth off to one side with high-end audio goods on display. The exhibitor's there had obviously confused CEATEC with the annual Tokyo High-end Audio Show, scheduled for later this month.

But it was finished goods I was interested in seeing as I roamed the show floor. Since CEATEC is a show for products from the major Japanese manufacturers, there were no big exhibits from the familiar consumer electronics brands from Korea, Taiwan, or Mainland China, all of whom are major suppliers to the U.S. and other overseas markets.

I was one of a dozen or so journalists whose trip was generously sponsored by Sharp. Other companies, including Panasonic and JVC, provided similar junkets. Fred Manteghian also attended CEATEC courtesy of JVC, and you can read his perspectives on the show and his trip in his blog.

While much of what was shown had previously been announced in the U.S., or shown at the CEDIA Expo as recently as last month, there was no shortage of news at CEATEC, though much of it involved technology we're unlikely to see in real products until 2007 or 2008—and perhaps even later.

SED The first of these is SED. As I wrote in 2004 when I covered the CEATEC that year:

SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display) as demonstrated at CEATEC is a joint development of Toshiba and Canon...the technology involves the collision of a beam of electrons with phosphors coated on a screen. Sound familiar? It should; that's how a CRT works. The big difference here is that there is a separate beam emitter for each pixel in the display, each of them fired as required by the source. An SED display is therefore a digital display, unlike analog CRT technology.

The advantage here, of course, is that like a CRT, the emitter beam in an SED display may be shut off when reproducing black.

Briefly put, then, SED is said to combine the resolution advantages of pixel-based displays with the deep blacks, high contrast ratios, and fast response time of CRTs.

From the demonstrations I've seen, those claims have been substantiated, at least in the prototypes Toshiba and Canon have been showing over the past two years at various trade shows. But up until now those prototypes have been limited to 37" (diagonal). They've looked fabulous, but 37" is not a size likely to excite high-end first adopters in the U.S. Toshiba has hinted that they were aiming to begin with a 55" model, and a 55" design is what they brought to CEATEC.

They showed not just one but four identical prototypes, three for the SED demo itself and one for a Toshiba HD DVD presentation. They all looked every bit as spectacular as the 37" had on previous occasions. The fact that they brought four samples, and not just one, is significant. It shows they can produce multiple, consistent, functioning samples and not just cobble together a single unit from who knows how many rejects.

The Big Question: When will SED be available to the public? Don't start checking out your local Best Buy just yet. The best guess Toshiba reps offered for a launch in the Japanese market was late 2007, with sales beginning in the U.S. sometime in 2008. The claimed contrast ratio is 50,000:1, the response time 1.0ms. Panel life (presumably to half brightness, the usual way panel life is specified) is currently estimated at about 30,000 hours, about half the claimed life of most plasmas and LCDs, but still nearly 14 years at 6 hours per day.

No one offered us even a wag on prices. Toshiba claimed that they have developed manufacturing processes that will keep the price competitive with existing technologies, though the product will clearly be aimed at the high end, at least initially. Still, the price must not be wildly out of line with the competition if it is to survive in today's price-sensitive market—a fact of which Toshiba is well aware.

But plasma and LCD manufacturers are not sitting around waiting for all of this happen. Perhaps driven by the threat of competition from a CRT-like SED, they are looking seriously at ways to improve their own technologies. Sharp showed perhaps the most the most radical set of all: an LCD model with a claimed contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1! The set shown at CEATEC is was larger than the small demonstration set they showed at last year's CES with the same contrast specification, and it was clear from this demo and subsequent Sharp briefings (more on those later in the week) indicated strongly that the CES demo was more than just a "gee whiz, look what we can do," one-shot special. Again, it will likely be another couple of years before we see such this technology in production.

Sharp refers to this development as "Mega Contrast." It will be targeted initially at such professional applications as mastering studios and medical labs, where its initial high cost will not be a drag on sales. But Sharp is aiming for a 10,000:1 contrast ratio for future consumer LCD sets, presumably making use of lessons learned in the development of Mega Contrast, and we may see that 10,000:1 number on their specification sheets sooner rather than later. Not to mention a price consumers will be willing to pay.

Not to be left out, Pioneer showed a 60-inch prototype of a next generation plasma display. This one could be on the market sooner than Toshiba-Canon SED or "near-Deep Contrast" Sharp LCD. Within the limits of the test material and display conditions (very different for each of these three display types) it looked every bit as good as the other technologies, and in a larger screen size. Its specified contrast ratio was 20,000:1, but other details were hard to come by due to the language barrier.

The bottom line here is that Japanese manufacturers of flat panel displays are obviously keenly aware of the remaining shortcomings of flat panel digital displays, particularly contrast ratio. Faced with the very real possibility of SED coming to market, they are hard at work doing what they need to do to remain competitive.

HD Disc Recorders Many major manufacturers showed prototypes of new high def hard drive / Blu-ray disc recorders. Panasonic's will actually record 50GB discs on two layers. Blu-ray recorders aren't new to the Japanese market, but these new models can operate without a cartridge for the discs and can also play the new Blu-ray movie discs. The latter is important. As of the time of our visit, Japanese Blu-ray player-only machines were apparently not available in Japan. Our hosts suggested that recordable optical disc players (including DVD) are more popular in Japan than the play-only designs that dominate here. But these new Blu-ray recorders will sell in Japan for approximately $3000. There are no current plans to market them in the U.S.

Toshiba also showed its HD DVD recorder/player/hard drive PVR. It has been on the market in Japan for several months. Toshiba's HD DVD players are also available in Japan, though the only one I saw on the shelves was the HD-XA1, which was priced about $100 higher than it is here.

I also saw a number of HD DVD titles not available here, including Finding Neverland, The Brothers Grimm, The Mechanic, Oliver Twist, and The Pianist. Most of the HD DVDs mastered in Japan so far are apparently recorded using the MPEG-4/AVC codec. They are also outrageously priced, mostly around 5000 Yen (about $42), and the stores I visited weren't offering discounts. I did bite the bullet and buy five titles, and will discuss them in a future report when I've had the time to go through them.

Other Developments Sony was showing a comparison between a newly proposed color space (xvYCC) and the standard NTSC space, each on a Bravia flat panel LCD display. The live source and camera were actually present next to the displays. I thought that the standard color space looked more like the live source than the xvYCC did. It wasn't clear if the sources were produced in their own respective color spaces (that is, an NTSC source into the NTSC display, an xvYCC source into the xvYCC set); if they were not, the comparison was meaningless.

Sharp also showed a lab sample of a 64" set with both Deep Contrast and a resolution of 4k x 2k (actually 4096 x 2160). You got that right: four times the number of pixels here than in our current 1920x1080 format. Driven by a 4k x 2k source, it was arguably the best looking demo at the show. While it isn't likely we'll see this in products intended for home use, it could find buyers in the pro arena.

And Sharp's new 1080p DLP projector (sporting a different model number and color than the upcoming U.S. version, but clearly the same piece) looked stunning on a big screen, despite some overblown whites on a bright snowboarding sequence.

I also got to see the Mitsubishi 1080p LCD projector that caused such a stir (despite a less than ideal setup) at CEDIA last month. It was on too big a screen at CEATEC, in my opinion, and appeared to need further adjustment to look its best. We hope to get a serious look at a production sample very soon.

JVC demonstrated 3D projection technology with some striking computer animation—the birth of the universe and similar primeval stuff. It was impressive, but I'll hold off getting excited until they can do this without those infernal glasses! JVC also demoed their upcoming $7000 D-ILA projector. I didn't get to see it at CEATEC, but it looked great at CEDIA.

Check out the blogs that follow for a bushel of photos from the show.