Video Display Technology Leaps Ahead

Home theater just keeps getting better. New products from Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and other companies promise huge improvements in picture quality and greater system flexibility. For example, Toshiba's ColorStream PRO technology in its Platinum Standard SD7108 DVD-Video player preserves the MPEG-2 480-line progressive video scanning inherent in DVDs and outputs it directly to one of the company's new Cinema Series projection TV sets, such as the 71-inch TP71H95.

ColorStream avoids the flicker, glitches, and loss of resolution that occur when a DVD's 480p video signal is converted to the NTSC interlaced format for viewing on normal TV sets; this occurs in most DVD players intended for the North American consumer market. According to a Toshiba press release dated May 19, the Platinum Standard SD7108 is "the world's first DVD player fully prepared for the digital TV era." The preservation of MPEG-2 coding is said to deliver "a more film-like, three-dimensional image."

Toshiba's ColorStream PRO television sets are equipped with a DTV Interface Terminal, which will enable them to perform to their full potential when digital television is launched later this year. The DTV Interface Terminal provides connections for external DTV receiver boxes, a product category that should take off like a rocket within the next year. Cable Television Laboratories, Inc. (CableLabs), an engineering consortium of the cable industry, is currently finalizing standards for set-top boxes that will receive and output all 18 varieties of DTV as well as legacy NTSC. For the first time, cable providers will have an industry-wide "open" standard, which means that converter boxes from any manufacturer designed to CableLabs' specifications will be usable in any cable system.

Following the model from the high-end audio market, home-theater systems appear to be headed toward an ever-increasing number of separate devices and processors. The traditional TV set, which integrates tuner, audio amplifier and speakers, and screen in one unit, could survive only in the lower end of the market. Many home-theater pundits have questioned the necessity of including seldom-used features like picture-in-picture or surround processing in products that are essentially used as video displays. They claim that almost all home-theater systems use outboard processors and speaker systems and urge manufacturers to concentrate on picture quality by deleting superfluous circuitry.

Electronic giants Panasonic and Mitsubishi have anticipated this trend with their new lines of separate screens and tuners. Mitsubishi's new "digital-ready" projection TVs---at prices ranging from $4000 for a 50-inch model to $9000 for an 80-inch behemoth---come without receivers, which must be purchased separately. Video-display technology is considered by most in the industry to be fairly mature, but receiving and processing techniques are improving rapidly.

"We developed this external strategy because we know the capability of these boxes is going to increase and prices are going to drop dramatically for years to come," says Bob Perry, Mitsubishi Electric's US marketing director. Mitsubishi dominates the US market in projection TV.

Plasma displays represent perhaps the most promising video technology of all. These flat, thin, relatively lightweight screens are capable of amazing brightness, color, and contrast. Until recently, however, they have been relegated to business uses, such as graphic displays in large meetings, or information and advertising in public venues like airports.

Companies such as Fujitsu, whose impressive 42-inch Plasmavision was previewed in a previous story, have been unable to push the retail prices of plasma displays below $10,000. (Fujitsu cranks out 6000 units per month at its factory in Miyazaki, Japan, and the company plans a second, more efficient plant for the year 2000.)

Mitsubishi's new 80-inch rear-projector provides almost four times the viewing area and sells for less than Fujitsu's Plasmavision. Industry analyst Chuck McLaughlin of Menlo Park, California, states that in order for plasma displays to take off, they need to hit the market "in the $2000 to $3000 range." Economic problems in Asia and engineering problems in the struggle to reduce the relatively large size of plasma pixels (picture elements) have kept the technology from making headway in the consumer market.

Brad Zenger, marketing director at PixelWorks Inc., a maker of flat-panel display-controller chips in Tualatin, Oregon, says, "Large growth in consumer markets won't come until 1999 or 2000." DTV will likely see a big surge in public acceptance at about the same time.