Video Dreams

"Rain, rain go away" was my mantra on the trek down to the annual audio-video Mecca; the forecasters were warning that the winter desert was set to deliver wet weather for the Consumer Electronic Show. I never thought my prayers would be answered so obliquely—Las Vegas enjoyed more than a few moments of snow on Friday of the convention. You could tell those who had never seen flurries of the chilly white stuff before: they wandered comically in circles with w-i-d-e eyes and slack jaws.

I caught myself doing the same in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, usually a comfortable expanse of familiar home theater products. But this year, there were so many unrecognizable new companies, many of them from China, that it resurrected memories of my first CES back in 1982. I was lost again in my own industry, more than 20 years later.

Genoa Color Technologies was parked in the midst of these new names, but the only products they had were video-processing prototyping test circuits. This company is attempting to increase the color gamut of video displays by adding secondary colors to the normal additive primaries of red, green and blue. Using a special rear-projection prototype, they showed how expanding the three-color matrix to four—adding yellow—allows the demand on red to be reduced and increases the dynamic range of the system. Flesh and wood tones and other highly saturated reds, oranges, and yellows just jumped off the screen. They also had a small LCD screen with five colors; amazingly, the addition of cyan made things appear more solid and three-dimensional. This technology was developed to allow the print industry to see exactly how their work will appear on CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) and other color-print processes, and it may force a paradigm shift in the video-display universe—or it could be used for the ultimate video evil, making TVs blow us away with overly saturated cartoonish colors. Until I see actual manufactured products using this approach, my verdict is withheld, but I intend to keep an eye on these promising geniuses.

A large crowd drew me into the 3LCD booth, in which a conglomeration of companies were gathered to promote triple-chip 1920x1080 LCD projection technology. Epson spearheaded the idea of collectively marketing these products in an attempt to fend off the momentum from the Texan semiconductor firm. The 3LCD booth was filled with products bearing their new logo, which will soon begin appearing on front- and rear-projection displays from Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic, Sanyo, Epson, and Fujitsu.

That's right—Fujitsu, the plasma king, entered the front-projection product pool with a BIG splash. Their LPF-D711 ($24,995), with an industrial design that can best be described as "neo-utilitarian chic," swam to the head of the school alongside JVC and Sony with this 1920x1080 model. It uses an outboard video processor crunching data in 12-bit word lengths, providing the final 8-bit display with the most accurate motion- and color-processing mathematics. The depth of color and fluid motion processing was intoxicating; I can't wait to see this one critically in the studio. It is one of the strongest "first attempts" in a consumer electronics category in my memory.

The other sparkling star of this booth came from Epson. Their prototype 1920x1080 rear-projection television seems to share a chassis with their other LivingStation products, which are designed to be the display center for home computing, audio/video entertainment, and digital photography. Built into this high-resolution display is a multi-format memory card reader and photo-quality printer, making it a must-have for techno geeks who live in smaller spaces. It was also, to my knowledge, the only rear-projection set at the show to sport an auto iris for contrast enhancement. We don't discuss prototypes very often, but this one was simply too beautiful and interesting to ignore. They did not reveal the expected selling price of this unit, but they said it should hit the retail world by the last quarter of the year.

Optoma introduced an entirely new product category: a combination video projector and DVD player. The adorable, portable $1,500 MovieTime utilizes a 848x480 DMD chip from Texas Instruments. It will display DVDs from the drive mounted on its top or video signals (SD or HD) from an external source, although any HD material will be displayed at reduced resolution, and the only high-def input is an HD-15 connector for RGB signals. The unit even has two internal speakers and a subwoofer output for less-demanding audiences; an optical digital output to feed any available Dolby Digital receiver is available for more sophisticated surround lovers.

Commercial video giant BenQ stepped up their aggressive move into the home theater market with a few new projectors. Their top-of-the-line model number only changed from PE-8200 to 8220, but the new chassis looked considerably larger than the old one. This 1280x720 DLP projector ($10,995) utilizes the Texas Instruments HD2+ chipset with Faroudja deinterlacing, along with an 8-segment color wheel for reduced rainbow effects and enhanced low-level detail. The other new unit that grabbed my attention was the PE-7700, a 1280x720 HD2+ DLP with a 6-segment wheel for a mere $3,295.

Marantz updated one of my long-time favorite projectors, the VP-12 (which has undergone model revisions designated S1, S2, and S3). The new model is called—can you guess?—the VP-12S4, with improvements such as a new video processor from Gennum, a maker of professional video-production gear. Dan Miller, Marantz's video technical wizard, explained that their 1080i deinterlacing circuitry was key to improving the HD picture. Instead of converting 1080i down to 540p and upscaling to the 1280x720 panel as other companies do (according to Marantz, at least), the Marantz/Gennum system converts a 1080i signal to 1080p, then scales it down to fit the panel's lower resolution. The results were reasonably obvious in a dark room on the busy show floor—the high-def material seemed to flow more naturally. Somehow it was less digital—less jerky and blocky. Additionally, Marantz is now marketing this chassis with a choice of three lenses. The middle-throw lens fills in the range for potential room placement, but this must be determined before the unit is ordered, as lenses are not replaceable in the field.

Sam Runco's team has been working overtime again, with the most notable new products at the ends of the pricing spectrum. Runco hopes to save his dealers the trouble of marketing any other video projector brands now that they have a unit at the popular $3,495 price point. The CL-410 uses a 1024x576 DMD chip in a chassis with lens shift and variable throw distance. At the extreme high end—and I do mean that literally—Sam will personally autograph your SC-1, an unbelievable projector that will only set you back a cool quarter million. I'm searching for a descriptor larger than "projector" for this darn thing; it's light output is so prodigious that it could be called weapon's grade video. Perhaps that signature is needed to release his company's liability…

KiSS (or, according to the company's logo, K/i/S/S/), a newcomer to our shores from Denmark, showed a variety of very interesting media servers and flat-screens with integral DVD drives and networking capability. Their smaller LCD panels and single floor-standing plasma looked absolutely gorgeous. I can only assume that they took their name from the popular "keep it simple, stupid" catch phrase. If they followed that instruction, these products should have great value.

There was simply no way to see the whole show, and many companies chose to display at off-site locations that were difficult to reach with the unbelievably dense traffic outside the convention center. I wasn't the only journalist promising a change next year. I'm boycotting anyone who wants me at their off-site venue—unless, of course, if they provide helicopter transportation there and back.