In the Lab's trip to CES
, we were dazzled by thousands of gadgets as you might expect. These gadgets ranged from USB pen drives
all the way up to a teched-out Lamborghini
. Each manufacturer took great
strides to get our attention probably because we had to wear our press credentials like medals of honor. After cutting through the PR lights and glamor, I was struck by the CES dominance of what was once such a low-tech has-been in tech world: the television
. Many consumer electronics behemoths like Samsung
, who sell an endless lineup of gadgets, had their booths almost completely monopolized by the pesky old idiot tube. With such high profile manufacturers all but taking over the largest electronics show in the world with one device, questions get raised.
- Is there some new technology behind this onslaught?
- What manufacturer is showing an edge in this battle?
- Is there any difference between all of these TVs?
- Should I care?
I entered CES, as most telepresence-wise HPL readers might, making the casual association between a boom in telepresence and an echo boom in the HDTV industry. It's a fair hypothesis (albeit a bit conceded if you are intimately involved with the telepresence industry) except for the fact the volume of TVs at this very show may surpass the current installed telepresence installations worldwide. Being a tech-savvy individual with a camera, a press badge and the ability to wear a stiff upper lip when accosted by marketing brass, I ventured onward to find out what was really going on in bowels of the 21st century stupid box.
What is this CES Beast?
Since most of you were not fortunate enough to be at CES, I will try and recreate the scene here before we proceed any further. The Las Vegas Convention Center, ground zero for the madness, is located a healthy distance from the Strip. You arrive at these hulking, windowless buildings that could easily make you feel as if you belong somewhere far from here. Once inside, you learn the convention plays host to over 2700 exhibitors and spans 10 massive convention halls covering 1.8 million sq ft (167,220 m2) sprinkled throughout the city, making this the largest convention anywhere in the world. (As a point of reference, a standard American football field is 45,000 sq ft (4,180 m2). That makes this conference's floor space equivalent to 40 football fields, more space than total square footage of every NFL playing field combined.) The major consumer electronics players have booths larger than most houses, many had multiple booths in different exhibition halls and all had flocks of PR people trained to descend on anyone with a purple press badge. Some unofficial estimates rumored over 150,000 people crowded into Las Vegas for the week long convention, leaving the land of hotels sold out. Where else would you rather be, honestly?
CES isn't all scary though. I think they understand the sheer enormity of what they are putting together so they conveniently group exhibitors by what they are exhibiting. What sounds great on paper, works only reasonably well in reality (I found Microsoft next to Uniden for example). Seeing as the Lab is focused on immersive visual collaboration, the 'video' grouping greatly helped in making the show manageable for our team.
The Central 'Video' Hall of CES 2007 - First up...LG, straight up style
The central hall of CES was the place to be if you wanted to learn about TVs. All of the major manufacturers concentrated their massive displays in this hall, each with booths designed much like a Las Vegas casino with no clear lines of sight in or out. The first of the major displays I encountered was the Korean juggernaut LG. LG's display was clean, massive and very impressive. They were showing upwards of 50 different TVs, all of which appeared to have strong, sharp curves and were among the most attractive I would see at the entire show. The slight shine off the front of each enclosure was just enough to keep it classy without being too ostentatious.
LG was especially proud of their plasma displays, which was surprising considering their stage show concentrated on their LCD models. One of their representatives spent a long time explaining their XCC technology to me. XCC essentially fixes the washed out look that plagued plasma TVs of the past by sampling a greater portion of the color gradation present in each image signal the TV is sent. This technology made the LG plasma TVs' color representation best in show, as far as my eye could tell.
They were also showing off another, less impressive technology called the XD engine. No one could really tell me about the XD engine but it appeared to make the TVs demonstrate slightly more true-to-life black hues. This is more of a 'paper' technology that will help sell TVs through slick sales guys being able to fire out one more cool sounding acronym.
Overall, LG had an impressive spread. While the XD engine won't redefine your paradigm, the LG XCC Plasma displays are offering something unique. When coupled with the impressive design of the LG cabinets, their plasmas were among the best I saw. LG was good but not great; at a show that prides itself on the drama of new products, LG TVs were not showing me anything that revolutionary. Needless to say, these displays would shine in any telepresence deployment.
- Overall grade - B
- TV Tech Association - LCD Camp but still showing love for the plasma
- Cool Tech - XCC Plasma Color Correction
- Waste Tech - XD Contrast Engine
Texas Instruments (TI) - Engineers as PR guys yields questions
Just down the road from LG was Texas Instruments, who caught my eye with their gigantic signage. TI's operation was much more about substance than any other presenter at this hall of the show, which was both good and bad at such a flashy show. They clearly brought their engineering department out for the show and kept the booth babes at home. TI was aggressively posturing their proprietary DLP TV technology rather than directly marketing any television. While their mirror ball system for rear projection televisions is not new technology, they are expanding its capabilities in the face of the new developments on the LCD and Plasma fronts.
One of the newest twists on DLP deals with the lighting device the TVs use. Short bulb life time has been an Achilles Heel of this technology so TI partnered with Samsung to introduce a new LED powered DLP television [pictured]. This technology will definitely extend DLP technology and dispel fears that a DLP television can't rival the life span of its counterparts. I did notice a slightly harsher picture with the LED DLP than the standard DLP but that could have just been the calibration of the Samsung TV and not the LED DLP technology itself.
TI was also showcasing 'slim' box DLP TVs. While this is a step forward, I think this is a going to be a losing battle for DLP. There is just now way a DLP TV can match the cabinet size of any LCD or Plasma TV that I saw. Instead, TI should continue to showcase the amazing color rendering technology DLP provides. TI's LED DLP tech is an evolutionary move forward that helps its technology keep pace with what LCD and Plasma are doing. The large cabinet size keeps this technology from being ideal in telepresence deployments.
- Overall grade - B-
- TV Tech Association - DLP TVs
- Cool Tech - LED DLP Lighting
- Waste Tech - Slim Box DLP TVs
Panasonic - Mid-stream with the wrong paddle
Next up was Panasonic who loves themselves some Plasma TVs. So in love with the plasma is Panasonic that they had their LCD TVs hidden away in the corner of their booth (which was unfortunate considering how good they were). Their 103" display could be seen all over the show in other, non-TV related manufacturers booths, reinforcing their dominance in the plasma display market. Panasonic may lead with the giant plasma but the design of their TVs is dead last. Cheap plastics and a dated design make the entire Panasonic lineup look as if they are out of step with current trends, which may in fact be the case.
Panasonic's booth was confusing and a bit misguided from what I could tell. Their solid plasma TV lineup was front and center but you could almost sense the trepidation in their presentation. As plasma is being displaced by LCDs as the primary large TV technology, Panasonic's huge plasma bet seems questionable. While the plasmas were beautiful, Panasonic almost seemed embarrassed to show them to me at times. I definitely got this sense when talking to the Panasonic representatives who were quick to show off their new LCD technology and shift the focus away from plasma displays.
Fortunately for Panasonic, their new LCD technology was among the most interesting things I saw at CES. They debuted a new technology they call LiFi, an ingenious lighting system for LCD projection TVs. While LCD projection TVs have their drawbacks, this lighting system could propel Panasonic far ahead of their competition. LiFi is essentially a new bulb that uses radio frequencies to provide illumination instead of a filament. The result is amazing: the LCD TVs start up in a couple seconds and look perfect. There is no lag as there is with the DLP and Plasma. This new bulb is also able to grab a wider color spectrum because of the way it refracts light through the LCD sensor, although I could not see an appreciable difference between the color reproduction of a LiFi TV and a regular TV.
Panasonic is clearly a company in a state of flux. They have made a huge bet on plasma which looks to be questionable as the technology settles into 2nd place behind LCD TVs. At the same time, Panasonic is not asleep as their LiFi technology was one of the best innovations at the show. They also deserve credit for debuting the first lead-free displays at CES. The size-cost ratio of these plasma screens make them the ideal solution for HD telepresence solutions but the amount of time that ratio stays ahead of the LCD market will be short lived. Time will tell how Panasonic adapts to the shifting playing field.
- Overall grade - C+
- TV Tech Association - Plasma TVs, but a shift is in the air
- Cool Tech - LiFi LCD Projection Lighting
- Waste Tech - Infatuation with Plasma, sorry cabinet design for all products
Samsung - Big Business Style
The final company I had a chance to meet with was Samsung and what a meeting it was. When you approach the Samsung booth, you immediately get the impression this company is all business. The giant LCD TV barrage, the clean appearance of the booth and the knowledgeable staff immediately set Samsung apart from everyone else I met with. Their TVs all have this consistent, clean, elegant design that sets them apart from every other manufacturer, minus LG (apparently the Koreans are battling for design supremacy).
As I learned on my tour of the booth, Samsung is the only TV company that manufactures LCD, Plasma, DLP and even CRT TVs, giving them leverage in whichever technology wins out in the market. Even with that advantage, Samsung is not content with staying still. Their booth was awash in new technology that actually made a difference.
The TV that was generating all the buzz at their booth was a model that used the new 802.11n wireless standard to transfer the picture data across the room without wires. The TV wasn't truly wireless, as you have to plug it into the wall for power, but the tech was good enough to win them 'Best in CES Television' award. While the 'wireless' TV is definitely cool, its application in real world situations seems a bit limited. The bandwidth of 802.11n can only muster 1080i HDTV, not the progressive scan perfection of 1080p - a feature exclusion the type of person who would buy a wireless TV would probably find objectionable. You can still do 1080p through HDMI connectors but then why are you buying a wireless TV in the first place? I voiced this question to a random guy who also seemed perplexed by need for this product but its cool factor will likely overcome the haters like us.
On the other side of the Samsung booth, the real fireworks were going off. Sammy was showing off a series of wall mounted LCDs lit by LEDs, which are more power efficient, mercury-free, longer life span lighting sources than the florescent tubes of typical LCD TVs. While the LED lighting was cool, what was really impressing me was their new BLU scanning technology. BLU-scanning actually eliminates the 'ghosting' effect that plagues LCD screens. As any hardcore FPS gamer will let you know, these trailing shadows have been a part of the LCD since its inception. But Samsung appears to have finally overcome this annoyance with the super acronym BLU-scanning LED LCD HDTV. This TV, not the wireless TV, was best in show if you ask me. The side-by-side comparison of this TV to traditional style LCD TVs would have made a believer out of you too.
Samsung brought their A-game to CES 2007. They were showcasing technologies that truly set them apart from everyone else and that's saying something at a show that was so TV-dominated. From new LED-powered LCDs and DLPs to wireless TVs and exceptional cabinet design, Samsung came out to CES with the goal of dominating their competition. With the notable exception of automatically rotating wall mounted TVs (are you kidding me?), Samsung's new technologies take their TV lineup beyond what anyone else was doing. These displays deserve consideration in any new HD telepresence solution.
- Overall grade - A
- TV Tech Association - LCD TVs but all camps are represented
- Cool Tech - BLU-scanning LED LCD TVs
- Waste Tech - Auto Wall Mount TVs
I did not have a chance to see everyone at the show, namely Sharp with their 108" LCD TV or Sony with their dominating lineup, but this survey gives you a good idea of where this market it going. LCD TV technology can now rival the size and cost of Plasma displays, which would have been unthinkable even 5 years ago. The shift from Plasma to LCD will continue to reverberate throughout the industry, with Panasonic in the most vulnerable position. TI's DLP technology, while secondary, wins out for its exceptional color reproduction and value at larger screen sizes. Samsung sits in the enviable position of having both the best technology and the manufacturing capabilities to adapt to any shift in the market. Their Korean counterpart LG is betting the farm on their super stylish approach to the television. The evolution of all of these companies and their technologies continues at breakneck speed and it was quite a trip to see it all under one roof. We'll have to stay tuned to see how this battle unfolds in 2007. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did - I will keep you updated on the evolution of visual collaboration as the year progresses.