First, second and Ultra screens: Consumer Electronics Week surveys future entertainment viewing options
“It’s a large-screen market,” noted Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the trade association’s senior director of research, during the kickoff presentation for the 2013 CE Week and Line Show in New York City. Dealing with the $209 billion U.S. consumer electronics industry, he was speaking relatively, of course. With the advent of Ultra HD TV, flat panels will certainly be getting larger and crisper than ever before.
Sharp, whose Aquos line famously added a fourth pixel for “a billion more colors” and already makes 90-inch (229 cm) HD TVs, launched “the only THX 4K-certified Ultra HD TV” at the show for “best of the best in picture quality.” Available for $8,000 in mid-August (which is the same price of the first HD TV [CRT] in 1998), Chinese manufacturer Seiki (“simply brilliant”) stunned the industry with a 50-inch (127 cm) model for $1,500.
Once again, Film Journal International attended key sessions at the consumer electronics and technology industry’s mid-year event in New York City. Just how far electronics and technology have come is evident in the dedicated seminars and entire conference tracks offered for “Digital Imaging,” the “Connected Car” and “Digital Health.” With a projected $50 billion spent over the next five years in the segment, “FashionWare” made an appearance as well. And they weren’t just talking about Google Glasses and Apple iWatch or one of the many fitness-activity trackers such as Basis or FitBark and Whistle. (Yes, they are for your dogs.) The dedicated exhibit featured “smart” fabrics, embedded sensors, AR (augmented reality) glasses, stylish headsets and other “wearable” technology, before putting all those tech-infused fashions and accessories on the runway. Cutting-edge took on a whole new meaning for this author. (And so did hemming and hawing about how it is all going to work.)
There were various super-sessions as well, ranging from “Crowdfunding the Hardware Revolution” to “The Battle Over Smart-phone Screen Size” and how to take 3D printing to the mass market. “Video Gaming’s Other Next-Gen” addressed “mobile hardware, open operating systems, digital delivery and an indie-friendly publishing model.” While this certainly sounds applicable to the movie business too, we selected highlights from the “2nd Screen Summit” and the “Ultra HD Conference” as having particular interest to our business.
DuBravac provided some perspective on several screen fronts. Two years ago, just 11% of TVs were 50 inches or larger (in 1997, the average TV size was less than half of that), with their share expected to reach 34% by 2016. As for the reasons, prices have become “very low” and Internet-connected and otherwise advanced “smart” TVs are selling at 36% much better than expected this year so far. On the 3D front, Steve Koenig, his colleague in charge of industry analysis, called 2013 sales “somewhat one-dimensional.” With sales of tablets and smart-phones on the other hand growing 45% and 20%, respectively, DuBravac said they alone are elevating 2013 CE industry revenue growth up 2.7%, from a negative 3.5% without them. Tablets are in 40% of all U.S. households already, and 30% of those that don’t own one yet declare intent to buy in the next 24 months.
Not surprisingly, then, an entire day was devoted to “Adopting and Evolving 2nd Screen Experiences.” That term refers to how consumers use their smart-phones and tablets/pads—laptops and computers to a lesser degree—while being engaged with a main screen, which is mostly TV for consumer electronics, but could, or maybe even should, easily extend into the movie theatre (as Disney demonstrated at CinemaCon).
Handily supporting that very suggestion, the event took place in the top-level screens at Bow Tie (formerly Clearview) Chelsea Cinemas. Assuming that consumers actually engage with the show that they are watching rather than updating their statuses or texting, the 2nd Screen has been a “companion experience” so far. Therein, content is related to the primary screen, the experts explained. They believe in order to “transform 2nd Screen consumer engagement into revenue,” it has to become a “converged experience” that is “in sync” with consumers’ lives and follows them as they leave their homes.
Other panels covered specific synching technologies, such as Wi-Fi network IDs or Bluetooth pairings to all sorts of set-top devices, to authenticate users and usage rights. Thankfully on that note, David Kaplan of Bravo Media Research—the cable network is part of the Comcast/NBCUniversal portfolio—confirmed that “the content industry is very cautious” and rightfully protective of their entertainment, “setting up very high walls.”
Protecting the quality of the image is at the center of the Ultra HD collaboration between THX and Sharp, the partners assured at the launch of the 70-inch model (178 cm) that also offers active 3D technology “where every scene comes alive” and a dual-core processor to split the panel between TV and web as part of Sharp’s Smart Central platform. (I guess that would make the 2nd Screen fully converged.) THX has been “associated with preserving the artist’s intent” since 1983, stated senior video engineer Eric Gemmer, who also reminded attendees that George Lucas founded THX as a way to improve presentation in movie theatres (http://youtu.be/tYvt9REyM-s). Over 400 “rigorous THX laboratory tests” were performed in order to assure that up-scaling the image content from HD to Ultra HD guarantees the “Hollywood experience at home.” TV sets have become “large enough to have the full theatre experience,” representatives from Sharp opined.
Also at the Line Show, Samsung called its $20,000, 85-inch (216 cm), Ultra HD TV “massively smart” and StreamTV Networks asked to “say goodbye to 3D as you know it” thanks to Ultra-D 2160p “4K Glasses-Free 3D” that is “natural, comfortable, immersive...” While Toshiba invited attendees to “join the resolution revolution,” Sony’s Ultra HD ads urged consumers to “live beyond definition” and promised to “enhance the quality of everything you watch”. Resolution leads to immersion, Sony reasons, allowing viewers to sit closer to the screen without the image breaking down and pixels becoming visible. By delivering “the detail and clarity of the picture” on those ever-bigger displays, “the television occupies a larger angle of view, enveloping the viewer in the action,” which Sony says helps “a viewer engage with the content they are watching.”
Though absent from the panel dedicated to “The Face of Ultra HD in the Home,” representatives from the other manufacturers nevertheless agreed with Sony. Sharp, Toshiba, Samsung and LG Electronics discussed how bringing a bigger screen into the room and being able to sit closer makes the experience more like a movie theatre. Seriously, that’s what was said. “It’s the most natural picture ever seen on a TV screen,” they opined, almost like the 3D-like appearance of looking out the window. “Even the untrained eye can tell there is something different about it.”
Ultra HD Conference chair Geoffrey Tully reminded the panelists that this is pretty much the same argument manufacturers had used with the introduction of HD. Only half-jokingly, he asked if Ultra HD is actually more than just “a cleaner window.” Admitting in response that there is often a difference between “the features and benefits that consumers want and what the industry wants to sell,” attendees were reassured that consumers “have always appreciated better picture quality.”
Since the CE industry jointly agreed upon the term Ultra HD for 3,840 x 2,160 resolution and 16:9 aspect ratio last October “to avoid confusing consumers,” Sony has not given up on the 4K advantage and is keeping the pixels a part of its marketing. “With hyper-real 4K ultra-high-definition engagement, immersive sound and superlative 3D, Sony and other consumer electronics brands are bringing to viewers a new standard in home entertainment.” The Ultra HD Conference 2013 program guide further stated, “These new TVs represent a signpost of where entertainment technology is going. It’s a harbinger of the sweeping trend toward 4K production, distribution and enjoyment.”
Continuing on that note, Sony admits that “while movies, TV programs, sports, advertisements and music-videos are being shot in 4K, the delivery system for at-home viewing lags behind.” It will be necessary to augment the pipeline and hardware necessary to create an entire, new technological ecosystem (or as another panel put it, “OK, I got my Ultra HD TV: What else am I going to have to buy?”). Sony already announced “the world’s first 4K Ultra HD media player and network service delivering full-length Hollywood movies” during International CES in January and Monster brought equally advanced Ultra HDMI cabling to CE Week.
Blu-ray players with up-scaling capabilities are next, with Toshiba and Technicolor (more below) taking an up-rezzing step in resolving the issue of “What’s there to watch?” as yet another panel wondered. Even Sony, with its studio divisions already capturing films and video at 4K for a while, admitted that “content remains the big question to Ultra HD’s success.” In their ad for the 84-inch (214 cm) set that is apparently “reinventing how you watch TV” at a $30,000 price point ($5,000 for 55 and 65 inches, 140 and 165 cm), LG Electronics went so far as to issue a warning. The small print noted that “no ‘ultra-high-definition’ or ‘4K’ video content is currently available. No broadcast or other standard content currently exists” for such televisions either. Worst perhaps, the latest model “may not be compatible with such standards if and when developed.”
Calling proper attention to digital cinema as “the 4K pioneer,” Jack Wetherill, senior market analyst at Futuresource research and consulting, noted that an “extensive amount of 4K production is now taking place” and scanning of catalog titles underway. The number of theatrical releases remains “restricted,” he qualified, as “a relatively small number of 4K digital-cinema projectors” is in use, “but growing.” As they did in launching their HD TVs, display manufacturers are therefore counting on “premium up-scalers” to “beautifully” render “all the content that consumers already own” into an “overall better picture” on their Ultra HD sets, as Scott Ramirez, Toshiba’s product management and development VP, observed. He also mentioned the first-ever 4K up-scaling Blu-ray player certified by Technicolor. Obviously, THX is not the only “cinema” brand to get on the Ultra HD bandwagon.
Already during the previous week’s Digital Experience, where the hosts at Pepcom brought together almost 50 tech exhibitors, FJI had the opportunity to speak with Doug DeLor about Technicolor’s own quality-assurance programs. “We are bringing the Hollywood standard into the home,” the head of global branding told us about extending the iconic company’s 96-year expertise in color and image science to computers and mobile devices. After all, that’s where a lot of Hollywood movies are being consumed these days. While the licensing program is being launched in North America, the goal is a global one, he confirmed.
Acknowledging that both the cinema and television have set standards of viewing, DeLor knows other displays have not. Therefore Technicolor teamed up with Portrait Displays in creating a “Color Certification” process for many types of displays, not just for entertainment but also for accurate representation in e-commerce. At the same time, Technicolor has awarded its first full “Image Certification” in 4K to the video-processing chip and up-scaling system that Marseille Networks designed. Incorporated in Blu-ray and other connected devices, the goal is to accurately deliver up-rezzed and otherwise improved images to Ultra HD televisions.
“Theatres and Hollywood entertainment are our DNA,” DeLor stated, confirming that motion pictures and DCPs will continue to be part of the Technicolor business. “We work exclusively with directors and cinematographers on the original experience. With the new program, we are fixing that last foot. Our customers in Hollywood love what we are doing now for the CE industry because Technicolor is bringing that same quality of experience to the home and on the go… We make sure that the content is up-scaled exactly to the Hollywood standards…that it is ‘spot-on’ in how it was conceived originally.”
Once again, this easily confirms that, even setting aside its size, the movie theatre screen remains the first screen. And the finest, we might add.