Home advantage: CE Week unveils the latest and greatest in consumer electronics
“Sentiment toward tech spending is benefiting from an improving consumer outlook. Also, the growing anticipation for new product launches could be increasing appetite for tech. Negative effects from the first quarter seem to have dissipated and consumers are feeling more optimistic about the coming months. While there remains a myriad of concerns, including the housing market, the fundamental economy is firming and economic growth is returning to a positive trajectory.”
—Shawn DuBravac, Chief Economist and Senior Director of Research at CEA-Consumer Electronics Association
Attending CE Week in Manhattan has become an annual tradition for Film Journal International to check out on behalf of our readers the latest “competition” for movie theatres that the consumer electronics industry holds in store. With the CEA’s Index of Consumer Expectations (ICE) in June measuring “confidence toward both the overall economy and technology spending” to be at their highest levels in 2014, the industry that generates $208 billion in U.S. sales alone was buzzing with confidence.
While strolling some 130 exhibits and listening to panels and presentations at the June 23-27 show, it became increasingly obvious that all these gadgets and goodies are no longer about enabling people to get their entertainment in their homes alone. Even as the quality of that in-home presentation is advancing by the leaps of 4K pixel counts and bounds of Dolby Atmos sound (see our sidebar below), people want to be connected to entertainment and information on the go.
Just a week earlier in the same building, the Pepcom-organized “Digital Experience!” brought together another 56 exhibitors. From Actiontec (HDMI-quality wireless home networking and video) to Roku (Streaming Stick giving access to more than 200,000 movies and TV shows), they were asking us to Drop (iPad-connected kitchen scale and interactive recipe platform), Lookout (mobile security and anti-theft), PopMoney (P2P payments), TripIt! (travel organization app) and to Visme (“one tool for all your visual content needs”). It is simply about satisfying the consumer’s needs for instant, mobile access from everywhere and anytime to everything—including your dog’s vital stats and video while s/he is resting on the couch (Voyce, Manhattan Products). In the home itself, devices and their functionality seem to be about how to control these options, to make them connect and work together—smoothly and wirelessly, of course.
The official top-five trends during the show as defined by the organizers and industry trade body CEA-Consumer Electronics Assoc., were “Wearable Technology” (such as smart fabrics, embedded sensors, Augmented Reality glasses), “Connected Car” (one panel rightly asked, “Is technology the problem or the solution to distracted driving?”), “3D Printing” (first introduced at CE Week 2009) and “Digital Health and Fitness” (activity trackers are so numerous these days, they had to sweat it out in a “Battle of the Bands”). While the prognosis for all of this was certainly good, when it comes to the ever-trending “Next Gen TV,” this author can only say it ranges from better to excellent, both in sight and sound.
Unlike prior years, when cinema-quality television images were touted with allusions to movie theatres and/or going to the movies, these days the big-panel sets seem to have grown up to rely on their very own merits. One exception is Samsung’s theatrically curved television set. “It will change the meaning of the ultimate viewing experience,” the electronics giant promised. As if Ultra-HD/4K were not brilliant enough, television manufacturers are now offering THX-Certified Displays and the Revelation Upscale (from Sharp), IPS 4K for “clearer, more consistent color from every angle” (LG) and Radiance 4K Full Array LED “with local dimming for high contrast and twice the brightness, with a super-wide color gamut” (Toshiba). Noticeably absent were 3D television sets that were all the CE rage as little as four years ago.
Fittingly, one of the discussions during the full-day Conference dedicated to “Your Next TV!” was about “What You Can See” with “features and functions to expand and enhance your viewing experience” as connected “Smart TV functionality brings new content” to the consumer. Another panel of experts looked at “More than Just Pixels” and what “extended dynamic range, higher frame rate, expanded color gamut…really mean to the viewing experience.” (This one might very well be scheduled at one of our industry conventions.)
With these enhanced capabilities emerging, three sets of industry standards were publicized in time for CE Week. While a bit technical, perhaps, your reporter feels they do represent an important indicator of how much the quality of the in-home experience is growing. The Wireless Speaker and Audio Association, an industry group “dedicated to bringing reliable, high-resolution, interoperable, wireless, surround-sound audio products to the home-theatre market,” announced the first fully compliant speakers (Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 20) and high-resolution audio player. With an “audiophile quality” of 24-bit/96kHz uncompressed, Sharp’s player delivers the highest of four Master Quality (MQ) Recording categories. These descriptors were established by CEA, the Digital Entertainment Group (behind both DVD and Blu-ray discs, Digital Copy, UltraViolet and more), the Recording Academy and three major music labels with the goal of “conveying a clear message” about High Resolution Audio.
Similarly, the extended characteristics for Ultra High-Definition (UHD) displays that CEA’s Video Division Board devised and adopted for TVs, monitors and projectors for the home were “designed to address various attributes of picture quality and help move toward interoperability, while providing clarity for consumers and retailers alike.” Calling UHD “the next revolution in home display technology…with outstanding new levels of picture quality,” Gary Shapiro, CEA’s president and CEO, expects this initiative to bring “additional certainty in the marketplace” about the following characteristics: Display Resolution (no less than eight million active pixels, with at least 3,840 horizontally by 2,160 vertically), Aspect Ratio (width to height 16:9 or wider), Upconversion (existing HD-quality video to UHD display), Digital Input (one or more HDMI supporting 3,840 x 2,160 native content resolution at 24p, 30p and 60p frames per second; HDCP content protection), Colorimetry (2,160p video inputs encoded according to ITU-R BT.709 color space), Bit Depth (minimum color eight bits) and Connectivity (video and audio Codecs, IP and networking details, apps for streaming UHD content).
And the one characteristic that is truly kicking our tires? “Ultra High-Definition TV is the closest thing to bringing the 4K Digital Cinema experience from movie theaters to the home,” CEA noted. “It offers consumers an incredibly immersive viewing experience…designed to result in an unparalleled home entertainment experience for consumers.”
Holding that thought, it probably did not take much convincing to have Sony Electronics host a special panel on “All Things 4K.” Under the leadership of company president and COO Mike Fasulo, representatives from Sony Pictures Entertainment (Grover Crisp, asset management and restoration) and the Broadcast & Production Systems Division (Hugo Gaggioni, chief technology officer) were at the podium to explain how Sony has built an entire ecosystem for movies and broadcast in support of quality tech-hardware. Crisp noted that by beginning to scan 35mm film at 4K resolution as long as eight years ago, the studio has by now built the largest 4K library as well as shooting more and more features with 4K professional cameras. On the television and broadcast side, while hits like “The Blacklist” and “Masters of Sex” are produced in 4K, Sony is actively involved with the World Cup. Highlights from the games shot in 4K will not only become part of an upcoming 4K feature film, they noted, but are also shown—within 48 hours —at dedicated Sony Experience Centers in Best Buy stores across North America. Fasula added that demonstration of the quality is absolutely required. “It’s about market creation, not simply market share.” Getting consumers interested in UHD, at price points from $2,000 to $25,000 (for 48- and 80-inch models), is about reaching out to their passions, be they sports, games or movies, Fasulo opined.
Although demand for 4K is still being created, the panel was already asked to talk about 8K. For consumers wondering if they should wait, Gaggioni cautioned about the bandwidth necessary for delivery and called the better quality pretty much unnoticeable, even on an 80-inch panel. “8K is for very large screens—cinema screens. That’s where the beauty lies. For the masses, 4K remains the best bet at this moment.”
The best bet in theatrical sound will soon be playing in a living room near you, albeit in “reference” speaker configurations of 5.1.2 and 7.1.4, with the last numbers indicating the height component of Dolby Atmos. It was only going to be a matter of time that the latest cinematic innovation would enter the home, like all the others before Dolby Atmos. It did seem a bit sudden, however, to hear Pioneer and Onkyo not only speak about their upcoming Dolby Atmos-enabled product lines, but to actually see prototypes on display (receivers will get a firmware upgrade by year’s end) and to experience them in their enveloping action. (For an overview of Onkyo’s proposed speaker configurations, click here; and for Pioneer’s home theatre lineup, which includes three Elite receiver models ranging from $1,600 to no more than $3,000, check out this.)
The same day that Pioneer teased the release about the new product line (June 23), Brett Crockett, director of sound research at Dolby, broke the news in the company blog. “In 2012 when we introduced Dolby Atmos, the groundbreaking cinema sound system that puts moviegoers in the middle of the action, I started imagining how much better my home theatre—and millions of others—could sound. From hearing the exciting cinema sound that Dolby Atmos made possible, I knew there was the potential to raise home entertainment to an entirely new level.”
While not raising the 12-foot ceilings, both Pioneer and Onkyo had demo setups readily installed and showed the same audiovisual highlights. They included an introduction to the specifics of Dolby Atmos as they apply to the home, a selection of theatrical trailers (Amaze, Leaf, et al.) and three clips with scenes from Star Trek Into Darkness and Life of Pi, all sounding pretty convincing. For consumers, Onkyo posted a pitch on YouTube. Neither one of the manufacturers had actually mounted speakers on the ceiling—official reasoning goes, while this would be ideal to reap the full benefit and effect, it is not always feasible to accomplish in a room at home. Instead, they used the Dolby-developed and approved special design of four surround speakers with an additional speaker integrated into the top of each unit that fires sound upwards. (The actual nomenclature is Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers “that produce full, detailed overhead sound from speakers located where your conventional speakers are now.” A couple of Pioneer’s Elite-series bookshelf speakers list for $749 and the floor-standing model costs $699.)
“How do we create the sensation of sounds above your head if there are no speakers above your head?” Dolby’s Crockett asked in his post. “It’s complicated, but it all comes down to understanding the physics of sound waves and understanding the way your brain interprets those sound waves.” Whereas the upward angle has been standardized for all speakers to guarantee precise and even convergence and coverage from above, one still wonders how the speakers’ distance from one another and actual placement around the space are being determined. Pioneer’s executive VP of marketing and corporate communications, Russ Johnston, explained to Film Journal International that a custom install program is in place. The MCACC Pro calibration system runs a series of tests with the help of a microphone to make sure that everything matches up with the speaker setup in the room. Pioneer also provided assurance that there will be additional modules of up-speakers that can be added to complement existing home-theatre speaker systems.
Crockett also wrote that there will be no need to get a new Blu-ray player either, as long as the one you have fully conforms to the Blu-ray specification. “But Dolby Atmos isn’t just about hardware. At its core, it’s a powerful creative tool that lets filmmakers use exceptionally lifelike sound to deliver the full impact of their artistic vision. We’re working with studios and production houses to help them create Dolby Atmos soundtracks for a broad range of movies and TV for home viewing. You’ll start to see Dolby Atmos titles on Blu-ray and streaming video services this fall, with more to come at the start of 2015.”
Just remember to fully experience them in a great movie theatre first. Thankfully, that’s what they are still made for. Welcome to the real sights and sounds!
Pioneering Dolby Atmos
“I have been in the CE Industry for three decades and I have seen and heard many new and exciting technologies, says Russ Johnston, executive VP, marketing and corporate communications at Pioneer Americas. “We have had major strides in High Definition TV picture improvements over four or five years. Surround-sound technology did not advance at the same time that TV technology did from flat-panel and broadcast quality. Dolby Atmos is the first significant improvement in surround sound that brings a holistic HD experience to the home.”
FJI asked Johnston to elaborate. “The difference between what we have today and what Dolby Atmos is offering is huge step which we see only once in a while. Currently, surround sound in home theatre is very horizontal with very little to give you a ‘height’ effect. Now we have the total room effect with height and width. It is all up to what the artist intends now; they have the technology to blow us away and it can be brought into the home. When a consumer enjoys this full-room surround experience, they are sure to take the step to upgrade their home theatre,” he foresees. “Retailers will capitalize on demonstrating the total HD experience. We already know that Best Buy’s Magnolia Home Theater stores will dedicate one of their sound rooms to Dolby Atmos.”
How about the very big sight-and-sound room at the movie theatre? “I have yet to experience Dolby Atmos at the theatre,” he readily admits. “It is critical for Dolby Atmos to be a theatrical format so that there will be more content. Studios are reluctant to invest in the effort for a new format unless there are movie theatres or hardware manufacturers supporting the format. Brand recognition for Dolby Atmos, just like DTS and THX, will be important for consumer electronics success."