Is There a ‘Next Big Thing’ for the Display Industry?
The year 2012, by most accounts, has been hard on manufacturers of televisions. And the TV business is where just about all of our commercial display innovations come from these days. Think of edge-lit LED displays, active and passive 3D, HDMI (okay, not one of your favorite words), built-in WiFi connectivity, and super-large screens (70 inches and up). All of these “ideas” and production concepts originated in the world of consumer electronics.
Trouble is, most of the major TV brands are struggling. Of all the major brands, only Samsung and LG are profitable. Even so, Samsung lost money making LCD panels in 2011, and part of its strategic plan going forward may well include getting out of that business and buying panels on the open market from other manufacturers, most likely in Taiwan.
In the past three years, we’ve seen 3D TV and Internet-connected TVs come to market, both announced as the “next big thing.” But neither one had much of an impact on TV sales, which have actually declined worldwide for the second consecutive quarter.
Plasma TVs are drawing closer to the endangered species list, accounting for about 6 percent of all TVs sold worldwide in the second quarter — and that was behind the unit share for CRT TVs! LCD TV prices have plummeted as manufacturers try to balance capacity with demand. OLED TVs are still a non-starter; LG recently announced that it would not be able to ship its 55-inch 1080p OLED models in Q4 after all.
So, is there a next big thing looming on the horizon? It seems so, and it involves a lot more pixels. As part of its financial guidance announcements, Toshiba revealed it will bring three new 4K televisions to market next spring, ranging in size from 50+ inches to 84 inches. They currently offer a 55-inch version for about $10,000 in Japan.
Toshiba is part of a small but slowly-growing club of 4K TV brands, including LG Electronics (its subsidiary LG Displays makes the 84-inch 4K LCD panels), Sony (its model uses the LGD LCD panel), JVC (ditto), and LG itself. The 84-inch behemoths, showcased at the IFA show in Berlin, will set you back a cool $20K. Panasonic has also shown both 4K LCD and plasma products.
Why the rush to 4K? There’s no 4K content available to speak of, as Blu-ray discs are currently limited to 1920×1080 resolution with 8-bit color. Streaming 4K content is out of the question for about 95 percent of the population, as their average broadband speeds are well below 6 Mbps — a data rate considered barely suitable for H.264-encoded 1080p streaming.
The shift to 4K is being driven by professional production needs. There are now a handful of 4K video cameras on the market, with more to come. 4K projectors are also available, although the consumer (home theater) versions depend on some sophisticated algorithms to up-scale 1080p content 2x along each axis. For comparison, that is an equivalent task (roughly) to upscaling standard definition TV to 1080p, although the 2K-to-4K crowd has the advantage of a similar aspect ratio and dealing largely with progressive-scan source material from optical disc.
In our marketplace, the advantage of 4K displays holds promise. It could mean fewer displays required for tiling. The 84-inch glass is still expensive, but might be another motivator in the switch from traditional front projection to self-contained direct-view displays that we are seeing in many verticals, such as financial institutions.
The fact is, TV manufacturers really don’t know what their next play is. 3D didn’t do the trick, and neither did Internet-connected TVs, although a recent study showed that more Web video is now streamed through such televisions than on personal computers.
Will consumers embrace 4K? Based on previous experiences with the digital TV transition, the growth of HD, and the whole 3D debacle, I’d say no, for the present. A move to 4K would require many content and service providers to make massive and costly upgrades to infrastructures at a time when the average homeowner is screaming bloody murder over the spiraling cost of pay TV bills.
Even so, you know how things work on the other side of the Pacific – money is invested, fabs are built, capacity ramps up, and when demand doesn’t meet supply, prices drop to move panels and finished TVs. Not many Asian manufacturers have the stomach and financial resources for playing that game again, but it could mean we’ll have access to “affordable” 4K direct-view and projection displays in short order.
My advice? Best to start calculating your system bandwidth requirements now and how costly it will be to start upgrading your client’s signal delivery systems to handle 4K – if and when it ever takes off…