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I decided this week to look at 3D printing, following some of the comments at the CES Unveiled event, where it was seen as a revolution that would mean everybody having their own machine.
I was an early enthusiast in the world of micro-computers. I was reading about the products and technology and eventually around 1980, I invested what seemed a huge amount of money (I had a young family and a big mortgage!) to buy an Apple ][ computer. To give a sense of the development at the time, a friend of mine had hand built his computer using "wire wrapping" - no PCBs, but every pin on every chip (and there were a lot) was wired individually.
At the time, there was a certain feeling about the business and the enthusiasts in the industry. I got the same feeling about the world of the internet around 20 years ago and slightly later about the "open source" and Linux worlds. Both looked like particularly positive indicators of major changes in the world. The same kind of feeling has been apparent to me for several years in 3D printing.
Last year, I commented that the best displays that I saw in September were not at IFA, but at IBC. They were the Sony OLEDs and the Dolby S3D and HDR displays. This year, there was a slight improvement in the Sony OLED, but no change from Dolby in either. Sony did have a stunning looking UltraHD OLED this year, but this was just a technology demo. There are no detailed mass production plans, we understand.
Certainly, without a side-by-side comparison with my own selected content, between the LG, Panasonic and Samsung UltraHD OLEDs at IFA and the Sony one at IBC, I would find it hard to identify the best. I long ago learned that visual memory is very, very fallible and without the same signal and conditions, there is no way to rank displays. What was clear was that all of them are visually stunning. However, none of them is likely to be in production very quickly (although we have seen some strange rumours about Panasonic making big OLEDs - but, frankly, I'd discount them).
So why would the OLED groups show products that, as of today, they can't make? It's not unreasonable to assume that if the panel makers are finding FullHD panels difficult to make, they are going to find UltraHD significantly harder. Some of the pixel designs that we have seen need five transistors per subpixel. Given 3840 x 2160 is around 8 megapixels, that means 24 million subpixels and maybe as many as 120 million transistors! Sharp showed a prototype like that at around 13" diagonal at SID in 2011, but mass production is another issue.
It's been something of a sad week for me. It's my duty as the editor of the journal of record for the display industry to mark the passing of the PDP as the TV of choice for video lovers everywhere. Last week, Panasonic held its first TV press conference that I can remember that didn't mention PDP at all. That was a significant moment, but this week, my friend of twenty five years or more, Ray Soneira (the first product that Meko sold was his DisplayMate test software), said that the LG OLED was effectively 'perfect'. That may be even more significant.
Now, in twenty five years, I can't remember Ray ever using that word. His business is, in fact, predicated on the idea that it's really important to understand the imperfections of displays so that they can be 'characterised'. After all, none are perfect. Until now. (I assume that Ray won't 'roll up his tent and walk away'!)
Since I first saw the Fujitsu 42" PDP at Comdex in 1995, PDP has been a desirable display (although the poor contrast, 'false contouring' and scaling artefacts were pretty grim). When the driving issues were improved, the image quality became really compelling and, with the Pioneer Kuro, PDP was, without doubt, the display that enthusiasts wanted. Pete Gamby, our editor for several years, was a big fan of the Kuro, although we never paid him enough to afford one!
The story that caught my attention particularly this week is the report that Samsung is trying to sell Liquavista, the Philips spin-off that it bought in January 2011 (the story has been going around for some time, but activity seems to have stepped up).
Liquavista, which became the Samsung Netherlands Research Centre) had a technology based on electro-wetting. It uses tiny drops of liquid which normally sit in the corner of each pixel. Applying a voltage changes the surface tension of the drop, which spreads out. The drop can be used to block either transmitted or reflected light, or a mixture in a transflective configuration. The technology is bistable - that is it needs no power to operate unless it changes, which makes it ideal for mobile applications. The switching is very fast and supports colour, so video can be produced and with no polarisers, the display can have high efficacy- lots of the light from the light source can be preserved.
A major benefit of the Liquavista technology is that it can be made on existing LCD production lines. When it was an independent company, Liquavista was trying to persuade those with existing, but unprofitable, LCD production lines to adopt its concept. It told us in 2010 that it was 95% compatible and would soon be 100% compatible with LCD production.
The big story of last week was, without doubt, the planned Samsung investment in Sharp. The symbolism is more important than the substance. The deal indicates that Samsung wants to have an on-going relationship with its Japanese rival and that would have been very surprising in the past. However, the stark economics of the future of LCD making mean that everything is about making the most of what you’ve got even if you’re as big a company as Samsung. It has always been the case for the smaller players.
At a briefing to the CEO of a major panel maker at IFA a couple of years ago, I remember saying “I don’t know how you have the conversation with your finance department to justify the investment needed for your next LCD fab”. The fundamentals of low profitability, low revenue growth, but increasing volume demand have not gone away and have maybe even got worse since then. As David Barnes has said in talks, more than once, companies and countries get into the panel making business for reasons that are not just about profits. For China, it’s about capturing value in the supply chain. That makes it hard to justify investments in capacity, when the profit ‘upside’ is very limited.
When Sony and Samsung started their LCD joint venture, I remarked in Display Monitor that I could see what was in it for Sony, but couldn’t see what was in it for Samsung. Ross Young, then of DisplaySearch, said in his editorial at the same time that he could see what was in it for Samsung, but wasn’t sure why Sony had done it! As it turned out, there were reasons for both sides.
I wrote in Display Monitor recently about this time being the time for a change over from PCs being at the centre of our technology worlds and mobile devices dominating. This will be a continuing challenge for monitor makers, but the business won't go away. Our unofficial company motto is "Don't forget the people" and the ergonomic implications of tablet use are important.
Tablets are great for some applications, but the ergonomics are absolutely horrible for long term use and content creation. For those that use PCs as content creation devices, a keyboard is needed with a big high resolution screen at a distance closer to the point of minimum visual effort - around 0.5M to 0.8M typically. That's too far for the big 'hot topic' driven by Windows 8, touch. That has given me a lot to think about over the last couple of years. Our research clients are always asking about touch on monitors. I have been sceptical about the success of touch on the desktop and I couldn't quite see how gestures would work in the office.
At CES, I tried the Tobii eye tracking solution and have 'seen the light', if you'll pardon the pun. We've been keeping an eye (if you'll excuse another pun) on the technology since I first tried it in March 2007 at CeBIT when the company was in a 'technology park' area. I was impressed then, but I was really, really impressed after the CES demonstration. I found it easy and very natural, after just a few seconds of calibration and use, to use the system to select objects, change views and zoom and scroll content. This is, surely, the future of interaction with desktop monitors?
Windows 8 was launched last week. The general reaction is the same as I highlighted when I saw the original Microsoft Surface announcement, that the O/S is a good one from the technical and stability point of view, but that it seems to be very confusing for the user. There seem to be four distinct modes, although probably only three will be used.
On tablets, the RT version used with the tile interface looks as though it will be a reasonably usable competitor to Android or iOS, at least if Microsoft can enlist developers to create enough apps (and it has a good track record in doing this).
On PCs, the Intel version can be used with the desktop interface, and certainly in business, this looks likely to be the norm. The question for us and for our monitor clients is how much the tile interface, with touch, will be used with the PC version. It seems that some usage is unavoidable.
I was thinking recently about 4K (3840 x 2160) products for TV and in the monitor market. There is some scepticism in some areas about the importance of this high resolution and we've seen a wide range of forecasts for the TV market from other analysts. We think 4K is important. There are a couple of technology enablers that seem to have been missed by some commentators.
First, there is the issue of 4K content not being available. That's accurate today, but the world of content production does not stand still and is going through its own revolution. This world was traditionally analogue, but then converted to digital with digital broadcast cameras and using interfaces including 3G SDI (not to be confused with 3G telecoms). The world of TV studios is being impacted by the arrival of much lower cost digital cameras, some based on SLR technology. We see that trend continuing - and there seems little let-up in the drive to higher resolutions there.
The Samsung profit forecast that we mentioned in last week's Display Monitor emphasises that not all is gloom and doom in the electronic business (although it mostly is at the moment!).
It did get me thinking about the changes in the electronics business in the last few years. Increasingly, the business has become a 'hits' business. It was not always this way.
A long way back in time, companies really had to work very hard over long periods to build up sales channels for business. Information about products was really only available through those sales channels and advice on the best product or best brand came from the experience of the retailer and perhaps the close associates of the buyer. Business was hard to win, but relatively slow to lose.
On the one hand, brands have spent the last few weeks trying to be positive and innovative to drive their markets, whether in the consumer electronics, digital signage or the broadcast market. On the other hand, we've been looking at the poor economic conditions around us and that has dampened things down a bit. What is clear, is that the demand for higher visual quality is a real one.
Consumers don't want something better - most viewers in Europe still watch SD most of the time - but once you see good 4K content, let alone 8K content and the best of the OLEDs and HDR displays that were at IBC, you want it. Once you start to get used to it, you can't go back. (I found myself complaining this week that the soap opera that is a favourite of my wife was only in SD, not HD). So, they will want it.
This is particularly relevant in the monitor market, which has really been very negative over the last couple of years. Volumes and values have been falling and there is a feeling that this is the 'new normal'. We are having to make forecasts for the industry. Our forecasts are assuming that there will be an end to this fall, at least for a couple of years. The main reasons are because of renewals of older monitors and changes in the software environment. However, looking as far ahead as three years, we have also made assumptions that some players in the industry will take some of the actions needed to turn things around.
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