We’re Not There Yet…
At the end of May, display engineers from all corners of the globe will gather in San Antonio for the annual SID Display Week. There the newest research results will be presented and the latest progress in display technologies will be showcased. Perhaps we will see an increasing use of LED backlights, higher frame-rate LCDs, and further progress in OLEDs, flexible displays, and pico-projectors. And maybe there will be a few surprises.
The displays that will be demonstrated at SID Display Week, will all show images of superb quality – high resolution, well-balanced colors, excellent brightness, with virtually undetectable artifacts of any kind. So what is there left to do? Are we at a stage where only minor refinements are going to be possible?
Unfortunately, it seems to me that currently there is a major disconnect between what we get to see on the displays at industry trade shows and what the typical consumer experiences when they bring home their first “great new digital flat-panel television”.
Right out of the box, the first likely problem is that their new television has been pre-set to a “vivid” mode with overly saturated colors -- that may have looked eye-catching in the big-box store showroom but that are harsh and unpleasant to watch for extended periods of time in a home environment. And the typical menu of alternate choices is not all that helpful either, with words such as “sports”, “movies” and yet other curious names. The next challenge is that the wide screen format is not compatible with most of what is currently being broadcast. Most likely the consumer will not be able to figure out which of the several modes to use to accommodate the differences between 4:3 and 16:9 image formats and will wonder why all the actors look like they have gained weight. It’s really quite amazing to see how quickly we adapt to seeing these distorted images and begin to accept them as “normal”.
Of course, there are other “minor details” such as setting the resolution and trying to figure out what “HDMI-l, 2, and 3” mean. The back connector board of the typical flat-panel television looks like it could be the receiving end for a very healthy porcupine.
Nevertheless, let’s say that in spite of these challenges our typical consumer has figured out how to get their new flat-panel display up and running in reasonably good fashion. The next step should be to access a television program and be astounded by the superb quality of the HDTV images. But our typical consumer is most likely getting their television signal via cable. As we all know, the cable companies have been telling us in ads and through mailings that nothing needs to be changed when the transition occurs to digital broadcasting. Thus reassured, our consumer punches up a favorite channel and instead of a spectacular HDTV image gets something that does not even do justice to an “old fashioned” analog NTSC signal. The images are usable, but it is not until our consumer happens to try out a DVD or Blue-Ray player that the dramatic image improvements become apparent.
It is sad to say, but we display engineers have created products from which only a tiny percentage of consumers are getting the full benefits. Why have we been working so hard to develop 240 Hz frame rates and to achieve the ultimate in image crispness, when the typical consumer is watching fast-action sporting events on a flat-panel display that is being fed from a cable signal – a signal that does not even rise to the level of a typical NTSC broadcast? Curiously, this seems backwards from what we grew up experiencing with analog television. Historically, television stations put out a signal that was superbly controlled for color and image quality. Such monitoring was done on a continuing basis. The home televisions were never as good as the color monitors in the television studios and broadcast centers. Getting as close as possible to the broadcast image was a goal we could strive for but never quite achieve.
Now, this strange inversion seems to have taken place. Using my major cable provider, I get my best images using an older 32-inch Sony CRT television with a built-in line-doubler. This circuitry seems to be able to extract an image from the analog cable signal that begins to approach HDTV in overall appearance. The larger flat-panels that I have tried on this same cable signal don’t do nearly as well – even when these panels can produce absolutely stunning images from a Blue-Ray player.
Perhaps, over the next five years or so this disconnect, between the inherent capabilities of the flat-panel televisions currently being sold and what is actually being experienced by most consumers, will begin to resolve itself. Is it reasonable to expect that flat-panel television manufacturers will begin to provide set-up menus that are more helpful to the typical consumer in achieving the picture quality that they thought they were buying?
The greatest obstacle, however, may be the cable companies’ desire to maximize advertising revenue by pushing more and more channels over the same bandwidth. This will work against improved image quality. Is it possible that we will see a resurgence of over-the-air broadcasts as consumers learn that they can get a superior image with a simple antenna? These issues will not be resolved as quickly.
This inversion between flat-panel display quality and signal source deficiencies will be with us for at least the next five years and could take as long as the next ten years to resolve. In the meantime, displays will continue to improve, but most likely at a slower pace. We are entering a period of technology maturity with both LCDs and Plasma panels. Manufacturing methods will continue to improve, but display quality is beginning to approach what will be considered “good enough” for most consumer applications over the next decade.
Should you wish to offer your thoughts on how these image quality issues will be resolved over the next few years, you may contact me directly from this site, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.