Intelligent Machines

Rightsizing TV

Troubles in the rear-projection market may be a sign that TVs are finally getting too big.

On the eve of the World Series I decided to engage in a bit of wishful shopping and check out the latest high-def TVs in the hopes of more richly celebrating the Red Sox idiot-savant ascendance toward destiny. Yet after an hour of meandering among giant displays with acronyms like LCD, CRT, LCOS, and DLP, I felt much the way St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan would feel a few days later during his moment of metaphysical contemplation between third base and home: Which way to go? Back at home, two more questions came to mind: where was I going to find $4,000 for a TV and where was I going to find room for it?

Since televisions first started monopolizing brain cells in the early 1950s, the boxes have steadily increased in screen size. The largest boost occurred over the last decade, keeping pace with our expanding waist lines and cargo-hauling capacities. Yet recent difficulties in the very high (and big) end of the market indicate that TV size may be reaching its practical limitsand those limits may be determined more by lack of space than lack of cash.

The rear-projection TVs that are so hot right now are flatter than CRT-based models, but theyre getting closer and closer to taking up an entire wall of a room. Not only does this severely restrict your furnishing choices, but your room must be deep enough to allow comfortable views without the distortions that often occur when viewing large TVs from within a few meters. Suburban homeowners may be able to spare a large room for home entertainment, but most TV owners, especially outside the United States, live in more cramped surroundings.

All this came to mind last week when Intel cancelled plans to introduce the LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) TV chip it announced in January, citing high R&D costs and limited projected sales. This retreat followed the October 5 news from Philips that it was pulling out of the LCOS TV business. Toshiba had dropped out of LCOS TV earlier this year.

LCOS competes in the HDTV rear-projection TV market with systems based on Texas Instruments DLP (digital light processor) technology. LCD-based rear-projection TVs offer a cheaper alternative, but although improving, they still have trouble displaying true black. Like LCD, LCOS uses liquid crystals to modulate light; DLP, by contrast, uses tiny mirrors. Unlike LCD, LCOS is completely reflective, offering higher quality. LCOSs advantage over DLP is that it can incorporate even smaller, high-quality pixels to support higher resolutions. Intels chip was designed to support true-HDTV two-megapixel resolution (1920 by 1080 pixels), whereas DLP focuses on the basic one megapixel HDTV (1280 by 768). Although there is no firm link between resolution and screen size, higher-resolution displays tend to be larger, and the Intel-based systems were expected to play more in the 50-inch-plus range compared to the 40- to 50-inch range of most DLP systems.

The retreat from LCOS doesnt mean the promising technology is doomed, but Intel was seen as the force that might bring LCOS TV prices down below the $2,000 thresholda development that is now on hold. A lot of the troubles with LCOS stem from the usual risks of cutting edge technology combined with the challenge of maintaining quality control when constructing huge panels of thousands of crystals. But the current LCOS hiatus has more to do with marketing than crystals. DLP was beating LCOS on the price/quality continuum in the hot 40- to 50-inch market. This motivated Intel to move to the high end where the company finally determined that there wasnt much of a market. Since the Intel-based systems were expected to lower the price of LCOS, however, the market problem may be less of price than of physical size. Market dynamics in consumer electronics are increasingly being pushed by consumer economies in Asia, where suburban tract homes are rare and 50-inch screens may be the maximum.

As globalization continues, it is difficult to compete by simply focusing on affluent Americans and their supersized mentality. With populations continuing to rise in most areas of the world (including the United States), theres simply not a mass market in massive TVs. According to display-market analyst Stanford Resources (recently acquired by iSuppli), only 5 million out of 170 million worldwide units sold in 2003 were larger than 40 inchesa figure thats projected to rise only to 12 million out of 200 million units in 2007.

Were talking about America, of course, so TVs will keep getting bigger. But the market beyond 50 inches will remain a specialty luxury affair for some time to comeand not only due to price.

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