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A View from Stephen Cass

TV Enters New Dimensions

CES Update: Depth, and a new color, vie to catch viewers’ eyes.

  • January 6, 2010

The switchover to digital broadcast television gave TV manufacturers a huge boost as consumers replaced their old analog TVs to take full advantage of new high-definition signals. But with the United States and several other countries completing their switchovers in 2009, and the rest of the world soon to follow, manufacturers are scrambling to find new reasons for consumers to purchase televisions.

Today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toshiba announced one of the most ambitious of these attempts, Cell TV, which will be available in the U.S. later this year. The set is built around a Cell processor, currently best known as the heart of Sony’s Playstation 3 game console. When Sony, Toshiba, and IBM formed a consortium known as STI in 2001 to develop the Cell processor, it was envisioned that the Cell would find its way into many consumer multimedia applications.

The Cell features a general-purpose processor coupled to 8 special-purpose cores that can all run in parallel. These special-purpose cores were designed to handle the kind of high-speed computations needed to process video and audio in real time, but it has taken years longer than expected for Toshiba to harness this computing power in a television, in part because there wasn’t a compelling application that needed all that processing power–over a hundred times more power than is available in a standard digital television.

Toshiba’s new Cell TV can convert 2-D video to 3-D.

Toshiba thinks its has found that application, by creating a TV that can not only play movies made in 3-D, such as the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, but can convert 2-D video to 3-D on the fly. The Cell processor will make guesses about what is foreground and what is background in a frame, and then create two stereoscopic images for 3-D viewing.

The Cell TV also comes with a built-in one terabyte hard drive and WiFi capability, so content can be downloaded from the Internet, recorded from a Blu-Ray player (also built-in), transferred from a PC, and then retransmitted to other nearby TVs. And just for good measure, there’s a camera and microphone also built in so you can use the TV for video conferencing.

Sharp is taking a different tack to Toshiba’s approach of chewing through huge amounts of processing power. Color displays today use red, green, and blue subpixels to create different colors. Sharp has added a fourth, yellow subpixel alongside the others, in what it’s calling Quad Pixel technology. The extra pixel allows for a larger range of colors, and more colors within that range–while a RGB device can produce about a billion distinct colors, the addition of the extra pixel ups that to about a trillion colors. Sharp displayed a full line of production televisions, expected to start going on sale in the spring of this year, and at first glance at least, the result rivals OLED displays for quality.

Update 21:17 EST: During the afternoon and evening press conferences at CES, the momentum behind 3-D grew, with more and more major manufacturers announcing plans to release 3-D enabled television sets and other services in 2010. Samsung announced it also was bringing out a TV capable of converting 2-D content to 3-D in real time, and Panasonic announced a line of 3-D TVs along with a partnership with DirectTV to start broadcasting 3-D content to satellite TV viewers in June 2010. Panasonic also announced a consumer-level 3-D handycam that should be available later this year.

Sony declared a huge corporate committment to 3-D video, and showed an impressive demonstration of Jimi Hendrix performing at Woodstock that had been converted from 2-D to 3-D, along with a live performace by Taylor Swift that was (somewhat redundantly for those present) redisplayed in 3-D. Sony is partnering with Discovery Communications and IMAX to launch a 3-D television network in 2011, and is also partnering with ESPN to launch a 3-D sports channel in June of this year.

These annoucements are all driven in part by the adoption last month of a 3-D standard for Blu-Ray players, allowing movie studios, who released 10 original 3-D movies in 2009 in theaters, to package their movies without worrying about format wars between manufacturers.

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