Merge within a merge

Because this e-newsletter is being distributed on Jan. 1, 2012, let me be among the first to wish you a Happy New Year.

If you are a manager with a capital budget, you have a pretty good idea what the latest technologies to cross your receiving dock in 2012 are going to be. What you don’t know is the impact new 2012 technologies will have on the technologies you’ve already committed to buy with this year’s capital budget. Maybe the impact will make you wish you would have waited. Or, maybe it will have virtually zero impact. It all depends on how well you know your infrastructure and its needs, and on the clarity of your vision.

One fact is abundantly clear: We’re all going to be flooded with new technology and rumors of new technologies for at least the next four months, primarily due to the timing of the CES and NAB shows. Not all products shown or announced will be immediately deliverable. Some will never be delivered, but that’s okay. Simply knowing what’s on the horizon, real and vaporware, will help keep the dust off your crystal ball.

Vehicular nirvana
Much has been written about the convergence of all sorts of electronics, such as computers and video, for instance. There is no better example of the convergence of all things electronic and electro-mechanical than today’s new vehicles. Many are filled with more electronic gadgets than a modern Radio Shack store.

Vehicles have become such iconic consumer electronics devices that this year’s CES show has dedicated most of the LVCC North Hall to automotive electronics. You know, the North Hall many past NABs could barely fill. Most CES video products will be in the Central and South Hall areas. With 2700 vendors and about 150,000 visitors, CES can be difficult to navigate. If you don’t have a plan on hand before you arrive, you can be easily overwhelmed and distracted when you arrive, which is exactly what Las Vegas is famous for, isn’t it?

Here are a couple of great overview maps dedicated to the strip and LVCC: A more detailed exhibits map is available here:

Flat is good
If I were asked to identify one technology that has revolutionized the TV industry more than any other, I would have to say it was the introduction of the flat panel display. It revolutionized electronics at virtually all levels in all industries. It started with digital displays changing how people could tell the time of day.

The CRT was a physically limiting factor for miniaturization, mobility and power consumption. Once revered for its rare-earth phosphors, exotic designs and patented manufacturing processes, the craftsmanship of cathode ray technology has given way to an industrial commodity, the flat panel display. Just as early LEDs and LCDs changed the time-telling industry, they are having a similar effect on the TV viewing and large-screen display industries, just to name a few close to home.

One of the more significant pre-CES press releases announced that Sony and Samsung are dissolving their joint venture in the manufacturing of LCD display panels. The joint venture, known as S-LCD, began in 2004. Because Sony does not make its own LCD panels, it will enter a new partnership with Samsung to purchase panels and will continue buying panels from other manufacturers as well. Prices of TVs and raw panels have been dropping so fast it makes more sense for Sony to buy raw panels at market prices rather than invest in panel production. The foundation of Sony, you might remember, was its Trinitron CRT technology.

Smart TVs and OTT
According to Parks Associates Research, one in five households with broadband access planned to purchase a new flat-panel TV before the end of 2011, which made it the most popular consumer electronics device this holiday season.

Parks Associates Research also indicates demand for Smart TVs is about double that of 3-D TVs. The same research shows 73 percent of those who plan to buy a flat panel TV set want the advanced features of Smart TV or 3D TV included.

Smart TVs are becoming quite popular. One reason is because Smart TVs can expand available content without raising viewing costs. They also offer one more opportunity for local broadcasters to connect with local viewers and advertisers using the traditional TV screen for non-traditional delivery.

What’s wrong with this picture?
One of the obvious benefits of DTV is the 16:9 widescreen. Unfortunately not all widescreen content is 16:9. Worse yet, TV sets and satellite receivers offer user adjustable aspect ratio compensation. The result is that more than a few DTV viewers think their new TV makes everyone look short and squatty.

There are common aspect ratios, and there are uncommon aspect ratios. We have to deal with them all. SDTV, aka NTSC, is 4:3. The 4:3 aspect ratio roughly translates to 1.38:1, which is not coincidently, the aspect ratio of 35mm film images. Interestingly, IMAX is close to SDTV in aspect ratios anyway, at 1.43:1, or 4.29:3.

Then there is the familiar 16:9 format, which is actually 42:32. 16:9 translates to 1.7:1. No film has ever been shot in the 1.7:1 aspect ratio, which makes it rather uncommon. 16:9 is a compromise.

The standard for theatrical film, known as “Academy Flat,” is 1.85:1. The original SuperScope ratio was 2:1. The 2:1 format has regained popularity with the 4Kx2K Red One format. The 70mm standard is 2.20:1. 2.35:1 was the original aspect ratio for CinemaScope and early Panavision anamorphic formats. It was replaced in 1970 by 2.39:1. There are many more theatrical aspect ratios on film, many depending on the year the film was shot, the producer, the director and the studio.

The ability to choose aspect ratios is a creative benefit to producers and studios. For example, in 1954, the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was shot in Metroscope (1.75:1). “White Christmas” was shot that same year in VistaVision (1.85:1). In 1968, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was shot in Super Panavision 70 (2.20:1). “Mutiny on the Bounty” was shot in 1962 in Ultra Panavision 70 (2.75:1), as was “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” “Ben-Hur” was shot in 1959 in MGM Camera 65 (2.76:1).

Movie theaters use soft curtains and lighting to adjust for different aspect ratios. The viewer rarely notices. The TV world uses ugly electronic panels. I don’t care what you do with them; they’re ugly. I must add, however, I did see an early RCA widescreen CRT prototype at CES long ago that actually had physically adjustable dark red curtains on the sides of the CRT that could be pulled to cover part or all of the CRT. The sales person standing next to the set said the curtains were there because “the lady of the house would appreciate their aesthetics” or something like that. Of course, that was in the days when CES and NAB offered “Spouse Events and Tours.” That was so high-band quad-machine-times, wasn’t it?

Next best compromise
At last year’s CES, Philips showed the world’s first 21:9 HDTV, called the Cinema 21:9. Notice that 21:9 is not a common aspect ratio, but it has very much in common with its 4:3 and 16:9 cousins.

That is, 21:9=2.37:1=64:27= 43:33.

Philips says regular 16:9 content will be automatically adapted to fill the 21:9 screen, without side panels or letterboxing. Will it maintain the integrity of a circle? I’ll be watching for that. This year, expect to see more 21:9 displays at CES, although they have yet to have been released for sales in the U.S.

An engineer like me would say “Maybe broadcasters should flash a frame or two of the monoscope test pattern as shown in Figure 1, at say 03:00:00 every day so users can DVR a calibrated circle for a future reference.” Most everyone else would say viewers just want to fill the screen they paid for. Certainly, the film industry hasn’t been much help in standardizing aspect ratios. In my opinion, aspect ratios are an out-or-control problem broadcasters need to resolve. I’m surprised how it has been ignored so far. Why aren’t on-air talent, movie and media stars complaining more? For gosh sakes, someone might mistake Senator John Kerry for Jabba the Hut. If you’ve answered the phones in a TV station engineering office, you know that idea isn’t all that far-fetched!