CES 2014 Display Developments
This will go down as the year that both UHD and curved displays found commercial traction. It all began with a bang at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And there was even more to see at CES in January – including cars.
by Steve Sechrist
At CES 2014, displays were at center stage with new technology, larger OLED panel sizes, the proliferation of curved LCD TVs, and even bendable panels that curve to enhance the immersive viewing experience and then flatten to create a picture frame or “artistic” image surface. All this, plus enhanced interactivity and, of course, higher pixel density, were all dominant themes.
Before heading into the details of those displays, it is worth mentioning that an equally impressive highlight of the show was the demonstrated progress in automotive telematic and safety systems – the connected car, which leans heavily on the advanced chip technology previously found more often in phones and game devices. The idea is to bring smartphone features into the car: sharing navigation destinations, other travel information, and media control between smartphone and car. This is a growing trend in the auto-manufacturing space, with an uptick in the number of car makers on the CES show floor. Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Kia, Mercedes, Tesla, and Toyota all had a significant presence at the event, showing up and showing off just what advanced CPU and GPU chips, navigation, and new on-board sensor systems can bring to the future of driving. And in view, no less than fully connected, were self-piloted vehicles with better situation awareness, shape recognition, vector analysis, and response time than any human can hope to achieve. The car is becoming the ultimate mobile device, and the consumer electronics and auto industries are now tied at the hip going forward.
Back to the display side at CES. Ultra-high-definition (UHD) resolution has gone well beyond a “display trend” and is now elevated to the level of force majeure. Never mind the current dearth of content and a delivery package still in development. Further still, the fact that 4K goes beyond the level of human visual acuity also seems to be a non-issue in bringing 4K to market. In short, the UHD display format is not only here but shipping today, with lower prices and growing distribution moving at a hurricane pace. But to understand its full potential we need to look beyond a single UHD picture on the screen.
4K Canvas: The Killer App for UHD TVs
On the show floor, vendors were displaying UHD sets with single images in bezel-to-bezel eye-popping color, touting the 4× full-HD capability. But off the floor, in private demonstrations, UHD was being shown as the enabling technology for what vendors are calling the “4K Canvas” (Fig. 1). What this means is using the TV screen as a desktop experience that includes a dominant main display in full HD, with the remainder of those pixels used for smaller images.
Fig. 1: The UHD “Canvas,” shown here in an example from Broadcom, affords multiple video and data streams much like a desktop experience, only on the living-room big screen. Photo courtesy Sechrist 2014.
The 4K canvas concept was demonstrated in chipmaker Broadcom’s private suite, where the company demonstrated video streaming of not two but four full-HD football games on a plus-70-in. screen. Broadcom’s Wade Wan told onlookers: “In addition to having 4K video, you can keep your main display in HD, and what operators are excited about is you have a lot more real estate; you have a canvas to work with. Before with HD, when you tried to do picture-in-picture, the second image was very small, or something important on the main display would be covered up.” Broadcom also sees this technology revolutionizing the viewing experience and making all that data from a director’s cut, including outtakes and added screen details, easily available, anytime, even while the a movie scene is playing.
The 4K canvas on a UHD TV can be populated with whatever you like: social media feeds and meta broadcast feeds such as Amazon’s X-Ray service, which links a viewed film to the popular Internet Movie Database (IMBD). With this service, names of actors and other relevant details can be displayed while viewing, with scene information shown outside the main HD image at the click of an on-screen icon. New TVs with a 4K canvas play into the home automation trend as well. As sensors become integrated into the objects around us (see Intel’s project Edison below), the “Internet of things” can be displayed on this 4K canvas. Some analysts speculate that this capability has helped drive Web-based home-automation-vendor Nest to its stellar $3.2 billion valuation, as well as its ultimate cash acquisition by Google in early 2014. Speaking of Google, more UHD image real estate leaves more room for Internet advertising.
For its part, Broadcom developed the HEVC (H.265) decoder chips that were first announced at CES 2013, and the company said it was now sampling in quantities to set-top-box makers, pay-TV providers, and even TV OEMs. At this year’s event, Broadcom announced two new low-cost HEVC chips for the entry-level satellite set-top-box market. The systems on a chip (SoC) BCM7364 and BCM7399 use HEVC to achieve up to 50% compression gains that can be used to expand the number of HD channels through the existing infrastructure or expand delivery to include UHD content, according to Broadcom. Expect to see expanded HD channels as the first sign of HEVC penetration into signal distribution, with the eventual switch to UHD image delivery coming later. Among the eye-catching new UHD TV models announced at CES 2014 were 105-in. units from Samsung and LG, TVs ranging from 55 to 120 in. from Sharp, and models from Haier, Panasonic, Sony, TCL, Toshiba, and many others.
Curved OLED and LCD Screens (Some Bendable) Coming This Year
If UHD was the belle of the CES ball, then curved screens (both OLED and LCD) were the beaux, as most major manufacturers and virtually all China-based suppliers at the show had curved displays on the floor. This technology is no longer limited to AMOLED TV displays (as debuted last year at CES), and Samsung went so far as to place its prototype “bendable” LCD into “will ship this year” status.
Samsung’s 85-in. “bendable” prototype that the company says will make it into production (model U9B) in 2014 was shown at its CES press conference. The new LCD-based set uses a remote control to shift from an arched “cinematic” image and back to flat, for ambient viewing of art – among other things. It was among the most exciting demos at the show, and a hoard of reporters mobbed around it at the end of the press conference. The curved 85-in. LCD imagery was stunning, but again, from a prototype, not a full production model. When press members asked Samsung Executive Vice-President Hyun-suk Kim about specific materials and technologies used to make the set, he said that the bendability was achieved through a “materials change.” When asked if this included an ITO replacement such as Cambrios’s silver nanowire, he neither confirmed nor denied it, saying simply: “ITO cannot bend, so we will use a different material.” When asked about the robustness of the bendable set, he said that the model is currently at “multiple-1000-sec MTBF.” And while that’s an important number to pin down, it does not seem possible to do so yet. Samsung’s models may still be undergoing longevity testing that, well, takes time. Kim also confirmed that the set uses some version of glass from Corning. Additional specifications for the bendable display include a 21:9 aspect ratio and a 5120 × 2160 resolution (being referred to as 5K).
LG also had a bendable TV at CES, a 77-in. UHD OLED TV that includes the ability to move from flat to curved using a remote control. LG’s unit has the additional capability of allowing the user to set the curvature at various degrees. To date, LG is not revealing any of the science behind its prototype, nor a ship date.
Samsung also showed bendable 55-in.-diagonal OLED sets with UHD resolution at CES, but they were called prototypes, with no plans announced for bringing them to market. The image quality of these TVs was outstanding. Detail, color, and brightness combined for a visceral experience – truly like looking out a window.
Samsung is shifting focus back to LCDs and said as much by what was not shown – no size upgrades to its curved 55-in. OLED TV. Instead, the company will target UHD LCDs in sizes ranging from 50 to 105 in. on the diagonal and announced a new color-gamut extension approach that it will add to its UHD upscaling. The company is also extending its upgrade box technology that should help future-proof sets with both new board electronics and software upgrades to help extend the life of a TV as future advances warrant. No word if this could also serve as a development platform for third-party add-on products.
No Trouble with the Curve
The move to curved and even bendable TVs by the industry is a significant one – not just a gimmick. One can see noticeable differences when viewing a curved display, even of moderate size. For example, there are no clear reflected images from light behind a curved display, as pointed out by John Taylor at LG. He says (and DisplayMate.com confirms) that the curve helps diffuse distracting background light, improving
overall image quality. And CES was a great place to test out the theory. Recent lab testing by Ray Soneira of DisplayMate found the concave display surface eliminates the “shadow effect” (like one’s own reflection) often seen on a flat display surface. Flat displays reflect the brighter light behind the user at normal viewing distances (see related sidebar, “DisplayMate Testing Confirms Curved Display’s Value”).
Bending a display in large or even small format has significant measurable benefits that take the technology way beyond the “hype” claim and into the realm of “high-end” or “top-of-the-line” displays that truly justify a price premium. But beyond all the lab tests and line-item improvements, perhaps most important to mainstream adoption is that a curved TV set offers a unique form factor and easily discernible upgrade. Much like the sexy thin LED-based LCD TVs that ushered in a wave of high-priced sets just a few years back, curved sets have a must-have look that is sure to drive TV sales upgrades.
Curves Work on Mobile Screens Too
The LG G Flex display with a self-healing case was first shown in Korea in November, then publicly displayed at CES in January 2014 (Fig. 2). It features a 6-in. POLED display that can “flex” to a flat position with some pressure (such as being sat on in your back pocket), the company said. The device also has a self-healing back, and at the show LG personnel were using blunt tools to mark up its back, only to have it “heal” as we watched. It’s a nice compliment to the Gorilla Glass display that prevents scratches to the screen side of the phone. The width on the G Flex is 81.6 mm compared to the iPhone’s 58.6 mm, but the almost 30% wider form-factor size was mitigated by the curved screen. It really was quite comfortable in the hand.
Fig. 2: The LG G Flex Smartphone with 6-in. curved POLED Display has a “self-healing” back cover. Photo courtesy Sechrist 2014.
The curved surface also seemed to improve the displayed image as the background light was obscured, and there was no “cosmetic mirror” effect (see the sidebar for DisplayMate’s comments on the value of a mobile curved display).
Content is Still King and 4K Is Coming
On the 4K content side, a pre-CES announcement by Netflix saying it will deliver (at no extra charge) a 4K version of its home-grown drama series House of Cards was just the beginning. At CES, major TV brands, including LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio, stated they will integrate the new Netflix app and its HEVC 4K decoding technology directly into new UHD sets. Netflix said delivery will require over 15 Mbps (15.6 Mbps) in bandwidth, pushing the limits of home delivery of the UHD signal.
Amazon also announced partnerships with major studios Warner, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, and Discovery for 4K content. The studio arm of Amazon (Amazon Studios) announced in December a commitment to 4K production on all programming going forward. Samsung also included Amazon (and Paramount Studios) on its list of UHD-content partner companies, so look for the Amazon Prime service nested in new Samsung sets as well.
Meanwhile, Sony has its own UHD streaming service, Video Unlimited, as part of the Sony Entertainment Network. The group said it will expand to around 140 titles (film and TV) with UHD playback capability. At the press conference, the company announced a live TV streaming content service but gave few details beyond testing that will start in the U.S. sometime this year. This is a subscription-based service and an added source of revenue for Sony Entertainment group.
Beyond the studios and over-the-top (via Internet) providers, both Comcast and DirecTV will offer 4K content to subscribers. Comcast’s 4K Xfinity App is already working on Samsung UHD sets and allows over-the-top (OTT) streaming at 4K resolutions via On Demand. For now, the solution is exclusive to Samsung. On the cable set-top-box side, Comcast said its new X1 STB is 4K capable and will ship later this year. DirecTV paid lip service to 4K content, but few details were forthcoming. It’s interesting to note that in UHD, it’s OTT that’s delivering the goods better than can conventional satellite and cable delivery that require more than just software upgrades but a whole new codec (HEVC) to get the job done.
UHD Upscaling Empowers UHD Adoption
One final word on content and that is the all-important upscaling from HD to UHD. The display manufacturers leaned heavily on upscaling at CES because of lack of
original content. The problem is reminiscent of the early HD transition days at the CES and NAB shows of the past, with the same limited HD content loops playing in almost every show booth. But not this year, and this is partly due to Technicolor’s certification that targets HD to UHD upscaling. The company is known more for its color-motion-picture process that dates back to the 1920s, and also for its more recent broadcast engineering. Now it is moving downstream, certifying devices such as TVs with a developed series of technologies that up-convert images to match native UHD working at the pixel and frame level to deliver the goods. The algorithms are licensed to chip-level providers who integrate then earn the Technicolor certification and can be used by set-top-box or other device makers such as Toshiba’s BDX 6400 media box and Blu-ray players shown at CES. Both offer the Marseille video-processing chip from Marseille Networks, with algorithms licensed from Technicolor.
UHD Monitors at CES Include New 28-in. Size from Multiple Vendors
The low cost of 4K monitors (starting at $499) debuting at CES 2014 was somewhat stunning and important because the new lower price point will help serve as a gateway technology for UHD into the home in 2014. Desktop-monitor makers include Dell, Philips, and three Chinese brands (Lenovo, Seiki, and Asus). All featured a common 28-in.-diagonal size, suggesting the use of the same LCD panel maker. That fab is unidentified, but the display is of the twisted-nematic (TN) technology vintage (as opposed to the more popular IPS.) Also suspected are a-Si rather than zinc-oxide backplanes and edge lighting rather than direct LED lighting. The price/feature trade-offs will become more evident as the full-UHD display and chipset specifications become known.
These costs went as low as $499 for the Seiki, $699 for the Dell P2815Q (Fig. 3) and Asus PB278Q, and $700 for the Lenovo Pro2840m. The other lower-cost UHD display came from Philips (Brilliance 288p). It sells for $1199 but offers a 10-bit color palette at 60 Hz and, like the Lenovo, has a swivel-stand option that moves from landscape to portrait mode.
In all, CES was a watershed for low-cost UHD desktop monitors that can serve as gateways for UHD into the home, particularly when used for gaming.
Fig. 3: Dell’s new low-cost 28-in.-diagonal UHD monitor with a TN-LCD was scheduled to start selling in Q1 for just $699, with 1.07 billion colors, 170° viewing angle, and 5-msec response time. Source: Forbsimg.com.
Wearables at CES Lacked Flexibility
Beyond TVs, flexible displays were a no-show in the wearable category at CES. The wearables that appeared all used the same rigid glass in mostly square form
factors. In addition to the Sony shown in Fig. 4, new smartwatch designs appearing at CES included:
• Metawatch’s Meta, a high-end addition to its line that includes a square, high-res color display and leather and metal wristband options.
• The Archos smartwatch, which uses Bluetooth to connect to Android devices using an E Ink display that curves nicely around the wrist and offers up to 10 days of battery life.
• Sonostar’s smartwatch that uses the same type of E Ink model with a curved 1.73-in. display that will start selling in Q1 for $179.
• A line of smartwatches from Kreyos, which seems to be getting a bit closer, that offer both gesture and voice command and the tag line, “Keep your phone in your pocket.” The watches allow users to answer and make calls, with texting and notification as well as activity and fitness tracking. The display is a 144 × 168-pixel LCD with 7-day battery life.
• The Neptune Pine, which looks like a (really small) tablet on the wrist, with a 2.4-in. color QVGA touch display (320 × 240), Qualcomm S4 processor (dual core), and up to 32 GB of memory. It runs Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and will sell with fitness attachments. The company said its built-in processor and cell network chips make Bluetooth tethering unnecessary (it’s a smartphone you wear on your wrist). Other features include a front-facing and rear-facing camera and the ability to run gaming apps.
Fig. 4: The rigid glass Sony Smartwatch2 showed no flexible screen update at CES 2014. The wearable device connects with a variety of apps and new sensors developed by Sony.
The Internet of Things: Intel’s Non-Tethered Perceptual Computing
While wearable technology such as a smartwatch is usually thought of as extending the connectivity of the smartphone in your pocket to your wrist, at CES, Intel introduced its take on wearables and the so-called Internet of things. The buzzwords are “non-tethered” and “perceptual computing” (use of gestures, facial recognition, and voice for control.) Both are to be powered by Intel’s new chip project, Edison. This is a new mobile SoC platform introduced at a CES Keynote by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, along with prototypes for developers, to illustrate the potential of its Intel-chip-based technology.
Features include an Intel 22-nm Quark-technology-based computer with an SD-card package with built-in wireless to simplify connectivity plus Bluetooth LE and memory options that include LPDDR2 and NAND flash storage, and a 3-D camera module (RealSense brand). Intel said its Edison will serve as a programmable microcontroller and ×86 processor core (dual core) and run Linux with support for multiple OSes. So the plan is that Intel will go mobile with its non-tethered device powered by
the highly mobile Quark processor, Edison package, and perceptual computing with 3-D camera technology for mobile applications. Its move into wearables and ”perceptual computing” is a marked shift in the direction of leadership rather than following the smartphone and tablet space, and an arguably worthy one from the world’s largest chip maker. The company is sampling chips now with a viable software development kit (SKD) available from Intel.
So, with the hurricane winds of UHD blowing at CES, developments in both 4K resolution and curved sets dominated, with flexible and curved mobile displays perhaps waiting in the wings for later this year. Top chipmakers such as Broadcom and Intel are moving rapidly in the space with new initiatives to capture the 4K HEVC delivery and non-tethered mobile trends in the wearable/Internet of things space, respectively. On the automotive side, top car makers with new systems on display are pushing boundaries of both safety and convenience and even promising piloted vehicles designed to make the rush-hour drive home stress free and crowded downtown parking a non-event.
Look for 2014 to be the year UHD becomes a reality that moves into the mainstream with curved and even bendable sets at the high end. Wearables will have to wait until the flexible displays make their way into new mobile products to be announced in subsequent quarters. For now, CES 2014 showed that displays and the multiverse of industries they touch are
getting off to a great start. •
Tests from DisplayMate.com confirm that the concave screen shape used by both LG and Samsung in their curved OLED TVs released last summer “eliminates” reflections from “some” ambient side light simply by using a non-flat surface (with 180° opening angle). The curved screen redirects ambient light behind the viewers, “away from the line of sight.” In his online LG OLED TV Display Technology Shoot-Out, DisplayMate’s Ray Soneira raves about the “indistinguishable perfect visual image” (a DisplayMate first) presented by the 55-in. LG set first shown at CES in 2013. Soneira notes: “This is very important for a display technology that produces excellent dark-image content and perfect blacks – because you don’t want that spoiled by ambient light reflected off the screen.”
Viewing from an off-axis position to the screen (out of the sweet spot) is better using the concave screen “ ... because the curved screen accommodates their viewing direction better and reduces the stretched keystone (trapezoidal) shaped image that is seen with flat screens viewed at an angle from the sides,” writes Soneira in his Shoot-Out. The trade-off is a slight or “subtle geometric effect,” quantified by Soneira as a 1.5% curve, made up of the difference between the center and the sides that is discernible from a viewing distance of about 2.4 m (8 ft.)
Curved screens in smaller hand-held sizes also gain benefits, according to Soneira. In his tests with the curved Galaxy Round held at normal viewing distances, “ … your face is magnified so that it always fills the entire screen so that you don’t see the much brighter light coming from behind you. As a result, there is typically a large reduction of reflected ambient light, both indoors and especially outdoors,” he explains. This is particularly important because ambient outdoor viewing of LCDs is considered by some to be the technology’s Achilles’ heel. Although the Galaxy Round is an OLED display, presumably the curvature could benefit LCD-based mobile devices as well.
Soneira also found the curved screen magnifies the user’s face in the horizontal by a factor of >2×. This magnification contributes to reduced brightness of the reflected image, now being “spread out by the magnification.” Due to magnification, the curved screen offers properties of natural reflectance reduction (with no filters or additional layers added.)
Reduced visual interference of reflected images on the mobile display is the third benefit that slightly curved displays gain from the magnification effect. This comes about as viewing distance increases beyond the focal distance (or about 8 in.), blurring the reflected visual object rather than just making it smaller as on a
flat-surface display. This blurred effect renders the image “ … featureless and effectively invisible,” according to Soneira, and that “significantly reduces the visual interference from the screen reflections.”