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CES 2018: Look to the Processor, not the Display, for TV Picture Improvements

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CES press day, the day before the opening of the gargantuan consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, is traditionally anchored by the “big” consumer electronics manufacturers. The names change, but these days, that list includes Korea’s LG and Samsung, and Japan’s Panasonic, with China’s TCL waving its flag as well. (The big names used to be U.S.-based RCA and Zenith… but I’m showing my age here.)

These flashy presentations typically focus on the television display. Inevitably, manufacturers would unveil a new display or two, claiming they were the biggest, thinnest, prettiest, or most colorful—or all of the above.

Not this year. If you were dropping into your first CES from another planet, you might not actually realize from the announcements at CES press day that TVs have screens. Instead, the manufacturers struggled to explain tech advances that are coming in places the eye can’t see—under the hood and in the cloud.

Under the hood

LG, Panasonic, and TCL put the spotlight on the chips that do the video processing: For the foreseeable future, any advances in image quality will be coming from these chips, not from the displays themselves.

LG announced its new Alpha 9 processor that, the company says, will produce clearer and more realistic images, with more accurate color reproduction and less picture noise. It will also yield high frame rate (HFR) broadcast video, a technology being experimented with—but not embraced—for sports broadcasts. Its most innovative change, LG said in a statement, “is the four-step process of noise reduction, which boasts twice as many steps compared to conventional techniques. This algorithm allows for greater finesse in noise reduction, improving the clarity of images affected by distracting artifacts and enabling more effective rendering of smooth gradations.”

The processor is showing up in the company’s newest OLED TVs as well as its new top-of-the-line LED TVs.

Panasonic said its new HCX processor would be featured in new models of OLED TVs, able to automatically optimize brightness, color, and contrast as scenes change.

The biggest change, the company said in a statement, “is the introduction of a completely new ‘Dynamic LUT’ system. LUT (Look Up Table) technology is used extensively in professional post-production and broadcast circles in Hollywood and beyond to ensure color accuracy. Until now, LUTs were fixed according to the color space used by the source. With this innovation, the HCX automatically monitors the average brightness level of a scene and uses picture analysis to dynamically load an LUT appropriate to that scene. This brings significant improvements to mid-brightness scenes, making them look much more natural. To improve color accuracy in shadows, Panasonic has included additional layers of LUT data at much darker levels than were previously available. This means that while improving the transition from pure black, the colors in the shadows are even more accurate.”

TCL calls its new processor the iPQ engine, and also promised a more realistic picture.

And Sony said that its X1 Ultimate processor, which will render images by objects rather than by frames, will be coming in both LCD and OLED displays; however, the chip is just a prototype for now, so no word on timing. 

AI and the cloud

Samsung, though it didn’t tout a new processor, promised that all its gadgets, big and small, will be a lot smarter this year—and will, by 2020, be using AI and talking to the cloud.

LG pointed to its plans to integrate AI into all its consumer electronics products, including refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions—an effort the company has branded ThinQ. (Most people would pronounce this “think”, but LG wants it to sound more like “thank you.”)

And TCL joined with Roku to connect its gear to the cloud via a new smart soundbar, coming towards the end of 2018.

In their efforts to make their connected products more intelligent and more useful, the major consumer electronics companies are reaching out to the little guys—the startup gadget makers who are putting lightbulbs, swimming pools, and even pets onto the IoT (I’m imagining your TV telling you it’s time to let the dog out). Samsung and LG both touted the efforts to develop open standards through the two-year-old Open Connectivity Foundation.

Thanks to all of your gadgets chattering behind your back, says Tim Baxter, CEO of Samsung Electronics North America, your things will “understand you and figure out what you want before you have to ask.” (This is a movie plot waiting to happen.)

In the shorter term, the technology would enable scenarios like someone asking the TV what is in the refrigerator, then having it display a recipe then send that recipe to the stove. Or, say, pausing a TV broadcast when the washing machine finishes a load.

And, promised LG’s Park, smarter appliances will also mean the end of user manuals, because, he says, “products will learn from users, not the other way around.”

That had me scratching my head a bit, but Yoon Lee, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America, did an impressive demo of its new televisions pulling apps and user data from a phone, eliminating the laborious process of inputting usernames and passwords for services like Spotify and Netflix.

MicroLED on the horizon?

While the consumer electronics manufacturers made it clear that any improvements in the TV viewing experience in the near future will come from better processors and AI software, one—Samsung—gave a brief hint that display evolution is not at a dead halt. The company gave a don’t-blink-or-you-might-miss-it peek at what it says will be the world’s first commercial MicroLED display, available sometime this year. MicroLED technology operates like the Jumbo Tron in a football stadium, with a dedicated LED for each colored subpixel—shrunk down to the size of a standard TV, that is, with subpixels so small your eye can’t distinguish them. It doesn’t require filters or backlights, so color and brightness can be exceptional.

To date, however, researchers working with this technology have been struggling with manufacturing yields, so cost is likely to be a huge issue for some time to come, and the company offered no pricing information. And given that the company emphasized the ability to piece these displays together into large panels, it seems that this product is aimed more for commercial spaces than living rooms, at least for now.



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