From The Wall Street Journal - December 08, 2008
Television-set makers are looking for cutting-edge features to lure consumers. Here's what's coming.
By CHRISTOPHER LAWTON
DECEMBER 8, 2008, 9:37 A.M. ET
Television makers, whose products went from big and bulky to sleek and flat in a matter of 10 years, are looking for the next breakthrough.
Industry leaders Sony Corp., Sharp Corp. and Panasonic Corp. are all developing new displays designed to stand out on store shelves increasingly filled with similar-looking products. The effort is especially important as the economic slowdown hammers average selling prices on the latest flat-panel televisions and as value brands close the technology gap with the top-tier companies.
The best bet for TV makers, analysts say, is to target more-affluent consumers and video enthusiasts with cutting-edge features -- mainly bigger, brighter or more vivid video screens.
The companies also have to prepare for the rapid maturing of the market for flat-panel televisions, which have driven much of consumer demand for the past few years. Flat-panel televisions, both plasma and liquid-crystal display, will make up roughly 91% of televisions sold in North America this year, according to estimates from market researcher iSuppli Corp. By 2011 or earlier, 90% of the older TVs in the U.S. will be replaced with flat-panel TVs.
As a result, TV makers need to start introducing new technologies to the market now, even if the prices are out of the reach of most consumers. "Just to keep the TV market growing, they need to work on adding new features," says Riddhi Patel, an analyst with iSuppli. "They need to start doing some of these features now, so that two to three years out they will be priced more competitively."
Here's a look at some of the technologies the industry leaders are working on.
Flatter Than Flat
The most promising of the new technologies, executives say, is organic-light-emitting-diode televisions.
In OLED TVs, each pixel is made of organic material that emits light. The colors in an OLED display are more vibrant and natural-looking, and show stronger contrasts between them. The screens are also very thin, which opens up possibilities. Executives from Sony and Panasonic say they're looking into how to make OLED technology bendable, allowing a TV display to curve around a wall corner, for example.
On the Horizon
Some of the highlights of the latest TV technologies, and what's holding them back:
TVs display colors that are more vibrant and natural-looking, and the screens are thinner than anything else on the market. But the manufacturing process hasn't been perfected, and an OLED TV at this point is still too pricey for the average family.
Quad technology is the next level in high definition, offering a sharper picture than today's HDTVs. Also, a large quad screen can be divided into four displays, each with the full high-definition quality available today. The biggest drawback at the moment is that there is no quad content to display.
For those who think bigger is better, TVs keep getting better. There are 103-inch and 108-inch models on the market, and a 150-inch screen is on the way. Again, though, prices put these giants out of the reach of most consumers.
A TV's hertz level, or refresh rate, determines the smoothness of the picture, especially for fast action like sports. A rate of 120 hertz is increasingly common and eliminates the jittery images that sometimes appear on 60-hertz screens. The next step is 240 hertz, but many consumers may find it hard to see the improvement over 120 hertz.
LCD and plasma manufacturers see big potential in the technology, so they're pushing hard to bring it to the mainstream as soon as possible. Sony, which says it has been working on OLED TVs for years, launched the Sony XEL-1 OLED TV in January in select specialty electronics stores and its own Sony Style stores. The 11-inch television sells for $2,500. By comparison, a 32-inch LCD TV sold for an average of $626 in the calendar third quarter, according to market researcher DisplaySearch.
Randy Waynick, a senior vice president of Sony's home-products division, says the number of OLED TVs it is selling is "relatively small" compared with regular flat screens. He adds that OLED TVs are generating interest for use in corporate suites at sporting events and in private jets because of their small size, thinness and high performance.
Despite Sony's entry, TV executives say it will be at least five to eight years before OLED TVs come in larger sizes at price points that mainstream shoppers can afford. What's the holdup? There are problems in the manufacturing process that need to be ironed out, and the cost of making the TVs is still too high.
For now, Panasonic is building a new LCD manufacturing plant, due to open next year, that will be able to be converted over to OLED when the time is right. Sony says it is also working to make bigger OLED TVs, though it declined to be specific about its plans. Bob Scaglione, a senior vice president with Sharp, says the company is keeping a close eye on OLED technology, but for now the costs are too high.
Bigger Is Better
Another straightforward advance slowly entering the consumer world is simply bigger TVs. Bob Perry, a senior vice president with Panasonic, says the company routinely sells "thousands" of 103-inch plasma televisions to businesses, and even some wealthy consumers, at a price of $70,000.
Despite the relatively small consumer market for giant TVs, companies continue to push for larger and larger sizes. As more manufacturers build factories that can accommodate the large TVs and produce them more efficiently, the prices will decrease.
In January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Panasonic showed off a 150-inch plasma television. For now, the TV is being built in a special pilot facility, but the company plans to open a factory in April of next year in Japan that can mass-produce the TVs. Panasonic says it hasn't yet determined pricing for the mammoth models, which will go on sale next year. Sharp in January of last year launched a 108-inch LCD television at a cost of $150,000.
While advances such as super-size HDTVs and OLED TVs have very visible benefits, other advances are less discernible to the eye -- a potential problem when trying to convince people to pay for them.
See the Difference?
Sony in September announced that it had developed a 240-hertz, 52-inch flat-panel LCD TV that it planned to start selling in December. The hertz level affects how smooth the picture is, especially when displaying fast action -- say, from a sporting event or videogame.
Manufacturers say that when you see something such as a car on the screen pan by fast, it can sometimes appear jittery and pixilated on a 60-hertz television, a standard for most lower-price flat screens.
Most vendors also sell 120-hertz televisions, which bring visibly better quality at a much higher price point. But Mr. Waynick of Sony calls the 240-hertz television "perfect," speaking specifically to the clearer color contrasts and the picture details when compared with a TV with 120 hertz. Because of that, he argues, 240-hertz TVs will increasingly become a mainstream consumer technology, the same way 120-hertz TVs did.
Analysts and other industry executives are more skeptical, adding that most TV viewers won't be able to see the difference between 120 hertz and 240 hertz. Sharp, for example, says it currently has no plans to introduce a 240-hertz television, because the benefit to the consumer hasn't been proved yet.
Mr. Waynick admits that with the exception of video enthusiasts who demand the very best, the average consumer won't be able to tell the difference between 120-hertz and 240-hertz TVs without placing the two TVs next to each other.
"To appreciate it, you have to do side-by-side demos," he says. Sony says it will sell the 240-hertz TV for $4,200. By comparison, its 120-hertz models start at $1,900.
Another technology, known as quad high-definition, is also brewing. The new technology essentially doubles the video quality of the current high-definition standard, 1080p. Sharp, for one, has been showing a prototype of such a TV at trade shows over the past few years. Since there is no quad-HD content to display on the TV, Sharp shows images from a 10-megapixel digital camera.
Mr. Scaglione of Sharp says that, much like the rise of 1080p TVs, it will take consumers accepting the technology and buying quad HDTVs to spur content developers. Until then, Sharp says it has no plans to launch a quad HDTV.
"The question is, can we charge a higher price for a product that doesn't have any content to support it," says Mr. Scaglione.
—Mr. Lawton is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau.
Write to Christopher Lawton at firstname.lastname@example.org