Screen resolution is so early-2007. At the CEATEC show in Japan this year, the big TV news is contrast—the difference in brightness between the lightest and darkest parts of the screen. The higher that difference, the easier details are to see and the more images “pop” off the screen. Nearly every TV maker is trying to push contrast higher, and they are doing it in many different ways.
Pioneer is showing off its new line of Kuro plasma televisions—named after the Japanese word for “black.” The screens require less power to stay charged up, allowing them to remain darker while the set is on. But that’s old news. Kuro TVs are already on sale in the US.
Newer things are happening with plasma’s big rival, LCD. Here the problem is blocking out the strong backlight behind the screen that washes out dark parts of an image. To fix it, companies are switching from big fluorescent tubes to tiny light-emitting diodes that can be brightened and dimmed individually in different parts of the screen. Samsung is already selling such TVs, and now others are following.
Dolby, of all companies, is getting into the business, with a set that pumps the contrast ratio by individually modulating LED backlights. (The photo at top shows the Dolby TV, at right, vs. a regular LCD.) How did they do it? By buying a company that already had the technology. Brightside (a PopSci Best of What’s New winner in 2006) pioneered the LED backlight concept years ago, and now Dolby is running with the tech, which they aim to license to other companies as they do with virtually every audio technology. So, is Samsung running afoul Dolby’s patents? A representative simply said that if companies are using the LED-dimming method, they should be talking to Dolby. Stay tuned.
If he’s right, maybe JVC should be talking, too. It showed off a 42-inch prototype TV with 128 individual LED segments and a purported 100,000 to one ratio. (Regular LCDs get, at best, a few thousand to one.) And unlike the competitors, JVC doesn’t use white LEDs but instead clusters of red, green and blue lights that expand the color range to about 116 percent of what the HDTV standard calls for. (There is already an effort to expand that standard in the future.)
While LCD is the flat-panel juggernaut, new technologies are trying to tackle it. Sony, a huge maker of LCD sets, debuted the world’s first TVs to use organic light-emitting diodes. Like the goop inside a firefly, OLED glows on its own, so the panels don’t need a backlight. That makes them super-thin (Sony’s 11-inch diagonal model is only 3 millimeters thick); and it gets rid of the leaking backlight problem. According to Sony, the new sets get a one-million-to-one contrast, plus 110 percent of the HDTV color gamut.
But wait. There’s more. Like Jason from Friday the 13th, a technology called field emission display will not die—though it’s not quite alive, either. The idea is simple. Take the phosphor-coated screen from an old CRT and remove the big vacuum tube on the back. In its place, put on a plate of microscopic spikes—each of which acts as an electrode to light up the phosphor. FEDs also have great blacks, and they can refresh screen images insanely fast for blur-free video. At CEATEC, Field Emission Technologies was showing off TVs that get at least a 20,000-to-one contrast and that flash 240 images per second—twice as many as the fastest HDTVs on the market. Sounds cool, but don’t hold your breath. Little Field Emission Technologies is venturing into a technology swamp that has already swallowed up industry giants like Samsung, Motorola, Canon, and Toshiba. FED may well be the future of TV technology, and it may remain so forever.—Sean Captain