An HD future on display at CES

 - March 8, 2007, 4:11 AM

With more than 20,000 product launches packed into the span of just four days, January’s Consumer Electronics Show surely thrilled the throng of technophiles in attendance. For everybody else, the event probably seemed more like a techno-blur.

Considering that some of the most noteworthy introductions dealt with ultra-sharp high-definition LCD televisions and HD-DVD players, there’s a certain amount of irony in that analogy. But even if you possessed only the most basic understanding of HD technology, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the huge number of LCD, plasma and rear-projection flat-screen tvs on display at the show.

One cabin electronics industry insider who attended the Las Vegas convention confirmed that liquid-crystal hd tvs making debuts featured higher contrast ratios than previous models as well as brighter pictures and better backlighting to solve many of the shortcomings of current flat-panel LCD technology.

Sharp demonstrated its Aquos line of LCD tvs, showing its new HD models side-by-side with the ones consumers can pick up today at their local Best Buy. The latest tvs offer contrast ratios of 2,000:1 and dynamic ratios (the contrast between the lightest and darkest colors) of 10,000:1 for presentation of far richer colors, deeper blacks and, thanks to better chipsets, less pixelation of the picture during fast motion.

Another cabin electronics expert at the show said he was impressed by the latest LCD televisions, noting that the preference for plasma tvs in aircraft is giving way to the liquid crystal technology. Gas plasma, he noted, doesn’t react particularly well to altitude changes.

Sharp, Samsung, Panasonic and others are introducing their new-generation LCD tvs to consumers now, meaning it will take some time for the technology to find its way into the cabin. David Gray, president of Flight Display Systems in Alpharetta, Ga., said he anticipates new displays could debut this fall at the NBAA Convention in Atlanta, but even that might be too soon considering how long it takes for products to gain certification.

Even with the latest and greatest display technology, however, passengers might not be seeing all they should on the LCD screens. “What’s funny is that people are installing LCDs on the airplane, but they’re playing composite video,” said Gray. “We’ve had a heck of a time just trying to get people to use VGA [video graphics array]. The difference between composite video and VGA is huge. And now there’s even higher video quality out there.” Buyers need to consider not only the tv monitor installed in the cabin but also what’s driving it, he said.

The biggest surprise from the Consumer Electronics Show was the total lack of news about future flat-screen tv technologies, such as organic light-emitting diodes and surface-conduction electron emitter displays (SED). Manufacturers explained their reticence by claiming they are focusing on LCD tv for now, since the competition is so fierce. Expect to hear more about the future technologies in a year or two, they said.

The SED technology in particular has industry observers excited. It works much like a traditional CRT television, but instead of one large electron gun firing at all the screen phosphors to create the image you see, thousands of tiny electron guns known as “emitters” fire each phosphor sub-pixel. It’s sort of like having a tiny CRT screen behind each pixel on the display. The advantage is a super-sharp picture without discernable motion blur, as well as exceptional contrast and extremely wide viewing angles. Toshiba and Canon say they might begin joint mass production of SED tvs as early as next year, meaning a version for aircraft could be available around 2009, assuming there are no delays.

HD-DVD and Blu-ray digital video disk formats, meanwhile, continued to battle for supremacy as the accepted high-definition DVD technology for consumers.

The problem is that the manufacturers can’t agree on a common format for multi-layer disks that support high-definition tv technology. The debate recalls the 1980s battle of VHS versus Betamax for the standard videotape format.

Are Blu-ray and HD-DVD that much betterthan DVD? In a word, yes. A standard DVD can typically hold about 8.5 gigabytes, or the equivalent of one full-length movie. A Blu-ray disc can store 50 gigabytes on two layers, while HD-DVD can store 30 gigabytes, also on two layers, and both have the potential to store even more. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD disks are more interactive than the standard DVD. They will allow you to review a director’s comments or a video running in a small window at the same time you’re watching the full-screen movie. You can also bookmark scenes and enter searches for scenes tagged with key words.

Toshiba’s HD-DVD player hit the market last spring priced at about $500. A Blu-ray unit from Samsung debuted a few months later at $1,000. Of course, you could just opt for players that accept either format, such as the VidaBox, priced from $5,000 to about $6,000 depending on the features. Or the BH100 from LG Electronics, priced at about $1,200. None of these has yet been approved by the FAA, however, and the cost of getting certification will add substantially to the prices of units that can be installed in a business jet cabin.

At this point, companies certifying and supplying DVD players for aircraft aren’t jumping one way or another. One major player did confide that Blu-ray appears to be ahead at this point, if only because of its storage capacity advantage and the fact that the consumer electronics industry appears to be leaning this way.

Technology ‘Convergence’
Just about everywhere one turned at the Consumer Electronics Show people were talking about “convergence.” Technophiles use the term to describe the merging of technologies into single devices, in essence applying the Swiss Army knife concept to portable electronics.

In the future, most people will probably use just a single handheld piece of equipment to make calls, take and store photos and videos, listen to music, retrieve e-mail, surf the Internet, navigate to grandma’s house and heaven knows what else.

Apple’s forthcoming iPhone is the most recent example of the phenomenon. In its case, several functions have been merged into one easy-to-use communications device, offering iPod music storage, Wi-Fi Internet connection (not the cumbersome mobile WAP Internet offered on most phones), e-mail access, photo and video and multi-touch display screen technologies, all in one tiny unit. Add-on software and hardware peripherals from third-party suppliers will enhance the product’s usefulness, its maker claims.

Convergence also applies to the world of aircraft cabin electronics. As control over various technologies and functions is merged into single devices next to each seat, the passenger compartment is becoming a local area network unto itself, with each device and seat position a node on the network. Powerful cabin management systems such as Rockwell Collins’ Airshow 21 and Honeywell’s Ovation E series offer a means by which all cabin functions, including entertainment and lighting, are tied together to give passengers and crew control over it all.

The latest integrated cabin management systems on the market include passenger touch screens providing control over almost any function, from lowering the window shades to changing tv channels.