By Lou Montana, Montana Engineering
Consumers want a better viewing experience!
electronics sales show no signs of slowing from their pace.
CEA reports that after 15 months, total sales- to-dealers of digital TV capable sets to the end of 1999 will be 120,000 units and that sales- to-dealers levels could reach 600,000 units for year 2000, leading to 10 million by the end of 2003, followed by 10 million more in 2004 and 2005 and 10.8 million in 2006. It was reported that at the end of 1999, there were more than 100 DTV stations on the air reaching over 50% of the U.S. population. (Of note, there are four in Detroit and three in Seattle.) Add to that, that the entire population of the US has access to HDTV signals from Direct-TV and EchoStars Dish Network.
Although, most stations are either simulcasting their NTSC channel at 480I or up converting to 1080I, 720P or 480P, levels of HDTV-original programming are expected to increase in 2000. ABC will broadcast the Super Bowl in 720P, as they have all Monday Night games this season and CBS will broadcast the NCAA Mens Final Four Basketball tournament in March in 1080I. Along with these special events, the networks are broadcasting at least one HD program every week. ABC broadcasts the World of Disney every Sunday and NBC provides the nightly Jay Leno show in 1080I. HBO offers an HD channel available on Direct-TV and EchoStar of which 50 % is unconverted 16:9, 1080I HDTV. This year, Discovery and Showtime will also be launching HD programming services.
So, it is no wonder that there was an air of optimism at the Show that DTV was here to stay. Albeit, with some hurdles still in front of it.
CEA went to great lengths to put DTV at the forefront. Program guides were available to help find DTV products, a large information kiosk was in the lobby of the convention center and a live HD production, from a studio in the lobby, was distributed throughout the show floor. A digital cable head-end system was installed to feed the show floor with over five different HD streams so manufacturers would have access to HD programming at their booths. On Saturday, the NFC wild card game, produced by ABC with the Panasonic 720P production truck, was received live from satellite, re-encoded and fed live through the hall.
Over 15 manufacturers were showing DTV receive hardware. These receivers came in two forms: as DTV sets, with integrated receivers/decoder; and as display only devices that require outboard receiver/decoders. The displays, either integrated with a receiver/decoder, or not, came in many different flavors: 30 to 38 Direct View; 42 to 65 rear projection, using either CRT, LCD or SLM technology (spatial light modulation); and lastly 42 plasma. Almost all were 16:9. Native resolutions tended to be 1080I although some like Panasonic were both 720 P and 1080 I. Most of the plasma displays are 720P only.
Areas of confusion remain:
What is the native format of the display?;
Is format conversion being applied to the content?;
And, what is the original format of the content?
These questions make evaluations and comparisons difficult. For example, the NFL game was brought in over C-Band satellite at 45 mbps and then re-encoded back to ATSC at 720P. One set from Panasonic was 720P native and the pictures were outstanding. Other sets would convert the feed to 1080I and the results were not as good, which could leave one with the wrong impression of the capability of HD.
Price points are falling. A 16:9 Direct-View 30 display retails as low as $2499 US and receiver/decoders capable of receiving ATSC signals off-air as well as NTSC and Direct-TV, retail for $649. Most of the integrated DTV sets however fall in the $5000 to $10,000 range. Plasma displays, also very prominent at the Show, were in the $15,000 to $25,000 range. Other display only units varied from $5,000 to $50,000.
New at this show were rear projection displays using spatial light modulation techniques. Texas Instruments, the inventor of the DLP technology, was showing a prototype 52 set at 1280 x 720. Apparently, Hitachi and Mitsubishi will also use this technology. Product is due Q3 2000. JVC introduced 61 display ($6000) which makes use of their D-ILA technology and was probably the best picture in the under $10,000 range. This is the same technology they developed with Hughes and used in their high-end projectors for electronic cinemas. It achieves 1280 x 1028 resolution and brightness approaching CRTs. It will be available in Q2.
Sharps LCD technology used in their LC-R60HDU uses their proprietary CG-Silicon technology and can achieve 1080I and a 400:1 contrast ratio. Probably the best video I saw in the floor. It should be for $50,000!
There was also a preponderance of plasma displays. Most of the plasma displays were only 1280 x 768, while the Fitjitsu was the only 1024 x 1024. All the others depend on internal scalers to down-convert a 1080I image to 720P.
Some manufacturers were introducing direct-view CRT based displays. Industry pundits suggest that this is where manufacturers need to offer more product. Although, the big sets are nice and are inticing to the early adopters, it is felt that what will be needed is smaller Direct View CRT, 16:9, TV sets in the 32 range, preferably with a flat screen. The average viewer does not have the room for the large, >60, sets.
Sony announced that they would also be introducing a complete line of 1080I sets this year. Some 4:3 and some in 16:9.
At least a dozen manufacturers were showing set top boxes. These outboard receiver/ decoders could decode all of the ATSC formats but most would convert to 1080I. Outboard receiver/decoders are in the $1000 to $3500 range. Some included NTSC tuners with a line doubler and many had Direct TV receivers as well. Most interface to the display via component analog video ( Y Pr, Pb, or RGB) . (The industry has not settled on copy protection so boxes with 1394 interface were not readily evident. More on copy protection later.)
One from Hughes for the Direct TV system is designed to receive the Direct TV HD signal, as well as, off-air ATSC broadcasts. It will also convert the digital off-air signals to 480I to allow users to watch these on a standard NTSC set. Other features include an NTSC tuner to receive off-air analog broadcasts and the ability to scale any signal to either 4801 or 1080I. It also provides a Dolby Digital 5.1 output.
TeraLogic showed a PC card, for $300, with built-in ATSC tuner, 8VSB demodulator and ATSC decoder that fits into a PCI slot which will enable DTV reception on your computer. There were also announcements of low cost down-converters (<$300) to allow viewing of ATSC signals on standard televisions. These transcoders" will offer reception of digital ATSC and NTSC analog broadcasts and also feature Dolby digital decoders to allow viewers to receive audio in full surround digital even though they may still be watching on an NTSC TV set.
Sony announced that they will also offering a set-top box for Direct-TV reception as well as cable set-tops. Sony will also be offering TIVO personal video recorder boxes, the service and technology that allows viewers to record programs onto an internal hard drive with 20 hours of storage. They claimed an HD version of the TIVO PVR would also be introduced this year. Sony will be shipping all components with their version of the IEEE1394 interface called i-link. They will be using the 5C copy protection on all interfaces.
Both EchoStar and Direct TV were showcasing their HD service. Direct TV had an impressive exhibit of six different set-top boxes connected to displays, all in the 60 or more range. Each of the set-top boxes had built in satellite receivers as well as NTSC and ATSC tuners. The interface between all of the boxes to the sets was analog component. The pictures were very good on all the displays, although there were differences between each display, which were all in the $7000 range. I was unable to find out if the feed we were watching was encoded at 1280 H pixels as Direct TV has stated in the past. Even so, the pictures were very good.
The Echostar demo was a little lower key with one Phillips 65 display. Echostar is also running HBO and one demo channel for retailers. Their set-top is satellite receive only and will retail for about $600. Coming this spring will be the same box with a built in DVD player for less than $1000.
Missing from the Show were DTV products with interfaces to cable systems. The industry, CEA and NCTA, are only now approaching a consensus on the definition of a integrated television receiver that is comparable to todays cable ready TVs.
CEA recently formed a working group to develop the definition of a cable ready set for use on digital cable systems that might be carrying DTV ATSC signals. This group has produced a specification, which outlines all of the characteristics of a digital cable system and the receiver to be built into the display. It has gone out for review by Members and could be ratified at a January 20 meeting. It would then become an EIA standard. With this standard, the consumer electronic manufacturers can build integrated sets that can connect to any digital cable system. Viewers will be able to receive DTV signals as well as premium and PPV digital programs on their DTV receiver without the need for a special set-top box.
The issues are from over however. The cable industry has been working on the Open Cable standard based on using an outboard set-top box. They are reluctant to let anything outside of this specification be called cable ready. In addition, the open cable box would interface over 1394 to an ATSC decoder in the display. As such, they would like to see every set equipped with a 1394 interface but the CEA wants to avoid mandating this and unnecessarily adding cost to the set.
At the CES Show, during a luncheon address, FCC Chairman Bill Kennard declared: If the industry cannot solve the problem (compatibility standards for digital TV) by April, we will
On the matter of copy protection, there are currently four proposals in front of the multi-industry Content Protection Technical Working Group. The Digital Copy Transmission Protocol (DTCP) proposed by the 5C group ( Sony, Matsushita, Intel, Toshiba and Hitachi) is believed to have the greatest support for various applications, including digital cable boxes. The Motion Picture Association, whose members control whether content is released for broadcast, appear to be leaning to 5C but have now stated that the copy protection schemes must also protect against re-transmission over the Internet. Another recent issue, the Motion Picture Association has proposed that the resolution at any video output be limited to 640 x 480 if the signal is not copy protected.
One of the other challenges with the rollout in the US has been interoperability of receivers with various ATSC encoders. The CES and ATSC Implementation Subcommittee organized a test after hours at the Show. ATSC bit streams encoded with eleven different manufacturers were distributed over the cable system using 8VSB modulation. Content consisted of actual programming provided by broadcasters and various test signals, most notably the flash pip signal used to check for lip sync. These bit streams were played in sequence from a Sencore bit stream server. Set manufacturers could then assess their products operation against each stream. If any problems were noted, the encoder manufacturers were available in a bullpen, next to the Show floor, to answer questions.
The newest challenge facing DTV is the debate over the modulation scheme chosen in the ATSC standard. Both Zenith and Motorola hosted demonstrations at the Show of 8- VSB receiver performance and in Zeniths case, they compared 8VSB to COFDM performance. The tests demonstrated that the newest generation of receivers performed better than those used in the Sinclair tests and showed a 5dB advantage in C/N over COFDM. Tests were also conducted to test for white noise threshold, ghost performance and impulse noise performance. In the impulse noise tests, 8-VSB showed a 20-db advantage over COFDM. For more information you can contact Zenith.
I was told that FCC staff was invited to witness the tests. There in no word yet what action the FCC will take in response to the petitions it has received to include COFDM in the standard. There is obviously a lot of pressure from CEA to maintain the status quo.
Some other interesting DTV products:
A product from Sencore called the VSB player records and stores ATSC video and audio bit-streams. It has a 16 GByte hard drive and can store 100 minutes. It also has an 8VSB modulator and a built-in DVD-ROM drive. It sells for $7000. It is this unit, or a lower end model, that is being used by retail stores in the US as a source of content for display demos in showrooms.
A highlight for me, were the prototype HD DVD players. If HD content could be purchased by the consumer, it will help to drive the sale of HD sets thus creating a base of HD receivers for when the Canadian broadcasters finally begin to broadcast a digital signal. Pioneer and Zeniths parent company LG Electronics had units on the floor. The LG rep predicted it was two years away at a price of somewhere around $2500. It requires industry standardization as well as development of copy protection acceptable to Hollywood. The LG machine had 2-hour capacity. The Pioneer unit with a 27.4 G Byte disc, is capable of 4 hours at 18 mbps at 1920 x 1080I.
In the meantime, we will have to make do with progressive scan (480P) DVD players. These players take advantage of the fact that DVDs are in their native form progressive and can produce very good pictures when played on a progressive scan display. Toshiba, Panasonic and Pioneer are now providing expanded product lines.
JVC showed a digital VHS machine capable of recording HD material. This machine is apparently available in Europe and Japan for about $3000. It has every kind of input including 1394. It had a built in MPEG encoder and offer two quality levels of recording; 14.1 Mbps and 28.8 Mbps with 5 and 2.5 hour playing time respectively. Tape stock, depending on length, is $10 to $15.
Panasonic continues to offer their D-VHS machine that can record ATSC content but it requires the Panasonic outboard set-top with 1394 interface in order to play and record. It uses a proprietary copy protection scheme. It sells for $1000.
Visitors to this show Im sure will be preaching the gospel of HDTV and will be looking for product. They might not buy just yet but it seems that the industry is hearing that more and more consumers want high quality images and sound. This can only lead to more affordable product and more buying.