What Are You Looking At?


Watch out for:

o Apple’s curved (not flat) panel TV set.

o “Quantum dot” (QD) screens that are not only as thin and flexible as paper but also deliver a higher-definition visual experience.

o 21:9 ultra-wide monitors with greater-than-ever bandwidth demands.

o And enough bandwidth to transmit these immense images.

These approaches to improved viewing should be on the minds of program developers and carriers, since they offer a glimpse of how we will (or may) be watching television in the coming decade. You might be able to see early iterations of the second and third products (QD and 21:9) at the Consumer Electronics Show next month, either on the exhibit floor or in private demo suites. But even if you can’t see them now, be prepared for a new way of looking at TV.

The potential Apple TV with a gently curving “iScreen” is, for now, a conceptualization by Ciccarese Design, an independent design company which admits it has no inside knowledge of Apple’s TV set plans. According to Silicon Valley reports, Ciccarese conceived its vision from a number of sources, including hints from Steve Jobs’s comments for Walter Isaacson’s biography of the recently deceased digital visionary. Jobs claimed he had cracked the code for new TVs: an integrated, wirelessly synched TV set. I’m assuming that the remote control will be a voice-activated extension of the Siri software for the new Apple iPhone 4S - hinted in the Isaacson book in a Jobs quote about “the simplest user interface you could imagine.”

All we know for sure (sort of) is that Apple will introduce its TV - in whatever shape - late next year or in early 2013. The curved screen, if that is indeed the product, will offer a bigger, more immersive visual palette - akin to the Cinerama screens of an earlier theater generation.

Meanwhile QD technology, in development at the University of Manchester (UK) for the past decade, appears ready for its debut. A flurry of tech stories in the past week about Nanoco Group PLC, the commercial venture spun out from the university, suggest that the company is ready to show off its products. TV makers including Sony, Sharp, Samsung and LG are believed to be developing QD displays, which use an alternative form of light emitting technology. QD tech is incorporated into Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays. The Quantum dots are both photoluminescent and electroluminescent, and their unique physical characteristics enable ultra-thin displays, lower power consumption (”light on demand”) and improved contrast. Supporters also say that QD technology enables OLED displays to be manufactured much more cheaply than exiting displays. And their flexibility is already prompting designers to think in terms of videoactive wallpaper, curtains and other big and small screen implementations.

Separately, conventional TV makers - including Vizio and Philips - have already demonstrated prototypes of the evolving 21:9 aspect ratio monitors - a broad expansion from today’s 16:9 widescreen flat panel TV sets. The Consumer Electronics Association is still working on an update for 21:9 as part of its CEA #861 standard, “A DTV Profile for Uncompressed High-Speed Digital Interfaces.”  Analysts already expect that the visual display 2560 x 1080 pixels is too big for the MPEG-2 coding; it would not fit into the standard broadcast 19 Mbps data stream. It’s also not yet clear whether this capacity-gobbling video format would clog up cable and fiber capacity when and if content creators begin creating videos to fill up the ultra-wide, lifelike screens.

Whatever the timetable and actual implementation of these next-generation displays, the very existence of these technologies remind us that appealing images are at the core of the video business. System architecture and creative production will continue to escalate the demand for better images. For example, the waning frenzy for 3D TV is not the end along this route. (I expect plenty of CES pronouncements about the success of 3D based on proclamation about the sale of millions of 3D sets in 2011). The real story may be that 3D as we know it today is merely a stepping stone toward a more holographic, immersive type of visual exhibit… the stuff of sci-fi movies. A more viable format will emerge during this decade, built on the imaging lessons that will be an outgrowth of today’s 3D, QD, ultra-wide screen and other display technologies.

Carriers - cable, satellite, telco, wireless and others - who will transmit those images better watch out now for the next look of TV - and its bandwidth demands.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com