HDTV Sets Still Fall Short

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The barriers to popular acceptance of HDTV came into
sharper focus than ever at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, thanks,
ironically, to an unprecedented demonstration of state-of-the-art display technology.

Companies displayed a plethora of direct- and
projection-based high-definition television systems, including the first large-scale
flat-panel display to be offered commercially. But there was something about virtually
every category of HDTV set in evidence that suggested that the optimal system has yet to
materialize, even for the very high-end home-theater market.

Using the Japanese experience with the analog
"Muse" HDTV system as a point of reference, Scott Baker, marketing manager at
Hitachi Ltd.'s Hitachi Home Electronics Inc. unit, suggested that there's a big
hurdle in the push to HDTV.

Direct-view sets based on CRT (cathode-ray-tube) technology
can't be made large enough to exploit the advantages of HDTV, while other systems
that are meant to be large enough are either too expensive or too deficient in quality to
make the grade.

"To really take advantage of HDTV in the future, these
pictures have to be large," Baker said. "If you're typically sitting nine
feet from your TV set, to see HDTV and appreciate all of its resolution, that set's
got to be at least 60 inches diagonal."

Several manufacturers displayed rear-projection CRT systems
at diagonal screen sizes above 50 inches and ranging up to 65 inches, with prices as low
as $8,000 but typically $10,000 or more for the receiver and display combined.

But experts, including some vendor reps, acknowledged that
the luminance and clarity of CRT-based systems using the current three-tube system with
seven-inch tubes fell short of what high-end buyers might be looking for.

Hitachi has developed nine-inch tubes costing twice as much
as the widely used seven-inch CRTs. That's what it will take to accomplish true HDTV
quality using this technology, which will still be cheaper than the other, non-CRT
options, Baker said.

Because they project light combined from three color tubes
into spots, rather than pixels, most CRT-projection systems "are dimmer [than
direct-projection systems]," Baker said.

"That's why many companies, including Hitachi,
have decided that up to a certain size [36 inches, in Hitachi's case], direct-view
CRT is the right technology," he added.

However, as Baker noted, in Japan, where the analog Muse
HDTV system was put into commercial operation more than 10 years ago, consumers
didn't see enough quality difference in such smaller-sized sets to justify the
expense of HDTV models. This forced manufacturers to resort to double scanning with
conventional technology in 16-to-9 CRT sets (the aspect ratio), achieving the wide-screen
advantage without adding the cost of high resolution, he added.

The introduction of standard digital TV over broadcast and
cable outlets could further damp enthusiasm for HDTV, Baker suggested.

Digital TV overcomes the primary source of consumer
dissatisfaction with TV sets and diminishes HDTV's value enhancement -- namely,
ghosting and noise artifacts -- adding greater clarity, he noted.

For every technological answer to the issues raised by
Baker -- including his own preferred CRT-projection-based options -- there were serious
drawbacks.

For example, Bill Bleha, vice president of research and
development for Hughes JVC Technology Co. Inc., championed the rapidly evolving projection
technology known as liquid crystal on silicon as a potentially low-cost means of bringing
very high-quality, large-screen systems to market. But he acknowledged that there are
still problems to be overcome before this technology has a shot at the market.

Bleha countered Baker's argument that CRT-projection
systems will be the HDTV home-theater engine.

"The costs [of CRT-projection HDTV systems] are much
higher than what people are paying for existing CRT projection, so there's an opening
in the market for the new displays to compete," Bleha said.

He cited Hughes' use of LCOS technology, which uses
liquid crystal coated across the electrodes on chips to project pixels of colored light.
"Hughes JVC has been instrumental in creating some real breakthrough technology for
large-screen projectors, and now, they're starting to scale that down for consumer
use," Bleha said.

"I believe that because of the nature of
liquid-crystal-on-silicon microdisplay, this is a potentially very big player in this
market," he added. "Even at the point of putting liquid crystal on
single-crystal, integrated circuits, they're not taxing design rules, so we're
able to take old-generation equipment and make a silicon back plane that can drive a very
high-resolution display."

But while the low-cost production process will lead to
lower costs per pixel than competing technologies, LCOS technology requires the use of
high-power lamps to enhance the power of the chip-generated photons to the point where
they become high-resolution pictures on big screens.

"The lamp is not a very nice vehicle now, because
either the color isn't right or the lifetime and costs aren't there, and the
consumer is not used to having to change lamps, as we are in the professional arena,"
Bleha said. "If there's a weak link in the system, it's probably the lamp
technology."

Perhaps the most dramatic breakthrough on display at the
Las Vegas event was the new Pioneer Electronics Corp. plasma direct-display system -- the
first large-screen (50-inch-diagonal) HDTV flat-panel system to be offered commercially.
Its suggested retail price is about $22,000.

Thomson Consumer Electronics also displayed a 50-inch
plasma system, which will go on sale later in the year.

At a Cable Television Laboratories Inc. OpenCable booth,
Pioneer demonstrated one of its plasma systems connected to an OpenCable set-top via the
industry-standard 1394 "fire-wire" connection.

"You can hang it on the wall, because you're no
longer limited by the size of the box as far as where this display can go," said Bill
Whelan, video-product planner for Pioneer.

"With a matrix-type display, we have perfect linearity
and no geometric distortion whatsoever across the entire panel, because each individual
cell is individually lit," Whelan said, noting that Pioneer now holds more than 200
patents on the technology.

"This system offers a perfectly focused picture with
uniform brightness across the entire panel and a flicker-free image, because we can
rapidly refresh the light in the panel," he added.

But Whelan acknowledged that the prospects for significant
cost reduction are uncertain, although he insisted that the current price is within the
budget of some home-theater connoisseurs.

"Certainly, as economies of scale and manufacturing
techniques advance, we will see cost reductions, but it's really too early for us to
make a prediction on the direction of the costs of the actual displays and on making it
available to a wider market," he said.

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