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CONSUMER WATCH

Screening the eye candy

The Consumer Electronics Show offers a glimpse of what's ahead in TV technology. The future is looking brighter and bigger.

January 13, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Did you get one of the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art televisions for Christmas or Hanukkah?

You're already passe. At the annual technology circus known as the Consumer Electronics Show, which last week invaded this city that never sleeps (or, in this case, never stops text messaging), several of the biggest names in TV manufacturing debuted their products for the immediate and far-flung future.

For once, it wasn't mainly hype.

There is a revolution afoot in viewing quality. Company after company showed off TVs that produced astonishingly beautiful images. Some of these models were ready, or near ready, to go into homes.

Many were expensive. Some were too small. But only a few years ago we were saying the same of LCDs.

Although the new technologies won't be ready for this year's Super Bowl, for the most part, television quality is taking a leap forward the likes of which have not been seen since the introduction of high definition.

Amid all this technological wizardry, however, it remained an open question whether TV viewers would be willing to pay extra for these new technologies, much less replace their HDTV sets that are probably only a couple of years old.

And millions of Americans are still happy with their old but highly reliable tube TVs.

The new technologies are out there. Can they wait us out?

Laser

One of the most highly anticipated television debuts at this CES was the first set using the pure light of a laser to produce the image.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp. revealed its creation last week at an invitation-only, splashy event at a Palms Hotel nightclub where the young, hip and moneyed crowd normally gathers.

But a little company out of Ontario beat them to it earlier in the show.

In an unassuming section of a hotel mini-ballroom, SpectronIQ 3D Inc., which specializes in 3D technology for gaming, had on view a laser TV showing the Tim Burton version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

The picture was in living color, as they used to say on TV, but this time it rang true.

On a laser TV, the turquoise uniforms of the Oompa Loompas, rowing down a river of luscious-looking chocolate, were electric. Their sea-horse boat was detailed almost to a fault: Telltale signs of special effects work weren't entirely hidden.

But the enrichment of colors was only the first thing to dazzle the viewer. The eyes of the actors were luminous. The overall effect was sensual.

Yet, this SpectronIQ set was far from ready for prime time. The rear of the 72-inch set was hidden, but company executives acknowledged that it stretched back about 20 inches -- a huge amount given that consumers are demanding ever-thinner TVs. And with other technical issues to solve, this set will not make it to market until 2009 at the earliest.

The Mitsubishi laser TV, unveiled amid a light show, pumped-in smoke and women dancing on pedestals, was much closer to retail-ready. At a 65-inch screen size, it stretched back only 10 inches -- still a bit much for this anorexic TV age.

Although a side-by-side comparison wasn't possible, the images on the Mitsubishi set looked pretty darned astonishing.

At angled viewing, the quality remained relatively undistorted and there was no window-screen effect that mars some other big-screen technologies when watched up close.

Mitsubishi's laser TV is expected to go on sale this year, but company executives wouldn't get specific about the price.

"We want to be competitive with similar-size LCD flat-panel sets," said Max Wasinger, Mitsubishi's U.S. sales chief. "That's our goal."

A 65-inch LCD set from Sharp Electronics Corp. currently has a suggested retail price of $8,000.

OLED

For some time, companies have been showing organic light emitting diode sets, which incorporate the use of organic materials rather than only man-made components.

The promise of OLED -- picture quality, screen thinness, weight reduction and power savings -- is alluring, but there were plenty of problems, especially concerning mass production.

Sony Corp. has beaten everyone to the punch in getting one to market. CES marked the U.S. debut of the XEL-1, which went on sale in Japan late last year.

The event was so important to the company that Chief Executive Howard Stringer made the announcement with amped-up showmanship: The sets rose around a stage from cylinders like aliens in an ominous sci-fi flick.

The cylinders didn't have to be big. The XEL-1 has only an 11-inch screen, measured diagonally.

"Have you ever seen a more beautiful television?" Stringer asked as they appeared. Acknowledging that the sets might not be big enough to be visible past the first few rows, he added, "It's a long way away."

One thing that's not small: the price tag. You'll pay $2,500 for a TV about the size of those hung from kitchen cabinets.

But it's a start. And again, the picture quality is fantastic, sparkling clear and shimmering like water. All on a screen about as thick as three credit cards.

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