Day 1 of AVForums visit to Sony's head office in Tokyo
Sony has very kindly invited AVForums to attend a press trip to Tokyo, at which they will present their strategy for 2012, as well as demonstrate both existing and new technologies. Some of these new technologies will be covered by non-disclosure agreements which means I won’t be able to talk about them in this blog but wherever possible I will endeavour to share my experiences here in Japan.We kicked off the first day with a visit to Sony’s headquarters where Hiroshi Sakamoto, the Deputy Senior General Manager of Home Entertainment Business Planning and Strategy Division, gave a presentation in which he laid out Sony’s Home Entertainment strategy for 2012. Sony is unique among consumer electronics companies in that it produces both hardware and software, as a result it needs to find ways of distributing its content across the network that their hardware creates, hence the tag line ‘Play Watch Listen Share’. There are over 900 million Sonydevices in peoples’ homes and what Sony is trying to do is connect them all together, a goal that they call ‘Sony Convergence’. Sony hope to make the TV the focal point of this convergence by combining picture, sound, usability and design.
Worldwide sales of LCD TVs hit 208 million in 2011 and this is forecast to increase to 263 million in 2014. However the majority of this growth is going to come from emerging markets, especially China and India, where price competition is greater and revenues less. The more lucrative TV markets in Europe, Japan and the US are essentially saturated and sales are expected to remain about the same over the next three years. To try and address this, Sony has undertaken market research to determine what factors are most important to people when buying a new TV. Among those questioned were people who had recently bought a new TV or were planning on buying one in the next year to three years. However, regardless of the group being questioned, the top four criteria were always the same - picture quality, screen size, price and sound quality. In fact surprisingly, picture quality was the most important factor to all of those questioned and sound quality ranked either third or fourth. For this reason, Sony has decided to concentrate on developing TVs that deliver great picture and sound.
Of course when a manufacturer talks about a ‘great picture’ it rarely coincides with our view of what constitutes a good picture, such as being able to deliver a consistently accurate image that meets industry standards and is free of any unwanted processing. However, Sony do feel that people have become more aware of what equates to a good picture, especially in terms of the difference between high definition and standard definition content. To address this, Sony has been concentrating on three key areas - resolution, 3D and contrast. Resolution relates to Sony’s X-Reality and X-Reality Pro picture engines which utilise their Super Resolution Technology to deliver optimal images based on multi-frame analysis and comparisons with a look-up database. This technology is designed to offer higher resolution, digital noise reduction, enhanced colour and higher contrast and clearly it is mainly aimed at improving video content delivered over the internet. There is also 3D Super Resolution which applies an algorithm to analyse 3D images, providing clarity for near images and detail and contrast for far objects.
Whilst Sony admit that there are advantages to passive 3D, they remain committed to delivering the best possible 3D image and as such they will continue to use active shutter technology to deliver Full HD 3D. Sony were quick to point out that despite also using active shutter, some of their competitors were not delivering the full 1080p 3Dimage but they assured us that Sony’s TVs would be. Sony are also using native 200Hz panels to reduce crosstalk and improve motion handling, as well as adding Auto 3D Depth Adjustment to reduce eye strain. It is interesting that in Sony’s survey, 3D came 18th out of 20 which would suggest that consumers remain largely apathetic about 3D in the home. Despite this, Sony still feel that 3D has potential as more and more content becomes available and they made specific mention of the recent re-issue of The Phantom Menace in 3D and the planned re-release of Titanic in 3D in April. Sony also said that by the spring of this year there will be over 100 3D Blu-rays available and as of December 2011 there were over 250 3D games available and there is more 3D content becoming available on YouTube.
The other area of picture quality that Sony are keen to improve is the contrast of the image using their Intelligent Peak LED technology. This is essentially local dimming but in Sony’s version they use power from dark areas of the image to help boost brighter areas, this not only increases the contrast but also is more energy efficient. There is also their Opti Contrast Panel which rejects ambient light to improve the perceived contrast of the image and is very durable to protect against knocks and bumps.
Sony admits that the increasingly thinner frames and invisible speakers on modern TVs result in poor sound and given the importance that people have placed on sound quality, they have attempted to address this. In a traditional speaker there is a coil, surrounded by a magnet, with a damper above that, which makes speakers quite wide. The thinner you try and make these speakers, the worse the sound becomes because they can’t physically move enough air. To make a thinner speaker that can still deliver good sound, Sony have developed Magnetic Fluid Speakers, which use a magnetic fluid around the coil, thus eliminating the need for a damper. Whether this new design of speaker will actually result in improved sound remains to be seen, but it is a interesting idea.
Of course, just like every other manufacturer, Sony is placing a great deal of importance on interactivity and connectivity when it comes to their new TVs. This is surprising because internet web browsing and internet video came bottom out of the twenty factors that Sony listed in their survey. In fairness, this was a global survey and internet video did score higher in the UK due to the popularity of the BBC iPlayer but it still doesn’t bode well for the future of internet TV. Sony also pointed out that, of the Televisions sold over Christmas, 50% were internet capable, so interest might well be growing. Sony are basing their latest internet platform around the SonyEntertainment Network which will act as a personal entertainment hub for content such as videos and music. There will also be Intelligent Connect which will make it easy to share content using Media Remote on your smartphone, a specially designed Remote Keyboard and WiFi Direct Mode which allows the TV to connect directly with your other devices without going through a router. There is also the capability to ‘catch and throw’ content between your TV and mobile devices.
The other big internet related product that Sony will be releasing in 2012 is Google TV. This product will be available either as part of Sony’s Network Media Player or certain Blu-ray Disc Players and Sony regard it as the perfect marriage of TV and the internet with a smart controller. Google TV offers abundant content, coupled with intuitive and speedy operation and mobile linkage. This intuitive operation stems from features such as a built-in microphone for voice control, comfortable text input thanks to a full keyboard with backlight, motion control and a universal remote for controlling your other devices. Sony admitted that when they launched their first Google TV set top box in October 2010 it had not been a great success but, after a year, the market had started to catch up.Sony also said that they had been frustrated by the lack of delivery from Google and other problems like them changing the operating system but they now feel it has great potential. When asked why they don’t include Google TV on all their internet capable TVs, Sony said it was largely a matter of cost.
After this presentation we moved down to ‘The Square’, which is Sony’s united show room where they demonstrate a large number of their current professional and consumer products. When we arrived there were four large screens showing demonstration footage and on which an introductory film was shown. The film included some footage from Lawrence of Arabia, which Sony have been using in Blu-ray trailers since 2006, any chance Sonymight actually release the film on Blu-ray? It transpired that the screens were rear projected images using professional 4K projectors and mirrors and we were able to see one of Sony’s CineAlta 4K Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) projectors in action in the 4K theatre. Here we got to see the trailer for The Amazing Spider-man projected at native 4K and in 3D and it did look quite spectacular. The other products that we had a look at included the PS3, the PS Vita, professional 3D cameras and the CineAlta 4K cameras that are used in film production.
After lunch we went about a hour outside of Tokyo to visit Sony’s Atsugi Campus, where they develop a lot of their new technology. Here we had a presentation from Matt Soga, who is the Senior General Manager of the Planning and Marketing Division. He discussed the development of Sony’s Visual Presentation Solutions, which includes the CineAlta 4K projector already mentioned, as well as OLED Professional Monitors and the VPL-VW1000 SXRD 4K projector. We then had a demonstration of the VW1000 and whilst I had seen this projector at our Sony event back in December, this was the first time I had seen it with 3D content and content at its native 4K resolution. First of allSony showed some still 4K images and the level of detail was just breathtaking and even with your face right up to the screen you couldn’t see any pixel structure. Then Sony showed some 1080p material upscaled to 4K and as with the demonstration back in December, there was evidence of some motion artefacts and black crush. Next, Sonyshowed Avatar in 3D and whilst the motion was smooth, unfortunately they were using an excessive amount of frame interpolation which gave the images a video look. Finally, they showed the same Spider-man trailer that we saw earlier, only this time in 2D but still at its native 4K resolution and needless to say that looked awesome. Mind you, that uncompressed 2.5 minutes of 4K content needed 100GB of storage, so a viable 4K delivery system in the home might still be a few years off!
Finally, we took a look a Sony’s new OLED Professional Monitor which was launched last year and is obviously aimed at post production facilities where image accuracy is important. Funnily enough Sony introduced the top of the line BVM series by saying that it was for critical picture evaluation where the ‘input needed to match the output’, as opposed to a consumer TV where you take the input and ‘make it beautiful’. Actually I’d prefer it if you just left the image alone and ensured that that input matched the output, but clearly the manufacturers think they’re doing me a favour by messing around with the image. Anyway, Sony’s professional monitors are legendary, going back to the CRT version that they stopped producing in 2006 due to environmental concerns. Sony then started to build LCD professional monitors but they were concerned about the black levels, which were measuring at 0.10 cd/m2 compared to the 0.01 cd/m2 of a CRT. Now, Sony have developed their OLED Professional Monitor which comes in 17” and 25” screen sizes. These monitors use RGB 10-bit Full HD with a dedicated OLED processor and they are capable of accurate blacks that actually measure 0.00 cd/m2, as well as a quick pixel response, accurate colour and a wide dynamic range.
The OLED Professional Monitor can also accurately reproduce colours at all luminance levels. As a result, this new professional monitor can deliver high efficiency, high purity, high contrast and high reliability. The screen uses a super top emission structure that is sealed so moisture can’t get in, which can damage OLED screens, so the screen is very durable. The monitors have an average life of around 30,000 hours which is better than the 20-25,000 hours of a CRT and there is colour adjustment to allow for uneven decay in the three primary colours. Sony had three Professional Monitors set up, a CRT from 1999, an LCD from 2006 and between the both, an OLED from 2011. With the lights out the blacks on the CRT looked far better than the LCD, as you would expect but the black levels on the OLED were just astounding, completely black, so much so that you couldn’t see the screen at all. The image accuracy and colour performance was also very impressive and the pixel response was as quick as the CRT screen. Before anyone starts getting excited, the 25” OLED Professional Monitor sells for 25,000 euros but at least its good to see that Sony are working on OLED technology. It was also good to see just how incredible the image on an OLED screen can look, it truly is the new black!