Steve's Blog - The Audience Is Listening!

Steve Withers

Day three of CES kicked off with a visit to the Gracenote stand to take a look at their latest content recognition software. Anyone who has used iTunes to rip CDs will be familiar with Gracenote, it's the software that samples each track against their database and then brings up the album name, artist and track names. The first time I saw this software in action I was amazed and it has saved me countless hours of typing as I've spent the last 6 years ripping my way through my not inconsiderable CD collection.

Gracenote's latest software is a logical extension of this technology and now you can do something similar whilst watching DVDs or Blu-rays. Basically if you hear a song that you like, Gracenote's software will give you all the information about it and even offer you the opportunity to buy through a retail platform (iTunes, Amazon etc.). The software can also use watermarking provided by the content provider or Gracenote's own fingerprinting technology to detect what TV programme you are watching and then bring up information about it such as cast crew etc. In addition there is an app that can be used on an Apple or Android platform which allows a device to actually listen to what you are watching or listening to and brings up information about it using their fingerprinting technology. If you change the content after a few seconds the devices can identify the new content and bring up information about that.

This was all incredibly impressive from a technological perspective but I found myself remembering a comment that Oliver Stone made the day before where he lamented the younger generation's lack of attention. These days people want to multitask whilst watching movies and TV and even seem happy to watch content on their phones; this may be acceptable for TV programmes but much like Oliver I would rather concentrate on a movie and be immersed by the experience just as the creators intended.

After Gracenote it was time to take a closer look at Panasonic's 2011 lineup and as with all the other major manufacturers it followed a familiar pattern. Panasonic are still aggressively promoting full 1080p 3D using active shutter glasses and in fact have added a new line of LCD 3D displays, the DT series, specifically targeting smaller screen sizes and gamers. Panasonic's recent opening of a major new LCD plant had lend some people to question their commitment to plasma but Andrew Denham from Panasonic assured us that they remain fully committed to plasma displays for larger screen sizes.

Panasonic's plasma lineup generated a great deal of interest in the wake of Pioneer's exit from the plasma market and Panasonic's subsequent purchase of their patents and hiring of their technicians. Many people worried if Panasonic might be able to produce a worthy successor to the venerable Kuro and although Panasonic came close, issues with floating blacks, flicker and 50Hz somewhat blotted their copy book. As far as Panasonic's 2011 plasma lineup is concerned there will be three different series, the entry level ST, the middle range GT and the flagship VT series.

Panasonic came in for justified criticism regarding the esthetic design of their 2010 lineup but this seems to have been comprehensively addressed with their 2011 lineup that now sport a very attractive and contemporary design. They are also incredibly slim but as with the ultraslim LCD displays this does bring into question the quality of the audio when using such small and hidden speakers. Along with the improved chassis design, Panasonic also claimed to have tweaked the black levels which were already the best on the market as well as addressing issues with flicker and crosstalk, although to be fair the Panasonics were the best of the active shutter displays that we tested last year when it came to crosstalk.

The panels are being driven in much the same way as the 2010 vintage but with a few minor tweaks for the 2011 lineup. Panasonic changed the method of driving their panels last year in order to optimize their 2010 displays for 3D and 60Hz and this may in turn have led to the problems experienced with 50Hz material. Given that Panasonic's major markets are the US and Japan both of which use 60Hz, Panasonic obviously decided they were prepared to compromise with regards to the UK, Europe and other PAL markets. Clearly people understand that this is a first generation tech and that there will be some issues but what annoyed people on the forums was Panasonic's refusal to even admit there was an issue despite all the evidence to the contrary. It was only after some considerable pressure from consumers and the reviewers here at AVForums that Panasonic finally came clean and admitted there was an issue. We specifically asked Andrew Denham if the problems with 50Hz had been addressed in the 2011 lineup and he said efforts were constantly being made to improve performance, this was ambiguous to say the least and unfortunately we couldn't look for the problem because we're in the US which is 60Hz. Rest assured that when the first 2011 Panasonic plasmas come in for review we will be testing for any processing issues with 50Hz.

Just like all the other manufacturers, Panasonic has upgraded their internet TV platform and in 2011 they are launching Viera Connect to replace the previous Viera Cast platform. This new platform provides an improved user interface, offers greater connectivity and more content sharing. It also has improved premium content and apps with specific joint ventures to provide games and health and fitness features. To be honest I'm fairly ambivalent about internet TV but I'm also enough of a realist to know that a merging of the computer and the TV is inevitable. There are certainly some applications where I can see an advantage such as video conferencing with friends and family from the comfort of your sofa but there are other areas that seem less sensible. Panasonic's intention to provide games and online gaming over Viera Connect seems like a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted because surely anyone interested in gaming will already own a PS3 or X-Box and will have been playing online for years, I know I have.

Given that just about every manufacturer has jumped on the tablet bandwagon in the last six months it should come as no surprise to discover that Panasonic plan to as well. In fact at the Panasonic press conference the announcement of the Viera Tablet generated the biggest response and whilst the tablet is still in the development stage is does look quite interesting. Panasonic's approach is to create an Android based tablet that has all the usual features of other tablets but also exclusively works with Panasonic displays. The Viera Tablet has the same Viera Connect home page and allows the device to communicate directly with the Panasonic display and to send content from the tablet to the display itself. With the demise of Philip's Pronto the Viera Tablet might even offer an alternative as a system controller once it is actually released.

In the afternoon we had a number of meetings with THX to take a look at some very interesting products that they are developing. One of the great things about my job is the opportunity of meeting some truly brilliant and entertaining people and this especially applies to Laurie Fincham. Laurie is something of a legend in the industry, an accomplished musician and wonderful raconteur he was also chief scientist at KEF and has been at THX since the early days. The reason for the meeting was so that Laurie could show us THX's new steerable concept speaker array technology.

This has been developed to address two specific issues, one is the problem of the sweet spot and other is how modern life now congregates around an entertainment system. The sweet spot refers to the optimal point for audio in a traditional speaker set up, this is where the audio sounds the best and anywhere else in the room is essentially a compromise. THX's new speaker array allows for the audio to be steered to the whole room thus eliminating the problem of the sweet spot; more importantly however the audio can be steered to multiple points and for multiple sources. This means that one person can be listening to one source whilst someone else listens to another source and a third person can hear nothing at all. The sound can be steered to the whole room or just one spot; it could even follow you as you move around the room. To achieve this THX has not only developed a new speaker array that can focus sound, they have also developed new amps use far less power and run cooler by only amplifying a signal that it is receiving. In addition THX have developed the software to control the amplification and the array and steer the sound in any combination that suits you. Its applications aren't restricted to the home and could equally be used in the commercial environment, perhaps at passport control to direct announcements in different languages to different queues. We had a demonstration and it really worked, in fact it was quite revolutionary and one of the few examples of genuine innovation I have seen at CES this year.

As with Laurie it was also a great pleasure to be able to meet up again with THX's Image Technology Director Kevin Wines and chat about THX's 3D Certification Programme. Kevin is not only the head of the 3D Certification Programme; he developed the tests and personally oversees the certification of each display. In addition to that Kevin is actively involved in the post production and commercial display of 3D both in the US and worldwide. It was a wonderful opportunity to chat with Kevin about the current state of 3D but also about where it might go in the future. One of the big problems with 3D in the home is that unlike 2D there is no accepted set of industry standards and in the absence of these standards the THX Certification Programme essentially provides them for such factors as grayscale, colour gamut, brightness and crosstalk. THX also takes into account factors such as the different colour timing of 3D movies to ensure that, as always, what you see on a THX certified display is what the creators intended. Another area that Kevin has been involved in is educating content makers about the correct use of cameras and editing for 3D because the techniques are very different to 2D. The THX 3D Certification Programme also won an Innovations award at CES 2011, we feel this is richly deserved and would like to congratulate Kevin on the award; not only does he know an awful lot about 2D and 3D imaging but he's a great guy too.

Finally we met with Rick Dean who is the Snr. VP of THX Ltd and I have to say he bears a striking resemblance to his former employer George Lucas. We discussed THX's Media Director which is another wonderful innovation designed to address the growing complexity of home entertainment systems. It can often be difficult for even a trained professional, let alone the average guy in the street to get multiple components to communicate and work correctly. THX Media Director is designed to simplify this process and automatically detect content and display it correctly on your TV or projector; as well as provide additional content. So for example if you are trying to watch some 3D material that is encoded in the side by side format the Media Director will automatically detect this, select the correct setting and display it. THX already have partnerships with LG, Onkyo, JVC and Sonic and plans to include Media Director in products by these manufacturers towards the end of the year.

Tomorrow is the final day of the show and I'll be taking a closer look at the latest offerings from Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp and JVC.
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