TV makers in long race to an uncertain finish

Image: The Sony XEL-1 Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) television is displayed during during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Sony’s XEL-1 OLED television features 30 times the contrast in one-tenth the depth of conventional plasma and LCD consoles.Steve Marcus / Reuters
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For high-definition television manufacturers, the International Consumer Electronics Show is like the end of a stage of the Tour de France, when competitors pause to determine who’s leading. But only just for now — the race still has many miles to go before the winner’s decided.

Depending on how you look at it, Matsushita Electric, the Japanese company that markets TVs in North America under the Panasonic brand, is the temporary leader at CES 2008, which began Monday. Its prototype 150-inch Life Screen plasma set dwarfs any other HDTV either planned or on the market.

Or looked at another way, Sony Corp., one of several hard-charging Asian competitors, is in front. Its XEL-1 debuted Monday as the first organic light-emitting diode set on the market in North America. Although it boasts only an 11-inch screen, it offers a precedent-obliterating contrast ratio of 1 million to 1 in a console only 3mm deep — roughly 30 times as sharp and one-tenth as thick as conventional LCD sets. It’s in Sony Style stores now, and the company unveiled a prototype 27-inch set, too.

The introductions demonstrate how little stability there is in the HDTV industry, which, while still in its relative infancy, is in a sustained growth spurt.

An alternative to LCD and plasma?
The 32- to 46-inch plasma and liquid-crystal displays that most viewers still find shiny and new are rapidly approaching commodity status as manufacturers race to get bigger, thinner, sharper and more stylish. Analysts said the OLED system had the potential to eclipse LCD and plasma as the leading flat-panel format.

Sony’s OLED set produces stunning picture quality because images are generated by an organic material. It uses no backlight, which means it uses far less power and creates blacks that are almost total, with accompanying contrast and brightness that contribute to astonishingly rich color. Sony’s chief executive, Howard Stringer, said OLEDs were “redefining TV.”

But the technology is still new and expensive — the tiny 11-inch XEL-1 carries a $2,500 price tag — and besides Sony, only Samsung Electronics Co. has a working OLED prototype at CES. Its 31-inch set isn’t expected to come to market for two more years, though.

Real-size pictures in 150-inch display
So with widespread OLED technology still a ways off, the manufacturers continue to battle it out to reach the extremes of LCD and plasma configurations.

Several manufacturers introduced prototype LCD and plasma sets barely an inch deep alongside production models of others hitting 50 inches diagonally in full 1080p high definition. One of those, the prosaically named 50PG60 from LG Electronics, was awarded the Best of Innovations award for video displays by CES’s organizer, the Consumer Electronics Association.

But for sheer wow factor, Matsushita’s Panasonic Life Screen can’t be beat.

“This allows you to show the elephant in the room,” Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic AVC Networks Co., said as the prototype displayed an elephant.


“It gives new meaning to the words ‘reality TV,’” Sakamoto said of the the largest plasma set in the world, whose 11-foot-long screen renders images at  8.84 million-pixel resolution.

The Life Screen is scheduled to become available next year, at an undetermined price. But it’s an open question just how many American homes can accommodate a screen of that size. At least initially, Sakamoto said, the Life Screen is likely to be used as a billboard.

Mitsubishi’s laser focus
Like Sony and Samsung with OLED, one other manufacturer is exploring an alternative technology. Mitsubishi Electric introduced a 65-inch set Monday night using the relatively old-fashioned rear projection system.

What makes Mitsubishi’s giant set different is that it doesn’t use LCDs — organic or otherwise — or plasma. Instead, it projects images using red, blue and green lasers.

Mitsubishi executives said the new technology allows them to leverage the company’s dominant position in lasers to produce larger, reasonably priced consoles displaying significantly better pictures. Laser sets are intended to reproduce 90 percent of the colors visible to the human eye, more than double the 40 percent created by LCD and plasma displays.

Mitsubishi said the unnamed set would likely be available sometime this year.