In spite of the worsening economy, U.S. sales of LCD televisions are already up 20% over January and February of last year (and up 50% in Europe), according to vice chairman and CEO of Samsung Electronics Lee Yoon-woo. The boost is thanks in part to lower prices, which means less revenue for electronics companies. But according to Scott Birnbaum, vice president of the LCD division at Samsung, consumers' renewed interest in LCD TVs also comes from a confluence of other factors: format, the film experience, and the way their PCs have changed their expectations of their TVs.
"People are trying to replicate that movie theater experience," Birnbaum says, driving them to buy bigger and bigger TVs. Bigger TVs have always been considered better, but when a TV gets larger, the quality of the image has to increase too, or the picture looks grainy and suffers from motion blur. "Now companies are doing 120 and 240Hz refresh rates, and doing three interpolated frames for every real frame you're seeing" to get quality up to par with size, Birnbaum says. That quality improvement is driving consumers to upgrade from older flat-screens, or winning over reluctant tube-TV owners. Interpolation is a process by which the TV's circuitry blends the frames of a video together, making the action look smooth.
Larger TVs are also heavier, which in the past has required customers to install a complex, heavy-duty wall mount, often at great expense. New TVs, Birnbaum explains, are getting thin enough that their weight is greatly reduced: "You'll hang these TVs more like paintings," he says. This year, Samsung and its competitors are releasing flat-screens will measure under 10mm thick, lending the TVs the elegance and simplicity of a traditional movie screen.
That pursuit of a theater-like experience is something that Birnbaum calls "vidification," and it's being made possible in part by LED backlights that are much thinner than traditional compact fluorescent backlights. They can be dimmed locally to create richer blacks and deeper contrast, and use less power than conventional backlights, making customers feel greener. The main result is better realism, a pursuit that Birnbaum says is about to take the LCD TV industry by storm.
"In the near future, you'll have TVs that make you really feel part of the experience," he says. That might sound like marketing-speak, but Samsung and other companies are working on 3D technology and ultra-high definition resolutions that Birnbaum says will "make you feel like you're looking through a window, and not at a screen."
So-called telepresence 3D technologies work by projecting an image out in front of a transparent LCD screen, not onto it, giving the appearance of depth of field. To do this, the display projects an image onto a mirror and uses a beam splitter to project the image into thin air. Combined with a few cameras and microphones, the technology will make possible everything from virtual receptionists to long-distance one-on-one counseling—and maybe, someday, 3D consumer TVs that don't need content shot on special film.
Another driving force in LCD TV sales is the popularization of the 16:9 aspect ratio. "Sixteen by nine is becoming a dominant force," says Birnbaum, which is creating a new replacement cycle in desktop monitors and notebooks. "More than half the notebooks sold this year will be 16 by nine," he says, "while last year that format made up just 2% of the market." As people buy bigger, better movie-ratio LCDs with their computers, the new monitors bump up their expectations for their TVs, leading them to look for even higher-end features for the living room.
So where do LCDs go from here? "I've been a part of a lot of long-term planning sessions, looking to see where technology is going," Birnbaum says. "Every time you think you know where your industry will be in 10 years, you're always surprised where it actually takes you."