In a relatively short amount of time, we’ve gone from standard definition to high definition, from taping shows on VHS to recording them with PVRs, from stereo (or HiFi) to 5.1 surround sound and from a rigid TV schedule to an on-demand and time-shifted choice of nearly every show imaginable.
But the single most impressive thing I’ve seen in the last few years (that didn’t strike me as a fad or worthless add-on) was the demonstration of Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology in large displays. I’ve always felt that better realism and authenticity should be the goal of TV’s evolution, and OLED is a dramatic step forward on this path. OLED TVs boast richer, more vivid colours than either LCD (CCFL or LED back-lit models) or plasma. When combined with full HD 1080p resolution, the result is nothing short of breathtaking.
So I was a little non-plussed to see that at this year’s CES, there was not a plethora of OLED displays that graced the booths of the major TV manufacturers. Instead, it was 3D-capable TVs that stole the show after having been only a minor presence at last year’s show and virtually non-existent prior to that.
Now I know that some people are really jazzed about 3D for the home, and I admit that – when well executed – 3D is an exciting experience that can genuinely enhance an event like a movie or a sports broadcast. But let’s take a second look at 3D before crowning it the new king of TV land:
- Despite the promise of 3D sets that can convert 2D content into 3D on the fly, for now, the 3D experience will be severely limited by a lack of content
- 3D TVs require a 3D source, which for now is strictly limited to Blu-ray media since 3D broadcasts are likely years away (more on this in another post)
- As cool as it will no doubt be to watch James Cameron’s Avatar as it is meant to be seen when it is ultimately released on disc, just how much of your TV-watching time will be in 3D? I just can’t see people rummaging around their couch cushions to find their 3D glasses to view that re-run of Seinfeld or Friends or the evening news
So why is the consumer electronics industry so hell-bent on the 3D experience, when OLED technology makes every type of TV content better? As a side-note, it also saves on energy: OLED displays are far more efficient than plasma and even LED-back-lit LCD TVs.
I suspect it comes down to two factors: Technological hurdles and the Politics of Profit.
OLED is still very new as a large format display technology even though it has been under development for more than a decade. It has shown up in plenty of devices like cellphones and portable media players that use small (3″ or less) displays, but it seems the cost and complexity of OLED increases exponentially the larger the display (this is not much different than LCD which for a very long time could not be produced in sizes larger than 40″ without dramatic costs being incurred).
Then there’s the issue of the halo-effect – the number of collateral products that a new technology can spur. In the case of OLED, you’re just contemplating the purchase of a new TV. 3D on the other hand means a new TV, new Blu-ray player, new 3D Blu-ray movies, 3D glasses, and ultimately a new 3D-capable set-top box for your satellite or cable subscription. Given that companies like Sony have their hands in almost every bucket of the entertainment business, 3D is a no-brainer: it’s a profit power-house. If things pan out the way they hope, their 3D product road map will take them well into this decade if not beyond.
Does all this mean the end of the line for OLED? I think not.
Watch the video below. It gives you a tantalizing taste of just how amazing and versatile OLED tech really is. From transparent-medium displays to super-efficient and flexible lighting, OLED clearly has (ahem) bright future. And we may still see it make its way into our living rooms once the 3D tsunami has washed over us and companies like Samsung and Sony start looking for the next way to improve the TV experience. It may just be that OLED has simply been re-prioritized while LCD and plasma enjoy a last round of improvements before they are finally retired for good. Here’s hoping.
For more CES coverage including videos, check out our CES Section.