Thanks to the famous Apple distortion field, it’s easy to get caught up in the Apple rumour mill. Today for instance, leaked images of a new iPhone case have the blogosphere in full speculation mode as to the dimensions of the upcoming iPhone 5.
Thinner! Bigger screen! Repositioned volume buttons! Can you believe how breathless we’ve become about attributes that should frankly illicit little more than a yawn were they in regards to *any* other company. But this is Apple we’re talking about and the usual rules clearly don’t apply.
Which brings me to my favourite Apple rumour-du-jour, which has nothing to do with the next iPhone.
Instead, it concerns a project that many have been theorizing on for some time: Apple is poised to bring an HDTV to market.
I know, I know, this too – were it from *any* other company – should prompt nothing more than a slightly glazed look and then a quick glance to see if there’s anything interesting on Twitter. After all, the consumer tech landscape is teeming with HDTVs. The aisles of Best Buy, FutureShop and Walmart are littered with them. A recent study (albeit a highly politicized one) out of the U.S. even suggested that they have become so mainstream that even 17% of people dubbed “poor” now own them.
So why would an Apple HDTV matter?
First of all, according to a CNET report, Apple is already in talks with LG to manufacture 55″ OLED screens. Right there, we have a major technology shift in the works. There are for all intents and purposes, no OLED TVs on the market right now. Plasma and LED-backlit LCD panels represent well over 99% of all HDTVs. The primary reason so far has been price. Even Sony’s OLED experiment, the XEL-1, a diminutive 11-inch kitchen-class device cost a whopping $1,700 when it briefly came to market a few years ago. Needless to say, a 55″ beast would be an order of magnitude more expensive, making it prohibitive for all but wealthiest consumers. But nonetheless, LG themselves have announced plans to build just such a TV next year. It lends a lot of credibility to the Apple HDTV rumour. And OLED will be a game-changer.
But if LG is going to make one, it will probably be cheaper than Apple’s, so why would I buy the one with the fruit on it?
It’s safe to say that Apple’s second generation Apple TV unit, that little black hockey-puck of a device, has been much more successful than most anticipated, especially given the luke-warm response their first generation “hobby” was given. It’s also safe to say that any Apple HDTV will have Apple TV or similar functionality baked right into the unit. As cool as I’m sure this would be, it’s not a big deal. Apple TV’s are cheap (relatively speaking) at $119.
But the feature that I think will really set an Apple HDTV apart, is FaceTime. Yes, it would be the same FaceTime that has been available on iPhone 4s, iPod Touches and Macs for over a year now, but with one key difference: The FaceTime camera will be behind – not on top – of the OLED screen.
This is a feature that I had predicted would make its way into the very first iPad. Man was I wrong on that. The iPad didn’t even get a regular webcam until the second version.
But in my defense, I didn’t know that the iPad would be an LCD-equipped device. And according to the patent I was basing my prediction on, in order for a screen to work with a “hidden camera,” it needs to be OLED – not LCD.
In case you haven’t clicked-through to my iPad prediction yet, allow me to summarize: A hidden FaceTime camera would change the nature of video chat. Instead of watching someone gaze at a point in space that seems to be around your lower-neck, they will be looking right at you. All the time. The TV would become a virtual window allowing eye-to-eye communication. FaceTime is already a great chat product – especially on the iPad 2. A FaceTime camera situated behind the screen where you’re already looking, would be, well, magical.
Yes, it seems a little foolish that having been wrong on this once before I’d be willing to stick my neck out again for the same premise. But I guess that’s a measure of how great I think this feature would be, and why Apple could own the high-end of the HDTV market just like they own the high-end of the smartphone and tablet market.
Check back here in 2012 to see if I’ll be eating my words once more.
If you’re anxious to know what Apple is announcing today, join us as we cover the event live, starting at 1 p.m. ET
We’re less than 48 hours until Apple finally (hopefully) lifts the veil on the most anticipated new tech product since the iPhone – an Apple tablet device which has become known online as the “iTablet” or “iSlate”.
Since the rumour mill really began to pick up steam about six months ago, there has been enormous speculation about all of the device’s potential features. Screen size, wireless connectivity, processor power, OS, battery life and app support have all been hotly debated within the tech world.
One of the more interesting memes has been the discussion around the presence (or lack thereof) of a webcam or indeed any camera at all.
On the “it will have one” side of the debate, TechCrunch offered up a recent statement by an exec at French wireless company Orange, as proof.
On the “it will not have one” side, industry insider John Gruber maintains that, European wireless carrier statements notwithstanding, there will be no camera on board.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that the mysterious device does indeed have a webcam, which would enable video calling via Skype or any other app that supports this kind of two-way communication. It would certainly be cool to be able to do this from the couch, the park bench or anywhere else you can get a Wi-Fi or 3G signal.
But doesn’t this sound a little lack-lustre by Apple standards? After all, you can already do this on any of Apple’s computers, including the full line of MacBooks and MacBook Pros. Come to think of it, you can do it on practically every netbook that has shipped in the last two years, many of which retail for under $300.
So why would this be a killer app, or worthy of discussion at all?
Some would say that if the iTablet did not come with a webcam, it would spell instant death for the product, and I tend to agree. A webcam is a must.
Let’s take a step back… Apple is probably best known for taking everyday computing tasks and making them effortless, enjoyable and above all, simple. The kind of experience that invariably brings a smile to the face of people who try it for the first time.
The worst part of video calling, in my humble opinion, is the lack of eye contact. As human beings, we are programmed (with a few cultural exceptions) to want to look into the eyes of the person who is talking to us, and to whom we are talking. As I’ve explained to my 8-year-old son many times, if you’re looking at me while I’m talking, I know you’re listening.
And that’s the problem with today’s video calling – the position of the webcam at the top, sides or bottom of our screens means that if we’re looking at the image of the person we’re talking to, we are not looking at the webcam and thus not really “looking at” the other person at all. We spend the entire conversation looking at someone who appears to be looking very intently at a spot on our body just above our navel. Not a very natural or satisfying experience for most people I’ll wager.
Which brings me to my guess/wish/speculation on how Apple is going to change the personal communication game and blow us all away: The iTablet will feature a webcam embedded behind the display itself, enabling us to (for the first time) actually look into the eyes of our caller.
Now I have absolutely zero idea how they would achieve this, or if it’s even possible with today’s display technology. But I know this: if indeed the iTablet possessed this feature, it would not only create a significant market for the device (something many analysts doubt even exists) but would justify the rumoured $1000 price tag it will carry.
I also know this: Apple has filed a patent for exactly this type of implementation.
Crazy? Maybe. But a screen-embedded webcam would undoubtedly create the kind of insanely great experience that Apple has always been known and admired for.
If it turns out to be nothing more than wishful thinking on my part, then let this post be a challenge to all of the other manufacturers out there (including Apple): Find a way to make video calling the kind of experience it should have been from the beginning: a genuine face-to-face chat that brings a smile to our faces.
Update, 10:56 PM ET: You know, the more I think about this, the more likely it sounds. ComputerWorld has an interview with Aaron Vronko who, by all accounts, is a hardware expert when it comes to Apple devices. Vronko reckons that Apple will have to use an OLED display for the tablet’s screen if for no other reason than power efficiency (OLED is much more efficient than backlit LCD). He also contends that OLED would make an ideal choice for the kind of readability that ebook apps would benefit heavily from. But the real clincher for me is that Apple’s webcam-behind-the-screen patent specifies the use of an OLED screen.
OLED would also make the iTablet (MacPad anyone?) one stunning digital photoframe. I know that sounds ludicrous – paying $1000 for a photo frame, but consider this: If video calling is to be a maintsay of the device, it will need to be easily positioned on a kitchen counter, or mounted on a swing-arm at eye level. This would also be the ideal positioning for an array of display-based apps, such an iPhoto-linked gallery. My guess: the gadget will ship with kick-stand that gives it that table or counter-top stance, and may even support some sort of VESA mount.
Update, 6:59 AM, Jan 26: Okay I’ve been thinking about this all night. One thing’s for sure: I need more of a life. But here are some other Apple predictions that fit with my webcam-behind-the-screen theory:
– Why would Apple stop with just their tablet? It makes sense that if they’ve reinvented the webcam, they will announce a complete refresh of their entire line of Macs, with this technology either included, or it’s a real price problem, as an option.
– There have been rumours about Apple making an actual TV for some time now, and Chris Seibold over at AppleMatters makes a compelling argument for why it would be a good idea. I think he’s right. I also think that the recent announcements from CES around major players like Panansonic and Samsung involving Skype-enabled HDTV sets with add-on webcams means that now would be the perfect time for Apple to enter the market. Not only do they have years of experience fine tuning the set-top box experience via their Apple TV product, but a one-device marriage of Apple TV, iTunes (for rentals, purchases), general Internet access for all the other apps and of course the magic face-to-face webcam, could just be the one TV that people feel they must own. They will annnounce an Apple HDTV.
The only doubts I can throw at this little twist are:
– If in fact Apple’s hidden webcam is dependent on OLED, an Apple HDTV in any size that people would actually want (think 40″ or more) would be, at least currently, prohibitively expensive. One of these units could easily run upwards of $4,000, maybe more.
– Everyone is betting on 3D being the next big thing in home entertainment. The sheer amount of momentum 3D has at the studio and manufacturer levels suggests that whether people really want it or not, it’s coming. Sony is looking to debut their forst 3D TV in Canada early next month.Engadget spotted a 24″ Sony 3D OLED at CES so obviously OLED TVs can handle 3D – but again, what would this do to the price of an Apple OLED TV?
Plausible or not, most people who have witnessed an OLED display in-person will agree with me when I say they are bar-none the most vivid and beautiful ever made. They really blow LCD (even LED-backlit LCD) away in all the criteria that our eyes use to make judgements about what we’re seeing. Even the venerable Plasma TV seems dull by comparison. For Apple to make a major investment in this technology makes a lot of sense. It would make their hardware immediately and obviously better than the competition.
Update, 5:11 p.m. Jan 27th:
I am returning this crystal ball to Wal-Mart. It apparently doesn’t work at all.
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.