Home Entertainment Gets "Real" With Audio/Video Advances

June 16, 2003
Ever since the first video game and compact disc were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, a digital revolution has swept through the industry, perpetually reinventing home and personal entertainment.

Ever since the first video game and compact disc were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, a digital revolution has swept through the industry, perpetually reinventing home and personal entertainment. Digital audio has evolved from simple stereo playback to music hall and theater quality with 5.1- and 7.1-channel surroundsound that can make you feel like part of an orchestra or seemingly transport you into the middle of the "action." The basic NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) color television has gone from the original tri-gun CRTs to large-screen projection systems, and most recently to large-area direct-view plasma and liquid-crystal flat panels that can display high-definition television (HDTV) images. The HDTV displays deliver film-like image quality that also draws the viewer into the action.

Plasma-based HDTV displays with diagonals of 46 in. and larger are already here from such companies as Philips B.V. (www.philips.com) and Norcent Technology Inc. (www.norcent.net), delivering theater-like images at a retail cost between $5000 and $10,000. Typical of what's out there now, the 46-in. Norcent WXGA monitor, unveiled earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, provides a 1280- by 768-pixel display with a contrast ratio of 850:1 (Fig. 1a). That high ratio delivers an easily viewed image even with strong ambient lighting. The audio subsystem includes a new proprietary surroundsound algorithm from SRS Labs Inc. (www.srslabs.com) that significantly improves the width, height, and depth of any stereo sound profile.

Also unveiled at CES was a 37-in. LCD-based monitor developed by Sharp (www.sharp.com). The LH37HV4U AQUOS liquid-crystal television is based on the company's latest LCD technology, known as Advanced Super View (ASV). The panel, which has a 1366- by 768-pixel resolution and includes the company's proprietary QS (Quick Shoot) technology, improves the response time, effectively reducing the visual lag inherent in fast-motion scenes (Fig. 1b). Suggested retail price for the TV system is just under $9000.

Though the VCR is still popular, the DVD player and now the DVD player/recorder rival it. The personal video recorder (PVR), leveraging the low prices of high-density hard-disk drives, has also started to usurp the VCR. Not only does the PVR allow the time-shifting of programs by capturing and storing them in MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) form on the hard drive, users can also put programs on hold and then catch up using standard or accelerated viewing modes. First-generation PVRs typically include just a hard drive. Next-generation systems will incorporate a DVD drive so users can watch one movie while capturing another from the television. In the near future, expect the PVR function to be built into either the television or the cable/satellite set-top box.

Various forms of digital-signal processing are working behind the scenes to make the PVR and DVD systems possible. The DSP engines, ranging from dedicated chips to embedded blocks, perform video-to-MPEG2 conversion, MPEG decoding for playback, image-enhancement operations, audio-to-MP3 or -digital-audio for CD-quality storage, and still other functions in all of these systems.

Available as either a peripheral for a personal computer, as a plug-in to a home-entertainment system, or as a portable personal appliance, DVD players and DVD player/recorders have become essential components to keep us entertained. The DVD player/recorder is still a bit pricey compared to even top-of-the-line VCRs. However, they offer many entertainment advantages thanks to the basic DVD technology—full random access to any portion of the movie, multiple-language/multichannel soundtracks, the ability to view scenes from different angles, and more.

Currently, writable DVDs are limited to about 4.7 Gbytes of storage, or about enough to hold a two-hour movie and a few extras. Second-generation DVDs are now in the final throes of development, and they will offer about double the storage capacity when used on next-generation DVD players.

GAMING MAKES GAINS Electronic games have also benefitted from technology advances—the basic "Pong" game of the '70s has long given way to today's ultra-realistic action games. The latest generations of game platforms, such as the Playstation 2 from Sony, Nintendo's Game Cube, and the Xbox from Microsoft, all rely on high-performance graphics engines and high-performance processors that provide supercomputer-class processing power. The high-performance engines allow the systems to deliver realistic action and fully rendered lifelike characters that draw players into the action.

Portable game platforms also offer much better imagery and performance, with new low-cost color displays delivering better, more colorful images. In addition, higher-performance CPUs enable the games to deliver better action with more complex scenes than ever before.

Digital photography represents another fast-growth consumer product. Digital cameras span from simple low-cost units with VGA-level resolution (about 250 kpixels) that sell for less than $50 to professional-class cameras with 4-Mpixel and higher resolution tagged at over $1000. (The lens and sensor in such cameras contribute significantly to the cost.) Prices, though, are decreasing rapidly for the midrange resolution cameras that offer 2- to 3-Mpixel resolution. One advantage of digitally based systems is that size can be reduced as integration levels increase.

Pentax's (www.pentaxusa.com) Optio-S camera, a 3.2-Mpixel camera with 3× optical zoom, was compressed to just 3.3 by 2.0 by 0.8 in. and weighs only 3.5 oz. (not including battery and memory card—add 0.6 oz. otherwise). The pocket-size camera can even fit into the metal container that contains the popular Altoids mints (Fig. 2). A mechanical lens provides a 35- to 105-mm zoom capability, but when retracted, it sits flush with the camera frame.

The digital still-image camera can also be used in a limited movie mode, capturing 30-second clips at a rate of 12 frames/s. On the rear of the camera is a 1.6-in. diagonal TFT color display to view the captured image and an actual image viewfinder. The camera's 11 Mbytes of built-in memory let users capture images without a memory card. Via removable memory cards, users can also transfer images to a host system. Or, a USB cable can be attached to tie the camera to a host computer.

MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC Personal, portable music systems have also come a long way since Sony (www.sony.com) introduced the first cassette-based Walkman. Today, MP3 music players come in all shapes and sizes. They offer built-in solid-state storage that typically ranges from 32 to 128 Mbytes, providing from one to over four hours of music. Many players also accept memory cards to store different music selections.

For music aficionados who want to carry as much of their library with them as possible, several companies offer MP3 players with embedded hard drives that can hold thousands of songs. Apple Computer (www.apple.com) has offered the iPod for about a year. In addition to offering MP3 playback and storage via a built-in 40-Gbyte hard disk drive, the AV340 from Archos Inc. (www.archos.com) is a complete handheld entertainment center. It can play MP4 video on an integrated 3.8-in. diagonal color LCD panel, as well as play and record MP3 music. The company also offers a smaller-screen version, the AV140, and audio-only jukeboxes that can store or record up to 300 hours of MP3 music on an internal 20-Gbyte hard drive.

Continuing advances in display technology, image sensor resolution, DSP performance, and other technologies that go into consumer entertainment products will yield more feature-rich systems in the coming years. Advances in holography may eventually translate into 3D television. Advances in organic light-emitting technology will translate into emissive flat-panel displays that don't require space-consuming backlights or the high voltages typically needed for plasma or electroluminescent panels. Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. (www.semic.sanyo.co.jp/index_e.htm) and Kodak (www.kodak.com/go/display) are collaborating on 1.5-mm thick displays that can refresh images 1000 times faster than LCDs, eliminating motion lag for clearer full-motion video.


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