JAPAN: Talking tech (and more) with the brains behind Panasonic's TVs
Never say Panasonic isn't ambitious: when we convene for the last of our three days on the ground in Japan, the head of its TV business unit is straight out of the traps with the statement that the company's goal is to be Number One in the worldwide flatscreen market.
Brave talk indeed: according to the latest sales figures, for the final quarter of last year, Panasonic ranks a relatively distant fourth worldwide, with a market share of just 8.3%.
Ahead of it, LG on 12.7%, Sony (14.2%) and runaway market leader Samsung, with a hefty 21.4% of the market.
The fighting talk by Panasonic's Hiroshi Uehara set the tone for a day in which technical insight vied with marketing positions, and Panasonic had certainly wheeled out the big guns to meet with the group of European journalists flown in for the occasion.
As well as Uehara-san, we have the head of the Consumer & System Marketing Centre, the Senior General Manager of Overseas Consumer Marketing, the head of the Europe Consumer Marketing Group, the company's General Manager for R&D, and his team leaders responsible for LCD and plasma research and development.
Lines drawn up?
An outside observer might have thought the room, Hall 1 at Panasonic's facility in Kadoma, was set up for some kind of gladiatorial contest. On one side, in two rows of tables, the European press, national flags and name cards on display; across a few metres of empty carpet, the home team, lined up in three or four ranks.
Around the edge of the room, displays of various TV technologies, including some comparisons with rival products we may observe, but are asked not to identify explicitly; at the base of the two banks of tables, the European organisers of the press tour; at the from of the room a podium and large screen for the inevitable PowerPoints.
Get the picture? I've been here before at events like this with a variety of Japanese companies: the form usually involves long, stultifying presentations, heavy on words and impenetrable charts on screen, and on to an endless Q&A session.
That last bit is only partly made longer by journalists determined to ask the gathered brains questions of minute interest, but which they have clearly been bottling up, scarcely able to hold them back, throughout their entire trip.
My favourite, asked of the head of the Panasonic audio video company at a past event and delivered at a pitch rising to a climax of indignation, was 'Can you please explain why it's no longer possible to obtain the capstan drive belt for a tape recorder you only discontinued 20 years ago!'
What also tends to slow these Q&As down is endless whispered discussions between the serried ranks of engineers and marketeers after every question, culminating the answer being referred to whoever is the senior suit present. He either nods to permit an answer, or glares to indicate it is inappropriate, and then you more often than not get something along the lines of 'We will discuss', 'We have no immediate plans' or "We are unable to answer that at this time for business reasons'.
Panasonic's Mitch Mitsuda explains its latest design language. He was later asked whether the rear panels of the TVs could be sprayed to match your car
Today, though the scene is set as usual, it's clear things are going to be different.
From the opening remarks by Hirokazu 'Mitch' Mitsuda of the Europe Consumer Marketing Group, acting as MC for the event, we discover Panasonic is here as much to listen as to inform; breaks will be many and frequent (phew! it's already getting warm in here, despite a chill wind outside and clouds threatening flurries of snow), and that we are free to ask questions whenever we wish.
What's more, we're promised open, frank and direct answers to questions. It's going to be an exchange of views, not a lecture and then questions.
It's all very different from Panasonic press events of the (admittedly rather distant) past: the layout of the room may be conventional, but this is going to be a much more relaxed, informal affair.
The big picture
Mr Uehara is here to give us the big picture: apart from that goal of market leadership, Panasonic has a mission for its TVs: to 'Create New, Exciting TV Experiences'.
By 2014 it's planning on 3D TVs accounting for 32% of the market, and internet-connected IPTVs 43% – and it expects that this year 3D and IPTV will come to be seen as standard TV capabilities.
To that end, Panasonic says its 2011 Viera models are designed for the best picture quality in both 2D and 3D, thanks to advances such as a new louvre filter for better blacks, ultra-high-speed scanning down from 8ms to 2ms for better 3D quality, and a 50% decrease in panel response time.
On the connected TV front, it's going big on its cloud-based Viera Connect technology, and will open its Viera Connect Market, allowing the development of third party applications, as well as opening up its IPTV platform to more content providers.
But first, a word from our sponsors: Panasonic is approaching its 100th anniversary (in 2018 ), and its vision for the centenary is to be 'No 1 Green Innovation company in the electronics industry.' Those environmental concerns have been a subtext running through our visit so far.
And to give us some idea of the size of the company, Uehara lays some figures on us: as of the end of 2010m Panasonic had 375,000 employees, 659 group companies, and this year will have a turnover of some Y6.6tn, or around £53bn.
50% of its sales are still at home in Japan, with 13% in Europe, and while consumer electronics accounts for 34% of sales, its home-building division, PanaHome, accounts for 17%.
And then we're off, into the wonderful world of Viera TV technology, and the 2011 Viera concept: 'Viera – Absolutely Stunning'.
In the plasma arena, the old Neo PDP name has gone, replace by Neo Plasma, and the new sets have 600Hz Advanced Motion, better blacks and improved luminance.
Meanwhile the LCD screens again have better motion handling, a wider viewing angles with consistent contrast and colour, lower power consumption and the promise of fewer double images in 3D.
OK let's put some more detail on that:
Neo Plasma tech
The latest panels have new transparent electrodes, faster-reacting phosphor and slimmer ribs between front and back plates, resulting in crisper illumination, less afterglow and more efficient light emission.
In addition, a change in design means any afterglow happens at minimum, not maximum, illumination, greatly reducing the chance of crosstalk.
Meanwhile, the louvre filter has a new shape and materials, giving better light blocking and absorption, thus improving contrast in bright scenes, and giving deeper blacks even in bright light.
Inevitably, at this point the 'K' word rears its ugly head: someone asks whether the latest Neo Plasma screens can match the black levels of Pioneer's Kuro panels, two years on from that company's decision to quit the TV business and stop making its excellent, but loss-making, screens.
It's not the first time Kuro has been mentioned on this trip: at the Amagasaki plasma plant on Wednesday, someone asked whether the factory could make Kuro-quality screens. With a barely stifled sigh, the response was yes, it was perfectly possible, but if all Panasonic wanted to make was screens with Kuro pricing, it would have to look at closing down several of its huge plasma facilities.
In other words, they could do it, but they're not really in the business of selling the relatively small numbers of TVs, made in relatively small facilities, that Pioneer managed.
Someone, in full nostalgia mode, referred to Pioneer's CES 2008 demonstration, held in a blacked-out room, where a Kuro screen made objects shot on a black background – a ring, a goldfish – appear to be floating in mid-air. Could Panasonic do that?
Acknowledging the presence in one row of the staff-side bleachers of a couple of ex-Pioneer engineers, the response from Mitch Mitsuda was unequivocal: 'We can reproduce that in 2011 models' – pause – 'in a pitch black room'.
'Using the same technology?'
'More advanced, but we can't go into details'.
Oh and by the way – and for those who obsessively niggle at these things on forums worldwide – both the rising and floating black problems some have seen have been addressed in 2011 models. There's now no black level shift to compensate for stabilising brightness levels after initial use, and the 50Hz signal handling has been improved on all 2011 sets.
Principal advances for the latest IPS-alpha panels include wide viewing angle – 178 degrees without colours washing out, which beats the 170 degress claimed by some rivals –, faster response and lower power consumption.
The new displays claim uniformly fast response at all gradation levels, removing the 'comet tail' effect behind moving objects, while a new rib structure gives better light transmission and lower power consumption.
Notable, too, is the widespread adoption of LED lighting, spreading across the Panasonic range into all but the least expensive models.
However, the company's sticking with edge-lighting, rather than going down the full-array local-dimming route: simply, it says it's getting such good results with its edge-lit IPS-alpha panels that it doesn't feel full-array lighting justifies the extra cost or bulk involved.
3D LCD tech
For 3D, Panasonic is using panels with thinner liquid crystal layers, giving double the response speed to ensure hardly any afterimages, and partnering it with advanced recharge driving to increase scanning speed from 4ms to 2ms, the industry's fastest, to reduce the possibility of double images.
The Intelligent Frame Creation system has been completely redesigned, targeting higher quality, and with their original High Speed Drive APD technology, the engineers reckon these new LCDs are 'close to the picture quality of plasma - but we still think plasma is better!'
- THX 3D Certification on VT GT and G (2010 only 2D THX certification)
- 3D 24p smooth film on all 3D PDP Models, and DT LCD
- 2D to 3D conversion: 'As a manufacturer we really didn't want to put this feature in, but we listened to the market'
- Infinite Black Pro 5,000,000:1 Native contrast on VT GT ST: 'we originally didn't want to promote such figures, but again the market'
- ISFccc Certified Calibration Configuration on VT GT G + DT LCD
- Enhanced sound quality. Says Mitsuda, 'One issue about flat panels is that the sound is horrendous, isn't it?' So, the sets now have new forward-facing speakers rather than downward, newly developed dual-range speakers. LCD DT range now has speaker enclosures within cabinet for better sound, plus a bass reflex port
- 400Hz backlight scanning on LED-lit sets for smoother motion in fast scenes
- Image viewer uses SD card for a wide range of video and audio formats, including 3D from Lumix 3D cameras and 3D camcorder models. We're treated to some home movie footage shot by Panasonic staff: vintage trains in a tropical landscape, someone's child in a playground, a school sports day.
- USB recording to a hard disk available on some models.
I get the impression that 2D-to-3D upconversion isn't something on which the Panasonic engineers are entirely (or perhaps that should be 'even slightly'?) sold, despite the insistence of one of my fellow journalists that it's a feature consumers are keen to have.
But including it doesn't have major cost implications, so they include it as a box-ticker as much to suit marketing requirements as anything else – if everyone else is offering it, I guess they have to.
However, when I press them on whether they have any insight into how much people use this feature, or whether it's one of those 'must haves' consumers demand, try, hate and never use again, the engineers admit they haven't done any research on this matter.
What they do let slip, given that 3D glasses are only included with the top-end VT30 sets, and are an optional add-on with other models, is that 'the uptake of 3D glasses isn't great'.
It seems people may be buying top-end 3D TVs as top-end TVs with a bit of futureproofing, not because they can't live without 3D.
3D technologies compared
At which point, we move onto a session comparing 3D technologies, given by Keisuke Suetsugi, one of Panasonic's key 3D development engineers, and I get the feeling we're finally about to find out Why We're Here.
I've been here before, at events going back to the dim and distant format war between 8mm and VHS-C camcorder formats – it was in the analogue age, kids!
Then Panasonic took us to Japan to do a 'hearts and minds' job in favour of the VHS-C system it was backing, and only slightly came unstuck when one of the travelling hacks noticed 8mm machines under a different brand rolling down an Osaka production line.
I was in Japan again for a similar event when DCC and MiniDisc were duking it out for supremacy as the replaced for the good old compact cassette – I still, somewhere, have a Panasonic DCC portable player inscribed with my name.
Now, it seems, the company feels a need to convince us, and thus you, of the superiority of its active 3D TV system over both passive-glasses and no-glasses technologies.
Suetsugi explains that Cinema HD 1080p, the frame-sequential 2 x 60 full frames a second system Panasonic uses, is the only one able to give full 1080p resolution, and that previous 3D systems – top and bottom, side by side (as used by Sky) and line by line – give quality losses.
He points out that the frame-sequential system was standardised in December 2009, and that there shouldn't be 'a mess, a 3D war or whatever'.
Now he turns his attention to passive systems, of the kind currently being championed by LG, with its Film-Patterned Retarder technology. He points out that each line only gets 540 lines – ie standard definition – and that while the system uses the same glasses worn by cinemagoers, 'cinemas use a special filter to give full resolution. Only frame sequential can give this at home.'
He points out that the extra filter layer LG is using in its Film-Patterned Retarder system – well, he doesn't name the Korean rival, but we get the idea – adds to the cost of the TV, even though companies are trying to sell these passive TVs at lower prices.
'A large part of the cost of the TV is the panel,' he says, 'so companies will be using second or third grade panels. And that means lower image quality, even in 2D.'
Indeed, he's concerned that 'Passive technology may drag down consumer TV quality, and may have implications for the future.
'Passive is suitable for industrial use, thanks to cheap glasses that can be given away, or for second grade 3D TV: high speed LCDs aren't required, so cheaper, lower quality panels can be used for 3D.'
He turns his attention to autostereoscopic, or 'no-glasses' 3D: 'It has restricted viewing angles in two planes, side to side and front to back.
'Even with 4K TV screens it will offer low quality, and a poor 2D image due to the lenticular filter over the screen, which will make a very blurry image.'
He points out that there is no autostereoscopic content available: the format needs pictures taken from multiple viewpoints, and today's 3D content uses simple two-channel. 'So content needs to be processed to interpolate extra viewpoint images, meaning that from most viewpoints quality will be unsatisfactory.'
He even raises a view that autostereoscopic 3D is of 'Questionable safety: active glasses give perfect 3D over all screen, but "no-glasses" creates moiré patterns, has a limited viewing area, and can give image doubling.'
However, he concedes that the technology 'is good for digital signage, and for personal mobile 3D displays.'
For the real cinema experience at home, however, you need frame-sequential, Panasonic says.
The discussion opens out, and I ask for any news of progress in the work Panasonic President Fumio Ohtsubo announced at CES was being undertaken with the Japanese government, with a view to creating safety guidelines for 3D viewing.
The response is that Panasonic has been working for two years on safety, with experiments even including checking Suetsugi's kids' brainwaves while watching 3D! There's no timeframe as yet for the government guidelines: 'we are still working, but have nothing yet to disclose to the industry beyond our current feeling that there is little difference between 2D and 3D as far as safety is concerned.'
Is there a format war?
So what about the 3D format war, I ask, and fears that format confusion will lead consumers to hold off on purchases until it's resolved, or maybe give 3D the swerve altogether?
Mitsuda says 'Agreed, it's not good, but we are confident it's here to stay, and more content will come. 3D failed in the past due to poor quality. Now it is better and technology is better, then we are confident 3D will grow.'
One of my fellow journalists chips in that format wars aren't relevant, as in the games market everyone buys every console to ensure they can play the full range of games.
While I am still processing the bizarre implications of that if extended to TVs, he continues 'So really if you want the best choice, you should buy all the different active glasses and passive glasses, in case you want to go visit some friends with a different TV.'
No, me neither...
Mitsuda asks what we feel is the main driver for 3D TV, and the assembled hacks around me, few of whom will ever see 40 again, chorus 'Games.'
Next, we have presentations on Viera Connect, and how the system will be opened up to online shopping, applications and more content.
Not only will you be able to view exclusive content on the system – in the States, Panasonic has done deals with the bodies running soccer, football, hockey and basketball – and access dedicated fitness programmes, games and so on; you'll also be able to buy applications for download, or even accessories for home delivery.
For example, in some markets the company has in place deals on games controllers and fitness equipment, including a treadmill able to link to the TV using a wi-fi connection, or Bluetooth pulse and blood pressure monitors.
We also see a neat demonstration of a Panasonic TV being controlled by an iPad app, not only accessing all the Viera Connect facilities, but also giving full set-up menus.
But don't hold your breath for the Viera Connect tablet devices shown at CES 2011: at the moment they remain very much at the concept stage, and no date is yet set for a launch.
Faster response testing
Next, Isao Kawahara, who works on response measurement for panels, demonstrates how Panasonic is raising the bar checking the speed and resolution of screens. In the past, tests have used test patterns crossing the screen in five seconds, roughly analogous to a full-length shot of a person walking across the screen.
Panasonic's new Full HD Resolution Speed, developed as part of a Picture Quality Evaluation Project, has the same test crossing the screen in just 1.6 seconds, enabling the test to give a Pixels Per Second figure.
Kawahara points out that all modern screens can pass the 5sec test, or 400pps, with ease; the new test measures at 1200pps, setting much more stringent standards. He illustrates this with a test graphic showing cars crossing the screen, with four-line test patterns on the side, and illustrating how far they travel in a second.
Unsurprisingly, the Panasonic sets pass the 1200pps test with flying colours. Well, flying black and white lines, still crisp at speed, anyway.
Finally, we move into general questions, covering such topics as the availability of various models in various markets – as with all companies, Panasonic doesn't do 'all the colours in all the sizes' in every market, but that's entirely down to marketing considerations.
But before we get too deep into why which will model sells where, another member of the press asks whether the new models have audio compression, so movies aren't so loud? And before I can think 'because it makes the sound horrible?', the engineers reply that yes, automatic gain control, not available in past models, is now a switchable option.
Putting a gloss on it
'Oh, and what about doing something about your glossy screens?' comes the cry from the back row.
Mitsuda points out that some sets in Europe have the HD Pro filter, but that in general the company tries to avoid anti-reflective filters on its plasmas, simply because there's a trade-off in light transmission, and thus picture quality. LCDs, of course, are less reflective, due to their design, but glass is, by its very nature, kinda glossy.
Earlier in the trip, the same subject had come up at the Amagasaki plasma plant: someone had asked whether glossy screens were a picture quality choice, whether Panasonic made the screens that way just because people like them like that?
Then, the same answer had been given: that glass is, by its very nature, reflective, and the more filters you apply, the more problems you get. The purer the picture, the better.
Besides, LCD TVs do need a protective layer on their screens, with the added effect of making them more matte, simply because the glass used is so much thinner, at around 0.7mm. Plasma glass is 1.8mm thick, and so stronger.
Mitsuda also points out that some sets with the HD Pro filter are available in the European market, but these tend to be of more relevance in Southern European markets, where daylight is stronger; in Northern Europe, there's less need for reflection control, and in the Nordic countries even less so.
Asked whether the HD Pro filter cuts brightness, Hideyo Uwabata, head of R&D replies that yes it does, but the solution is to put a bit more power in and drive the panel a shade harder.
A flurry of discussion then ensues about energy ratings on televisions, with the mainland European consensus seeming to be that customers are very keen to have sets with the best possible rating, and a bit of mumbling among the Brits that if you want the best picture quality, and are spending big to get a set able to deliver it, chances are you won't mind a few quid extra on your electricity bill.
And anyway, haven't we been seeing displays everywhere we've been these past few days showing how much Panasonic has cut the juice-guzzling capability of both LCD and plasma sets?
21:9 TVs? Umm, maybe not...
There's a question about Panasonic's plans for 21:9 TVs, presumably given the runaway success of Philips venture into this sector, which has seen sets being sold at a fraction of their original price in the specialist AV discount chains.
The Panasonic response is that, while they're watching the development with interest (about as polite a Japanese 'no' as you're going to get), they don't see any broadcasters rushing to transmit in 21:9, and thus have no plans to introduce sets.
And so we come to the final question of the whole trip. The one to sum up our entire visit, define the future of TV, and send us off to Osaka airport with a song in our hearts.
'Will Panasonic be making TVs that turn into mirrors when they are switched off?'
The engineers look decidedly surprised, and there's a bit of whispering. Then, 'Yes, we have been looking at such technologies, but we have no immediate plans in that direction.'
Presumably mirror TVs would have to have glossy screens, and that would get the grizzlers grizzling all over again.
Enter stage left large bus to take us back to our hotel; exit stage right Europe's AV press, sent on our way by happy flag-waving Japanese Panasonic staffers.
And did I notice, among the waving flags and hands and cheery 'Sayonara' smiles, the odd young engineer's head shaking slightly in total disbelief…?
Thanks to the Panasonic teams in the UK, Europe and Japan for an informative, entertaining and exceptionally smoothly-organised visit.
Other blogs from this trip: