A Clearer Picture for Flat-Panel TVs

Sound legend Dolby and rival THX are offering new ways to bring those images into much sharper focus. Question is, will manufacturers bite?

Consumers are scooping up flat-panel TVs these days, eager to get the crisp, clear pictures they expect from new high-definition sets. They often do look great, especially when showing high-definition programming like the NFL playoffs. But switch the channel to a show in standard definition, and the picture can get fuzzy, sometimes to the point where consumers wonder why they bought a new set at all. Videophiles say the old-fashioned cathode-ray tube can in fact look better than new flat-panels for key attributes. "The CRT [TV] is the standard to beat in terms of deep blacks, picture response time, color, and brightness," says Bob O'Donnell, a displays analyst at research firm IDC.

The key issue: While conventional TV manufacturers have honed their sets to perfection over the years, flat-panel technologies have been adopted relatively recently from the computer industry. As flat panels have moved from the office to the living room, they've begun to handle a greater variety of content. The result can sometimes be not-so-dark blacks, blurry images, and other unwanted visual effects. Now Dolby Laboratories (DLB) and THX, two companies best known for their contributions to the world of sound, are developing technologies aimed at tuning up the pictures on flat-panel TVs. "We want to do for video what we did for audio," says Jack Buser, Dolby's worldwide technology evangelist.

Whether the technologies from Dolby and THX ever take off remains to be seen. Many set manufacturers are working on their own picture improvements and may not be willing to pay licensing fees for technology from outsiders. Matt Chang, a product manager for TVs at Sony Electronics (SNE), says the company has no plans to use the Dolby or THX technologies now, although it may reconsider in the future. "It may be more useful for companies that don't have the kind of expertise we have," he says.

Look on the BrightSide

Still, other TV makers are likely to offer Dolby and THX's technologies in their high-end sets during the next year. If consumers see enough difference that they're willing to pay a premium, the technologies could become widespread. "If it makes a noticeable improvement without too much extra cost, [TV makers] will go for it," says O'Donnell. (THX and Dolby won't disclose licensing fees, but for audio products they're often less than 1% of the sales price.)

Dolby's Buser is betting he can deliver. As the San Francisco company moves into video, it's beginning with one common problem: not-so-black blacks. LCD TVs, the most popular flat-panel sets, use fluorescent tube lighting that illuminates the entire screen to deliver a picture. The problem is that since the light is always on, the TVs have a hard time delivering a true, deep black. Conventional TVs shoot light in intervals, so they can illuminate one part of the screen while leaving another pitch black.

To help solve the problem, Dolby purchased a company called BrightSide Technologies. With BrightSide's engineers, Dolby developed a way for flat-panel TV makers to deliver superclear images and deep blacks using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, instead of fluorescent tubes. The technology, Dolby Contrast, automatically turns individual LEDs on and off, depending on the image. Viewers see deep blacks along with more detail and brighter colors. TV makers, including LG Electronics, are considering the technology.

shift to digital

Taking another approach, San Rafael (Calif.)-based THX is developing a way to simplify how flat panels are used. Instead of requiring viewers to keep track of as many as 60 different settings for flat panels, THX would take the decision out of their hands and make the adjustments automatically. Called THX Media Director, the technology would be built into the set.

Separately, THX is planning a broad licensing program. The idea is that a THX emblem would signal to consumers that the sets have been reviewed by THX and meet image quality and production standards. TV makers hope the THX badge will give them an edge in the market. "It becomes a third-party assurance that helps our own brand," says Tim Alessi, director of product development at LG, which plans to begin selling such sets in May.

The next year will be an important one for TV technology. February, 2009, is the federally mandated cutoff for the switch from analog to digital programming. So many consumers will soon be trading in their old TVs for new, digital ones. "You want a great out-of-the-box experience," says Alessi.

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