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LG Builds a Curved, 77-Inch Metaphor for the Decline of the TV


Why build a television meant to draw every eye, at a time when TVs have lost the limelight?

The Consumer Electronics Show held an event in New York this month, and LG Electronics (KRX:066570) took the opportunity to show off a new TV. This was no ordinary television set, but a 77-inch, curved, Ultra-HD OLED display. Yikes.

Each of the featured technologies have enjoyed some buzz recently, but seeing them all together was a little disorienting. An LG rep asked me what I thought, but I was still puzzling over the words -- still figuring out where to put the commas.

And I'm still confused. To be sure, each of these features brings some well-publicized advantages:
  • OLEDs are the spiritual successors to the plasma TV; they offer great contrast and a super-thin form factor, and also a five-digit price tag.
  • Ultra-HD displays come with four times the pixels of a standard 1080p set, and you may even be able to use that extra real estate, once Ultra-HD content is available and we have an infrastructure capable of delivering it.
  • Curved displays offer a better field of vision, as long as you're sitting in the right spot.
The rub is that big-screen OLEDs are unaffordable, and will remain unaffordable until the market is large enough to bring down manufacturing costs. Ultra-HD TVs are impractical, and will remain impractical, until enough of them exist to justify UHD content. Given the fact that most consumers will be choosing one of these expensive new technologies or the other (or neither), it's unfortunate that the industry would push both at once. With the TV market in the gutter, manufacturers will have a particularly hard time forcing the adoption of one new standard, much less two. The introduction of curved screens, with their own set of trade-offs, only muddies things further.

It's a crazy approach, but that's not what confuses me. What confuses me is the fact that LG has built a television meant to draw every eye, at a time when TVs have lost the limelight. Business Insider recently found that PCs and portable devices now account for 40% of media consumption, versus 38% for televisions. A Crackle study tells us that while most Americans still prefer to watch videos on the tube, they've also embraced streaming content, and are now more likely to download a program than they are to pop in a DVD. Last week, a deal was reached to begin streaming The Simpsons in 2014 – a sign of the times if ever there was one.

The television is no longer the center of the universe, and media providers have better things to do than support an industry in decline. They, too, are trying to standardize; trying to move content to the Web, optimize it for mobile displays, and integrate it with apps. Whatever its flaws, 1080p has become a cross-platform standard in the age of Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Hulu. It's more than ample for most PCs and tablets, and can even be crammed into large phablets like Samsung's (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) Galaxy Note 3.

It also represents the upper limit of smartphone video cameras -- with a few exceptions -- and results in file sizes that, while large, are still manageable for home digital libraries. At the same time, 1920 x 1080 provides a smooth picture on all but the largest of televisions. A switch to Ultra-HD would incur heavy costs for content providers while providing little benefit to the majority of their audience.

Another, more speculative factor weighing in against Ultra-HD is the move towards device-to-screen streaming. Earlier this week, I discussed how Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chromecast, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Airplay, and Miracast were shaping up as the best way to smarten up your television while avoiding a rather dumb accumulation of remote controls. "Second screens" have already taken up residence in the living room, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more efficient or intuitive way of controlling video content than the tablet in your lap or the smartphone in your pocket. Ultra-HD complicates the picture; streaming through Miracast -- or mirroring your device through Chromecast or Airplay -- becomes more problematic when you're dealing with a 4k resolution, introducing an upscaling or rendering process that can easily go wrong.

With all that being said, LG's television looked nice at the CES show. The blacks were true black. The colors were vibrant. I'm sure it looked fantastic up close, but I didn't want to get in anyone's way. The TV was impossibly thin and, if a little less curved, would have been perfect for a wall somewhere. The LG rep reacted to this observation with what I think was a look of shock: "Oh no, you don't wall-mount this." No, I suppose not. You bring it to trade shows. You show it off, and collect "Best of Innovations" awards. You invite analysts and reporters to walk around it, and you try to keep your composure when, within 10 seconds of launching into your spiel, most everyone in your audience has returned his or her attention to a smartphone.
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