It's a tech war out there in the TV manufacturing world with one product innovation after another – after LEDs, 3D TVs and Smart TVs, what next?

Giant, mean-looking fire-spitting dragons are coming out of the air. They are headed straight towards you when, suddenly in mid-flight, they are shot and disintegrate into nothing. You sigh with relief but other scary, alien beasts now fly menacingly at you.

We are at the Lotte World ice skating rink in Seoul, standing along with hundreds of South Koreans, all wearing special glasses, watching a three-dimensional game unfold on a gigantic screen. The high-pitched commentary in Korean gets shriller and shriller as the action hots up, making the crowd shriek and cheer.

It's as surreal an experience as anyone can have. The ice rink is in an open bowl in the centre of a large tower on the top floor of which is an amusement park with fairy tale castle-like structures. Winches and balloons are plying overhead between the castles. Down below is a display of hi-tech gizmos and gadgets and exciting 3D action.

The mega exhibition of 3D products – televisions, gaming consoles et al - has been organised by LG. The Korean company is betting big on 3D products, especially TVs, and has taken us – a team of journalists from India - to show us the future of display technology as it rolls out of its Paju factory. We get to see the Cinema 3D TVs, priced upwards of Rs 90,000 that it recently rolled out in India. We also get a glimpse of LG's Smart TV offerings too, though Hyun Woo Lee, vice-president, LCD TV Asia Marketing Team, rules out its immediate launch in India, citing low broadband speeds here.

Now, cut to Delhi, where Samsung's Convergence event, Forum 2011, was held last month. While the roadshow showcased the next generation of consumer electronics from the Korean chaebol for the Indian and neighbouring country markets, its Smart TV figured right up there for what it touted as cutting-edge technology. The Rs 2.5-lakh Smart TV, which comes with a ‘smart hub', allows users to search and access content from the Net, including social networks, and lets viewers view 3D premium video-on-demand, missed TV shows and so on.

An eager Samsung executive explains the features of the Smart TV. You are watching an IPL match and curious to know who's playing in the next few matches. No sweat. On your Smart TV, the match can be reduced to a picture-in-picture while you browse the Internet to get all the information you want while you keep an eye on the match.

CONVERGENCE IS TRULY HERE

It's not just the Koreans, the Japanese biggies from Sony to Panasonic to Toshiba, China's fast-growing Haier, and even Indian TV makers are all suddenly flooding the market with next generation TV launches.

Plain vanilla LCD is out, it's all LED and even this has moved to the next level – eco-friendly Organic High Definition LEDs. Two dimensional is also passé – all the buzz is around 3D (Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Akai, LG, Toshiba, Haier, all have 3D offerings) – and up next is Smart TV. “The market for TVs is in a continuous state of flux - from Plasma to LCD and further to LED with latest 3D and Smart Connect technology,” says Manish Sharma, Director- Marketing, Panasonic India.

This baffling array of choices is confusing for customers. Especially, given that most of these new offerings are priced fairly high, and many in India who splurged on Plasma only to find it overtaken by LED are fairly wary now. Panasonic's Smart Viera range, for instance, can go up to Rs 3.49 lakh.

But one thing is different about this round of TV evolution - this time round it is not just hardware-led. Even as TV manufacturers are going all out on the display side, on the content side, studios and software developers are coming up with new technologies. Joining the action are players such as Google TV, Apple TV and even Amazon, which are all working their R&D labs overtime on video content to invade our living rooms with.

A lot of interesting partnerships have been sewed up – Google, for instance, has tied up with Sony and reportedly has content deals going with CNN, HBO and so on. Apple TV is said to have agreements with Fox, ABC and a few others.

Even in India, the sale of high-definition sets is being fuelled by more content from channels. Says Eric Braganza, President, Haier India, “The number of channels transmitting HD content has increased in the last two months with the increased availability of HD panels.”

He says the same is expected to happen to 3D. “The 3D TVs were introduced much before the availability of 3D content in India. However, we are increasingly seeing broadcasters and studios collaborating to produce content in 3D,” says Braganza.

A new dimension to living rooms

When 3D TV was first launched in global markets, it generated more buzz than buys. The technology overkill, the health issue (there is some feeling of nausea and dizziness involved) and the discomfort of wearing glasses intimidated consumers.

So why are the TV makers betting so big on 3D for the Indian market? LG is targeting to have more than 10 per cent of 3D TVs in its total TV portfolio in India, according to Hyun Woo Lee.

Sony India plans to get 30 per cent of its revenues from 3D by 2012. To drive 3D TV sales, it is working away at every stage of the 3D value chain – so it is producing digital still and movie cameras with 3D shooting capability. It's also introduced Blu-ray discs, and driving customers to watch Sony Pix-produced 3D movie Resident Evil.

Most 3D TVs now anyway have a facility that allows viewers to convert 2D content at a click of a remote into 3D.

But apart from sports and films there is still only that much customer interest in 3D content.

All the 3D TV makers are also working hard to break customer resistance to wearing glasses when viewing. LG claims that its Film Patterned Retarder technology is superior to the old Shutter Glass technology and will not cause nausea.

Meanwhile, industry reports predict that 3D TV sales will go up only when glass-less technology comes in. It's not all that far away with Toshiba releasing a glass-less LCD 3D TV.

Will smart TVs spoil the 3D party?

The pull from Smart TV - TVs that allow viewers to search and find video content on the Web, on local cable or satellite and locally stored hard drive content – could well spoil the 3D party.

Given the range and stuff that Smart TVs can do – and the applications that are being developed at a furious pace for it, tech experts are betting that Smart TV sales will soon outpace 3D TV.

Panasonic's Sharma says that social networking and live surfing are the latest pull among the consumer segment. Its Smart TV, the Viera Connect, includes features such as fast video streaming, and two-way interactive features from gaming to social networking, as well as fitness programmes and a Game Mode.

Eric Braganza of Haier says, “We feel that globally the Smart TV market would grow to 30 million units this year. Also the panel sales are expected to grow at double-digit rates over the next four years, swelling to 122 million units by 2014. We are also planning various new launches in the second half of 2011.”

He says that Smart TV will grow in the future as prices reach affordable levels.

Of course, tech experts feel that going forward when TV makers marry the Smart TV with 3D TV in a LED format – that will be a great TV experience.

And, that, dear consumer is not too far away.

(This article was published on May 25, 2011)
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