Nicer pixels, a new quality seal
Ultra-HD televisions, having only entered manufacturers’ flagship ranges just a few years ago, have now taken over the mass market. We are already seeing many 40-inch televisions with UHD resolutions, while models larger than 50 inches across are almost exclusively offered with UHD screens
The number of pixels per inch is quadrupled compared to Full HD, but that’s not the only thing that promises better picture quality: The best televisions of 2016 also offer greater contrast – far better than anything any devices have ever been able to display in the past. The keyword here is high dynamic range, or HDR for short. Now, car headlights in a nighttime scene should be truly blinding – not just bright spots on a flat screen.
HDR has been floating around in the television technology scene as something to strive for in the future for quite a while now. But now it is part of the new normal – and the first devices produced according to these standards are already on the market. These devices can be identified by a logo with the words “Ultra HD Premium”. LCD HDR screens that meet these specifications must have a peak brightness of at least 1,000 nits – the international unit of visible-light intensity, which is often more confusingly described in candela per square meter (cd/m2). Screen brightness levels of 400 nits are still common values today
The Ultra HD Premium specifications allow slightly lower peak brightness on screens using OLED technology, because they are inherently unable to emit as much light as their LCD counterparts at present. On the other hand, they are able to achieve much deeper black levels – and depict even dark scenes in fine detail. Consequentially, they are able to achieve quite similar levels of contrast.
The new “Ultra HD Premium” logo indicates another level of demanding parameters. For example, Ultra HD Premium means a bit depth of 10 bits per pixel, where the previous norm was 8 bits per pixel. The reason is obvious: an improved contrast ratio requires code that allows more detailed differentiation.
This is also necessary if screens are to be capable of depicting a greater range of colors. According to the experts, the specifications attached to the UHD Premium logo stipulate that televisions bearing this logo should be able to depict the range of colors recommended by the international standards organization ITU under Rec. 2020 for the UHD future. Device manufacturers have been working toward this goal for many years – including research on color filters where nano-crystals allow more red and green tones to pass through. Quantum Dot or Triluminos are popular marketing terms for this feature.
UHD – more Holywood movies
More of our own creations
There are already many digital cinema productions that take full advantage of the capabilities of the latest television technologies. They will gradually make their way into our living rooms, for example in the form of new, UHD-compatible Blu-ray discs. The technical specifications of these discs largely correspond to the specifications for the new Ultra-HD Premium television logo. IFA 2016 will show off not only production- ready players, but also the first UHD movies produced in the new Blu-ray disc format. Providers of streaming services are shaping up for the future and working on the first HDR offerings.
Soon it will also be possible to record your own vacation videos with UHD quality. A rapidly growing number of high-quality SLR and compact travel cameras are capable of recording in UHD. Even some action cams record movies with ultra-fine definition. This year’s classic UHD camcorders have become so compact that they will easily fit in hand luggage. One particularly interesting feature is the new, extremely effective optical image stabilizers, which really help to maximize the quality potential of UHD recording.
Some camera models also take advantage of their UHD capabilities with exciting additional functions: They can shoot up to 50 complete frames every second, allowing a great choice of photos with each image having a resolution of eight megapixels. Even subsequent refocusing is possible if the camera shoots a number of individual images with varying focus in rapid succession. Does the foreground need to be nicely in focus? Or the detail in the background? Amateur photographers can decide all of this at a later stage when they sift through their material long after the shots have been taken.
Smart TVs – control centers for the networked home
All content available at a glance, a remote control for all connected devices
Smart TVs are capable of receiving more than just conventional television signals – they can also access content and services via the internet. For example, they can access the channels’ media libraries, online video libraries, program recommendations, online games, social networks, and information portals. Easy-to-use apps guide users to these various services – just like on tablets and smartphones. And just like these mobile devices, smart televisions need operating systems that work as a mediator between the device hardware and software. In these modern televisions, increasingly powerful systems that have already proven their worth in the world of mobile devices are working behind the screens to offer a wide range of convenient functions. Two leading providers are using Android, which is bringing many apps that were previously only available for smartphones and tablets to the TV. Android TVs also offer access to a high-performance online voice recognition system that understands even complex questions, like what the weather will be like in your hometown tomorrow. An answer appears on the screen together with an image within just a couple of seconds. The same also applies to operating systems like Tizen, WebOS. or Firefox OS. Using already established and widespread operating systems makes it easier to connect these TVs to tablets, smartphones, and modern home appliances.
The new range of functions offered by smart televisions is also inspiring new operating concepts. Why should users have to look in completely different areas of the user interface for information on TV programs, online media offerings or movies? IFA 2016 will present the first televisions which make all media content accessible on a single page – regardless of which network or peripheral device has led them to the screen.
Another tech idea comes in here: for the first time, TVs will automatically recognize connected digital program sources such as Blu-ray players or set-top boxes and transmit the appropriate control code to the remote control. This makes it possible to control all devices that put moving images on the screen using a single system remote control device without any complex programming.
For fun, fitness and health
Smart watches and other wearables, as in devices with sensors and displays worn close to the body, for example on the arm, are another trend set to dominate IFA 2016. Working independently or in combination with a smartphone, these devices display data they receive, track body functions such as heart rate or pulse, count steps, register movement, and monitor environmental variables in order to transfer this information elsewhere for further analysis – for example on a tablet that can depict all the data received in graphs and images and design personal fitness programs. An abundance of new smart watches and fitness bracelets will be presented at IFA 2016. Similarly, a large range of new smartphones with their own built-in fitness sensors will also be on display. The smart wearables trend promotes more than just sports and fun – in the future these will also be used to support telemedical services, thus enabling older people to live independently in familiar surroundings for longer. A dedicated area at IFA presents these trends in an attractive setting.
Printing and scanning in 3D
Fashion jewelry, architectural models, and somersaults in the photo studio
One particular category of devices is set to grab the headlines again this year and is well on the way to becoming a mass market product: the 3D printer. Even practical tabletop units can conjure up a wide range of objects. These include gears, architectural models, toys, unique shoes, artistic sculptures, delicate jewelry, and even clothes. 3D printers can even be used to make chairs, coffee tables or large vases. The majority of these printers are designed to work with plastics, although some devices exist that can create metal objects by melting metal filings using laser beams. Some models can even work with foodstuffs, such as chocolate and sugar, to create tasty, decorative treats.
Templates for three-dimensional printed products are created in special design programs or using scanner light beams. Various incarnations of these devices are also on show at IFA – including everything from compact tabletop versions for smaller properties and man-sized installations that can be used to record a person’s dimensions within just a few seconds and then forward the data to the printer as a digital template. The most spectacular scanner solution will be presented at IFA TecWatch, IFA’s innovation platform (Hall 11.1). More than 80 high-speed lenses arranged around the walls of a compact chamber simultaneously photograph the object to be recorded, like a human. The entire scanning processes is completed within a tiny fraction of a second – so fast that a person in the process of being ‘snapped’ in such a way could even jump into the air, allowing the software to record their contours accurately, right down to the soles of the shoes
3D sound and audio objects
New solutions for the future of sound
Cinema sound first began taking over the air space more than four years ago when Dolby augmented the traditional cinema sound with its multichannel technology for right, left, center and surround sound by adding a height dimension. Known as Dolby Atmos, this technology has been adopted in cinema auditoriums, while today it is also included as a feature of home cinema receivers for use in people’s living rooms. Dolby Atmos now has some competition, including from DTS:X, a system from the other leading supplier of cinema sound systems
Why do we even need the height dimension? To recreate cinematic effects, of course: helicopters or noisy birds flying in a virtual loop above the heads of the audience adds some spice to the cinema experience.
The first headphones capable of reproducing 3D sound are also now available. However, these need the right electronic support to create a virtual 3D impression. The Fraunhofer Institute IIS in Erlangen, which played a major part in the development of MP3 technology, is presenting its 3D solution for use in headphones in the Innovation Hall at IFA TecWatch.
Another development from the Erlangen-based institute is a new audio encoding method, which is opening up even more exciting opportunities in addition to 3D sound. It has already been added to the lists of global standards as MPEG-H. The MPEG-H codec can pack multiple audio objects into a single sound data stream, such as different language options which can be selected via the remote control. If sports reporters strain their vocal chords trying to communicate above the loud chants of fans, they will be able to receive some technical aid through the use of MPEG-H sound tracks in the future. TV viewers can use a remote control to control how loud the reporter’s voice is against the background noise. If preferred, viewers can also choose to turn off the commentary entirely and simply enjoy the sounds of the fans in 3D. This principle can also be applied to adjust the volume of movie dialogues. Finally, MPEG-H audio ensures a uniform volume on every device across programs, channels, and media – avoiding situations like when the TV suddenly starts booming the second the commercial break starts.
Virtual reality –
Vision of a hardware trend
Virtual reality (VR) goggles are all the rage, and now more and more manufacturers are offering models to create these three-dimensional illusions. Then there are smartphones which can be converted into virtual reality goggles with special adapters In addition to games and many other sources of entertainment in virtual worlds, a number of cameras that are capable of producing VR images will also be on show at IFA 2016. These include 360-degree models that not only take a 360-degree circular scan of their surroundings, but can be thrown up in the air like a ball to take a snapshot of the entire surroundings. With the right software, this can be used to create scenarios which can be navigated in every direction using VR goggles – not just around the central axis, but from the floor up to the sky and back again.
Wireless music and the impressive range of headphones
Speakers that connect to playback devices via WiFi or Bluetooth are among the latest trends for outstanding sound at IFA. It is almost impossible to list all the different versions: some rely on just one of these two connection methods while others support both. Music sources for wireless transmission include NAS drives, computers, tablets, mobile music players, and smartphones.
Then there are internet radio stations and online streaming services. Corresponding platforms are playing an increasingly major role in this domain. Similarly, the matter of whether wireless speaker systems are capable of connecting to these various services is becoming a more significant factor affecting buyer choice. Many manufacturers are also integrating Google Cast into their wireless speakers. Using this technology, mobile Android devices can transmit sound straight to the speaker system, no matter whether the sound originates from the smartphone’s own music library or a streaming service.
Fascinating images, UHD movies, virtual reality, smart networks, 3D scanners - a pair of headphones is an indispensable accessory for MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets alike. There is an incredible range of headphones with different forms and specifications these days, ranging from simple in-ear headphones to top-of-the-line high-tech products. In-ear headphones can be adapted to fit the shape of the user’s ear. Some of the high-end units even use a range of built-in transducers that are each specially designed for different frequency ranges, similar to hifi systems. Ultralightweight headphones can be worn over many hours without exerting excessive pressure, and designers have ensured that even the smallest of products are true works of art.
At a technical level, aside from excellent sound quality, noise cancellation functions for suppressing ambient noise represent the current state of the art – both in in-ear headphones and large hifi headphones that cover the entire ear. Some models of headphones combine noise canceling with an “ambient aware” functionality. This allows the user to set the volume of the ambient noise in an app, meaning the user can decide for themselves if they wish to be able to hear the sounds in their environment.
Further additional features include surround sound and recalibration functions, with headphones that appear to direct the sound from the front rather than the sides. This is particularly attractive when enjoying live concerts. The sound can be individually calibrated to suit the listener’s ears. Sophisticated control interfaces are something that is becoming more common in the latest headphones, and the first models that respond to gestures are now available. Users can skip forward to the next track or adjust the volume with just a gesture.
Other highlights at IFA 2016, just like last year, will include headphones that connect to the latest iPhones and iPads not through the traditional headphone socket but through the digital Lightning connector. They have their own digital-analog converter and amplifier integrated into the earphones, which allow the manufacturers to apply a certain degree of fine-tuning. This makes it possible to reproduce digital music in very high resolutions far above CD quality.
Not just for the nostalgic
The return of vinyl
Black vinyl records, one of the last remaining relics of the analog era, are enjoying continued popularity: sales have in fact been on the rise for many years. Sales of analog turntables have for many years been trickling along at the level of a small, finely defined niche, but now they are picking up once more.
But what is the attraction of these black vinyl discs? Does it really sound better than a CD, like their many fans claim? From a purely technical standpoint, this argument is quite hard to prove. But the experience of taking the vinyl out of the case, placing it on the turntable, and watching the movement as it starts to play has become something of a ceremony with no equal in the digital age, and speaks to the desire of many stressed people to decelerate and unwind.
It should therefore come as no surprise that some turntable manufacturers still offer a few highly complex devices of similar value to that of a small car – precise mechanical instruments on sometimes very heavy frames. There is also a growing number of attractive turntables available at surprisingly reasonable prices with sound so good it justifies the purchase – even in the digital age. Even large consumer electronics manufacturers with extensive product ranges which could not possibly think to cater to tiny product niches have started stocking new turntable models again, thus strengthening this trend.
The growing sales of turntables have been accompanied by an increase in sales of high-end accessories, and preamps specially designed to adapt the signal to modern hifi systems in particular. An increasing number of manufacturers manufacture their turntables with the phono amplifier built in, and then sometimes even combine these electronics with high-end analog-digital converters. This creates a nice bridge between tradition and modernity, allowing turntables with these attachments to be seamlessly integrated into complete digital hifi systems, sometimes even with a direct connection to a computer or audio server.
The power of the home network
Everything from streaming to climate control
Another important IFA trend is connectivity between different CE devices and connecting these with household appliances, heating systems, and lighting systems.
Desktops, notebooks and network hard drives store immense libraries of digital media nowadays – images, music, videos and more. The home network makes this data accessible to mobile and stationary end devices, including smartphones, tablets, and connected smart TVs. An increasing number of cameras and camcorders transmit their images directly to the home network via wireless internet. Sometimes these are shared on Facebook or Instagram, and sometimes they are sent straight to a television – where images that have only just been taken can be displayed on a large screen.
Most music components and surround systems can now be connected to the home network either wirelessly or via Ethernet cable, meaning they are then able to access and playback media stored on central media libraries. This technology is commonly known as ‘streaming’.
The users can access their home network even when they are away, making it easy for them to access data stored on that network or program the TV to record something. Networking of consumer electronics and household appliances opens up a broad range of opportunities. For example, a connected home can help to reduce unnecessary energy consumption within the home and increase home security. Visitors to IFA 2016 can learn more about the innovations in this area through a large number of products, solutions, and demonstrations.
A large installation known as the e-house further demonstrates through practical examples what progress the industry has been making in terms of allowing communication between very different connected devices. The experts here talk about interoperability – the idea of cross-manufacturer compatibility – and today this is a fundamental requirement at the level of both the German Parliament and the European Union. The e-house also demonstrates how connectivity and intelligent control units can help to save energy, and this is an important part of the process of transforming the way we think about and consume energy. Further inspirational ideas in this domain include electro-mobility and the smart, data-driven transformation of individual transportati