From The Archives: CES Report 2003

Consumer Electronics Show 2003 Reflections
by Michael TLV

Special report by Michael TLV:

Consumer Electronics Show 2003 Reflections – (Or how to make extortion work for you)

Like most others, I have always dreamed about going to the Consumer Electronics Show from all the magazine articles one would read over the years or the internet accounts at places like E-Town when they were still around.

It has always sounded like such an interesting place to see the new toys and when the opportunity finally arrived this year, I jumped at it. I had toyed with the idea for a while, but when Gregg Loewen told me that he would be attending as a representative of Atlantic Technology and could bring me in under their banner … well here we are. Of course Las Vegas is an interesting place in itself, but I had wondered what was left there to do since I did not smoke, drink or gamble. Boy toys were the operable words.

What was somewhat unexpected was the fact that many of the more interesting things happened at events outside of the show after hours, as the show became incidental rather quickly. It was merely a setting for a lot of political intrigue and posturing and manoeuvring by many people within the industry. When it was all over, I had to do some of my own soul searching to see what I actually thought about the things that happened. Should I talk about it? Should I leave it alone? Will some people get their ego’s bruised? Some things just needed to get out there for people to know. They do not necessarily have the right to know, but it would benefit them immensely if they did know. Knowledge is power, and it would be tragic if some of the things that happened were simply lost because no one talked about them.

So while it should already be very obvious to some, the material that I talk about here is strictly my own opinion and interpretation of how events transpired. They do not necessarily represent the only way some things could be interpreted. It is here that I will invoke one of the sayings from Babylon 5, “understanding is a three edged sword … Your side, their side and the truth.” When it comes to these really sensitive areas, I will leave some names out to protect the guilty.

So without further adieu, here are my reflections …

Day 1 Arrival – Wednesday

For this flight, I came through Denver on the way to Las Vegas. Coming down on the plane, it almost sounded like half the passengers were headed to the CES. While awaiting take off from Denver to Las Vegas, I noticed a contingent of people from Premier Audio out of Edmonton that I often do calibration work for. It was nice to see some familiar faces on the plane. Note to self, when you are seated and the passenger in the window seat starts to pick at the window trim with a pen, it may be time to worry. Of course some of the people headed to Las Vegas were not there for the CES, but rather the Adult Film convention that always seems to be going on at the same time. I just did not care for the passenger next to me that could not stop talking about that. We cannot control who we sit next to.

Upon arrival, I do not wait too long to see that Gregg was not there to meet me, but that was okay so I took a quick shuttle ride to the Sahara hotel where we would be staying. Somehow the lines were crossed about when I was arriving, but no harm. Gregg had been in town since the previous Sunday as he was still doing his LA calibration tour, but with this small Vegas detour.

Gregg’s Tip of the Day – or what one person can get accomplished by tipping people in the right places. As he put it … $20 goes a long way. Two hour wait in line at the airport for the next flight? 300 people in front of you? A timely tip and suddenly he is taken to the front of the line when the next flight arrives.

Rent a Neon … and drive off the lot with a Camaro Convertible, the wonders of tipping.

Handicapped Parking Stall … nothing like getting the security people to turn the other cheek.

When we finally met up at the hotel, we went for a bite to eat before Gregg took me over to the Las Vegas Convention Centre. It was actually above average sit down restaurant food, but the visit became more memorable when the male server made some sexual overtures toward Gregg. Prep work continued just 24 hours before the opening of the CES and it simply did not look like many of the booths would make their deadline, but somehow, they all did. A quick tour of the area pretty much proved the point that Plasma TV’s were in vogue this year. Almost every booth found some reason to have one of those things, whether or not they had anything to do with video. Gregg and I were walking up and down just trying to satiate our own morbid curiosity when it came to TV set up.

We walked by the Swan Audio booth and found a person watching a Hitachi 51″ 16:9 unit with bright gray bars on the left and right. High end audio speaker, but low end video. Gregg took pity on the set and set up the TV and the DVD player properly. Unfortunately, this TV had the infamous Hitachi pastel colour problem which meant no colour depth. Almost like some kind of weird transparent film was dancing in front of the image.

Of course this was not the end of it as so many booths were displaying DVD images on the 16:9 plasma displays with their players obviously set to 4:3 mode. A joke that seems to continue year to year. The biggest disappointment was at the THX booth as they were demonstrating Lucasfilm material from the THX WOW! Disc. Two major problems here. The program quality was very substandard for video as it looked like a direct DVD-r copy off the Laserdisc. Second, the featured demo was playing in 4:3 mode on the two main Plasma sets. Effectively, 40 seated people would always be watching this material that had one huge window box. Later during the show when their Integra THX DVD player broke, they decided that they could not use a working replacement Toshiba unit because it was not THX certified after all. We roll our eyes when we hear that.

Well, Vegas was not just gambling, but also smoke. There was cigarette smoke all over and wishing for smoke free environments was a pipe dream. Luckily the CES floor was smoke free, but everywhere else, you could not help but end up smelling like cigarettes.

In the early evening, Gregg and I headed to a client using a Barco 67″ 4:3 RPTV. I was along because I was familiar with the menu system of the Barco units which were essentially Runco guts. Somehow, the client managed to get this set off Ebay for about $2500 when the SRP was actually around $30K. It was Gregg’s client so I just sat back and watched how Gregg handled himself during a calibration. Slightly different than the way I usually approach things since I am more conservative. Gregg is more glitzy in the way the process is presented.

Day 2 CES First Day – Thursday

The first day of the show. Very busy and lots of eye candy to be seen from a male perspective. First up as the show was getting under way was a pitch to the Optoma people. We were supposed to meet the marketing representative along with others, but we ended up talking with one of the design engineers. To say that things did not go well with the pitch would be understating it. The gist of the approach was to convince them that there was merit to having all their display units having the same grayscale and being properly set up. Try as we might, we were unable to convince the design engineer that it was important to have consistent images from their displays. The harder we tried, the more of a personal insult the engineer took it as. It seemed that he took it as a criticism of his abilities that he was not able to get the displays to look the same. Hopeless came to mind. We were not getting the message through as there was always a reason why the images could not look the same.

Unfortunately for us, the angle of the performance race car came too late. Do the engineers of race cars make the best drivers?

While Gregg did his required duty at the Atlantic Technology booth, I joined a group of HT enthusiasts out of Long Island to walk the show. These enthusiasts operated a high end A/V store in New York. On our way between buildings, we ran across ISF President, Joel Silver walking the other way and we chatted for a short while. Joel mentioned that the HDTV Garden at the next CEDIA would be a great opportunity to showcase the work of the ISF calibrators since the previous one last September was considered to be a resounding disaster since none of the TV sets on display were remotely calibrated. Joel was optimistic that it could be done right the next time, manufacturers willing. Great to see Joel again and he always seems to have time to talk about things.

Visiting the Pioneer booth, the new 30 series Elite units were on display. They were all fuzzy and blurry looking and clearly indicated that little to no effort was taken to set these units up. They were more focused on the plasma displays. Talking with the representative at the booth about the poor looking displays, he insisted they were not, until I revealed that I was a calibrator. Then he said something to the effect that I was part of the group of people that wrecked their sets. I guess the image of the ISF needs a bit of improvement when it comes to Pioneer. He also mentioned that they were not too overly concerned with how the RPTV’s looked since their end might come within two short years. Pioneer thinking. I also loved the way the representative insisted that all the Pioneer RPTV’s from the previous years also upconverted any and all signals to 1080i … NOT! Smile politely and move on.

Walking over to the Toshiba display, their new 57″ LCOS RPTV was the center of attraction. They had a spokesmodel telling everyone about the fantastic technology of this particular set, but when she was finished, she privately indicated that all questions should be directed at the Engineers standing next to the TV’s since she understood nothing about what she was saying. Parrots. More eye candy. You don’t have to understand what you are talking about to talk about it. Aside from that LCOS, the other RPTV’s were all their existing 2002/03 models.

The Sanyo booth had a couple of interesting TV displays. One was a 15″ W/S monitor that was LCD or Plasma type. It was amazing because the TV was less than a ½ cm in thickness. The second item was a portable 5″ display that could be worn around the neck like a necklace. The tuner section was in a separate display case so the programming was being transmitted to the necklace television around the neck of the very attractive spokesmodel. Of course, both displays were no where near ready for the consumer market as target dates were past 2005. These units heat up too much and literally fry the pixel displays a few pixels at a time. The spokesmodel also mentioned that the TV around her neck was very hot and uncomfortable to wear.

Wandered around for most of the day and came back to the Atlantic Tech booth to rest and check in with Gregg. In the evening, the collective we at the booth were all invited to a local Mexican restaurant for dinner by a client. Gregg and I got there first and I noted that many of the others appeared to be Runco installers and other television people like ISF guys Jim Burns and Pat Bradley. A bit later in the evening, Kevin Miller joined the gathering.

Later in the evening, a group of us went to a “gentleman’s club” probably to say that we went. Well, smoke filled and loud was about how I could describe it. Although we spent about three hours there, I was plenty bored after 15 minutes. Of course what these friends did with some of these dancers are the stuff that screamed out for some extortion action on my part. Here we were with three of these guys supposedly happily married and their hands were all over these women … passing out the $20 bills like water. I have got to think of a way to black mail these people.

We get back to the hotel at 2 AM and hit the sack.

Day 3 CES Second Day – Friday

About 4.5 hours of sleep later, I am up again preparing for the new day ahead. Gregg and I head downstairs for the cheap $1.99 breakfast special. On this day, I got to walk the show alone so I could stay in any display for as long as I wanted. No need to keep track of anyone else. I ran into The Perfect Vision contributing writer Stacey Spears and we spoke for a short time, promising to get back in touch later in the year when I headed out to Seattle. We briefly glossed over events that happened over the past year and bid each other farewell for the time being.

Gregg had asked me if I was interested in attending a Second City comedy act late in the evening on Friday. I had initially said no because I was expecting such a club to be smoke filled and usually not a very pleasant experience. Besides, there was the AV Science / Runco dinner at the Sahara that evening as well.

The AV Science gathering was interesting, but I wished I could have stayed a bit longer than it turned out. Sam Runco was giving an inspirational speech about how he got into this business and there were plenty of Runco Projectors all over the room. I never got a chance to really meet anyone at the gathering except to say hello to fellow calibrator Dennis Erskine out of Denver.

I did get to meet Cliff Plavin from Progressive Labs for the first time and he gave me a quick demonstration of his new handheld colour analyzer, the CA-1-CE made for the Pocket PC platform.

By 10 PM, we had to leave for the show since Gregg found out that it was a non-smoking environment. So Gregg and I and three others headed off to catch the Second City act. I’m glad I went because some of the things that happened there were most memorable. It was improv night for the Second City group so the audience was asked to throw many ideas for the various skits. We did not realize at the time, but Gregg was seated in the “hot seat” and would be the person that was picked on by the group. The final skit of the evening required the man in the “hot seat” to identify what he did for a living and what he likes and disliked about his chosen profession. We had a great big laugh when Gregg said he was a Video Calibrator and the actors just looked at him befuddled like the rest of the audience. Too obscure and only we were in on the joke. When it came time to say what he disliked about the calibration business, David Tolsky from our group quietly said to Gregg that he should say “Sleeping on couches.” Well, Gregg used that and once more … a confused look from the actors and the five of us were literally rolling on the floor. A grand in-joke if there ever was one. These Second City guys would have to earn their dinner this evening. What did calibration have to do with sleeping on couches?

But a testament to their talent, the actors improvised a song and dance routine about calibration that hit the core issues that we always deal with. One verse talked about Gregg calibrating, but how the client “a woman” could not see the difference. The line that brought the house down for us was when the comedy troop called Gregg the Master Video Calibater. Yes, let Gregg come and calibate over your display devices. A moment definitely not to be missed.

A special thanks to David T. for those additional DTS demo discs.

Day 4 CES Third Day – Saturday

Saturday, my work day. A calibration in the wings. I finished breakfast with Gregg and he headed off to his booth duties and I went to wait for my client to arrive. He had a 56″ Toshiba from 1999/2000 and he was having some difficulties with the set since the local repair people seemed to be at a complete loss as to how to solve his problems. He finally got frustrated enough to send the repair people away to see if I could fix his issues. The paramount issue was the strange image trail effect on all items that were five inches from the edge of the screen. The local repair people were no help it would seem and they also helped to cause it.

On a hunch, I guessed that the problem with the trailing effects might have been because the screen stack was improperly ordered. I had only encountered a situation like this one time before when a client put his screens on backward. Well, it turned out that the fresnel screen had been placed facing the wrong way. There are small stickers on the corner of the three screens and they indicate the direction the screens should face. This one was facing the forward. Wrong. So I managed to get it correct on the first try and it certainly made for a happy client as just that seemed to justify his faith in me. Of course then the easy stuff came which was calibrating the rest of the TV from end to end.

By mid afternoon, the set was finished up and the client took me back to the hotel in my choice of vehicle. Either the Mercedes or the Porsche. I had never rode in a Porsche before. Definitely an exhilarating ride.

Upcoming on this evening was the Runco Party At the Beach across from the convention center and the ISF Shoot Out Round One between three competing color analyzers from three companies. The display that was used as the test subject was a $250K Runco DLP unit projecting an 18’ image. The reference measuring device was the Photo Research PR-650 that ISF’er Ken Whitcomb graciously lent for the test. The three competing companies were Sencore, Progressive Labs and Milori, Inc. Prior to entering the room, we met Cliff P. and Mark Hunter from Milori outside at a table having a drink. Very casual and very friendly. It’s always neat to meet people face to face after reading about them on the internet. We had a running joke about how Mark should have named his Milori product the CF-2000 instead of the CF-6000 since Sencore’s device, the CP-5000 was coincidentally the same list price of $5000. Of course Cliff should have called his CA-1 the CA-1495. A good laugh was had by all.

Many of the industry gurus were in attendance. Joel Silver was there as was Joe Kane who I saw live for the first time. Met Gary Reber from Widescreen Review as well as Perry Sun from WSR amongst others in the industry. It was a veritable Who’s who of the industry and they were all there.

Now onto the underlying theme of this trip which seemed to hint of extortion. During the shoot out, Cliff Plavin went first with his new CA-1-CE device as he set up the unit to take readings direct from the projector. Both the Sencore and the CA-1 are designed to take readings from the projection device and not the screen. The reference device takes it reading off the screen itself. Milori’s CF-6000 was similar to the reference device as it also took its readings off the screen.

So after Cliff was done, we waited for the Sencore guys to set up their equipment and it was then that I saw something that most other people in the room missed. A very well known calibrator who was assisting in setting up the Sencore unit, to my shock, pointed the unit in the wrong direction. It was very brief as the Sencore person saw what had happened and quickly turned it around. I was quite shocked to have seen that happen and I turned to Gregg and asked him if he had just saw what I a saw. Unfortunately, he was talking to an industry writer. It was just surprising that someone with that type of reputation would have committed an error that was this basic in nature.

So the Sencore people took their readings and it was onto the final contestant, Mark and his CF-6000. Of course something was up when Mark started setting up his device and pointed it toward the screen instead of the projector like the other two. This was when things really heated up as the Sencore guys got up and started protesting the shoot-out as unfair or an uneven playing field at best. I think that everyone expected the Milori people to bring their CF-100 Spyder analyzer, so the CF-6000 device caught everyone off guard. (Nothing ever seems to bug Cliff. Cool as ever.)

After all the arguing, the Milori guys also agreed to take readings from their device the same way as the other devices … even though it was never designed to be used like that. It is supposed to emulate the PR-650 device, but at only a fraction of the cost.

When the dust settled, the Milori people took their readings and came in first in this round of the shoot out. The CA-1 device came in second and the Sencore came in third. Jim Burns reminded everyone that all three devices will still give good results and that above all else, it was just television and not life and death. Well said. Of course wheels in the industry suddenly ground to a halt because of the results of this initial evaluation. One of the industry writers candidly shook his head and said that there was no way they could report this event in their publication for fear of losing valued advertising. It is a shame that because of the outcome of this first shoot out that the industry might look upon it as something that never happened.

I’m definitely curious about how the CF-6000 will stack up in future shoot-outs and on other display types.

The euphoria of the moment led us outside into the upstairs bar as the Runco party was getting underway on the main floor. Gregg and I took the opportunity to talk with Mark about his CF-6000 device and he showed us how it worked and the software package that came with it. Definitely a very cool presentation of TV calibration performance, but some of the interface items could still stand for some improvement. For myself, I would like the incorporation of my scatter graph analysis report into his program.

Definitely a most interesting evening and I said my good-byes to Mark with a promise to talk again in the future about his most interesting CF-6000 device. As Gregg and I headed out, we even ran into David Abrams at the bar downstairs and said hello and off to bed we went.

Day 5 CES Fourth Day – Sunday

Last day of the CES and it is generally considered to be a very quiet and dead day. Most people have already gone home by this time. I finally made my way over to the DTS room where they were demonstrating their sound system and handing out DTS mints and the DTS Demo DVD #7.

We also got to walk over to the DWIN booth to take in their DLP projector showing both HD material off DVHS tape players and DVD material. The HD material was from the ice dancing segment of the Olympics and while it looked very nice, it was suffering from severe drop outs as the demo tape had been playing back how many hundreds of times over the last four days. Video tape wears out … and it was not pretty. We stepped out after the HD demo portion and the DWIN people asked if we had seen the DVD material. Nodding our heads, they ushered us back in to look at some “Vertical Limit” on DVD. Very impressive would be the word. It was almost HD like in appearance, and all that from a DVD and their new Transvision 3 projector combination.

I had thought that that would be the highlight of the day and it definitely made both of us salivate for a few seconds especially when we found out what industry pricing for this unit might be compared to its $10,500 SRP. Of course this turned out to be a minor footnote on the day as lunch was coming up and we were expecting to meet up with a fellow industry ISF’er over lunch. It was supposed to be just a simple lunch with us grabbing one of those terribly over priced $10 hamburgers sold from the various venues on site. $10 for a burger, fries and a pop. Yeeesh.

Well, lunch came and went and we were still waiting on this fellow ISF guy. By about 2:00 PM, Gregg had got a call from this ISF guy saying that he would be just a little longer, but still wanted to get together with us. Aside from being generally annoyed at this person, we gave him the benefit of the doubt and said we would wait. (In hindsight, we might have been better off saying no.)

When this ISF guy finally arrived, he was accompanied by two other industry people that we would consider to be very well known. But why were they here and what do they want to talk with us about? (In the back of my mind, I knew the answer already.) Here we are, two little mosquitoes buzzing around the elephant and the elephant has finally taken notice … this can’t be good … especially since the elephant seems to know us by name. The sentiment is almost confirmed when one of these people refuse to shake Gregg’s hand. Uh oh.

Everyone grabs a drink and as we sit down at a table across from the Atlantic Technology booth, these two industry people start to talk.

One of the people who I will name “X” wanted to settle his differences with Gregg and indirectly myself … with respect to an incident two years ago when I went in behind X to redo a calibration job on a 65″ Toshiba. “Y” appeared to be a facilitator on this item.

We talked about this issue and in the spirit of being conciliatory, I told both X & Y that in my travels since then, I had occasionally encountered TV’s that were unstable in nature. These sets could be calibrated to look great, but within days or weeks, something inside them “snaps” and the calibration is lost. I gave them that and they shook their heads and agreed that that must have been what happened to the TV. To me, this was ancient history and long since past. I’d been vindicated on this action long ago.

As we hopefully got past this, X started to remark about calibration services in general and the people out there that provide it. He was trying to impress upon us that calibrators should not criticize other calibrators for doing a lot less work, but still charging the same money or whatever. He was trying to tell us that if a certain calibrator did a certain amount of work for say $500 and we did a heck of a lot more for the same money or even less, then we were not supposed to say anything about it to others even if they asked us.

To these ears, it sounded like he wanted us to join the system where there are no “bad” doctors or mediocre doctors … only doctors. In X’s world … a guy should be allowed to come in and charge $250 and only use AVIA to calibrate a client’s TV and he should be allowed to get away with it. Why … ? Because he improved the client’s image … and that is the only thing that is important. I suppose I should put up a shingle saying that I do full service tune-ups on cars, but I only really do oil changes, but at tune up prices. I wonder how long I could stay in business?

Well, not wanting to create a scene after hearing this, we just nodded and continued to listen. I guess mediocre medicine is better than no medicine at all. Don’t permit the consumer the ability to choose who will better suit their needs. I couldn’t believe my ears that someone would even try to suggest this.

When X spoke his piece, it was time for Y to speak his. Y suggested that he was the conduit to the manufacturers … the man with the connections. Which in and of itself is okay and I don’t see a problem with that. He suggested that if we see a problem in a certain brand of TV while in the field to inform him and he would tell the manufacturers and they would take action to get it resolved.

Now here comes the implied part … keep all our observations off the internet. Do not mention any problems with TV’s on the net for everyone to read. There was no need to embarrass the manufacturers. This information should only be for his eyes. Why … because he is the conduit.

Problem here is that if he gets the television manufacturers to fix the problems in “next year’s sets,” it tends to completely ignore the people that currently have the problem sets and the people in the market shopping for a TV now. The consumer is not supposed to be told anything … no information on the internet about problems to look for or which sets to avoid.

This of course serves Y just fine as it ensures his position in the industry as the conduit.

I’ve seen this scenario in crime movies too … and somehow the guys that come to the boss first, trusting that the boss knows best, always seem to have unfortunate accidents.

And at the end of this, X & Y said their good-byes and all three of these people left. We never actually said anything of any substance to the ISF guy we were supposed to have lunch with, but we are very appreciative of what he did to us without our knowledge and one day, perhaps we can return that favour.

A collective “whew” when they left the table. A most unexpected turn of events, both enlightening and disturbing at the same time … a slightly darker side to the calibration business. Both of us had to do a bit of soul searching after this as we wondered just what path we wanted to take in this calibration world. What did we want to get out of it and who might have to pay the price for that?

We went back to join the people at the Atlantic Technology booth as the show was well on its way to ending and it was time to pack up. The wait for the boxes for all the equipment to be taken out of storage was overly long and we gave up for a time and headed to the Hard Rock Café for dinner.

We finally finished packing up the containers by 11 PM before we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved night’s rest. I would get to go home the next day while Gregg would head back to LA to continue calibrating and attend a Joe Kane seminar.

Day 6 Departure – Monday

Gregg and I got caught up on our emails this morning and then we packed up and left on a slow drive to the airport. It was fortunate that we got there about 2.5 hours prior to departure at the line ups were incredible. Even wading through 90% of the line was too long of a wait that the airline people started to shout out departure destinations to speed particular people through.

I got to go home and my first CES adventure was over.



Michael Chen

Michael Chen is the only THX Video Systems Instructor in Canada, and beyond these borders, is one of just two THX Video Instructors in the entire world.  He has actively consulted with Spectracal and ChromaPure and has created numerous education videos on the calibration process with still more to come.  His Video Calibration Training Series has quickly become the most comprehensive and simple to understand learning tool on the market today.  He has also taught classes for both the ISF and Spectracal as well and is now spearheading his all new TLVEXP calibration training program. Let Michael teach you Video Calibration and add that additional income stream to your installation and integration business

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