Japan, Day 1+1
It's really strange—and a little unsettling—being without Internet access, though it's also kind of refreshing to unplug from the constant torrent of incoming information and spam for a little while. After a long day of bus rides, factory tours, and presentations by Epson execs, we ended up at a hotel in Matsumoto (near Nagano) with futons for beds on woven-wicker tatami floors.
Also notable was the natural hot spring in the hotel—a scalding 104 degrees—and a complete lack of Internet access, which is said to be common in that part of Japan, a country otherwise famous for embracing technology. As a result, I had to post this blog a day late but hopefully not a dollar short.
Wednesday started with a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Suwa, about 140 miles northwest of Tokyo. There, we visited the Suwa-minami TFT (thin-film transistor) factory, where Epson manufactures the LCD imaging chips used in all of its—and many other companies'—home-theater and business projectors. Opened in 1985, the factory was joined 20 years later by another in Chitose, which is much farther north on the island of Hokkaido.
We learned that Epson is one of only two companies that make LCD imaging modules for projectors, and they own 85 or 90 percent of that market. The other company is Sony, which makes panels only for its own projectors.
Much of the Suwa-minami factory is a clean-room environment, and we had the rare opportunity to don the full clean-room regalia—jokingly called a "bunny suit"—and see the operation up close after washing our rubber-gloved hands and passing through an "air shower" that whisked away any remaining dust before entering the inner sanctum. (In the photo at the top of this blog, I'm the one holding a wafer of LCD chips.) It gets really hot in those suits, and breathing with that mask on is not pleasant.
The manufacturing process is way too complicated to describe here—suffice to say it takes 30 days and 350 separate steps to make a wafer, which contains many individual LCD panels that are then separated and incorporated into imaging modules for projectors.
As with most technology, each successive generation of LCD chips is improved in various ways—for example, Epson's current generation of 1080p chip, dubbed D7, has an aperture ratio (the ratio of a pixel's light-transmissive area to its total area) of 54 percent, up from 45 percent in the previous D6 1080p chip. This is still quite low compared with DLP and LCoS, which are over 90 percent, but it represents significant improvement in brightness and contrast as well as a reduction in the so-called "screen-door" effect.
After a delicious lunch of soba noodles and tempura, we went to the Shimauchi plant in Matsumoto, where actual products are designed. We heard several presentations about Epson's dominant position in the global business and home-theater projector market—the company has a 21-percent market share as opposed to 8 percent or less for all other manufacturers.
Among the most important reasons for this is the fact that Epson develops and manufactures many of the key components in its projectors, including the lamp and polarizer assembly in addition to the LCD panels themselves. The company even designed and built much of the equipment used to make the chips and other components.
One important point of discussion was how to encourage more people to install home-theater projectors. In the U.S., projectors represent only 2 percent of the home-theater market, with LCD TVs at 69 percent, plasmas at 20 percent, and RPTVs at 9 percent. This is a tough nut to crack, since a projector requires a room with good control of ambient light and more setup than a one-piece display, leading many consumers to see it as more trouble than its worth. Of course, UAV readers know the value of a good projected image—it's much larger than any flat panel and much more cinematic—so I'm preaching to the choir here.
Epson's challenge is to convince non-enthusiasts that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. To this end, the company offers a line of low-cost, high-performance products such as the PowerLite Home and Pro Cinema projectors ($1300-$4000). Another interesting new product is the Ensemble system, which includes a 1080p or 720p projector, retractable custom-designed screen, 5.1 speaker system designed by Peter Tribeman of Outlaw Audio and Atlantic Technology, DVD player, and all necessary cables and mounting hardware with an attractive industrial design ($5000 for the 720p version, $7000 for 1080p).
The final presentation was a face-off between four projectors—the Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080UB (LCD), Panasonic PT-AE2000U (LCD), Sanyo PLV-Z2000 (LCD), and Sony VPL-VW60 (SXRD). I was surprised that there was no DLP projector in the mix, especially after one company rep discussed how the picture quality of single-chip DLP is much less consistent than LCD technology due to differences in color-wheel design.
All four projectors were claimed to be in their default, out-of-the-box condition, but the menus all indicated that they were in their own version of a "cinema" mode rather than the expected "torch" mode—a good thing in my opinion. All were fed the same HD signal from a Blu-ray disc in a PS3, split by a Gefen HDMI distribution box and fired onto separate quadrants of the screen.
The Epson and Sony clearly had the best black levels, but the Sony suffered from a distinct greenish tint. I've seen the VW60 look a lot better than that, so I'm not sure what was going on there. The projector with the best skin tones depended on the program material—in some cases, the Epson looked best in that regard, while the Sanyo or Panasonic edged it out on other clips. Overall, the Epson looked great, which, I suppose, is to be expected in an Epson demo.
We ended the day at a traditional Japanese banquet, all wearing yukatas (kimono-like robes) and sitting on the floor. Many dishes of strange but artfully prepared and presented food were placed before us, though even our Japanese hosts didn't know what all of them were. Not that it mattered, especially after a few glasses of sake and/or beer, which flowed unendingly.
On Friday morning, those who care to get up at 4:00 AM will take a trip to the famous Tsukiji fish market, where the day's catch is sorted and sold as it has been for centuries. I plan to go, since I've been waking up around then anyway thanks to jet lag. Should be quite interesting...
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