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Sony's second OLED TV attempt could be game changer

After 7-year hiatus, new TV positioned to rejuvenate ailing business

Sony's OLED TVs on display at an electronics store in Tokyo

TOKYO -- Sony has released a new organic light-emitting diode television for home use -- seven years after it retreated from the market.

With the TV market in Japan expected to rebound on replacement demand in 2017, analysts believe this could be the year Sony's ailing TV business finally turns the tide -- if it can fully capitalize on the opportunity. 

"It's thinner and the images are sharper than LCD TVs," said one of the 20 or so people crowding around an A1 OLED TV at a store recently in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district. "If the price comes down, I will get one to watch soccer."

At 540,000 yen ($4,914), the 55-inch A1 comes in at nearly 10,000 yen per inch. Five people bought the product.

Continuing development

Sony has a long history with OLED. It began preliminary studies in the 1990s and installed small OLED display panels on its Walkmans around a decade ago.

In 2007, the company released the world's first home-use OLED TV in 2007, a product then-president Ryoji Chubachi described as the the "flag bearer of resurgence" of the TV business, which was a money loser.

The small TV only sold for a three-year period. Mass-production of large OLED panels was not yet possible and, with other makers going bigger and wider with liquid crystal display technology, the barely noticeable difference in image quality on the 11-inch screen did not justify the 200,000 yen price tag. 

Sony's X1 Extreme image-processing engine

Sony, however, persevered in the belief that it could release an advanced OLED TV once high-quality panels became available. In the process, it developed a new image-processing engine dubbed "X1 Extreme."

The picture quality of a TV is determined by the panel and the image-processing engine. Almost 90% of the panels used in OLED TVs today are made by a single company: South Korea's LG group.

Sony, therefore, took the decision to focus on making a difference through the processing engine, the X1 Extreme.

What the image-processing engine does is to analyze and process the signals that come into a TV and decide how to display the image on the panel. The X1 Extreme adjusts the image to best fit the features of the panel. For example, for LCD panels, images are generally made brighter. For OLED screen, the black levels are deepened. 

In 2014, Sony began studying how to adapt the engine for its top notch Z9D LCD TV. While doing so, Sony prepared to make the engines also compatible with high quality OLED panels, believing that OLEDs would be ready by the time those studies concluded.

The X1 Extreme processes images 1.4 times faster than the previous X1 4K TV processor, allowing TV screens to project real-life quality scenes without delay.

Natural reproduction

With what Sony calls "Triluminos" display technology, the X1 Extreme can project skin texture for instance, in a vivid way that was not possible until now.  

Additionally, the X1 Extreme is equipped with technology that allows noise reduction on a real-time basis. It can also convert terrestrial digital signals into stereoscopic high-dynamic range images.

The development of the X1 Extreme was undertaken by Sony's semiconductor team in Atsugi, south west of Tokyo, and the TV unit in the capital. TV designers in charge of algorithm and pattern analysis often flew to Sony's movie production subsidiary in California to exchange views with creators on how to reproduce vibrant images.

Supplying business-use OLED TVs to TV stations has also helped Sony improve image creation. For the A1, it received support from experts in Hollywood. Many of whom were so impressed that they described the availability of such a high-resolution TV for home use as something that could change the way movies are made, a Sony official recalled.

A Z9D LCD TV, which uses the X1 Extreme engine, was released in October 2016, with a 100-inch model carrying a pretax price tag of 7 million yen -- a price that has not dropped since.

With the quality of LG panels having reached a "satisfactory level," according to Corporate Executive Officer Ichiro Takagi, Sony decided it was time to re-enter the OLED TV market in the summer of 2016.

The A1 was unveiled at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show held in January. With its thin screen vibrating to reproduce sound without conventional speakers, the A1 represents technology offered only by Sony, boasted Kazuo Hirai, the design-conscious president and CEO of the company.

Sony is looking to boost its global TV market share in value to 10% in 2017 from the current 8% on the back of the A1. It also plans to log 10% of TV sales from OLED TVs by 2022.

Home-use LCD TVs are unlikely to disappear from the shelves any time soon. But innovations, such as a foldable OLED panel for smartphones, have been developed, and technologies like these could come into more mainstream use in the future.

Sony's first attempt at an OLED TV a decade ago really was no more than a banner. The A1 can be the tool that rejuvenates its TV business.

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