TOKYO Sony is taking another crack at the market for TVs with next-generation organic displays, seven years after it beat a retreat.
TV manufacturers are banking on a wave of replacement demand in the Japanese market this year, and analysts believe 2017 could finally turn the tide for Sony's ailing TV business -- if it can capitalize on the opportunity.
Enter the new Sony A1 OLED TV, which is made with a thin, bendable layer of organic light-emitting diodes. "It's thinner and the images are sharper than LCD TVs," said one of about 20 people crowded around a display model at a store in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district. "If the price comes down, I'll get one to watch soccer."
At 540,000 yen ($4,852), the 55-inch A1 comes in at nearly 10,000 yen per inch.
Sony has a long history with OLED technology. It began preliminary studies in the 1990s and installed small OLED panels on its PDAs and Walkman music players about a decade ago.
In 2007, the company released the world's first OLED TV for homes, a product then-President Ryoji Chubachi described as the "flag bearer" for the resurgence of Sony's money-losing TV segment. It did not work out that way.
The small set was on the market for only three years. Mass production of large OLED panels was not yet possible and, with other manufacturers going bigger and wider with liquid crystal displays, the 11-inch screen's barely noticeable difference in image quality did not justify the 200,000 yen price tag.
"EXTREME" MEASURES But while Sony temporarily conceded defeat, it was not about to give up on the technology altogether. The company was convinced it would be able to get back in the game once high-quality panels became available. In the meantime, it developed a new image-processing engine, dubbed X1 Extreme.
TV picture quality is determined by both the panel and the engine. Today, almost 90% of the panels used in OLED TVs are made by a single company: South Korea's LG group. So Sony decided to focus on making a difference on the engine side.
An image-processing engine analyzes and interprets the signals that come into the TV, and decides how to display them. The X1 Extreme adjusts the image to best fit the features of a given panel. For example, for an LCD panel, it generally brightens the image. For an OLED screen, it deepens the blacks.
In 2014, Sony began studying how to adapt the engine for its top-of-the-line Z9D LCD TV. At the same time, it prepared to make the engine compatible with high-quality OLED panels.
The X1 Extreme processes images 1.4 times faster than the previous X1 4K processor, allowing TVs to project lifelike scenes without lag.
Using what Sony calls Triluminos Display technology, the X1 Extreme vividly reproduces skin tones and textures in a way that was not possible before. Plus, the X1 Extreme allows noise reduction in real time and can convert terrestrial digital signals into stereoscopic high dynamic range images.
TIME FOR A SEQUEL Sony's semiconductor team in Atsugi, southwest of Tokyo, and its TV unit in the capital worked together on the X1 Extreme. The company drew on its experience supplying OLED TVs to broadcasters to improve the technology. Designers in charge of algorithm and pattern analysis also made frequent trips to Sony's movie production unit in California, to talk about ways to produce vibrant images.
Some in Hollywood said the ability to put high-resolution TVs like the A1 in living rooms could change the way movies are made, a Sony official recalled.
In October 2016, Sony made a splash by releasing a 100-inch, X1-equipped Z9D LCD set with a pretax price of 7 million yen -- a price that has not dropped since. But a few months earlier, in the summer, Sony had decided it was time to re-enter the OLED market. The quality of LG panels, Sony judged, had reached a "satisfactory level," according to Corporate Executive Officer Ichiro Takagi.
The A1 was unveiled at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January. Sony President and CEO Kazuo Hirai boasted that the TV features technology offered by his company alone, pointing to the thin screen that produces sound through vibrations -- no speakers required.
Sony hopes to boost its share of the global TV market, by value, to 10% this year, from 8%. Those hopes rest, in large part, on the A1.
By 2022, Sony envisions OLED models accounting for 10% of its TV sales.
LCD TVs are unlikely to disappear from electronics stores anytime soon. But OLED-related innovations, such as foldable panels for smartphones, look primed to hit the mainstream.
Sony's first attempt at a consumer OLED TV a decade ago was little more than a trial balloon. The A1, on the other hand, might turn out to be the "flag bearer" Chubachi had in mind.