Q&A with Panasonic: on the future of home entertainment

Tim Grey
20 May, 2011
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Consumer electronics Panasonic recently unveiled its latest range of audio-visual products, releasing smart 3D TVs, Blu-ray players and recorders and home theatre systems. The company’s concentrating on connectivity with this year’s round of products, adding wireless DLNA connectivity to its entire VIERA TV range. We spoke to group marketing manager for VIERA TV at Panasonic Australia, Matt Pearce, about the new range and about the future of home entertainment.

Hi Matt! You guys have released a heap of new products in the last couple of weeks. Could you tell us a little about what’s going into the new VIERA range?

Across the TV line-up, really what we’ve taken is last year’s message around 3D and the connected home and we’ve dramatically expanded that.  The first aspect is that we’ve rolled out Smart TV across every one of our TV models this year, and what that really means is that consumers can get a much wider range of connectivity in their living room. Traditionally, we’ve consumed TV when broadcasters have said they’ll broadcast it, but across these IPTV platforms there’s more flexibility around how you watch TV. It’s TV on your terms, which is really quite compelling.

More importantly, we’ve enhanced the other connected aspects of the products. Every TV this year has DLAN networking, combined with much more codec playback, including DIVX HD and MKV.

You can playback files from your NAS, your PC or Mac, or from a PlayStation. The other great part of that is you can play DIVX HD or MKV movies from a USB stick, you can play it from an SD card or you can play it over your home network via DLAN.  Really, what we’re saying is no matter how you’ve got content or where you’ve got content, it’s very, very easy to consume that content in the way you find easiest.

Panasonic last year made a big commitment to 3D very early on in the piece. How did that commitment shape up over the year relative to Panasonic’s expectations for the take-up of 3D?

We had really strong feedback in terms of 3D. It’s fair to say that 3D for us met our expectations in terms where it was going to finish up. Of course we’ve worked with the AFL to bring the first AFL grand final in 3D, and obviously that was a great driver. We’re seeing more content and it’s fair to say that’ll assist in promoting 3D. One of the other great things about it was that it made us make better 2D TVs. What we’re seeing is better pictures from 2D TVs and what we think is the best 3D available on the market. There’s a number of really compelling reasons why you’d step up into that product, but we don’t see it as ‘buy a 2D or buy a 3D’ situation. For us, it’s a feature and as a long term purchase ­– the average person hangs onto their TV for around seven years – I guess you’d fairly make the decision about whether 3D will be bigger in three years, five years, six years than what it is today and is it reasonable to buy this product because you’re looking to future-proof your home.

Do you think it will be more prevalent over the next five years?

Absolutely. If you look at our line-up, there are more models than ever that offer 3D. I expect that in the fullness of time, in 2011 and 2012, you’ll see a much more dramatic line-up of 3D.

Your entire VIERA range is 3D capable, right?

No, we have four series of 3D. Last year we had one. This is the first time we’ll have an LED-LCD line-up of 3D. There are many more models available with that feature.

3D content was something of a letdown last year. We saw some wonderful 3D TVs, and your technology with the plasmas was great, but if you had have purchased a 3D TV last year, you weren’t going to be able to watch much on it. Has that been a problem, the rollout of content?

It’s fair to say that it’s been a challenge, but in this year’s line-up we have 2D to 3D conversion. I’ve seen some content – obviously we’ve got Avatar here in the office – and we’ve played it side-by-side with the 2D version. While obviously the native 3D version is better, the 2D version converted to 3D is still very good. We’ve made some improvements with the algorithm that converts 2D to 3D and that in itself is a compelling way to get more content.

The other one is really around making your own 3D content. Late last year we introduced a 3D camcorder and we’ve got a couple of LUMIX cameras that can take 3D photos as well. It’s not just about what’s being broadcast, it’s what you can create as well.

We were talking about connectivity earlier, now every model has DLAN capabilities. TVs are now starting to cut into some of the functions that were previously reserved for a computer, that’s fair to say?

I think so.

If people are increasingly turning to IPTV, it seems as though they prefer convenience to great quality. Do you think that people might be turning away from the high-def film formats like 3D or Blu-ray in preference of a more convenient format?

I think there are probably two segments. I think it’s important to understand though that it’s not a zero sum game, I don’t think its win/lose. I think what this story’s about is what’s most convenient, easy and what am I happy with in the environment that I’m in. If I’m watching a brand-new blockbuster movie, I might want to watch it in Blu-ray. If I’m watching a TV sitcom and I’m catching up something I missed last night, it might be more important to me that I just see it and keep track of it than seeing it in the best quality. I think it’s about matching people’s expectation and what would be reasonable. Kerri-Anne in Blu-ray is probably not necessary.

Blu-ray as a technology seems as though it might not be a technology that lives out the long-term plans that companies had for it, being overtaken by digital downloads. Could you tell me a little about your view of the future of optical media and how Panasonic is placed?

Our commitment to optical media is massive. We’ve got the widest range of Blu-ray products; we’ve got recorders, players, and home theatres. It’s the only way to get 1080p content to your TV. There’s no doubt that Blu-ray has its place. Obviously, one of the challenges of Blu-ray has been content, but it’s becoming more prevalent.

The best way to get the best picture is with Blu-ray.  To my point before, I don’t think its win/lose. I think Blu-ray will have its place. In fact, I’m a Mac user myself and one of the most annoying things is that I can’t get high-quality content to my product. For me personally that’s a challenge. What we’ll see is that content will be accessed in a variety of different ways; based on cost; based on ease of access; based on it being acceptable quality, etc. Big huge blockbuster movie: you’d watch it on Blu-ray. A TV series subscription, you’d access that through iTunes of Catchup, maybe. I think it’s about getting it to you easily, simply and conveniently.

You mentioned earlier you were a Mac user. Obviously you’re one of a growing range of people who are using their Mac to access media. What kind of connectivity does the Panasonic products have with Apple?

Probably more on the LUMIX side there’s been some challenges with Apple and AVCHD. I understand there have been some challenges there.

We take into consideration. Macs are sitting around 10 percent market share, and that’s probably the highest it’s been for a long time. I’m an oldschool LCII user from way back, so I understand the Mac subset of users. It’s fair to say that’s growing pretty strongly.

All our TVs have VGA input, HDMI and of course we look at it in-depth as to how our users use our products.

In your view, has Apple changed the playing field in terms of the way people consume media.

That’s probably a question that’s best for Apple. But it’s fair to say they’ve done a pretty good job in making it more accessible, and that’s probably a lesson for all the consumer electronics industry. I think that’s a big reason why the living room continues to be dominated by consumer electronics products; we’ve made it pretty easy. Your TV doesn’t crash. People are pretty used to a product that’s very reliable and consistent. With Skype, which has been part of our product for over 12 months, we’ve seen really positive feedback on just how easy it is. It just works.

You guys have continued to invest in plasma technology, which is interesting. What is the reason for Panasonic’s commitment to plasma when the trend is toward LED-LCD TVs?

I’m not sure it’s right to say everyone else is moving toward LED-LCD. There are four dominant brands and three of them do plasma. For us, plasma’s a self-illuminating technology, that means we can control each individual pixel separately. We develop more consistent contrast; contrast is the single most important aspect of a TV. The ability to produce black and white and all the shades in between, that’s the principle of picture quality. Really with plasma you look at all the things that make a good TV – all of them relate to picture. For the three critical areas of a TV, plasma is superior: contrast is better, moving picture, resolution is better. The picture is lifelike, it’s more realistic and we can deliver better black levels, which is basically why you’d buy a TV.

But it’s important to know that we have LCD and LEDs. The demarcation zone for us is 42in.  We offer a range LED and LCD TVs below that and above that we tend to focus on plasma, simply because they suit how most people use the TVs.

Most people in their living room, their primary TV is a bigger TV.  For most people, they’ll have a smaller TV in their living room, which tends to be brighter and used in different times of the day, which tends to suit LCD.

In the next five to 10 years, what do you think is the future of home entertainment?  What’s going to be in the living room in the longer term?

I think the first broad trend we’ll see in the living room is ease of use. For products that are used from Grandma to the kids, it’s important that the product’s easy to use. The second one is that the product really meets the need of consumers. It needs to be consumer-led. In a world where we’re increasingly time-poor and we have a variety of different products in the living room, it’s important that they’re easy to use.

Of course what we’ll see is dramatic improvements in picture quality, from existing technologies as well as some new ones.

One of the challenges is that the living room is not the study, where it tends to be a more one-on-one arrangements. It’s got to be features and benefits that are really aimed at the whole family.

Does that ease of use include more computing power in the living room?

It may do. But the key thing is that the graphical user interface and the way that occurs will be I think quite different to the traditional keyboard/mouse navigation. We’ll see more gestural control, keeping the keyboard out of the living room.

Is gestural control an area that Panasonic’s investigating at the moment?

We’re looking at all ways for people to use products.

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