Posted by: Kenji Hall on October 5, 2009
What does the future of TV look like? If you believe Toshiba, it will be a 55-inch, flat-screen, liquid-crystal-display TV. It will come with a 3-terabyte hard disk drive. And it will run on the ultrafast Cell multimedia chip, which was co-developed by Toshiba, Sony and IBM. The chip also powers Sony’s PlayStation 3 video game console and IBM’s high-end computer servers.
This is Toshiba’s first product with the Cell chip as the brains. The Cell Regza TV’s high-tech gadgetry will come in a box the size of an older-generation DVD player. It will allow the TV to show up to eight channels at the same time and record up to 26 hours of video. The set also has an Internet browser, and its speakers, which run along the bottom of the screen, are comparable to those of a high-end stereo systems. The company’s engineers spent a month working with Tokyo-based sound-equipment maker Foster Electric to custom-build the speaker system, according to one engineer.
Still, will anyone pay $11,200 (1 million yen) for a TV?
Toshiba will find out soon enough. The TV, which was unveiled the day before the start of this week’s CEATEC tech, is expected to go on sale in Japan from December. It’s priced between 30% and 40% higher other brands’ models of similar size. Toshiba hopes to sell about 1,000 a month, and is planning a version for the U.S. next year and Europe later.
Toshiba is one of Japan’s biggest TV makers but it has less name recognition in other markets than Sony, Sharp and Panasonic. So Toshiba is wagering that a state-of-the-art TV can add a little stardust to its brand.
Toshiba’s engineers began thinking about developing the Cell TV even before work on the chip was finished, in 2004. They spent about five years on the project, initially debating how to use the chip and what features to put in the TV, and building prototypes. The TV took shape in the final two years of work.
Five years is an eternity when you consider that Toshiba normally adds new tech and refreshes its entire lineup of TVs every six months. What took so long? Software, for one, says Shigenori Tokumitsu, who led the Cell Regza TV team. The Cell chip in Toshiba’s TV is the same as the one in Sony’s PS3. “But a TV and gaming machine use the chip in different ways,” he said. The Cell does the number-crunching needed to give the TV its sharp picture. “But the heart of the set’s image processing technology is its software,” and that was done in-house, Tokumitsu said. Other challenges: designing a cooling system to keep the Cell chip from overheating and keeping hardware noise from interfering with the TV’s stellar picture. Tokumitsu wouldn’t specify how large his team was or how it solved those problems. He refused to talk about Toshiba’s investment, too.
The TV’s picture is in high definition. It can also improve the resolution of poor-quality videos from YouTube. But it can’t handle 3D and higher resolutions yet; those are expected to come in future versions. With the Regza Cell TV’s combination of blazing-fast number crunching power, Internet connection and massive data-storage capacity, Toshiba can easily offer software upgrades that add to the TV’s features.
Toshiba's focus was clearly on the TV as a shining example of what an elite group of hardware and software engineers can build together. But it will need to think more deeply about the possibilities of software. Namely: create a business model that takes advantage of the Cell TV’s network capabilities. The TV could easily be the gateway for a slew of paid-for services, which other TV makers are already experimenting with. (Remember Yahoo! Widgets?) Tokumitsu said the TV hadn’t been designed with that in mind—though it’s possible to pursue later.
His team must also lower the cost of making the TVs. Ultimately, Toshiba wants to produce less pricey Cell TV models for the mainstream. It’s even considering selling the “Cell platform”, consisting of three circuit boards, to other TV makers, which would bring cost-reductions but would also give Toshiba's rivals the same high-end hardware. Maybe that's not so bad: It would mean that Toshiba's rivals see the merits of having the Cell power TVs.