Camas, Wash. - Sharp Laboratories of America aims to turn your TV into a Web-surfing, news-gathering, sports-summarizing, on-demand movie viewing, e-mail center. As the beachhead for U.S. imports from Japan's $20 billion Sharp Corp., Sharp Labs also has designs on your cell phone, video recorder, document-imaging system and more.
"We are charged primarily with researching technologies that Sharp Corp. can develop into products for the U.S. market," said Sharp Labs' founder and director, Jon Clemens. "For instance, Sharp had the first camera-enabled mobile phone, and by 2005 we will be producing only LCTVs [liquid-crystal-display televisions], no more CRTs."
Sharp decided last year to ditch CRTs after estimating that LCD-based televisions, including the company's LCTV brand, could account for as much as 45 percent of the worldwide market by 2004. To cash in, Sharp Labs began developing technologies to differentiate its LCTVs as uniquely capable for U.S. viewing needs.
"We are working very hard with international standards organizations, like the ISO on MPEG-7 and with the TV-Anytime Forum on standards for describing content so it can be automatically identified," said Clemens. The lab also works with HomePlug and WiMedia on home networking, he said.
For instance, Clemens envisions a TV tracking and automatically accumulating news, sports and other shows in which you are interested. "We are also working on software that summarizes programs for you," Clemens said. "You can watch one pitch right after the other without having to wait through all the preparation in between. Our sports summaries will enable viewers to watch a complete game and see every play in about 45 minutes."
The summarize function now being developed also filters out commercials. Basketball, baseball, football and soccer versions are in the works. The algorithms trigger on some identifiable visual event-the pitch in baseball, for instance-to compile the summaries. That makes it easy for a game like football, where both teams line up before each play, but not all sports have such easily recognizable triggers.
"Basketball has been the most difficult . . . it's not like baseball, where a pitch always starts things off. But we've got some ideas," said Clemens.
Sharp Labs, with 275 employees, has secured 286 patents since its founding in 1995. Clemens, the first director, oversees a staff of seven. "We've just about doubled our employees every year since our founding," said Clemens, a former manager at Stanford Research Institute and RCA.
Today Sharp Labs occupies a campus in rural Washington state where six R&D departments report to Clemens. Clemens also oversees small satellite labs in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Vienna, Va., as well as a group of computer programmers in Bangalore, India.
Clemens cites a personal document-management system, eventually called SharpDesk, as one of Sharp Labs' early successes. Its peer-to-peer network scanning and other features helped catapult Sharp Corp. into the No. 4 position in integrated "copier" systems worldwide, Clemens said. And the other research teams have equally high rates of creating technologies that the mother company adopted for foreign markets, he said.
The unifying goal that motivates all research, Clemens said, is to "improve the overall user experience." Several recent technologies have gained worldwide acceptance, Sharp said. One, from the information systems technology department, consolidates current research findings about the human visual system and applies them to improve the "overall experience," in Clemens' term. In particular, it uses "spatial compression" to reduce the number of bits needed to accurately represent on-screen images.
"You can already see the advantages of our bit-depth extension [BDE] technology in our newest LCTVs, which require lower-bit-depth drivers to maintain the same level of viewable quality in our displays," said Scott Daly, leader of the department's Center for Display Appearance.
In the literature of human visual research, Daly's research team found a new dithering method that, instead of depending on clusters of dots (which tends to degrade spatial resolution), dithers the amplitude of adjacent pixels.
Dithering is a method of fooling the eye into "seeing" information that is not really there. For instance, alternating red and white dots can make pink. But real "dithering algorithms" make much more complicated patterns of colors that cause the eye to perceive "extra" information. In this case, the extra information is what Daly jokingly called "invisible noise"-increased spatial resolution of the dithered image compared with normal dithering algorithms.
"Essentially it's a spatial-compression method that allows our 10-bit [1,024-color] displays to only use 8 bits [256 colors] internally," Daly said. "Ordinarily, you also lose resolution when doing gamma correction, so we use BDE to bump resolution up to 10 bits before doing gamma correction. That way, when we go back to 8 bits we haven't lost any resolution from the gamma correction."
Sharp Labs' invention of BDE lowers the manufacturing cost of Sharp Corp.'s new Aquos line of LCTVs, according to Daly, since the televisions have to integrate fewer bit-depth drivers onto their displays. In Sharp's LCD monitors for computers, BDE promises enhanced resolution at the same price as competitors' products.
"It's a great challenge to model the human visual system with engineering concepts, but the potential for change is irresistible," Daly said. "Currently we are solving color misregistration problems for scanners, as described in a NASA tech brief, and doing subpixel rendering that takes into account the size and shape of the RGB dots-which are not dots at all, but thin, separated lines on LCDs. By trading off chromatic aliasing for luminous resolution, we are also making fine features like text look better."
Across the hall in the digital AV systems department, the focus is on improving consumer electronics with features including advanced compression and other data-massaging techniques specifically designed for handheld devices like cell phones. Here also is the center of software research into making the TV, rather than the PC, the hub for 21st-century computing, on-demand viewing and listening to music.
The department is fostering agreements with content providers as well as creating an integrated computing/entertainment operating system that runs on the TV. The Aquos LCTVs already have an integrated H.264 codec for the newest video-encoding layer of MPEG-4 (officially called Advanced Video Coding). The group is also working closely with the multimedia communications department on wirelessly routing its content around the home.
The multimedia communications unit is hedging its bets on through-the-air wireless hookups by participating in HomePlug's board of directors. That group sponsors a standard that uses existing power lines as in-house communications nets. The department also has members sitting on the IEEE 802.11e and the WiMedia ultrawideband boards.
At the LCD process technology department, Sharp Labs is eyeing low-temperature polysilicon technology for future LCDs and continuous-grain silicon for mobile LCDs.
For its LCTVs, the department is developing an automatic user-profiling system that keeps track of the type of content typically viewed, by topic, time and date. Then, in cooperation with content providers, it can suggest other content in which the user may be interested. "Eventually, we see our user profiles as being stored on cards that people can carry around with them and plug into any compatible TV," said Joel Pollack, vice president at Sharp Microelectronics.
By combining content provided by traditional TV networks with cable stations and Internet streaming video, the user will be able to centralize viewing around an LCD panel rather than using a different display for PC, TV and video phone. The ability to personalize, filter, find, access, retrieve and store content digitally will revolutionize the way content providers distribute their content, Pollack said.