Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Communication professor Susan Kehoe likes to turn on both the flip-down DVD player and the radio when she drives to see her and her husband Mike’s families in Illinois.

Ms. Kehoe, general manager of George Mason University Television in Fairfax, says her 12- and 7-year-old children use headsets and are entertained by a movie or two while she and her husband listen to the radio.

“There’s no fighting. There’s no crossing over,” says Ms. Kehoe, who holds a doctorate in adult education. “It’s a nice two-hour break, two hours of peace and quiet as we drive there. … It makes a 14-hour drive to Illinois fly.”

The Clifton resident is not alone in wanting digital video disc (DVD) players and TV sets outside of the traditional family room, living room and bedroom settings.

Besides the rear-seat video systems, visible only to back-seat passengers, there are mobile satellite TVs, combined refrigerator-TVs and TVs that double as mirrors when not in use. The way the TV operates differs slightly depending on the application.

“Now that the new technology, especially flat panels, is available, there really is not a lot of limitations where consumers can enjoy a viewing experience,” says Bruce Tripido, director of product marketing for display devices for Sharp Electronics in Mahwah, N.J.

Flat-panel TVs, either liquid crystal display (LCD) or plasma display panels (PDPs), have more compact electronics, a wider range of screen sizes and higher resolution than traditional TVs, which use cathode ray tube (CRT) devices to display images.

CRTs use an electron beam to paint the incoming video signals. Each time the beam makes a pass across the screen, it lights up phosphor dots located on the inside of a glass tube. The phosphor dots glow red, green or blue, the three primary colors, to create a picture. Plasma also uses phosphorous, but instead of an electron beam, argon, neon and xenon gases make the phosphor dots glow.

Alternatively, LCDs use liquid crystal, which is sandwiched between glass panels and divided into pixels. For every pixel, or dot, on the screen, there are tiny transistors that tell the pixels to turn on or off to show a color. A light source behind the panel shines through the display.

“Most consumers can’t see the technical difference between plasma and LCD,” says Robert Perry, vice president of sales and channel marketing for the consumer electronics business of LG Appliances USA Inc. in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Flat-panel TVs were introduced five to six years ago, Mr. Perry says.

“We’re now entering the second wave of the trend, which is the integration of other products to flat panels,” he says.

Flat panels are being used in automobiles and other applications because they are lighter and thinner than other units and can fit in more compact spaces, Mr. Tripido says.

The panels receive their signals similar to TVs hooked to satellite, cable or electronic devices, such as DVD players or videocassette recorders. In automobiles, the signal for rear-seat video systems, offered as a factory-installed option in many new vehicles and as an after-market product for vehicles without the option, comes from the DVD player. Alternatively, the signal for satellite TV comes from a satellite positioned on top of the vehicle.

“Satellite TV is not available as a factory-installed option,” says Steve Koenig, senior manager of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an Arlington-based association representing manufacturers and retailers of consumer electronic goods and services. “It’s so new, there are a fraction of vehicles that have this.”

Nine percent of households say they have a mobile video system installed in their vehicles or use portable DVD players that are carried separately or attach to the back of the front seat in a car, according to CEA. Less than 1 percent of households own a mobile satellite TV, CEA says.

At this point, mobile satellite TV can be used on recreational vehicles, sport utility vehicles and minivans, which provide a large enough roof area to hold the satellite units, Mr. Koenig says.

Mobile satellite TV operates off a vehicle’s 12-volt battery, as do the other electronics in the car.

The satellite dish transfers the signal from the antenna to a receiver box in the car, Mr. Koenig says. The receiver sends the signal to the car’s sound system and display screen, he says.

Raysat, a Vienna company that sells antennas, recently introduced a 30-inch mobile satellite TV antenna. As the vehicle moves, a motor under the satellite antenna adjusts the dish to keep it focused on satellite signals and to maintain reception.

“We’re constantly adjusting the beam in the antenna to maintain the lock on the satellite as you drive,” says Samer Salameh, president and chief executive of Raysat.

A year ago, LCDs made their appearance in refrigerators — a small niche product at this point. LG Appliances makes a 13-inch LCD, built as a removable unit in a side-by-side refrigerator with a cable connection.

“More and more, the kitchen is becoming a center of activity in the way people live,” says Brian Lucas, spokesman for Best Buy, the exclusive national retailer of LG Appliances. “People are bringing more lifestyle and luxuries into the kitchen. TVs can take up space. This is a way to save space.”

Sharp helped develop a mirror TV unit that is a mirror when turned off and a TV when on. Sharp’s Aquos LCD-TV, a type of digital, high-definition TV, is placed behind the mirror.

The bottom portion of the mirror is reflective glass that becomes a window for TV viewing and returns to being reflective when there is not a light or TV image illuminating behind it, Mr. Tripido says.

“The mirror itself is not the same type of mirror you would typically have in the bathroom,” he says. “It’s similar to what you would see on a mirrored pair of sunglasses.”

Having TVs in bathrooms, kitchens and cars is a matter of conspicuous consumption, says Kent Norman, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“People have more money than they know what to do with,” says Mr. Norman, who holds a doctorate in experimental psychology.

The average U.S. household in January 2005 had 3.1 television sets, up from 2.4 sets in January 2004, according to CEA.

“I think a lot of people use TVs for companions and noise. If you’re not comfortable being alone, it’s just background,” Ms. Kehoe says.

In addition, “We have a need to know what’s going on immediately,” she says.

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