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Color Calibration: From Monitors to TV
    (Datacolor / ColorVision Spyder TV, 3/2005)

    by Douglas Dixon

Home Theater Calibration
Spyder TV
Datacolor
Datacolor Business
Levey
ColorVision Business
ColorVision Growth
References

A is for Apple, red and ripe. B is for Banana, yellow and yummy. C is for a Camera to capture the colorful scene, and D is for Display to view the beautiful picture. But too often, D is for Disappointment, when the scene you frame in your camera does not match either the picture you edit on a computer display, or the image you print out on your printer. Welcome to the challenging world of professional color calibration and matching, addressed by professional tools that build profiles of your various imaging devices (scanners, printers, and displays) and then manage the flow of color information between them.

       

While some color management facilities are now built into systems like Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh, serious color control has been the province of imaging professionals working with tools like Adobe Photoshop. But a Princeton N.J. company, Datacolor International (www.datacolor.com), has expanded from its roots in industrial color management to develop its ColorVision line of color matching products for use by normal humans -- business professionals and even digital photo enthusiasts (www.colorvision.com). Just hang the ColorVision Spyder measurement gizmo over your display, run the calibration software, and you too can calibrate your monitors and printers to actually display correct and consistent colors.

Even better, Datacolor is preparing to ship a new ColorVision Spyder TV product by mid-year that brings affordable calibration to home theater televisions, including CRT, LCD, plasma, rear projection, and DLP displays.

   

All this is the result of a deliberate strategy begun by Datacolor in 2000 to bring its color technology to a much wider market, fueled by a series of acquisitions of strategic technologies, and a co-branding partnership with Pantone, Inc. of Carlstadt, N.J., a name known as the standard language for color (www.pantone.com).

Home Theater Calibration

Datacolor announced the new ColorVision Spyder TV product at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2005 (www.cesweb.org). "It was a little premature," says Brian Levey, Datacolor's vice president for ColorVision, "but CES only comes once a year, so you have to do it."

Even among over 2,500 exhibitors and 140,000 attendees, and all the excitement over wide-screen displays and portable media players, the Spyder TV "really got a lot of interest," says Levey. "In working five years on the ColorVision side, I'd never done an on-camera interview, and we did two or three at CES. Popular Science and Maxim are running articles on it, and the pull we are feeling is this is really going to be a mainstream product."

"Even the research that we have done indicates that there is a lot more awareness of color control tools on the home theater side, than there is even on the high usage digital imaging side."

The problem with TV displays for consumers, says Levey, is that sets are shipped from the factory in "torch mode, because that is the only way they can look good in the terrible lighting" of retail stores -- cranked up to stand out in a forest of displays in a brightly-lit environment. As a result, consumers are often disappointed by the out-of-box experience when they hook up the display in their home.

Consumers also are not thrilled about the idea of needing to mess around with calibration. Even a motivated user can be overwhelmed by all the different controls on a display, and cannot be expected to simultaneously adjust five or more settings to find the sweet spot among them. In addition, set-up by the human eye is problematical: "The eye is a subjective tool," says Levey. "It changes depending on whether you've had some caffeine, alcohol, or a terrible mood swing," and different people will have different opinions. While professionals have very critical eyes for precisely adjusting settings, "we have a very sophisticated instrument here," says Levey.

More dedicated videophiles can set up their home theater system using test discs like the Avia Guide to Home Theater or Video Essentials (www.videoessentials.com), but the process can be long and painful. As a result, consumers have traditionally required professional calibration, which can cost from $300 to $1200 to have a technician set up the display in your home. Some dedicated enthusiasts even buy the $3000 professional calibration products to set up their systems.

Levey estimates the commercial installer market at around 2000 units per year, compared to around 100,000 enthusiasts in the United States. But the consumer market for large-format displays is much larger, 15 to 20 million units. "And it's accelerating," says Levey, "it's the same kind of growth curves, and price drops, that we saw with digital cameras. We're seeing the same kind of curve with home theater."

To meet this need, in July 2004 Datacolor acquired Milori, Inc., based in North Carolina. Milori developed automatic and manual video calibration systems, sold primarily to professional video technicians for use in the corporate and home theater markets (www.milori.com). "Milori was starting to develop a name," says Levey, "and we had been friendly with the principals."

Datacolor now sells the Milori high-end ColorFacts Professional display analysis and calibration product, starting at $2400. ColorFacts integrates with additional professional color measurement instruments for professional use, and the extensive calibration process can delve deep into a display's product-specific service menus.

Spyder TV

Spyder TV is targeted to the much broader market, "motivated consumers, enthusiasts" for optimizing their televisions. "It's very simple to use," says Levey, "very affordable." The challenge for ColorVision was not only to simply the calibration process, but also to find a common ground among the variety of controls and options on different displays. The solution was to base the process only on the key display controls found on almost all displays: Brightness, Contrast, Color, Tint, and Color Temperature presets.

"We use the controls built in by the manufacturers," says Levey, "and tell you precisely where to set those settings to get the absolutely best picture that you can. Increase the contrast ratio, give you good shadow detail, to allow you to see the image as close to what the director's intent was when he was standing over the shoulder of his editor looking at a NTSC calibrated monitor."

The Spyder TV product will include the same Spyder 2 colorimeter hardware that is used with other ColorVision products. (So called because the device is reminiscent of a spider hanging over your display, with three arms to position the sensors flat against the surface, and the USB cable running up and over the back of the display with a counterweight to hold it in position.) You position the Spyder near the center of the display, and connect it to a laptop computer to run the calibration software. The product will also include a DVD test disc with test patterns and sample images to review the calibration results.

        ColorVIsion Spyder2 colorimeter

The prototype Spyder TV software starts with some setup instructions, including advice on reducing the amount of light in the room. It then asks what type of display you have (direct view, flat panel, or rear projection -- with support for front projection targeted for the fall). Next, the software prompts you to bring up the display's setup menu and confirm which of the five controls are available, and then enter the scale used on the menus to measure them (e.g., 0 to 100 on some products, or -30 to 30 on others).

The actual calibration begins by using the Spyder device to measure the current state of the display using a black and white checkerboard pattern displayed from the test DVD. The software prompts you to move the Spyder to the appropriate target square on the display to take each reading. Then the software calibrates the color temperature by taking a series of readings as you adjust the menu to the bottom, middle, and top of the scale, and reports the proper value for you to set.

Then the fun begins. For each control, starting with brightness, you walk though the calibration process with the black and white targets, again starting with the bottom, middle, and top of the scale. "And then the math takes over," says Levey. In no more than seven more readings, the software leads you through adjusting the setting to various points along the scale as it takes additional measurements in order to close in on the best setting. Repeat for the other controls (contrast, tint, and color), and you're done in around 15 to 20 minutes.

"This will be the next best thing to having a professional calibrator come to your house," says Levey. "People care, they really do care. It's going to deliver a marked improvement over the out of box scenario."

For users who want to delve deeper, the software then offers a post-calibration analysis to compare the before and after settings, and display the results with interesting test images to see the changes in areas like highlights and shadows. Levey recommends repeating the calibration process every four months or so to keep the display in peak form (as compared to imaging and arts professionals who may re-calibrate their monitors monthly or even daily). You also will need to re-calibrate after changing components, says Levey, "or if your kid or dog goes up and changes the settings."

Datacolor is targeting shipping the Spyder TV product in June, at a price point around $249. Based on the feedback from CES, they may have a hit -- Levey even reports interest from video gamers at the CES conference, who were complaining about how dark some games are: "You know that spot in Halo 2? I always get killed there -- I can't see the guy! Will this product help?"

"He was so excited, says Levey. "These are the guys who spend really big bucks on the graphics cards, so we'll be looking at that as well."

Datacolor

This kind of growth and market expansion through acquisition is a common thread in the growth of Datacolor, and in particular in its expansion from the industrial market into the broader consumer / professional ColorVision product line.

Datacolor itself is a subsidiary of Eichhof Holding AG, based in Lucerne, Switzerland (www.eichhof.ch). Eichhof's main business it its Eichhof Beverages division, the leading Swiss brewer selling beers, wines and spirits, and soft drinks. As of its last annual report for fiscal 2003/2004, the Eichhof Group had sales of approximately $240 million USD, with three major divisions: beverages ($165M), Datacolor ($65M), and real estate ($7M).

"Eichhof was looking for business counterbalance," says Terry Downes, CEO and president of Datacolor. "Its core beverage business was a domestic Swiss business." Datacolor is international, and more industrial and high-tech. "We're also more profitable, but also more volatile."

Datacolor International was formed under Eichhof in 1990, starting with Datacolor AG in Switzerland (which Eichof already owned), and merging with two other color technology companies: Instrument Colour Systems in the United Kingdom, and Applied Color Systems (ACS) in Princeton. All three of these companies had been founded around 1970 to develop color technology and instruments.

Before Eichhof, Applied Color Systems was even owned for a time by Armstrong World Industries, the flooring ceiling, and cabinet company. "It was part of the corporate diversification trend of the time," says Downes. "We were bought by one of our largest customers. But in 1989 they came under attack by a corporate raider, and Eichhof was looking to grow its color business."

Downes holds a MS degree in chemistry and an MBA from Rider University. He joined Applied Color Systems in 1973, and was named CEO and president of Datacolor in 2002. The headquarters of the merged companies was originally in Switzerland, but in 1995 it moved back to Princeton. "The critical mass was here," says Downes, "both technology and manufacturing."

Princeton is also a good location for an international business. "Two thirds of our customers are outside the U.S.," says Downes, "and Princeton has good airport access, to New York and Philadelphia."

For hiring, "this environment is target rich," says Levey. "There's a lot of good talent. We hire on a regular basis, and we've never had a problem finding really good talent in this region, either at the managerial level, or engineering level. On the engineering side, we're looking for talented software engineers and scientists, with color science and visual systems, optical engineers, electrical engineers."

"We're a short distance from RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), which is the wellspring of future color scientists. And there are a lot of technical companies in this entire corridor, from Washington to Boston."

The Datacolor building is approximately 74,000 square feet, and is easy to find because of the colorful signage and entranceway. "We built the original section in the early 1980's as three quarters of a square (45,000 square feet)," says Downes, "and then expanded in 1990 with the two-story section." The building currently houses approximately 110 employees. Datacolor has an additional 160 people at other sites, including 25 in the U.S., with staff in some 25 countries.

Datacolor Business

"Datacolor is a classic B-to-B company," says Levey, "serving textile, apparel, paint, plastic, and paper industries -- wherever color is critical in the supply chain to exacting specification, such as the interiors of automotives, or apparel where you want to be sure your pants match your suits." Major customers include Wal-Mart, Gap, and Ace Hardware.

Clients use Datacolor products for measuring and matching color, for example to make sure the color is correct for a new line of dresses (or the corporate logo), from the designer, to the dies and pigments for the raw materials, to the manufacturer, to retail. Datacolor also supplies color communications software, to manage the process of maintaining and verifying correct color throughout the sourcing and manufacturing process.

Levey uses the example of the process a Wal-Mart would use to develop a new line of clothes in a specific color. "In the past they would hire another organization to make 5000 physical swatches of the desired color to an exacting specification, and then send that out to die mills all over the world" for them to qualify to manufacture the product. The mills then use Datacolor spectrometer and quality control and formulation software to prepare samples with the correct color. "They measure the physical swatch, create a formulation for it, do a test sample, let it dry, and send it back by FedEx for approval."

And this may be repeated once or twice before approval. "This entire process, from concept to getting the product on the shelf, used to take anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks," says Levey, "a huge amount of time. The only one getting rich on the old process was FedEx."

With another layer of Datacolor software for color communications, transporting physical swatches and samples can be replaced by electronic matching of colors to the exact spectral properties. Datacolor also has software to track and manage through the approval process, "what we call a specified process," says Levey. "These tools enable the electronic communication of color to supply chain specifications." And the system also ensures that all the measurement instruments are calibrated to a master.

"This process reduces time to market by eight weeks," says Levey. "Wal-Mart has required their suppliers to be able to use this kind of electronic communication of color specifications."

Levey

Levey joined Datacolor in 1996 after an interesting career that took him from a research chemist to sales and product management, with a detour as a starving artist. He started his career working as a research chemist at Dow Chemical, after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1979 with a B.S. in Chemistry.

But Levey was also interested in art. "It was always something I did," he says. "I had a comic strip in college, and I took a couple of art classes, but that was pretty much it." After four years with Dow, "I took a year off to do animation and fine art."

Levey studied animation in the summer program at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, but then realized "my basic skills were terrible," so he studied fine art at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, Connecticut. "It raised my water level up to the point that I could actually execute the things that were in my mind."

He then moved to New York City, "to make a living as an artist." But, he says, "I discovered there were people who actually went to college for four years and studied art, and not chemistry. It was fun, but I ran out of money very quickly."

Levey's father is a marine artist in Connecticut. "I got all the speeches about starving artists when I was living in New York City," says Levey.

He still draws, but, he says "life takes over, and then you find you don't do it very often. But I'll come back to it."

Levey then went to work as a sales representative for Beckman Instruments in Allendale, New Jersey, in the laboratory automation division. "I moved up the ranks there," he says, "into product management, sales and marketing management, until I directed field operations. That was about a $20 million business when I left."

Levey joined Datacolor in 1996. "I liked the challenge here," he says. "At that point Datacolor was really trying to develop a software competency and business model. Bechman produced mission-critical software for pharmacy QC labs, so this was something I knew a fair amount about. And the color aspect really interested me; that mix between science, marketing, and technology."

Levey initially served as the vice president and director of the Color Control division, developing applications including paint-matching systems for retail hardware stores. He then developed the plan for the new ColorVision product line, launched in 2000 with the acquisition of technology from three companies: Color Vision, LLC in San Diego, California (software monitor calibration), Lucid, Inc. in Rochester, N.Y. (low cost spectrocolorimeter hardware), and Horses LLC in New York City (printer profiling).

ColorVision Business

ColorVision was initially targeted to two types of creative professionals: prepress professionals and professional photographers and designers. But it soon became clear that it was the photographers who "got it immediately," says Levey. "They are absolutely anal about color; they love hardware gadgets. And they were aware that these products existed, but all of them cost two to three times what we were offering our product at."

In November 2000 ColorVision launched the first generation of the Spyder product. "We took a hard right," says Levey, "and oriented ourselves completely to the professional photographer market, which was unserved. There was a need, people understood it, and the price point was great."

"We opened the photo channel with distributors like B&H," says Levey. "We won award after award, and developed a lot of buzz."

In 2001, ColorVision began conversations with Pantone. "It started as a meeting of both of the management teams," says Levey. "We're both in New Jersey, and we're both in color."

"Pantone was looking to bridge the analog world of guide books and swatches to digital," says Levey. The two companies decided to enter a co-marketing agreement -- not a joint venture or an acquisition -- but instead branding the products as Pantone ColorVision, with each company distributing the products through their channels. "We continue to focus on the photography market," says Levey, "but we found a partner that is the dominant brand name in the designer field."

Over the next two years, says Levey, "volumes increased and we attracted competitors." ColorVision was able to leverage its Datacolor and Eichhof corporate relationships to add European and other overseas sales offices, reduce costs by sourcing components in Asia, and then last year open a technology and manufacturing center in China and a sales and support office in Hong Kong.

In March 2004, with expanding awareness of the category, ColorVision introduced ColorPlus, its first retail box product, "to hit a $99 price point," says Levey, "that allowed us to get on the shelves in CompUSA."

        ColorVision ColorPlus

"The conventional wisdom," says Levey, "was 'are you freaking crazy.'" People may know what a DVD player is, what image editing software is, but monitor calibration? "But it really had been a push-pull," he says. "I began receiving a lot of email saying 'I looked to buy your product at CompUSA and I couldn't find it there.'" Now ColorPlus is carried at major retailers including Fry's on the west coast, Microcenter, J&R, and on the Dell website.

ColorPlus is an easy-to-use product that uses the original Spyder hardware with ColorPlus monitor calibration software to step through the process of setting up a CRT or LCD display. It also includes Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0, Starter Edition, and works on systems from Windows 98 to XP.

"When we launched the product we had some big concerns," says Levey. "One was whether people would care, do they understand they have smelly feet. The second was whether it would cannibalize our higher-end products." Instead, the new product "immediately added a significant unit stream to our mix," he says, "and it increased sales of higher end products by 25 to 30 percent. Part of it was that you have customers comparing. Every one really wants to be a pro, and now there was something to sell off against."

"If I had only predicted that," says Levey, "I would have been considered a bona fide marketing genius."

In September 2004, ColorVision launched the next generation of its more advanced products, including new detectors and sensors, software and user interfaces, and underlying algorithms for grey balance and tonal response. "It's had phenomenal success," says Levey. "Our sales took off in a very steep curve. When we started we were popping corks when we shipped 500 units a month. Last year we shipped about 50,000 units."

The next tier of ColorVision products are targeted to prosumers and business professionals (i.e., professionals who are not already photographers or artists). The products include the new Spyder2 colorimeter and calibration software ($189), and the Spyder2 Plus bundle including the ProfilerPLUS printer calibration software ($269). 

    ColorVIsion Spyder2 Plus

For more professional calibration and support for precise tuning of profiles, ColorVision also offers the Spyder2PRO Studio for monitor calibration ($299) and PrintFIX for printer calibration ($299, including scanner hardware).

        ColorVision PrintFIX

These ColorVision products support both Windows and Macintosh, and are licensed for use in calibrating multiple monitors. ColorVision also bundles a variety of added-value software with its various products, including Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 for image editing ($89 list), Pantone Colorist to select Pantone Matching System colors ($49), and Nik Color Efx Pro photo filter plug-ins for Photoshop ($99).

    Pantone Colorist

ColorVision also has a higher-end professional product line, built around the SpectroPRO monitor and printer calibration software and hardware, for monitors, printers, and scanners (starting at $888). ColorVision also offers Photoshop plug-ins and other tools for managing and editing calibration profiles.

       ColorVIsion SpectroPRO

ColorVision Growth

So it appears that C is for Color. While most consumers don't calibrate today, they are aware that the colors on their photos look different when printed, and that TVs can look very different. And they are getting used to using similar picture enhancement features in DVD player software to punch up the colors for different display types, and bring out the details in dark movies.

"Awareness of the category has really grown," says Levey. "Part of it is that we've been punching away at it for a long time, and partly because we have competitors who are now adverting. After five years, we're a force in our industry, but it was built brick by brick. And now it's the next big thing, and the next year after that."

"In the professional sector, monitor calibration is like dental floss," he says, "you either do it today, or you feel guilty for not doing it. In the advanced amateur category you could probably say the same. At the consumer level the buzz is out there, and they want to use the same tools the pros do to get great prints."

"If you look at my career," says Levey, "the average contract at Beckman was a half a million to a million dollars. Then at Datacolor when I first started was it maybe $40,000 to $50,000. We were very active developing a new retail line of paint matching systems at $5,000. And with ColorVision it's $300 and now $99." The market is much broader; it's about "understanding emerging trends. Having the understanding and the backing of the company to actually put it down is very exciting."

References

Datacolor
    www.datacolor.com

ColorVision
    www.colorvision.com

Eichhof Holding AG
    www.eichhof.ch

Pantone
    www.pantone.com

Milori, Inc
    www.milori.com

Consumer Electronics Show (CES)
    www.cesweb.org

Digital Video Essentials - Joe Kane Productions
    www.videoessentials.com