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Who really built the world’s first curved OLED TV? (Updated)

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Updated with additional information from LG’s Ken Hong below.

If you’ve been scouring the 2013 CES coverage, you likely stumbled across a little media-created tiff between the two Korean giants of consumer tech, Samsung and LG. On Tuesday, both companies claimed to have created the “world’s first” curved OLED TV. It was a big announcement for both companies, and a surprise to everyone in attendance.

Problem is, of course, only one company can really be “first” – that’s how races work. So which was it: Samsung, or LG? Furthermore, why did neither company unveil their curved OLED TVs during their press conferences on Monday? And why did they both choose to entirely omit any mention of their next-generation televisions from the pre-CES press releases, which were tightly locked down by non-disclosure agreements that prevent media from revealing the product info before the companies want them to? Why did this pair of curved OLEDs come out of nowhere?

The whole situation was just odd. Adding to the confusion, a well-sourced rumor was buzzing around CES that LG did not even have its curved OLED at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) until nearly 10 a.m. on Tuesday – almost an hour after the doors to the LVCC opened to CES attendees and, presumably, well after Samsung had revealed its model. If this were true, Samsung would clearly deserve to put the “world’s first” moniker on its curved OLED set. That, as they say, would be that.

Wanting to get a look inside the tactics of a big CES reveal, I visited LG’s massive booth in the Central Hall of LVCC, just a few ticks down from Samsung’s, for a chat with LG communication director Ken Hong, to get the story straight. What he told me was exactly the opposite of the rumor I’d heard.

“When we were setting up, a couple of journalists snuck in and were watching us set up,” said Hong. “I mean, I was standing there, and these guys – I was told that opening is 9 o’clock. But for some reason, these people started letting them in before that. So when we were setting up, they were standing there watching the setup. So, I have no idea why they were here. But they were standing there, and so the news got out before the show officially started. But it wasn’t us leaking it. It was just on the spot people tweeting and blogging about it.” (See update below)

Well, this changed everything. Rather than LG’s TV being revealed late, news of its existence had apparently leaked out earlier than the company had planned, before CES even began. Samsung, it now seemed, was actually second.

Armed with Hong’s claims, I made my way over to Samsung to get its take on the situation. When did it make the big curved OLED unveil? The answer should clear everything up. But Samsung, for some untold reason, wouldn’t tell me; a company PR rep just said that he wasn’t qualified to comment, and there were no “executives available at this time who can answer these questions.”

Based on Samsung’s refusal to defend its “world’s first” status, I could only assume that LG did, in fact, slide its curved OLED in first, if only unintentionally. Unfortunately, something didn’t add up. I could not find any tweets or blog posts published prior to 9am on Tuesday that mentioned LG’s newfangled TV. I also remembered another thing Hong had said that seemed to imply LG fell in behind Samsung’s launch.

“We came out on the same day,” said Hong. “Does it matter that they came out at, let’s say, 9:15 and we came out on 9:18?”

That’s not an admission by any stretch of the imagination, but it did complicate my understanding of the situation. To muck things up even further, another person familiar with matter independently confirmed with Digital Trends that LG’s curved television was M.I.A. when CES officially opened.

Dammit – after hours of slogging my way through throngs of CES goers to get to the bottom of this mystery, I was back where I started. I did, however, learn that companies will do whatever they can to create CES buzz, including risking looking ridiculous: Both the press and CES attendees caught Samsung and LG in their failed attempt at oneupmanship.

In the end, does it really matter who was first? Come to think of it, what does “first” really mean, anyway? Both companies clearly had curved OLEDs waiting in the wings. And neither company announced any pricing details, tech specs, or anything close to a release date. The curved OLED, as awesome as it looks, is still just a prototype, for all intents and purposes. Not a single one of us will be able to enjoy the improved viewing angles and more immersive experience delivered by these high-tech boob tubes anytime soon – maybe ever.

The game that is CES is a complicated one, to be sure. And this round, both Samsung and LG took a gamble and both lost – for now, at least. The winner will be whichever one can deliver a curved OLED TV that we can actually buy, at a price that doesn’t break the bank. Now that would be a meaningful first.

Update: LG’s Ken Hong emailed us with some additional information about the unveiling. He said: “Our plan was to set up our curved OLED just before the opening bell, which would have been 10:00, not 09:00. So it’s very possible your colleague saw the ‘other’ curved OLED before we started to set up. But I stand by my original point, that it doesn’t matter to us if we were ready at 08:00, 09:18 or 10:00, as long as we were ready when the show started. We’ll leave it to the public (or journalists) to define who was first since we’re probably too biased to make that call.”