Category: The Front Line
NAB In The Rear View Mirror
- Published on Friday, 24 April 2015 21:28
- Pete Putman
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It’s been over a week since I got back from Las Vegas and edited all of my photos and videos. But once again, NAB scored big numbers with attendance and there were enough goodies to be found in all three exhibit halls, if you were willing to put in the time to pound the pavement. Over 100,000 folks made their way to the Las Vegas Convention Center to see endless demos of streaming, drones, 4K cameras and post-production, and H.265 encoders.
We were also treated to a rare haboob, or dust storm, which blew through town late Tuesday afternoon and blotted out the sun, leaving a fine dusting of sand particles on everything (and in everyone’s hair, ears, and eyes.) While most of the conferences and presentations tend to be somewhat predictable, the third day of the show featured the notorious John McAfee (yes, THAT John McAfee) as the keynote speaker at the NAB Technology Luncheon. Escorted by a security detail, McAfee walked up on stage and proceeded to warn everyone about the security risks inherent in loading apps onto phones and tablets. (Come to think of it, why does a flashlight app for my phone need permission to access my contact list and my camera?)
Some readers may remember the Streaming Video pavilion in the Central Hall at this show back in 1999. There, dozens of small start-up companies had booths showing how they could push 320×240-resolution video (“dancing postage stamps”) over 10 megabit and 100 megabit Ethernet connections, and not always reliably. (And not surprisingly, most of those companies were gone a year later.)
Today, companies like Harmonic, Elemental, Ericsson, Ateme, and the Fraunhofer Institute routinely demonstrate 4K (3840×2160) video through 1GigE networks at a data rate of 15 Mb/s, using 65-inch and 84-inch 4K video screens to demonstrate the picture quality. 4K file storage and editing “solutions” are everywhere, as are the first crop of reference-quality 4K displays using LCD and OLED technology.
In some ways, the NAB show resembles InfoComm. Many of the exhibitors at NAB have also set up shop at InfoComm, waiting for the pro AV channel to embrace digital video over IP networks. (It’ll happen, guys. Just be patient.) In the NAB world, video transport over IP using optical fiber backbones is quite the common occurrence, although it’s still a novelty to our world. (Haven’t you heard? Fiber is good for you!)
I spent three and a half days wandering around the aisles in a daze, but managed to find some gems among the crowds. Here were some highlights:
Blackmagic Design drew a crowd to see its Micro Cinema Camera, and it is indeed tiny. The sensor size is Super 16 (mm) and is capable of capturing 13 stops of light. RAW and Apple ProRes recording formats are native, and Blackmagic has also included an expansion port “…featuring PWM and S.Bus inputs for airplane remote control.” (Can you say “drone?”) And all of this for just $995…
RED’s booth showed the prototype of a new 8K (7680×4320) camera body that will capture video at 6K resolution from 1 to 100 frames per second. In 4K (3840×2160) mode, the Dragon can record footage as fast as 150 frames per second. (Both of these are in RAW mode.) Data transfer (writing speeds) was listed at 300 Mb/s, and the camera has built-in wireless connectivity.
Arri showed a 65mm digital camera, resurrecting a format that goes back to the 1950s. The actual resolution of the camera sensor is 5120×2880, or “5K” as Arri calls it. This sensor size is analogous to the old 6 cm x 6 cm box cameras made by Rollei and Yashica, and there is quite a bit of data flowing from this camera when it records! (Can you say “terabytes” of storage?”)
Drones dominated the show, with powerhouse DJI setting up in the central hall and an entire section of the rear south hall devoted to a drone “fly-off” competition. Nearby, a pavilion featured nothing but drones, cameras, accessories, and even wireless camera links such as Amimon’s Connex 5 GHz system. (You may recognize this as a variant of the company’s WHDI wireless HDMI product.)
Sony had side-by-side comparisons of standard dynamic range (SDR) and high dynamic range (HDR) footage using their new BVM-X300 30-inch HDR OLED display. This is the 3rd generation of OLED reference monitor products to come out of the Sony labs, and it’s a doozy with 4096×2160 resolution (3G-SDI Quad-link up to 4096 x 2160/48p/50p/60p) and coverage of the DCI P3 minimum color space. The monitor can also reproduce about 80% of the new BT.2020 color gamut. Peak brightness (scene to scene) is about 800 nits, and color reproduction is very accurate with respect to flesh tones and pastels.
Canon also took the wraps off a new reference monitor. The DP-V2410 4K reference display has 4096×2160 pixels of resolution (the DCI 4K standard) and uses an IPS LCD panel that is capable to showing high dynamic range (HDR), usually defined as at least 15 stops of light. It supports the ITU BT.2020 color space, can upscale 2K content to 4K, and will run off 24 volts DC for field use.
Panasonic unveiled their first laser-powered 3-chip DLP projector, and it’s a doozy. Using a short-throw lens, the Panasonic guys lit up a 10-foot diagonal screen with 12,000 lumens at WUXGA (1920×1200) resolution from the PT-RZ12KU. It uses a blue laser to excite a yellow-green color wheel and create white light, which is then refracted into red, green, and blue light for imaging. The projector weighs just 95 pounds, and the demo used an ultra-short-throw lens positioned about 12” – 16” in front of the screen.
Fine-pitch indoor and outdoor LED displays are a growing market. Both Leyard and Panasonic showed large LED displays with 1.6mm dot pitch, which isn’t much larger than what you would have found on a 768p-resolution plasma display from 15 years ago. The color quality and contrast on these displays was quite impressive and you have to stand pretty close to notice the pixel structure, unlike the more commonly-used 6mm and 10mm pitch for outdoor LED displays. Brightness on these displays is in the thousands of nits (talk about high-dynamic range!).
Speaking of HDR, Dolby had a demonstration in its booth of new UHDTVs from Vizio that incorporate Dolby’s version of high dynamic range. Vizio showed a prototype product a year ago at CES and it now appears close to delivery. The target brightness for peak white will be well over 1000 nits, but the challenge for any LCD panel is being able to show extremely low levels of gray – near black.
Vitec had what may be the world’s first portable HEVC H.265 encoder, the MGW Ace. Unlike most of the H.265 demos at the show, this product does everything in hardware with a dedicated H.265 compression chip (most likely from Broadcom). And it is small, at about ¾ of a rack wide. Inputs include 3G/SDI, composite video (yep, that’s still around), HDMI, and DVI, with support for embedded and serial digital audio. Two Ethernet ports complete the I/O complement.
Over in the NTT booth, a demonstration was being made of “the first H.265 HEVC encoder ever to perform 4K 4:2:2 encoding in real time.” I’m not sure if that was true, but it was a cool demo: NTT (a/k/a Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) researchers developed the NARA processor to reduce power consumption and save space over existing software/hardware based encoders. And it comes with extension interfaces to encode video with even higher resolution.
NHK was back again with their extension demo area of 8K acquisition, image processing, and broadcasting. (Yes, NHK IS broadcasting 8K in Tokyo, and has been doing so for a few years.) Among the cooler things in their booth was a 13-inch 8K OLED display – which almost seems like an oxymoron – and an impressive demonstration of 8K/60 and 8K/120 shooting and playback. On the 120Hz side of the screen, there was no blur whatsoever of footage taken during a soccer match.
This is just scratching the surface, and I’ll have more information during my annual “Future Trends” presentation at InfoComm in June. For now, I’ll let one of my colleagues sum up the show as being about “wireless 4K drones over IP.” (Okay, that’s a bit of a simplification…)
The Cruelest Month, Indeed…
- Published on Thursday, 09 April 2015 18:37
- Pete Putman
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In T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, he opens with this verse: “April is the cruelest month…” For many Japanese manufacturers, those words couldn’t ring more true.
One in particular is Sharp, who has been struggling with profitability ever since the Great Recession. In a recent news story from TWICE, the company confirmed it will be laying off as many as 6,000 employees worldwide, with 1/3 of those cuts possibly to come from Sharp’s U.S. operations.
Sharp’s market share has dwindled considerably over the years. At the start of 2006, the company held a 21% worldwide market share in in the LCD television business, but that was the high water mark – it’s all been downhill since, as Sharp and other Japanese brands had to deal with aggressive marketing and pricing from Samsung and LG, and now Chinese brands are entering the fray.
Sharp isn’t like any other CE manufacturer. Only a handful of them operate their own LCD panel fabrication lines, and Sharp has the world’s largest in Sakai, Japan. This Gen 10 plant rolls out LCD motherglass that’s used in everything from televisions and laptops to dashboard displays, mobile phones, and tablets.
The Gen 10 facility had the misfortune to open during the depths of the recession, and Sharp was forced to sell some of the plant’s idle capacity for twenty cents on the dollar to Hon Hai Industries (Foxcon – Apple products) to raise cash. (Hon Hai recently offered to buy more shares of Sharp in return for a seat on the company’s board.)
Although Sharp can make larger cuts of 2K and 4K (and even 8K) LCD glass at very competitive prices, consumers just aren’t buying enough Sharp Aquos TVs – even the Quattron models with the extra yellow pixel. And that’s not helping things, as Sharp reported a $190M quarterly loss and a $250M loss for the entire fiscal year.
According to a story on the Asia.Nikkei Web site, “The company plans to re-engineer operations in unprofitable businesses, at home and abroad. The television business in North America could be on the chopping block. Management apparently concluded that cutting jobs is an unavoidable step toward reforming the company’s high-cost culture.”
It’s likely too late to turn things around at Sharp’s TV operations, especially with TV prices in free-fall. And things aren’t much better at competitors Toshiba and Sony, both of whom have yet to announce their final earnings for 2015. Both companies have seen a major drag on earnings caused by television operations and Toshiba has already pulled out of the North American TV market, retreating to Japan.
Cruelest month, indeed!
LG Is “All In” With OLED TVs
- Published on Thursday, 09 April 2015 18:03
- Pete Putman
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Yesterday (April 8), LG formally launched its new line of OLED televisions at The Garage on Manhattan’s upper west side. In addition to showcasing the 65-inch 65EG9600 ($8,999) and 55-inch 55EG9600 ($5,499) UHDTVs, LG also held a press briefing in conjunction with Netflix’ latest streaming series, Daredevil, which is available starting Friday, April 10.
I had the opportunity to sit on this panel and answer a few technical questions about OLED picture quality. Scott Mirer, VP of device ecosystem at Netflix was also on hand to offer his observations about the new OLED TVs, as was Matt Lloyd, director of photography for Daredevil (which, coincidentally, was shot in the adjoining Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood).
During my part of the discussion, I asked for a show of hands to see how many members of the press were currently using plasma TVs, and better than 60% of the hands went up. While LCD display technology current owns about 95% of the worldwide television market, there’s just no comparison to a late-model Panasonic, LG, Pioneer, or LG plasma set when it comes to video picture quality.
Many of us shed more than a tear when it was announced that Panasonic was departing from the plasma TV business a couple of years ago. And we all figured that OLED (organic light-emitting diode) televisions would quickly step into the breach.
That didn’t quite happen like we expected. Even through large OLED TVs have been shown for well over a decade (going back to Samsung’s and Epson’s 40-inch prototypes in 2003), they just never seemed to make it to the starting line.
In the summer of 2013, LG launched a 55-inch curved 1080p OLED TV with much splash and hoopla. Later that year, Samsung followed suit with their 55-inch curved OLED TV, pricing theirs almost $6,000 less than LG. And in short order, a price war ensued – but it didn’t last very long, as Samsung pulled their product off the market for undisclosed reasons.
LG’s OLED imaging panels employ a white OLED emitter and color filters arrayed in an RGBW stripe to provide brighter images. This technology originated in none other than Rochester, NY at Eastman Kodak and was an outgrowth of research and development in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In 2009, Kodak sold its OLED patent portfolios and business to LG Electronics outright. Ever since then, LG has been working industriously to bring OLED TVs to market. The ‘catch’ was manufacturing yields, which not all that long ago were in the low double digits.
Although subsidiary LG Display won’t disclose its current OLED yields, they are believed to be better than 50%, which is probably why we’re now seeing several models of televisions finally coming to retail. Granted; they’re not cheap – in comparison, you can by a 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV for about $700 now, while a quantum dot-equipped 1080p LCD set will run about $3,000 currently.
However, the market knows what it wants to pay for a television, and you can expect those prices to come down in short order. LG’s original 55EA9800 OLED set started out at just under $15,000, but it can be yours now for just one-fifth of that original price. (For those with short memories, that’s what a quality 50-inch plasma cost about 7-8 years ago.)
While the rich blacks and saturated colors draw people like flies to OLEDs, it’s worth nothing that those same deep blacks and consistent grayscale and color reproduction at very low luminance levels allow OLED displays to show images with high dynamic range. If we go by an industry definition of HDR as 15 stops of light, OLED is definitely up to the challenge: With full white at 500 nits, for example, the step above black would measure just around .1 nits.
That’s a level of black previously attained only by plasma TVs, as well as LCD TVs with some trickery involved (black stretch, dynamic contrast, APL). But of course OLEDs can go much lower with grayscale reproduction: A more typical low gray (near black) level on an OLED display might be around .05 nits or so.
The clips of Daredevil provided by Netflix really showed off the abilities of OLEDs to handle dark scenes with point sources of high-key light, like streetlights. Another clip showed a fight scene in a dark hallway, with the only light coming from green-tinted fluorescent lamps. Yet, you could see details even in the darkest corners.
The consistent color tracking of OLEDs, their emissive structure, and their low operating voltages make them an ideal replacement – nay, step-up – from plasma display technology, which had to rely on high voltage, pulse-width modulation (PWM) technology to create images. OLEDs are also a lot thinner than any other display, and can even by printed onto flexible substrates.
But enough about technology! OLED televisions are finally coming to market, and that’s something to celebrate. As a bonus, both of LG’s newest OLED models are UHDTV-resolution (3840×2160 pixels) and have excellent 1080p upscaling, based on the Blu-ray clips of Skyfall that I saw at the event. Can’t wait for the rest of the lineup!
Look Out, HDMI – Here Comes Super MHL!
- Published on Tuesday, 17 March 2015 12:38
- Pete Putman
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Yesterday, the MHL Consortium announced its newest flavor of display interface – Super MHL (or, more accurately, superMHL). MHL, which stands for Mobile High-definition Link, was original developed to enable display connections over Micro USB ports on phones and tablets. You’ll find it most often on mobile devices and televisions from Samsung and Sony. It will also pop up on LG products and there’s even an MHL port on the Pioneer AV receiver I bought a couple of months ago.
There have been some clever demos of MHL applications at past CES events. One was to build a “dumb” laptop (no CPU or video card) – just keyboard, touchpad, and display – and use MHL to dock a smartphone into it make everything work. Another demo in the Silicon Image booth featured smartphones being used as video game controllers with the video playing back on the controller screen.
Yet another demo showed a Sony Experia phone being used as a remote control with a Samsung TV to select inputs, play video, and launch Internet applications. It’s easy to do this stuff when you can multiplex video and serial data through the same connector, which in MHL version 3.0 can even play back Ultra HD video at 30 fps with 8-bit color.
Note the emphasis on the “mobile” part. In the world of transition-minimized differential signaling (TMDS), MHL is one of a few players, the others being HDMI (the dominant digital display interface), its predecessor DVI (still going strong although the standard isn’t updated anymore), and Micro and Mini HDMI, niche connectors on smartphones and cameras.
The advent of Ultra HD, 4K, and higher display resolutions like the new “5K” widescreen workstation monitors use has created a problem: Our display interfaces need to get faster. A LOT faster!
But HDMI 2.0, announced in September 2013, isn’t fast enough. I get into frequent debates with people about why it isn’t, so let me clarify my position: HDMI 2.0 has a maximum overall clock (data) rate of 18 gigabits per second (18 Gb/s). 80% of that can be used to carry display signals; the rest is overhead using 8 bit/10 bit mapping.
So that limits HDMI 2.0 to supporting 3840×2160 pixels (4400×2250 pixels with blanking) in an RGB signal format @ 60 Hz refresh. That’s the hard, fast speed limit. For anyone using a computer workstation or media player with RGB output, this hard, fast limit is a serious obstacle: How will people who buy the new HP/Dell 27-inch workstation monitors connect them? Their working resolution is 5120×2880 pixels, and at 60 Hz, that’s just too fast for HDMI 2.0.
It looked like DisplayPort 1.2 would finally ascend to the top of the podium, since its existing speed of 21.6 Gb/s (17.28 Gb/s usable) was already faster than HDMI 2.0. And now, DisplayPort 1.3 has been announced, with a top speed of 32 Gb/s (about 26 Gb/s usable) and the adoption of Display Stream compression. Indeed, more computer manufacturers are providing DP connections on laptops: Lenovo seems to have moved completely to this format, and Apple has been supporting DP for some time now.
With all of that in mind, I will admit I was completely blind-sided by superMHL at this year’s International CES. Instead of a 5-pin Micro USB connector, superMHL offers a 32-pin, full-size connector that’s symmetrical (the next big thing in connectivity, a la USB Type-C). It also supports Display Stream compression. And it’s compatible with USB Type-C, although not with all six lanes. And it has a maximum data rate of 36 Gb/s across six lanes of data. (According to the MHL Consortium, that’s fast enough to transport an 8K (7680×4320) image with 120 Hz refresh and 4:2:0 color.)
The MHL Consortium’s announcement yesterday featured Silicon Image’s new Sil97798 port processor, which can also handle HDMI 2.0 signals. Here are the key specs from the Super MHL press release:
- 8K 60fps video resolution, as outlined in the superMHL specification
- New, reversible 32-pin superMHL connector
- USB Type-C with MHL Alt Mode
- High Dynamic Range (HDR), Deep Color, BT.2020
- Object audio – Dolby Atmos®, DTS:X, 3D audio, audio-only mode
- High bit-rate audio extraction
- HDCP 2.2 premium content protection
Whew! That’s quite a jump up from MHL. Some might say that superMHL is on steroids, but no matter how you look at it, superMHL is now a serious contender for the next generation of display connectivity. In the press briefing, a representative of the MHL Consortium waxed on about the approach of 8K broadcasting (it’s already been operating for two years in Japan) and how we would see a migration to 8K TV and displays in the near future.
As Larry David says, “Curb your enthusiasm!” Supporting 8K would be nice, but we’ve barely started the transition to UHDTV. And right now, selling 8K TV to the average consumer is like trying to peddle a Ferrari to someone who lives on a dirt road.
Where superMHL will find its niche is in supporting the higher bit rates that high dynamic range (HDR), wide color gamuts (BT.2020), and higher frame rates (60/96/100/120 Hz) require. All will shortly become important parts of the next-generation (UHD) television system. DisplayPort is already there with version 1.3, and you’ll even find DP 1.2 connections on selected models of Ultra HDTVs so that gamers can connect laptops and desktops at Ultra HD resolutions with 60 Hz refresh.
Now, the elephant in the room: How does the emergence of superMHL affect HDMI? Even though version 2.0 is over a year and a half old, you don’t see many HDMI 2.0 jacks on Ultra HDTVs. Casual inspections at Best Buy, HH Gregg, and other outlets show that the typical HDMI 2.0 port count is usually one (1), even as we approach April of 2015.
In the superMHL presentation, the concept of a TV with multiple HDMI 2.0 inputs and one superMHL input was outlined. This would, in effect, be the next step up from where we are now, with the typical Ultra HDTV having one HDMI 2.0 input and three HDMI 1.4 inputs.
But if Silicon Image’s new Sil9779 port processor can handle both formats, why bother with HDMI 2.0 in the first place, especially with its speed limitations? Wouldn’t it make more sense to future-proof all inputs and go with superMHL across the board? (Of course, the cost of adopting superMHL could weigh heavy on that decision.)
In the commercial AV and broadcast worlds, it would definitely make sense to jump to superMHL in the interests of future-proofing installations. Given the limited rollout of HDMI 2.0 to date, maybe supporting both HDMI 1.4 for legacy devices and superMHL is a smarter approach. (Note that superMHL and HDMI 2.0 both support HDCP 2.2, which is the next level in encryption and NOT compatible with older versions of HDMI.)
Summing up; the race for faster interface speed just got a lot more interesting with the addition of superMHL to the lineup. I can imagine that manufacturers of AV matrix switchers and distribution amplifiers are feeling another migraine headache coming on…
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, it was announced that Silicon Image has been acquired by Lattice Semiconductor of Hillsboro, Oregon, “ a leading provider of programmable connectivity solutions” according to the press release. The acquisition price was about $600M and now leaves Lattice in control of HDMI, MHL and superMHL, and SiBEAM (WiHD) patents and IP. More information can be found on the Lattice Web site at http://www.latticesemi.com/.
EE LLC: A Million PCs and Nobody Knows Its Name
- Published on Friday, 27 February 2015 11:07
- Ken Werner
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There is a company you’ve probably never heard of whose display technology sits inside a million notebook PCs. Entertainment Experience LLC has developed a total color management system whose mathematical and vision models are embedded in multidimensional look-up tables (LUTs). Current customers include Dell and Quanta, the world’s largest notebook PC ODM.
This week, I spoke separately with CEO John Parkinson and the technology’s inventor and developer Jim Sullivan.
When the image captured by a typical professional video camera is re-mapped to Rec.709, at least 70% of the color information is thrown away, Sullivan said. One example: grass green and laser green map to the same RGB values. All the energy that goes into maintaining color fidelity is applied only to that reduced gamut and does not address the loss of perceived fidelity that was inflicted early in the process. Part of what EE LLCs software product, eeColor, does is to compensate for that loss in perceived fidelity by intentionally breaking away from “hardware fidelity.” Parkinson noted that the software recomputes the values for each pixel in the frame individually in real time.
Most natural colors only occupy the central portion of the display’s color space. eeColor expands this portion to more completely fill the color space of the display. But memory colors, such as skin and sky, are displayed without modification. Doing this blindly would result in “memory colors,” such as skin and sky, becoming distorted. eeColor identifies the range of color coordinates that include these memory colors and preserves the color values of these pixels as the overal gamut is expanded. EE LLC calls these patches of preserved color coordinates “filters.”
eeColor incorporates models of skin tone developed at the Rochester Institute of Technology and uses them to maintain skin tone under brightness changes and color remapping. Different skin tones, from African to Scandinavian, are mostly a matter of brightness rather than color shift. But there are cultural preferences. Asians seem to like displays to show skin tones a bit more blue than do Americans and Europeans. This is addressed with slide bar in the UI.
Sullivan said that engineering the filters was the toughest part of the job. There are times when the color space is remapped that the skin-tone vector (for example) most move in the opposite director for the image vector for the overall scene. Strange things can happen at the boundaries of these filters with the overall display color space.
At EE LLC, they use “colorfulness” to describe the color content of a frame. This is the volume of colors contained in the 3D volume of the IPT color space. Percent of NTSC, which the hardware people have been trained to use, “is useless.”
They use the IPT color space because it preserves hue and brightness under gamut mapping. Moving the color portion (PT) of the vector does not change the perceived brightness (I). CIELAB doesn’t do this, nor does RGB, Sullivan said.
The vision model used by eeColor allows the viewer to observe rec.709 imagery in a relatively bright home or office environment and see the colors as they would appear in darkened cinema. The adaptive color boost is working with the behavior of the human visual system.
eeColor’s “management produces greater brightness with the same power, while keeping color quality,” Sullivan said. It is therefore very attractive for battery-operated devices.
The transformations performed by eeColor affect color only. For a complete solution, eeColor needed to handle sharpness and contrast, as well. For this they teamed up with Razzor Technologies, an RIT spin-off. Razzor’s approach also uses LUTs, so it was possible to combined the two sets of technologies into a single software product. Razzor’s sharpening technology avoids the white fringe that convolution filters impose on sharpened edges.
The company’s approach allows every input color to be mapped to an output color based on sound visual models, which has interesting applications. Among these is the ability to adjust for unit-to-unit variations in color rendition, and also to allow product manufacturers to compensate for the color differences between panels from different manufacturers.
The company has also worked with LG Display to minimize use of the blue phosphor and thus retard blue-phosphor aging.
These functions can be implemented in hardware, but Sullivan says EE LLC’s licensing fee per unit is less than the $3.00 unit cost (in volume) of a popular graphics co-processor. And with current personal devices having processing power to spare, EE LLC believes that software is the way to go. (The folks at Pixelworks may disagree.)
eeColor is currently available for the Microsoft and Android OS’s running on popular chips.