Category: The Front Line
Samsung Moves Front & Center With HDR
- Published on Tuesday, 16 August 2016 17:29
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
Last Wednesday, I was one of a group of journalists, engineers, and other technical types sitting in on a presentation about high dynamic range (HDR) TV. The location was Samsung’s sparkling-new product showcase in lower Manhattan at 837 Washington Street, and the presenters ranged from Samsung execs to well-known industry consultants, including Florian Friedrich of AVTOP, Steve Panosian of Samsung, Kevin Miller from ISF, Gerard Catapano from Samsung QA Labs, and Jason Hartlove of Nanosys.
THE NEXT BIG THING
You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about high dynamic range television by now. Along with Ultra HD resolution, HDR is the next big thing in TV displays, along with a new, wider color gamut, and eventually high frame rate video.
The transition away from mature Full HD (1920×1080) display technology to Ultra HD is happening much faster than most people expected. The costs of manufacturing LCD panels for televisions have absolutely plummeted in the past couple of years; so much that there is at best a $50 to $100 price delta between same-size 1080p and 2160p TV models.
In fact, we will start to see major TV brands dropping 1080p models altogether in larger screen sizes; possibly as soon as December. Sales experience is showing that customers take the upgrade to 4K more often than not when buying sets measuring 55 inches or larger, which is good news for retailers.
And that’s “qualified” good news, as worldwide sales of televisions have been in decline the past four years. The double-digit annual growth of Ultra HDTV sales are keeping things from getting worse and leading everyone in Japan, Korea, and China to focus on 4K and leave increasing numbers of sales of 1080p sets to the bargain brands.
But quadrupling the picture resolution by itself isn’t enough to turn the tide. Hence, we now have HDR, which can produce images containing peak brightness levels that are 10x higher than what we used to see on our old tube HDTVs. (Remember those?) And the colors represented on these displays are also much more saturated and intense, thanks to advancements in illumination technology.
Back in the early days of high definition television, we were largely in unknown territory. The first HDTV broadcasts used terrestrial television, and everyone needed to learn more about antennas and set-top boxes. Yet, seven years after the first HDTV broadcasts, every major network had produced some quantity of HDTV content.
There were missteps. Remember the surge in interest in 3D about a decade ago? It peaked in 2009 and featured competing 3D encoding and viewing standards, expensive glasses that often broke, complaints of headaches and nausea after extended, and even a campaign by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists to test for eye disorders; one based on the inability of certain people to see stereoscopic images correctly.
TIME TO CHANGE THINGS UP
HDR is different. You don’t need anything other than the naked eye to see it, and the premise of HDR is that you are watching images with peak whites and contrast ratios that follow closely what you see in real life (about 14 stops of light at any instant, from deep shadows to peak brightness).
What’s more, the colors you see rendered in HDR are much more vivid than what our current televisions can display as they’re working with a restricted color gamut. If you’ve seen bright neon or LED signs at night, marveled at a brilliant sunset, or gotten up close to tropical flowers in bloom, you know how hard it is to reproduce those intense colors on a television or computer monitor.
That’s all changed. We’re now standing at the threshold of an entirely different class of displays that are advanced by several orders of magnitude from the color TVs your parents or grandparents watched 50 years ago. It isn’t just about having more pixels – it’s about adding in all of the visual elements that replicate what you see every day.
Samsung is one of the first companies to get out of the gate with HDR televisions, and they’re using a new technology to light up the screen. Instead of conventional white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and arrays of color filters, the light source is made up of arrays of blue LEDs and matrices of green and red quantum dots (QDs). It’s not difficult to get intensely-saturated and bright blues from LEDs, but green and red provide more of a challenge. Hence; the QD backlight.
And they are bright. Samsung claims that their HDR TVs can achieve 1000 candelas per square meter (cd/m2) in a small area, which is quite the jump from the 300 cd/m2 or so that conventional white LED backlights can generate. Plus, the intense greens and reds generated by QDs have expanded the gamut of displayable colors considerably; closer to that of digital cinema projectors.
Now, the catch: How can we measure the performance of an HDR TV equipped with quantum dots? We can’t use the older test pattern generators and set-up Blu-ray discs as they’re limited to the current ITU Recommendation BT.709 color space and only use 8-bit color encoding. (HDR is based on a 10-bit color system.)
For that matter, we can’t even use the older display interfaces to connect a test pattern generator. For HDMI, the standard must be version 2.0a, and if we want to use DisplayPort, it must be version 1.4. It goes without saying that we must use an Ultra HD Blu-ray player if we want to source HDR test patterns from optical disc – and there is exactly one of those (Samsung) on the market, with another one coming from Panasonic this fall.
At the Samsung event, Friedrich and Miller explained how a new suite of test patterns has been prepared for Ultra HD Blu-ray to both evaluate and calibrate an HDR display. This test pattern UHD BD will be available from Samsung and can be used with any HDR TV, even the line-up of LG organic light-emitting diode (OLED) UHD sets that have come to market.
Steve Panosian talked about the lack of standards in TV performance and how there has to be a better way for consumers to compare the performance of one brand of HDR TVs against another. Although at this point in time, there are so few models available that it’s basically Samsung vs. LG, with companies like TCL and Hisense looking to get into the game this year.
Jason Hartlove from Nanosys made an appearance to talk about what’s happening with quantum dot science and what the next generation of HDR TVs might look like as the QD arrays in Ultra HDTVs start to resemble something like an OLED emitter array. And Chris Chinnock of Insight Media served as moderator for the day’s events, which culminated in hands-on sessions showing how to use the test pattern UHD Blu-ray to evaluate a set’s performance and calibrate it for optimal results.
The interesting thing about HDR TVs is that we really don’t need to provide much in the way of user adjustments anymore. HDR TVs use CEA 861.3 metadata, flowing through an HDMI or DisplayPort connection, to determine brightness levels, gamma, and color values. And with peak brightness values in the range of 800 – 1000 cd/m2, why would we need to have a “Dynamic” picture mode setting? (It’s already dynamic!)
Although I had seen this demonstration on two previous occasions, Insight Media and Samsung did an excellent job of explaining the challenges in both designing a set of test patterns to evaluate HDR TV performance and putting those patterns to actual use. I was reminded of those early days of HDTV: What signal format and connector do I need? What kind of antenna will pick up the broadcasts, and where do I aim it? What’s the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?
THE NEXT STEPS
My advice to everyone remains unchanged, however. If you are in the market for a new Ultra HDTV with HDR, I would hold off on purchasing it until at least January, if not next spring. By then, there should be several models supporting more than one HDR format (the baseline being HDR 10, but there are at least four others developed by Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, and the BBC).
More importantly, your UHD set should support not only HDR content flowing through a display connection, but over an Internet connection. More and more content delivery is switching to video streaming as we move away from physical media. Plus, you’ll certainly spend less money on an HDR set if you can sit on your hands for a while, and there may even be a few more UHD Blu-ray player models to choose from six months from now, along with a lot more movies mastered in HDR.
Product Review: ClearStream Eclipse TV Antenna
- Published on Thursday, 11 August 2016 18:41
- Pete Putman
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It’s been a while since I reviewed my last batch of TV antennas, but the topic is worth revisiting with the ongoing spectrum auction and an apparent increase in cord-cutting as people ditch more costly pay TV packages for free, off-air reception of broadcast TV channels.
Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are under way and NBC has saturated the airwaves with coverage across a multitude of channels, including Telemundo. That means you may be able to watch events on two broadcast channels in addition to streaming channels.
A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Antennas Direct sent me one of their ClearStream Eclipse antennas. ($59.99, various retailers) It’s shaped like a big loop, is flexible, and has a black finish on one side and white on the other. Plus, the surface is known as SureGrip and will stick to just about any surface, over and over again.
Like other ClearStream antennas I’ve tested, the loop appears to be optimized for UHF reception. And that could be problematic, since the FCC may wind up taking away at least 10 (if not more) UHF channels after the spectrum auction, assuming the bids are successful.
That, in turn, may force more than a few TV stations back onto high-band VHF and (horrors!) even low-band VHF channels if they want to stay on the air. And digital TVs need much larger antennas to pick up broadcasts on channels 2 through 6, unless you’re located fairly close to the TV transmitter and the signal levels are very high.
ClearStream has also included an inline amplifier to boost signal levels. Technically, it qualifies as an antenna-mounted amplifier, although you can place it anywhere ahead of the TV or set-top box receiver. This amplifier does make a big difference, as you’ll see in a moment.
For the purposes of this review, I went into my lab and fished out my trusty Radio Shack bow tie antenna (not available anymore, but it cost all of $4 back in the day) and also a spare Mohu Leaf antenna; both for comparison. I also grabbed an “anonymous” inline, 15 dB VHF/UHF preamplifier that would normally mount on a mast but was quite happy sitting on the floor.
I also set up a crude antenna support – a shipping box from a well-known retailer of just about anything electronic in New York City. I taped each antenna to the box (which was standing on its end) and placed the box atop a perch my cats use to look out the window.
This box was positioned near the window in an upstairs room, facing in the general direction of the Philadelphia DTV antenna farm. I operated much as the average TV viewer would – I didn’t know exactly where to aim the antennas, but used consumer DTV sites to use dead reckoning and hoped for the best. 20’ of RG-59/U cable ran from each teat antenna back to a two-way splitter, feeding a spectrum analyzer and my Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV receiver.
I connected each antenna and scanned for VHF and UHF channels three times – once without any amplification, once with my ‘anonymous’ amp, and once with the ClearStream amplifier. I captured spectral waveforms for selected channels on the analyzer and also ran a quick MPEG stream analysis using TS Reader.
The stations I looked for were in order WPVI (ABC, channel 6), WBPH (IND, channel 9), WHYY (PBS, channel 12), WPHL (My, channel 17), KYW (CBS, channel 26), WUVP (Univision, channel 29), WPSG (CW, channel 32), WCAU (NBC, channel 34), WYBE (IND, channel 35), WTXF (FIX, channel 42), and WFMZ (IND, channel 46). Channels 9 and 46 originate from Allentown, PA; the rest come from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, about 20+ miles from here over an obstructed path.
After compiling that data, I had a pretty good idea of how each antenna worked. The results can be seen in table 1, and once again, it’s pretty amazing how functional the bow tie is. Not a great performer without an amplifier, but with the ‘anonymous’ amplifier it grabbed 9 of the 11 stations, including WPVI on channel 6. It performed even better with the Eclipse amplifier, pulling in 10 of 11 stations. (WTXF-42 reception was erratic.)
Mohu’s time-tested Leaf was next. As a solo act, it sniffed out 5 of 11 stations and also found WPVI without amplification, so its low-band VHF performance was good. Adding the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved the score to 8 out of 11, and switching to the Eclipse amplifier added one more station. This was the only antenna to pull in WTXF-42 reliably, using amplification.
Finally, it was time for the Eclipse to take its turn. Riding bareback, the Eclipse tied the Leaf and snared 5 of 11 stations – but not WPVI-6. Adding in the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved its score to 9 up and 2 down, while switching to the Eclipse amplifier resulted in one less receivable station (WPSG-32, which is a bear to pull in at any time). But I could not receive WPVI in any of the three modes.
And the spectrum analyzer grabs show why. WPVI’s 8VSB waveform is at least 20 dB above the noise floor with either amplifier, and actually closer to 32 dB C/N when you add the correction factor for this resolution bandwidth. Using the Eclipse, channel 6 measures only 10 db C/N (22 dB with correction factor) using the ‘anonymous’ amplifier and barely 14 dB C/N (26 dB with correction) using the Eclipse amplifier.
That’s just not strong enough for reliable reception, especially when you see the 6 dB notch in WPVI’s carrier from multipath. There’s also about 6 dB of multipath tilt through the Leaf, but the overall signal is much stronger and well within the range that can be corrected by adaptive equalization. And the cleanest signal was seen with the bow tie – not as strong as the leaf, but minimal tilt and notching and easy for the TV to demodulate.
Based on my measurements, the inline Eclipse amplifier has somewhere between 18 and 20 dB of signal gain, and lo and behold, that’s what it says in the dual-side instruction sheet. No specification was given for noise figure, but it appears to be about 2 dB in the UHF TV band, based on my noise floor measurements (-88 without, -86 with).
The ClearStream Eclipse is certainly small and can go just about anywhere – and it’s not likely you’ll damage it, given how flexible the housing is. This loop antenna is a decent performer with UHF and high-band VHF signals, but just doesn’t have enough gain for reliable low-band VHF TV reception.
That may not be a problem if you don’t have any low-band V’s in your area, but you should check TVFool.com in any case as we’re starting to see lots of low-power repeaters and independent stations lighting up on channels 2 through 6 all across the country. One of those stations could be your ticket to watching a TV network you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
The Mohu Leaf did a better job with channel 6, but was no better in overall station count unamplified. And connected to an amplifier, the bow tie gave both the Leaf and Eclipse a run for their money. With the Eclipse amplifier, it was a dead heat between the Leaf and bow tie (10-1 scores), with the Leaf locking in WTXF-42 and the bow tie securing the difficult WPSG-32.
As The World Turns: Vizio Is Acquired by LeEco
- Published on Wednesday, 27 July 2016 16:16
- Pete Putman
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A press release crossed my desk yesterday, detailing how the TV brand Vizio had just been acquired by the Chinese firm LeEco for $2B. LeEco, while largely unknown on this side of the Pacific, is the 7th largest TV brand in China and also operates an online video content delivery business.
It’s expected that the combined operations of both companies will push them past Skyworth as the #6 worldwide TV brand, according to analysis from IHS Technology I just received this morning. (Never heard of Skyworth? Give it time.)
Vizio, which started operations over a decade ago, has become a powerhouse brand in the U.S. Although they don’t release their revenue and market share results, the company has given Samsung a run for their money over the years with a full line of televisions, most recently taking steps into HDR and UHDTV with Dolby Vision-equipped sets.
Yet, not everything the company has touched has turned to gold. There have been brief forays into smartphones (gone), tablets (gone), and computers (also gone.) In contrast, the company has done very well with sound bars, which all flat-screen TVs benefit from.
This news didn’t surprise me at all. The TV marketplace has become a very cutthroat business as prices and profits went into free fall, aided and abetted by competition from China where the nexus of LCD panel manufacturing is moving.
Numerous prominent nameplates have been victims of this downward trend, starting with Hitachi several years ago and continuing through Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Sharp; all of whom have withdrawn from the North American TV market. (Hisense continues to sell televisions with the Sharp brand name in the U.S. and Canada.)
Panasonic, once a major player in TVs, is in the unusual position of offering an Ultra HD Blu-ray player (DMP-UBD900, $699) this fall, but no UHD televisions to bundle it with. For now, the company is not selling TVs at retail in the U.S. even though it demonstrated a 65-inch OLED UHDTV at CES that used an LG RGBW OLED panel.
Only Sony remains as a Japanese TV brand, and they’ve paid a dear price to stay in the game, losing hundreds of millions of dollars for a decade. Samsung and LG, meanwhile, have maintained their positions in the Top 5 even as worldwide TV shipments have gone into decline by an average of 3-4% per year, offset somewhat by double-digit growth in UHDTV shipments.
What’s interesting about LeEco is that, according to the HIS analysis, they’re willing to sell TVs at or below manufacturing costs – or even give them away free as a promotion – to secure paid subscriptions to their online content in China. That’s not a model that is likely to work here, but it does indicate how aggressive the new LeEco / Vizio marketing approach could be here and overseas.
Checking this weekend’s sales fliers, I spotted a Vizio 50-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR for $800 and a 70-inch model for about $2,000; both at Best Buy. Connect the dots and you can see why TV prices continue to fall, and why the bulk of TV sales are transitioning from 1080p to Ultra HD in a hurry.
Sharp (again, now made and marketed by Hisense) did Vizio one better this week, offering a 55-inch Ultra HD set for $650 (no HDR). We’re not far off from seeing $500 55-inch Ultra HDTVs, which will probably be on store shelves in time for the fall football season and certainly by Christmas.
Vizio’s conversion to a publicly-held company a year ago set the stage for this sale and is more proof of the shift in power to China for manufacturing and sales of televisions – at least worldwide. Will TCL and Hisense make further inroads to the U.S. market? What impact will they have (if any) on Vizio’s market share?
On CE Week, Shoot-Outs, And Flies In The Ointment
- Published on Monday, 27 June 2016 13:05
- Pete Putman
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Last Thursday, I made the trek up to the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City to check out the annual CE Week show. And I must say that it wasn’t nearly as valuable an experience as it was a few years ago, when the show was affiliated with the Consumer Technology Association.
If my understanding is correct, CE Week was a way to keep interest stoked in the rapidly-changing world of consumer electronics. When the show first started, HDTV was a big part of the equation, with exhibitors like Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and LG either showing off their latest models on the show floor, or exhibiting at nearby off-site locations.
That landscape has changed considerably, thanks to the collapse in TV prices and the shift to panel manufacturing in China. Only two companies had dedicated exhibits for UHD TVs – Samsung and Westinghouse Digital – while other models were represented in the annual Value Electronics Shoot-Out in a downstairs demo room.
Once arriving at the event, I quickly toured the booths and saw products to connect your landline phone calls to your mobile (Voice Bridge), give you a 360-degree camera view (Kodak PixPro), “enhance” the detail in your new Ultra HDTV (DarbeeVision), and bundle audio and large images into a compact go-anywhere cube projector (Aiptek). (I was also buzzed by a few drones here and there, the fastest being a $60 glowing green/blue number sold by Odyssey that really whipped around the show floor.)
Epson was also there, showing a full line of front projectors for home theater use, including a new model (PowerLite 5040UB) that, although it uses a traditional 1920×1080 3LCD engine, incorporates a new “4K Enhancement Technology” that uses pixel-shifting to create what appears to be images with full 3840×2160 resolution. (Oh, and it can display HDR content, too. Oh, and it will cost about $3,000, and its full brightness specification is 2500 lumens.)
Scoping out all of that stuff took only about an hour, so I decided to descend the stairs and check out the UHDTV Shoot-Out, put together by Robert Zohn of Value Electronics. There had been some arguments among videophiles in the past about the winners (Shoot-Outs tend to end that way, trust me), so I decided to keep a low profile and sit in the very back as a passive observer, passing on the evaluations and scoring.
Joel Silver was on hand from the Imaging Science Foundation to explain a wide range of TV topics from grayscales and CIE color plots to high dynamic range and black levels. After discussing each parameter, those in attendance were invited to walk by each of the five displays and score them on performance for that parameter. At the end of the session, the votes would be tabulated and a winner announced.
For the record, the UHDTVs on hand came from LG (OLED), Samsung (HDR LCD), Sony (HDR LCD), and Vizio (HDR LCD). Just for fun, an older Pioneer 1080p plasma TV was also positioned to the left edge of the array, next to the LG OLED.
The introduction of high dynamic range with wider color gamuts (and eventually, higher frame rates) really does change the notion of television from what we know today. Instead of a nominal peak white brightness of 100 to 200 cd/m2, we’re now looking at 800 to 1000 cd/m2. And the range of colors our displays can reproduce has expanded considerably, particularly in the green and red loci. So viewing HDR/WCG content really is a step closer to what our eyes see every day, and makes conventional SDR HDTV look a bit dated.
As the session wound on, I noticed that the grayscale images shown on the LG OLED (model OLED65G6P) had a noticeable greenish color cast that wasn’t seen on the other sets. Intrigued, I got up and walked over to stand at a zero degree offset from the TV’s centerline – and voila: The tint vanished.
Additional images with lots of white, light grays, and pastel colors were shown during the test, and I moved back and forth between the on-axis viewing spot (several rows of chairs back from the audience) and my original seat at the far left rear, which looked to be about 30 – 35 degrees off-axis. Sure enough, the greenish color tint was still there.
I pointed this out to a couple of LG representatives, neither of whom had noticed it previously. I also mentioned it to Zohn, who replied that he also noticed it before but stated “What options do we have? It’s still better than the loss of luminance and color shifting on LCD/LED TVs.” Uh, maybe not, if someone viewing at a moderate angle is seeing a greenish tint that someone else isn’t. None of my plasma TVs ever exhibited this condition.
Silver told me he doesn’t recommend using these displays for color grading or critical viewing because of an inconsistency in yellow shading. I didn’t notice that, but it was hard to miss the green shift. I alerted a few other people in the room to look for it, including my colleague Ken Werner. (You can see it quite clearly in my photos.) But if you were one of the crowd seated in the first couple of rows toward the center, you wouldn’t have seen this “fly in the ointment.”
Even so; this display won the Shoot-Out, according to a press released that landed in my inbox this morning. Quote: “LG Electronics’ SIGNATURE 4K OLED TV was crowned “2016 King of TV” in the 13th Annual Value Electronics TV Shootout™ in a competition among four contending flagship 4K Ultra HD TV models from LG and other leading brands during CE Week in New York City. The 65-inch class (64.5 inches measured diagonally) LG SIGNATURE OLED TV (model OLED65G6P) with HDR was voted the top-performing TV by both general attendees and an expert panel of professional calibrators based on eight different picture quality attributes.”
Hmmm. I’m surprised that the “expert panel of professional calibrators” didn’t pick up on the LG color shift, particularly since models of LCD TVs are routinely hammered for their intrinsic off-axis viewing limitations (elevated black levels, color shifts, and contrast flattening). So what’s causing it?
I have some theories. Several years ago, Sony introduced its first OLED monitors for professional reference monitoring. To improve color purity and make it easier to achieve clean white balance (and possible to improve brightness as well), Sony’s top-emitting OLED pixels were equipped with cavity filters – basically narrowband (notch) optical filters.
Unfortunately, these cavity filters created an unwanted low-frequency roll-off effect when images were viewed at an angle, producing a marked blue color shift on the parts of the image farthest from a viewer. This effect was most noticeable when grayscale patterns were being shown. (My understanding was that Sony re-engineered the design of these filters to improve off-center frequency response in subsequent models.)
So is that what caused the color shift in LG’s 65-inch Signature OLED UHDTV? Possibly. Using these filters could flatten out and sharpen the red, green, and blue peaks, although a color gamut chart shown by Silver seemed to contradict that theory.
It’s also possible LG is using some sort of micro lens or prism technique (or even a polarizer) in the optical path to enhance brightness, and that could be the problem. The result would be brighter images with excellent color saturation, but a narrower viewing angle. (Everything in life is a trade-off!)
Does this affect all models of LG OLEDs? I can’t say, and I don’t recall seeing anything like this at CES when visiting the LG booth and LG Display suite and taking pictures of various OLED displays at different angles. I’ve sent off an inquiry to LG Display to see if they can provide any insights. And my congratulations go to LG for winning the Shoot-Out. (Hey, that 10-year-old Pioneer plasma still looks pretty good!)
But as much as I prefer emissive (plasma, OLED) displays over transmissive (LCD), what I saw at the CE Week TV Shoot-Out gave me real pause. In my family room, viewing angles can be as wide as 40 degrees, and as you’ve just seen, the color shift would be very noticeable at that angle.
Prior to attending CE Week, I had planned to pick up an OLED UHDTV next year, after all the HDR compatibility and support issues (and hopefully display interface speed limit problems) are worked out. Now? That’s on hold until I can figure out what’s behind the shift, and if it’s a characteristic of other 2016 LG OLED TVs.
Those flies in the ointment can be quite annoying!
Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 28 to correct the original quotation from Robert Zohn of Value Electronics.
InfoComm 2016 In The Rearview Mirror
- Published on Friday, 17 June 2016 12:48
- Pete Putman
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Another InfoComm show has come and gone. This is my 23rd InfoComm and it’s hard to imagine when I first set foot in Anaheim way back in 1994 – ostensibly to cover the now-defunct Projection Shoot-Out – that I’d still be making the treks to Orlando and Las Vegas, let alone teaching classes and joining the InfoComm faculty.
For this recap, I’ll focus on trends I saw at the show that will continue to impact our industry for some time to come. And there were plenty of them, everywhere you looked.
First off; I’ve been saying for several years now that software is becoming increasingly more important than hardware in our industry (and across all market segments – look at how inexpensive Ultra HDTVs have become already), and that we’d start to see less of a focus on expensive hardware and more of an emphasis on software and managed services.
And that’s exactly what I spotted in Las Vegas. Astute observers noticed that the once humongous booths set up by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, Crestron, LG, Samsung, Hitachi, and other companies have gotten a bit smaller. (NEC, Da-Lite, and Christie were exceptions to the rule.)
AMX, when it was a stand-alone company, used to have an enormous booth at the show (not to mention a huge party every year). Now, AMX is limited to a few small stands within the Harman booth. Walk the show floor these days and you’ll recognize other once-mighty brands that have been acquired by holding companies and now occupy much smaller footprints.
And this trend shouldn’t be any surprise. When hardware used to sell for four and five figures (and in some cases, six figures), you could justify those million-dollar booths that looked like mini-malls. (Remember the huge tented Sanyo projector booths?) But that’s not the case anymore.
Practically speaking, how much real estate do you need to talk about software programs and managed services? The same thing is happening at NAB, where once humongous companies like Harris (now Imagine) are largely touting services and not hardware.
Even Digital Projection has scaled back its enormous multi-tier InfoComm booth. And projectiondesign has shed some square footage since being acquired by Barco, which has itself gone on a square footage diet. Ditto Sharp, which had one of the smallest booths ever at this show, perhaps related to the company’s ongoing financial challenges.
Surprisingly, Toshiba showed there is indeed a second act by showing up with a nice-size booth full of LCD monitors for tiled display walls. That’s not exactly an easy market to compete in, what with LG, Samsung, and NEC having a big footprint. But they’re giving it a shot.
Another trend that’s really picking up speed is the move away from projection lamps to solid-state illumination systems, most often lasers with color phosphor wheels. The availability of large, inexpensive LCD displays has cut deeply into sales of projectors – particularly in small classrooms and meeting rooms, where we used to put in “hang and bang” projection systems.
If you talk to people who’ve made the switch away from projection to direct-view, the reason they most frequently cite is that they don’t have to change out lamps anymore, and the LCD displays can be used under normal room lighting and turn on instantly.
Well, projector manufacturers have gotten the message and are moving en masse to solid state light sources. Early adopters like Casio have reaped the benefits, but now everyone from Sony and Panasonic to Vivitek and Optoma is on board.
Even so, the corner wasn’t really turned until this year when Epson – one of the big manufacturers of projection lamps – showed a 25,000-lumen 3LCD projector powered by a laser light engine. And I saw more than one UHD-resolution projector using the laser-phosphor combination, even in ultra-short throw configurations.
How much longer will we be changing out lamps? I don’t think it will be more than a few years before the majority of projectors offered for sale will use laser or LED light engines (or both). There will be exceptions for certain models, but for all intents and purposes, short-arc lamps are toast.
Here’s another trend – LED walls. I tried to count all of the exhibitors at InfoComm and lost track after wandering through the North Hall. And just about every single exhibitor was based in China, with names you would not recognize. Were they looking for U.S. dealer/distributor partners? It’s not likely many would pick up customers here, and that may be why Leyard (another Chinese manufacturer) bought Planar last year – everyone knows who Planar is.
I also saw LED walls with pitches as small as .9mm. That’s smaller than the pixel pitch of a 50-inch 1366×768 plasma monitor from 1995! And if anyone continues to go big with their booths, it’s the LED wall manufacturers. (Not like they have any choice!) Leyard’s 100’+ 8K LED wall was a perfect example of why bigger is still better when it comes to a booth.
And Sony’s Cledis 8Kx2K LED wall shows just how much farther we’ve come with this technology, creating what appeared to be a perfectly seamless, pixel-free panoramic LED wall that dazzled with bright, super-saturated color images.
The Chinese dominance in LED displays shouldn’t be surprising. They’re moving to a similar level in the manufacturing of LCD panels, monitors, and televisions, undermining the Korean manufacturers (who undermined the Japanese, who took our U.S.-based television business away in the 1980s).
In fact, so much of our hardware is fabricated, soldered, and assembled in China and Southeast Asia these days that it should be no surprise prices have dropped as much as they have. Back in the day, a quality line doubler (remember those?) would set you back as much as $5,000 to $8,000. Today, you can buy a compact scaler that works to 1080p and Wide UXGA for a few hundred bucks.
My last trend has to do with the slow migration of video and audio signal distribution and switching away from hardware-intensive platforms based on display interface standards to software-based platforms that use IT switches, encoders, and decoders. Wow, did I spot a lot of those products at the show, even from some previously-vigorous defenders of HDMI-based architectures.
The interest in learning how to move to an “open” IP-type AV distribution architecture must be considerable: I taught a class on AV-over-IP this year at InfoComm and was astounded to see that 185 people had signed up to attend. And there were very few no-shows, as I found out when I had attendees sitting on the floor and standing along the back wall for almost the entire 90-minute class.
What’s more, a substantial portion of those attendees came from the higher education market segment, and an informal poll revealed that most of them were still upgrading from older analog systems to all-digital infrastructure. In essence, they were telling me that they preferred to skip by HDMI-based solutions and move directly to an IP-type solution.
Hand-in-hand with this discovery came more responses about transitioning to app-based AV control systems and away from proprietary, code-based control that requires specialized programming. Well, there were a few companies showing app-based AV control products in Vegas that had super-simple GUIs; software that just about anyone could learn to use in a few hours.
Throw in the accelerating transition to UHD resolution displays (they’ll largely replace Full HD within a year), and you have some very interesting times in store for the AV industry as this decade winds on…