Category: The Front Line

CES 2017: Afterthoughts and Second Thoughts

It’s been a few weeks since the annual extravaganza of consumer electronics in Las Vegas. As usual, it’s difficult to process everything one sees and produce a coherent show review within a few days. There are always products, trends, and demos that one winds up dwelling on for a few weeks. (Sometimes it’s better not to be the first to report on something!)

Overall, the show was busy and loaded with gadgets. Mind you; a good part of those gadgets were “shiny, sparkly” things, such as mobile phone cases with glitter and mirrors. Or must-have accessories, none of which really cost all that much. Numerous booths in the upper and lower South Hall were filled with exactly that, showcased by numerous Chinese/Korean/Taiwanese trading companies you’ve never heard of.

Add in a scattering of U.S. audio companies toward the front of the hall, plus the large areas reserved for AR/VR demos and the drone cages, and that pretty much sums up the South Hall experience. (A continuing puzzler is the presence of the United States Postal Service in the middle of all of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers.)

In the Central Hall, the show continues to be dominated by the big CE brands – LG, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm, Casio, Canon, Nikon, and relative newcomers TCL, Hisense, and Haier (who now owns the GE appliances business and made it a focal point of their booth). And the North Hall is basically divided between audio companies and automobile manufacturers, with the lines often blurring between them.

Much of the new tech appears in the Sands Expo Center, which due to the challenging logistics of travel, I don’t focus on much. There’s another crop of audio companies set up on the upper floors of the Venetian Hotel, and other venues host a variety of small, table top expos like Digital Experience and ShowStoppers.

So the first trend that jumped out at me is just how many of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers have taken over the show. In the past, I’ve joked about large parts of the South Hall becoming the “Chinese Electronics Show,” but that’s a pretty good description of what you see there.

Shiny, sparkly stuff everywhere!

Another trend you couldn’t miss is just how important appliances have become to the product lines of companies like Panasonic, LG, and Samsung (not to mention Haier and Hisense). That shouldn’t come as a surprise – there’s much more profit in refrigerators, washers, dryers, and even things like the induction oven Panasonic showed this year when you compare appliances to the former kings of CES, televisions.

That’s not to say television isn’t important anymore. But when the amount of booth space devoted to TVs continues to shrink while the square footage given to appliances is growing, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots. In fact, more of the TV demos focused on the underlying technology than on specific lines or models. And right now (while this is being written), I can walk into Best Buy and pick up with a 55-inch LG Ultra HDTV with Web OS for all of $500 – or walk out with a 55-inch Hisense version with basic HDR support for the same price.  (Remember the good old days, when a 50-inch 1080p plasma TV cost $5,000?)

So it doesn’t make as much sense for manufacturers to invest a lot of time and money into promoting a category of products which has slim profit margins to begin with. But those ‘connected’ refrigerators? Dual-chamber washing machines? Cool kitchen gadgets? Now, there’s where a decent profit can be made, especially when you can sell a swath of these products in a bundle for consumers who are remodeling kitchens.

Never heard of Skyworth? Don’t worry, you will…

 

Appliances are where the action (and money) is these days.

One area that was disappointing was wireless connectivity – specifically, 60 GHz WiFi and wireless USB. Although I did mention some impressive demos from Peraso in my post-show coverage, I was surprised to see little space Qualcomm gave to 802.11ad products, particularly after the impressive demos shown last year. Despite the unique advantages of wireless operation in this band – limited, secure in-room connectivity with high bit rates over large channels – we’re still not seeing enough in the way of finished products.

Although other press accounts have talked about voice recognition being a big deal at the show (mostly with the autonomous car demonstrations), I didn’t see much that really wowed me. In past years, Conexant had excellent demos of voice recognition in noisy environments, but either they didn’t exhibit or didn’t reach out to me as they have in the past. The same observation applies to gesture recognition – there were some interesting products here and there that used a basic implementation, but nothing earth-shaking.

I mentioned augmented reality and virtual reality. From my view, the biggest problem with VR taking off in a big way is the size and weight of the headsets. Sure, we’ve all seen the Samsung Galaxy VR TV commercial where everyone is “thrilled” to get a VR (Oculus Rift) headset for Christmas, and they all “ooh!” and “ahhh!” at the VR experience.

Wearing VR headsets isn’t as comfortable as it looks…

What we don’t see is people taking these headsets off and putting them aside after the initial VR novelty wears off and sore necks start to manifest – not to mention possible problems with nausea due to a disconnect in the brain between perceived motion and actual motion. The latter is a real problem, similar to the issues with failed stereoscopic perception revealed by the roll-out of 3D seven years ago.

That’s not to say there isn’t a market for VR. There definitely is, but by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, we will need about 8K pixel resolution per eye to make it really work. (Some VR manufacturers and users are advocating for 11K per eye, refreshed as fast as 120 Hz to eliminate flicker.) With AR, on the other hand, things are much farther along, as Kopin demonstrated with its 2K x 2K near-to-eye OLED microdisplay fitted to a firefighter’s oxygen mask for search and rescue.

I may have said this before, but it’s worth repeating: LEDs are simply dominating the display sector. From the white LEDs with color filters used in conventional LCD TVs and the blue LEDs combined with quantum dots in HDR/WCG UHDTV models to organic white OLEDs with color filters in Ultra HDTVs, RGB OLEDs in smartphones and tablets, and the new super-small “micro” LEDs that make up the building blocks of super-bright, colorful videowalls with as much as 8K resolution…LEDs are basically taking over the world. (And I left out automotive displays and lights, appliances, indoor and outdoor lighting, and indicator lamps.)

How’s this for a cool keyboard design, which each key illuminated by a micro LED?

About the only area left to mention is the ever-growing Internet of Things trend. It was impossible to keep tabs on all of the IoT products at the show – remote pet food dispenser monitors, heart monitors, water quality monitors, connected TVs, massage chairs, doorbell cameras, connected appliances, home security systems, teenage driver monitors, control systems, and of course a slew of connected sensors in the most advanced car designs.

Memo to those readers in the commercial AV industry: If you haven’t figured out that room control systems for AV gear, lighting, shades, thermostats, audio, screens, and projectors are all entering the IoT world and leaving behind clunky, proprietary and expensive programming systems – well, that train is leaving the station, and you’d better not miss it.

As for interfacing all of this gear, we’re seeing a slow and steady move to the next-generation USB connector (version 3.0 Type-C) for new laptops and eventually, tablets and smartphones. Given that USB Type-C can also support display connections like HDMI and DisplayPort, that’s one or two less connectors to deal with. And given a move to AV-over-IT connectivity, we may be more concerned with USB-based switching and distribution equipment – or we’ll just encode all of our video and audio to JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, or H.265 and use conventional fast network switches to do the job.

See you in Vegas next year?

HDMI 2.1: The Need For Speed Continues

Ever since HDMI version 2.0 was announced in September 2013, I’ve been pretty vocal about criticizing its “not quite fast enough” speed upgrade from 10.2 to 18 Gb/s, which turned out to be barely adequate for transporting 4K (3840×2160) video at full color resolution (RGB, or 4:4:4 in the world) at a frame rate of 60 Hz – and only with 8-bit color.

Given how quickly the display industry is shifting to 4K and even higher resolutions, it was inconceivable that this new interface would in effect create a “speed bump” in the 4K chain, particularly since high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut (WCG) enhancements were becoming part of the UHD ecosystem. And both enhancements require at least 10-bit color rendering, something that would be impossible to pass through the HDMI 2.0 interface if using a full-resolution color format.

It didn’t help that HDMI’s competitor – DisplayPort – had already broken the 20 Gb/s barrier way back in 2007 with version 1.2 and could easily interface a 2160p/60 signal with 10-bit RGB color @ 60 Hz, and earlier in 2013 had announced version 1.3, which saw a speed boost to 32.4 Gb/s.

For a time there, I thought the superMHL format, which had its debut at CES 2015, might be the successor to HDMI. It was faster (36 Gb/s), had a large, reversible connector, was compatible with USB Type-C Alternate Mode, and most importantly, supported Display Stream Compression.

Alas; it appears superMHL turned out to be mostly a science experiment. The MHL Forum was conspicuous by its absence at CES 2017, but the HDMI Forum more than made up for it by unveiling version 2.1. And now, we’ve got a real horse race.

High dynamic range support will be much easier with version 2.1, especially deeper color from RGB sources.

THE DETAILS

The public press release on HDMI 2.1 is sketchy on details, except to say that the maximum speed of the interface has now reached a mind-boggling 48 Gb/s (that’s faster than most network switches!). Quite the leap from 18 Gb/s, wouldn’t you say?

The release goes on to talk about a new generation of 48G cables, a greatly improved eARC audio return channel with auto-detect, and finishes with a discussion of high dynamic range and higher video resolutions, both of which are possible with faster data rates that enable higher frame rats and deeper color. And of all of this happened while retaining the familiar 19-pin Type A connector. (Wha-a-a-t?)

But what’s really going on here? How did HDMI accelerate to 48 Gb/s? Hold on, and I’ll provide the details missing from the press release.

First off, the current version of HDMI uses three connections – well call them lanes, like DisplayPort does – to transport red, green, and blue display pixels. There’s a fourth lane for the clock to synchronize frames, and the balance of the connectors are used for ‘hot plug detect’ connections, the Data Display Channel (EDID). That doesn’t leave much room for expansion.

But HDMI 2.1 adds another lane for TMDS data (although it’s not really TMDS anymore) by taking over the clock lane and embedding clock data within the existing signal, much the same way it’s done with packet-based signaling systems.

Next, the physical data rate over each lane has been raised from 6 Gb/s to 12 Gb/s. I don’t know how that 100% increase was achieved, but that’s an impressive achievement considering that we are still waiting for 12G SDI cables to come to market.

The 12G number may also be a function of jiggering the acceptable signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio, something proposed a year ago by Steve Lampen of Belden – but then again, we’re not likely to see 12 Gb/s of data traveling down any display pipes in the immediate future. (For comparison, DisplayPort’s HBR3 cap is 8.1 Gb/s per lane.)

That’s not all. The standard ANSI coding format for HDMI, DVI, and DP (not to mention numerous other interfaces) is known as 8b/10b, coding 8-bit words into 10-bit symbols, resulting in about 20% overhead. Example: A 4K/60 signal encoded as an 8-bit RGB signal requires 17.28 Gb/s, and 20% of that is overhead from 8b/10b coding.

HDMI 2.1 has adopted a more obscure form of coding known as 16b/18b. You can find a IEEE PDF from 1999 describing how it works here, and it’s formally known as “partitioned DC-balanced 16b/18b transmission code.” The net effect of moving from 8b/10b to 16b/18b is reducing the overhead to about 12% from 20%. What’s interesting though is that the HDMI 2.1 signal isn’t really TMDS we’ve come to know and love when in this mode – it’s something else, possibly more of a packet structure.

HDMI is now compatible with USB Type-C Alternate Mode – a”must have” feature for any new display interface.

Last but not least, HDMI announced last fall that it was compatible with the USB Type-C Alternate Mode format. And now, it appears that HDMI 2.1 is also compatible with DisplayStream 1.2 compression, which is a much more efficient way to transport signals like 7680×4320/60 (8K, for those not paying attention). Although at 48 Gb/s, version 2.1 could theoretically transport that signal uncompressed using 4:2:0 color.)

Compatibility with DSC wouldn’t be that much of a shocker – superMHL also offered it and it’s another TMDS format. In fact, at second glance, it appears that much of the engineering that went into superMHL has now migrated over to HDMI 2.1 (about time) and the most significant breakthrough is doubling the interface speed.

Given that 40 Gb/s is definitely optical fiber territory, the only remaining question is why we still haven’t seen a detailed HDMI specification for direct optical interfaces. 48G cables will be expensive and difficult to engineer, but multimode optical fiber can already do the job and is cheap. To come up with 50-foot and longer manufactured optical cables for HDMI would be a piece of cake – and it’s already been done in the past for HDMI 1.3/1.4.

So there you have it: HDMI 2.1; a faster, smarter, and more appropriate display interface as we head into the era of 4K and beyond. How soon will we see HDMI 2.1 interfaces and cables? Well, considering it took almost 3 years for version 2.0 to achieve any significant presence in commercial AV, I’d say maybe a year from now at the earliest…and perhaps not until 2019 in any quantity.

By then, a good deal of the industry may have already shifted to AV-over-IP for the bulk of its signal switching and distribution, using simple format conversion at the display end. And we still have to see who is going to adopt on DisplayPort 1.3/1.4, still a “no-royalty” interface that can hit 32 Gb/s and supports all the forward-looking necessities (Type-C Alternate Mode, DSC, HDR).

Gentlemen, start your engines…

CES 2017 In The Rear View Mirror

Overheard on the show floor, at the end of Day 3: “Why do I have to come back to Las Vegas every year? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

This year’s CES was one of the earliest I’ve attended, starting right after the first of the year with two days of press conferences (I attended just one) and four days of exhibits (three days were plenty for me), scattered all over Las Vegas from the main convention center to the Sands Expo Center, the Venetian Hotel, The Mandalay Bay, and numerous other off-site meeting places.

Turnout according to the CTA was strong, exceeding 160,000. And the exhibit halls were full up. Automobile manufacturers and audio companies camped out in the north hall, while the big names in consumer electronics staked their claims in the center hall, leaving the upper and lower south hall exhibit spaces to drones and VR brands, along with a slew of Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturers and trading companies you’ve never heard of.

It’s a lot to take in over the four days, but I managed to cover all of the halls and make it over to the Sands for a brief visit. Some colder-than-usual weather (with sleet and even hail mixed in) had people scurrying to get around, and the availability of Uber and Lyft drivers was erratic, to say the least.

Still, I came back with over 1,000 raw photos and a pile of videos that I’m still editing as this is being written. Selected highlights and trends observed at the show will follow shortly, but let me start with a few general observations. First off, this was a very laid-back CES. Ground-breaking announcements were few and far between, as were advanced technology demos.

Most of the things I saw this year had been introduced at prior shows and were simply refinements. Very little of what I saw was unexpected, and I had even predicted some of the products and trends. (It’s just a matter of connecting the dots over time.)

Sony's back in the OLED TV game with this 77-inch 4K monster (panel by LG Display). There are 65-inch and 55-inch models, too.

Figure 1. Sony’s back in the OLED TV game with this 77-inch 4K monster (panel by LG Display). There are 65-inch and 55-inch models, too.

 

LG's Signature

Figure 2. LG’s Signature “Wallpaper” OLED TV appears to float atop a large piece of glass…and it’s super-thin, too.

In the world of displays, there were ample demonstrations of quantum dot (QD) technology for backlighting televisions and computer monitors. Another major manufacturer is now on board with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) televisions, and we’re seeing the beginnings of ‘pure’ LED-based displays that use fine pitch RGB elements.

Interest in robots has spiked considerably, from table-top versions that help you wake up in the morning to models that can guide you through an airport to your flight and even check on the departure time and gate. Other robots can sweep the floor and perform mundane tasks, returning to their charging stations automatically. There was even a robot that could see and pick up objects, and some rudimentary demos of ‘learning’ robots were also on hand.

Automobiles are a BIG part of the show, particularly when it comes to all-electric models with varying degrees of autonomy. There were plenty of demos of self-driving cars and even one that can detect your emotions and physical state. Other eye-poppers included entire cars that were 3D-printed and cars with VR headsets for driving. (That last one is borderline nuts, if you ask me.)

And of course there were hundreds of examples of Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity: Smart refrigerators and washer/drier combos. Smart lighting. Smart cars.  Small smart appliances. Smart scooters. For that matter, just about anything in the home or business can be connected to the Internet for monitoring and control. In some cases, all that’s needed is a plug-in USB stick. In other cases, it’s a software and hardware installation.

What follows is a somewhat random listing of show highlights. These are products or trends I felt significant enough to report on. Some were shown on the floor; others required a private visit to a meeting room or hotel suite. A few of them need to be seen in person to appreciate their significance, and if you make it to the NAB or InfoComm shows, there’s a good chance of that happening.

Panasonic introduced four new Ultra HD Blu-ray players at CES (eith and without WiFi), but oddly enough, they still aren't selling this beautiful 65-inch 4K HDR OLED TV in the USA to go with them...

Figure 3. Panasonic introduced four new Ultra HD Blu-ray players at CES (eith and without WiFi), but oddly enough, they still aren’t selling this beautiful 65-inch 4K HDR OLED TV in the USA to go with them…

 

Samsung's new ultrawide QLED PC monitor has spectacular color rendering from quantum dots.

Figure 4. Samsung’s new ultrawide QLED PC monitor has spectacular color rendering from quantum dots.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are becoming the go-to platform for generating photons. Doesn’t matter if it’s for your TV (OLEDs, WLEDs with quantum dots), home and office lighting, dashboard indicators, or stadium signs. A new generation of so-called “micro” LEDs has come to market and is finding its way into digital signage, resulting in super-fine-pitch emissive displays with high dynamic range and very wide color gamuts.

On the television side, LG continues to make improvements to its line of OLED 4K TVs, showing models as large as 77 inches. They’ve even come up with a ‘wallpaper’ design that suspends the display on a clear glass surface, and the thickness of these displays has dropped below 5mm (that’s about ¼ of an inch). OLEDs can also flex, making them perfect for installation in cars, trucks, trains, planes – anything that moves.

In the LG Display booth, we saw prototype OLED dashboards, including a virtual instrument cluster with a transparent OLED (very cool!) overlaid on an LCD display for a 3D gauge effect. We also saw two-sided OLEDs as well as a method to use the front surface of an OLED TV as a speaker. It worked well, but by the laws of physics won’t have a wide field of dispersion.

Sony has also embraced OLED TVs with a flourish, buying panels from LG and using their own video processing in 77-inch, 65-inch, and 55-inch models. (They’re also using the front surface as a speaker.) The company is also a leader in micro LED technology; dazzling crowds with their massive 8K x 2K CLEDIS LED display made up of hundreds of seamless LED tiles. Look for more companies to embrace micro LEDs, and don’t be surprised if they start showing up in televisions by the end of the decade.

LG's 27-inch PC monitor has an amazing 5120x2880 pixels of resolution - that's right, 5K.

Figure 5. This 27-inch PC monitor from LG has an amazing 5120×2880 pixels of resolution – that’s right, 5K.

 

Hisense is into quantum dot technology and showed a full line of 4K HDR LCD TVs, driven by Nanosys QD science.

Figure 6. Hisense is into quantum dot technology and showed a full line of 4K HDR LCD TVs, driven by Nanosys QD science.

 

Even Qualcomm is getting into the HDR game, showcasing the processing power of their Snapdragon CPU to drive displays.

Figure 7. Even Qualcomm is getting into the HDR game, showcasing the processing power of their Snapdragon CPU to drive displays.

For nearly a decade, the standard illumination system for LCD TVs and monitors was clusters of white LEDs and RGB color filters; either using edge illumination and a light waveguide plate or direct illumination. A few years ago, we started to see a new way to produce more horsepower with brighter, more saturated colors and high dynamic range: Blue LEDs harnessed to quantum dots.

Now, everyone’s in the game. Samsung made the biggest splash at CES when they rolled out their “Q” line of TVs, using what they call Q-LEDs (quantum LEDs). But hold on – what Samsung calls a Q-LED isn’t really. It’s just an improved quantum dot that’s more efficient while the original Q-LED, developed by QD Vision, is a true electroluminescent device that would revolutionize displays (and probably run OLEDs out of business).

Nevertheless, Samsung dazzled with a full line of 4K quantum dot LCDs, as did Chinese manufacturers Hisense and TCL. Both companies are making a major push into the U.S. television market (Hisense sponsors a NASCAR team), and TCL is one of a handful of vertically-integrated TV manufacturers – from raw panels to finished sets. Other Chinese brands (Haier, Skyworth, Changhong, and Konka) showed 4K TVs with high dynamic range, but they don’t have the presence quite yet on this side of the Pacific.

Front projection is still very much in the game. LG, Sony, Hisense, and Changhong all showed an ultra-short-throw laser projector for home theater use that can light up a 100-inch (diagonal) screen – all with 4K image resolution. Somewhat lost in the translation was the ability to display improved dynamic range and more saturated colors (what Changhong called “flame red and pacific blue”), but there’s no question that this is a viable alternative to large screens, like the 120-inch 4K LCD TV shown by LeEco in their booth.

Unusual LCD and OLED sizes and aspect ratios continue to be popular. Samsung showed what they stated is the first quantum dot-equipped desktop monitor, a 34-inch curved model that claims 125% coverage of the sRGB color gamut and has a maximum refresh rate of 100 Hz. BenQ also showed an HDR LCD monitor using an improved panel design and coupled it with DisplayPort 1.3 (HBR3), streaming content at a maximum of 32 Gb/s from source to screen. And LG exhibited a spectacular 5K LCD monitor (5120×2880 resolution) that supports USB 3.0 Type C and Thunderbolt connections.

Figure 8. Although LG Display does a ton of work with OLEDs, they aren't leaving LCDs behind. Their new Nano Cell technology greatly improves color rendering, saturation, and dynamic range using nanoparticles smaller than 1 nanometer.

Figure 8. Although LG Display does a ton of work with OLEDs, they aren’t leaving LCDs behind. Their new Nano Color II technology greatly improves color rendering, saturation, and dynamic range using nanoparticles smaller than 1 nanometer.

 

Witrh Keyssa's KISS 60 GHz wireless dock, you won't need a DisplayPort (or HDMI) cable to your TV.

Figure 9. With Keyssa’s KISS 60 GHz wireless dock, you won’t need a DisplayPort (or HDMI) cable to your TV.

So how do we interface all of these displays? The big news for HDMI at the show was version 2.1, which increases the overall data rate to 48 Gb/s using speed improvements to the physical data rate per lane, plus expansion to a fourth lane and the adoption of Display Stream Compression – all the while retaining the same 19-pin connector as before (a neat trick, if you ask me). Now, will they announce a standard for native optical fiber interfacing?

Lattice Semiconductor, the parent company of HDMI, continues to dabble in 60 GHz wireless connectivity with their SNAP close-proximity wireless interconnect. As presently configured, it can support the same maximum data rates as HDMI 1.3/1.4 (10.2 Gb/s), so it can transport 4K video in the RGB (4:4:4) format at a maximum frame rate of 30 Hz, or transport 4L/60 4:2:0 video.

Over in the VESA booth, Keyssa showed their Kiss 60 GHz wireless solution, docking an Amazon Kindle tablet to stream 1080p content to a large TV. Both SNAP and Kiss utilize multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) antenna arrays and have similar data rates around 6 Gb/s upstream and downstream. What was different about Kiss is that it was making a wireless DisplayPort connection, not HDMI.

DisplayPort is also undergoing upgrades. Demos were shown of 120 Hz video output using a high bit rate 3 (HBR3) connection; maxed out at 8 Gb/s per lane. VESA also showed HDR through DP, along with a conversion to HDMI 2.0b for HDR televisions. Nearby, semiconductor designer Hardent demonstrated an improved version of Display Stream Compression, using 2:1 and 3:1 ratios. They are now venturing further by testing 4:1 DSC and its impact on latency, which with 3:1 packing amounts to just a few picture lines.

HDMI LIcensing showed off HDR 4K content with the new version 2.1 HDMI interface, which had its maximum speed raised to 48 Gb/s across four lanes.

Figure 10. HDMI Licensing showed off HDR 4K content with the new version 2.1 HDMI interface, which had its maximum speed raised to 48 Gb/s across four lanes.

 

Kopin's 2K x 2K minature OLED display is designed for heads-up augmented reality applications - and it looks great.

Figure 11. Kopin’s 2K x 2K minature OLED display is designed for heads-up augmented reality applications – and it looks great.

 

Figure 12. AR headgear is finally getting lighter, although still bulky.

Figure 12. AR headgear is finally getting lighter, although still bulky.

Over in the Westgate Hotel, Canadian fabless chip company Peraso unveiled the next generation of their 60 GHz wireless USB chipset, using the 802.11ad WiFi standard. In their tests, a 220 MB video file downloaded from a laptop through an 802.11ad router to another laptop in about 8 seconds (try that at home!). It’s also possible to stream wireless video in real time over USB this way.

Both Lattice and Peraso see potential for 60 GHz wireless with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets as a solution to the annoying, bulky and heavy cable bundles that go with the territory. Qualcomm, which had an enormous exhibit of 60 GHz products last year including twelve different tri-band WiFi modems and a smartphone (Letv), dialed it back this year with a modest exhibit of high-speed data and file exchange using their Snapdragon processor.

On the control side of things; you name it, it was connected to the Internet, from doorbell cameras and RFID locks to water sprinklers, shades, lights, thermostats, and major appliances. Samsung, LG, Hisense, Haier, and others exhibited interactive refrigerators with built-in LCD screens that can show video (play back recipes while you’re cooking or baking), keep track of what’s in the fridge and how old it is, prepare shopping lists and order groceries automatically (you know Amazon has a hand in that), and work as a whiteboard or virtual clipboard for leaving notes and keeping track of your schedule(s).

LG’s “knock” LCD refrigerator screen turns transparent when you tap it to see what’s hiding on the right side shelves. (Lots of potential for mischief there!) Samsung’s models will actually talk to you: You can ask the refrigerator to go out on the Internet and find a recipe and then read it back as you prepare the food. Another cool appliance, an induction oven, was shown by Panasonic. You can place everything for one meal – main course and sides – on one plate, put it in the oven, and everything is correctly heated and cooked without burning.

Figure 13. Samsung's OLED smart watches can change to show any watch face configuration you like.

Figure 13. Samsung’s OLED smart watches can change to show any watch face configuration you like.

 

Figure 14. Corning apparently woke up and smelled the coffee! All of the glass in this car - windshield, mirrors, light covers, etc. - is made from the company's tough, durable, and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. (Why didn't they think of this earlier?)

Figure 14. Corning apparently woke up and smelled the coffee! All of the glass in this car – windshield, mirrors, light covers, etc. – is made from the company’s tough, durable, and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. (Why didn’t they think of this earlier?)

I’ll close out by talking about robots and autonomous cars. Machine learning is a popular topic among scientists and we’re now seeing it come to fruition. Canon showed an assembly robot that can actually see; looking for and finding parts on a table, picking them up and putting them in the correct place. Toyota’s YUI car actually senses your emotions while you drive, along with your heart rate. It can automatically suggest places to eat, a movie for a cranky child, or simply takeover driving while you catch a cat nap behind the wheel. And LG featured a guide robot that will roll up to you in an airport, scan your boarding pass, tell you the flight departure time and gate and escort you to your destination.

Granted; these are somewhat exotic examples of machine learning. But on a more mundane level, you can now design a control system that will use face recognition to unlock and enable operation of devices in your home, school, and business. Face recognition will also work in a car dashboard, as shown by Mitsubishi and others, and real-time displays will update you on weather, time, road and traffic conditions, and even suggest alternate routes.

That’s it! I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I saw at the show, and will have more posts after I have some time to gather my thoughts. (And look at that – I never once mentioned drones!)

On Samsung , Pro AV, Car Audio, and Control

By now, you’ve most certainly heard or read the news that Samsung – the Korean consumer electronics giant – has agreed to purchase Harman International Industries, a holding company with a diversity of CE brands (Harman/Kardon, JBL) and pro AV marques (AKG, AMX, BSS, Crown, dbx, DigiTech, JBL Professional, Lexicon, Martin, Soundcraft, and Studer).

Much has been made of the fact at Samsung is zeroing in to the automotive market with this acquisition. The company has no real presence in car audio, having made its reputation on televisions, computers, smart phones, and appliances. And there’s no question that the potential business for connected, smart cars is enormous – it’s already attracted the attention of Intel, Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

So why did this deal happen? There are a number of reasons, but the most obvious is a scramble for profits. While Samsung remains the worldwide leader in TV shipments and sales, Chinese companies like TCL and Hisense are closing the gap and breathing hard on Samsung’s shoulders. Concurrently, prices of finished televisions are plummeting, even with the transition to Ultra HD: I saw a Philips 55-inch 4K set offered for less than $600 on Black Friday.

Business prospects don’t look much better with mobile phones. The market for smartphones is basically saturated in the U.S. and carriers are moving away from fixed contracts to month-by month deals with lesser-known models. It didn’t help that the much-ballyhooed Galaxy Note 7 developed serious battery issues, costing the company billions of dollars in recalls.

There has already been a shift in the company’s marketing efforts to major appliances (white goods), as evidenced by the last two booth setups at CES. Refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, ovens, and small appliances are still profitable for the company. But the largest market in the world for displays – transportation – has eluded Samsung’s grasp, at least in North America.

Let’s not forget that Samsung has a rather large display device manufacturing business, particularly for mobile devices. They’ve made substantial investments in both LCD and OLED technology, with the latter widely used in the company’s Galaxy smartphones and tablets. Flexible OLEDs are a natural for automotive applications where there is considerable vibration and flexing – not to mention G-forces.

Most of the news reports I’ve read have focused on the car audio and connectivity angles of this deal. In contrast, the questions coming from our community are all about Samsung’s ulterior motives in the commercial AV space. They’re already a major player in digital signage. Now, they’ll also own a control systems company (AMX) that also happens to make signal management and distribution products, along with video encoders and decoders (SVSI).

The real question is this: Does Samsung – a very IT-centric company – care all that much about switching and distributing HDMI and HDBaseT signals? I’ll go out on a limb here and say, “No.” Practically speaking, Samsung – which is already pushing AV over IT for its digital signage products – can have signal management products manufactured inexpensively in China by OEMs (as many companies already do now) and sell them at rock-bottom prices.

In the larger picture, the income from those operations will be dwarfed by revenue from car audio, navigation, and Internet of Things products. And Samsung will definitely have an interest in controlling AV devices, but their focus will be IT-based control using apps and icons, not proprietary control systems with custom programming.

What’s particularly intriguing about this acquisition is that Samsung (as pointed out in a New York Times article) “…keeps tight control of its supply chain — often owning its suppliers outright — and has mostly eschewed big deals to fill in holes in its portfolio.”

The Samsung/Harman acquisition is just another example of consolidation in our industry. You see it every day in other sectors, ranging from health insurance companies (Aetna & Humana) to airlines (American and US Air) and semiconductors (Qualcomm and NXP). It’s all about the search for profitability as costs keep going up and margins keep going down. The long-term trend is for manufacturers to move more of their products to distribution and away from direct dealer sales. Unless a dealer can hit an ever-higher monthly sales quota, the manufacturer is better off simply working through a distributor; minimizing paperwork and warehousing costs while boosting profits. That’s the Wal-Mart/Target/BJ’s/Costco model!

You only need look at the costs of AV gear to understand why; specifically, portable business projectors. In the overall scheme of things, these projectors are becoming more of a low-cost niche product these days. Accordingly, they’re sold mostly through distribution from online dealers or from brick-and-mortar office supply distributors like Staples (which acquired Office Depot in 2015).

The real wild card is the migration to IT infrastructures for signal distribution – and that very much includes 802.11x and proprietary wireless systems. As product costs come down and IT interfaces are added, our professional products start looking more like consumer products. (This has only been going on for 15+ years now, just in case you weren’t paying attention.)

At some point, this combination of CE features and lower prices will lead many of us to install a consumer product, like large televisions instead of professional monitors. That’s also been going on for some time, as has the use of Apple TV to ‘mirror’ iOS tablets and Mac laptops in meeting rooms and classrooms.

So where does this all take us? For one thing, you will see more consolidation of brands in the AV industry by the end of the decade. Example: There are simply too many small companies selling signal management and control products to share in the wealth – some will go under; others will merge to stay alive, or be bought out.

Ditto companies that sell display products: They’ll either become part of a larger “umbrella” holding company like Harman, or simply close their doors. A good example of the latter is Milestone, which has aggregated Chief, Da-Lite, Sanus, and Projecta.

The writing is on the wall. I attend the Consumer Electronics Show every year and compare what I see there to what’s happening at NAB and InfoComm. The products are becoming smarter; can self-configure in many cases, rely more than ever on IT connectivity and wireless, and have shrinking price tags.

That, in turn, is shifting the focus to how we use these products with less emphasis on how they work, and how to install them – just like in the world of consumer electronics. This shift to more consumer-centric AV products started 20+ years ago with the first LCD projectors and flat screen displays, and has done nothing but pick up speed since.

It’s a new game with new rules…

Hey, Whatever Happened To superMHL?

There is no such thing as a ‘sure thing.’ You can have a 20-yard field goal try with 5 seconds left, two foul shots left to ice the game, or a one-on-one penalty shot with your best wing on the ice. Doesn’t matter – things do go awry. In fact, sometimes they never get going in the first place.

Two years ago this coming January, Silicon Image (now Lattice Semiconductor) unveiled what they claimed to be the best next-generation display interface. They called it superMHL, and it was super indeed; sporting a large, 32-pin symmetrical plug design to go with a 36 gigabits-per-second (Gb/s) data transfer rate.

That’s wasn’t all. superMHL (basically MHL on steroids) also supported the new Display Stream Compression (DSC) 1.1 standard. And it would also work with the all-important USB 3.0 Type-C plug’s Alternate Mode, which multiplexed display connections and fast USB serial data in the same ‘smart’ plug.

Wow! I didn’t see this coming; neither did most of the trade press in attendance. Here was a connector faster than DisplayPort’s version 1.3 (32 Gb/s), plus it was symmetrical in operation (plug it in either way, it doesn’t care, it’s smart enough to set itself up the right way). And it was compatible with the next generation of USB connectors.

Even more amazing, the MHL Consortium demo showed 8K content flowing to a large Samsung 8K TV through this interface, which claimed to support 7680×4320 video @ 60 Hz with 4:2:0 color (albeit using DSC to pack things down a bit in size). If there was ever a ‘sure thing,’ this was it!

It's the fastest display interface out there - and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

It’s the fastest display interface out there – and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

I was assured in the following months that Lattice and the MHL Consortium would have several press announcements pertaining to design wins for the 2015 holiday season. I’d see several new UHDTV televisions with at least one superMHL port and the rest of the inputs would be HDMI 2.0 connections. Thus, we’d be ready for the brave new world of 8K TV! (Never mind that 4K TV was still getting on its feet at the time!)

But it never happened. Black Friday, Christmas, New Year’s, and then ICES and the 2016 Super Bowl came and went with no announcements. At ICES 2016, the MHL Consortium once again had a demo of 8K content playback through an LG 98-inch LCD TV using the superMHL interface, and “yes, it looked great” and “we’re ready for 8K TV” and “it works with USB Type-C” and so on, and so forth.

Right now, it’s pretty much radio silence about superMHL. So what happened?

For one thing, the adoption rate of HDMI 2.0 since its formal unveiling in 2013 can be charitably described as “slow.” Early Ultra HDTVs had perhaps one HDMI 2.0 port on them, and not all of them supported the new HDCP 2.2 copy protection protocol. In our industry, we’re only now starting to see distribution amplifiers and switches with HDMI 2.0 connections – there’s still a lot of version 1.4 product out there, too.

Another perplexing question: Since superMHL fixes the speed limit problems of HDMI 2.0 by doubling them – and also adds the all-important compatibility with USB Type-C (a must, going forward) along with support for DSC (critical as we push display resolutions beyond 5K), why would Lattice continue to support both formats, or even suggest they could be mixed on future UHD+ televisions and monitors?

In other words; if there is a better option, then why wouldn’t you want that option?

To be sure; Lattice is in a tricky position. Through their subsidiary HDMI Licensing LLC, they reap millions of dollars each year in royalties associated with every HDMI port on every piece of consumer and commercial gear. That’s a nice cash flow, and who wants to mess with it?

But they really can’t lose here, inasmuch as they control the IP for all of these transition-minimized differential signaling (TMDS) interfaces. Why not bite the bullet and announce the phase-out of HDMI 1.3/1.4, and move everyone to version 2.0? Better yet; just announce a sunset for version 2.0 and start the transition to superMHL, a/k/a HDMI 3.0?

Yeah, it's fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we're facing now.

Yeah, it’s fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we’re facing now.

One problem Lattice created with this new connector is that it’s effectively an oxymoron. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and it was originally designed to multiplex HDMI signals through 5-pin micro USB ports. The concept was that the single micro USB connector on your smartphone or tablet could connect to a television so you could play back videos, show photos, and share your screen. (Never mind that the majority of people prefer to do this via a wireless connection and not a 15-foot HDMI-to-micro USB cable that often requires a power adapter.)

So MHL meant “small, fast, and powerful.” And now we have the ‘funny car’ of display interfaces with a large connector that will never get anywhere near your mobile device…and the way things are going, it may never get anywhere near your TV, either.

In previous columns and in my classes and talks, I’ve written about the deficiencies of HDMI 2.0 – slow speed, non-symmetrical, no support for USB Type-C (finally remedied a few months ago) and lack of support for Display Stream Compression. superMHL fixes all of these problems in one fell swoop.

The answer? Re-brand this connector as HDMI 3.0 – which it really is – and make the appropriate announcement in two months at ICES 2017. Practically speaking; MHL has been a non-starter (among major U.S. brands, only Sony, Samsung, and LG have supported it on their smartphones and TVs) and the adoption rate for HDMI 2.0 is nowhere near as fast as it was for version 1.3. Too many interfaces and too much confusion!

After all, even Elvis Presley had to make a comeback…