Category: The Front Line

ISE 2018 In the Rear View Mirror

I just returned from a week in Amsterdam in what is now the largest AV trade show in the world, Integrated Systems Europe. The organizers claim that 70,000 people attend this event and that number is certainly believable: The RAI exhibition center had to erect two additional temporary “bubble” halls to hold all of the manufacturers, and the foot traffic was crazy in the main halls.

If there was an overarching theme to the show, it had to be the migration of AV signal distribution to IT networks. Booth after booth featured exhibits of video encoders, demonstrations of compression and picture quality vs. latency, giant signs extolling the virtues of video and audio distributed over 1 Gb and 10 Gb networks, and plenty of “us vs. them” comparisons.

There are so many players in the AV-over-IT world that you need a scorecard to keep track of them. Of course, everyone has their own “special sauce” when it comes to sampling, compressing, and recovering video (audio is easy!), and those “us vs. them” demonstrations usually featured (a) a live video source, (b) that same video as processed through the manufacturer’s encoding system, and (c) that same video as processed through the competition’s video encoding system.

Crestron claims near-zero latency for their DM NVX codec, compared to SVSI…

 

…except that the SDVoE exhibit showed that DM NVX does have latency – at least, more than SDVoE’s Blue River system.

Latency was a big topic at the show. It’s defined as the time delay between a frame of source video and that same frame of video after recovery from a decoder and is typically measured in milliseconds. For some reason, the AV industry is obsessed with “near zero” latency in AV installations and I lost track of all the booths claiming their products had “little,” “near zero,” and “almost none.”

Crestron had a large exhibit in their booth, touting their DM NVX system for signal distribution and control over IT using 1 Gb network switches while maintaining image quality. To drive the point home, they had a side-by-side comparison of SVSI and HDBaseT transmission with DM NVX to show that it had the lowest latency. Time code was shown on all displays and visitors were encouraged to “take a picture with your phone” to confirm their claims.

At the back of another hall, the SDVoE Alliance had an exhibit saying, “Not so fast!” Their demo compared a video source to DM NVX and an SDVoE Blue River NT codec and appeared to show that the Crestron product had higher latency (and once again, visitors were encouraged to take a picture and confirm what they saw). The big difference? SDVoE promotes the use of 10 Gb switches instead of 1 Gb switches (a point I concur with) so even signals with 4K resolution can travel with light compression.

I’m not sure what codec Crestron is using, but the Blue River codec is adapted from VESA’s Display Stream Compression (DSC), an entropy-based compression scheme with extremely low latency that is well-suited to packing down 4K and even 8K signals.

Epson was mapping images onto a projector (right) that was projecting onto a large screen (left). Did you get all that?

 

Optoma is now in the LED display wall business.

Consider that HDMI version 2.0 is only fast enough to transport 2160p/60 with 8-bit RGB color and you can see the advantage of 1.5:1 and 2:1 compression to increase color bit depth – essential to distributing signals with high dynamic range and wide color gamuts, not to mention high frame rate video. (For those keeping score at home, a 2160p/60 signal with 10-bit RGB color requires a data rate of 21.39 Gb/s, so with a little over 2:1 compression, it will pass through a 10 Gb/s network switch.)

This looming battle between codecs and Valens’ HDBaseT format will only heat up as more manufacturers adopt ‘pure’ AV-over-IT solutions. HDBaseT is still limited to 328 feet of cable length and data rates of 10.2 Gb/s, although Aurora Multimedia claims their IPBaseT hybrid product can push HDBaseT speeds much higher and accommodate 4K signals with deeper color. Further confusing the issue is the TiCo (Tiny Codec) which is based on JPEG XS, a “mezzanine” codec that will permit lighter compression of video so that it can travel through a 10 Gb network.

Another trend was the explosive growth of LED signage. Hall 2 had so many Chinese LED manufacturers that I couldn’t keep track of the all. The “hot” technology nowadays is micro LED, or LED pixel elements with a pitch less than 1 millimeter. Consider that a 50-inch plasma TV from 1998 had a pixel resolution of 1280×768 or about 1.2mm, and we can now install a wall-sized LED display with a dot pitch approaching .8mm.

There’s no question that these products are having an impact on the projector industry. As I’ve mentioned in the past, every concert I’ve attended in the past 3 years has relied on large LED displays to show live video and graphics – none of them employed projectors, so far as I can remember. One consequence of this trend is that projector manufacturers including Barco, Christie, Panasonic, and Digital Projection chose to emphasize LED displays and walls in their booths (like covering their bets) alongside their flagship products. (Even Optoma did this!)

Absen had a humongous booth at ISE and is becoming a major player in LED signage in the U.S.

 

4K LCDs are here for digital signage and Leyard was promoting a full line of them.

In contrast, the challenge for Chinese LED display companies is that no one really knows anything about them, not to mention how reliable their products are. So now we’re seeing familiar names from the U.S. AV industry showing up in engineering, marketing, and sales positions for the likes of Leyard/Planar, Unilumen, Absen, and other brands, a strategy meant to bridge the familiarity gaps and increase sales.

Another area of interest is collaboration. Mersive’s Solstice had an exhibit that stressed the importance of analytics, gathering data on who was logged into a presentation sharing system and when. Kramer’s VIA product also has an analytics function and it looks like other companies are heading in that direction. DVDO, formerly owned by Silicon Image / Lattice, is independent again and has joined the collaboration space with their Tile product. This can stream and tile five independent sources of Full HD video, not to mention share screens and cast.

You wouldn’t think of “Sharp” and “broadcast video camera” in the same sentence – yet, here they are with exactly that.

 

Panasonic showed an 8K workspace, made up of two side-by-side 4K LCD monitors equipped with touchscreen overlays.

The 800-pound gorilla in this space is, of course, Barco’s ClickShare. There are three iterations of the product, with the top-of-the-line CSE 800 allowing 8 shared screens at the same time through dual 4K display outputs. Crestron had a demo of AirMedia that claimed higher bandwidth than Solstice (1.6 Mb/s), full network security, .05 seconds latency (there’s that latency thing again!), and enterprise management software.

There was even a minor controversy at ISE. Barco posted a press release stating that they had “instructed bailiffs to approach the booth of Kindermann and collect evidence of its Klick & Show wireless presentation system present at the show” to be used in patent infringement suits. Apparently, the same thing happened last year with Kanex Pro at ISE. What really happened was that nothing was taken from Kindermann’s booth, but the press release did create some discussion.

The continuing decrease in hardware costs are the real elephant in the room. Consider that it was possible to buy a 50-inch RCA 4K TV at Shop Rite the week before the Super Bowl, and you can clearly see just how quickly value is being sucked out of consumer and commercial AV gear. In addition to the “hang and bang” projector market getting hammered by ever-cheaper and larger LCD displays (which are moving quickly to 4K resolution exclusively), AV signal management equipment – switchers, distribution amplifiers, and extenders – is susceptible to this ‘dollar store’ trend as more and more brands come to market with hardware largely manufactured in Asia.

The AV-over-IT business is a clear example. Most IT products are sold through distribution and it’s likely that most AV products will follow that path in the near future. The core products for any AV-over-IT installation are encoders and decoders, and more than a few products I saw are being sourced from China. Indeed, more than one booth at ISE featured the same exact product in a different housing, the only differential being price and perhaps a few bells and whistles.

One thing is for certain. Many large companies who have ruled the AV roost for decades are finding themselves in an unfamiliar position these days, trying to keep up with the pack as the migration to AV-over-IT continues. We’ll see how the trend plays out at InfoComm in June…

On China, IoT, AI, and Trade Shows

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s worth stepping off the technology express for a moment to consider some of the changes we’re seeing in our industry, in parallel industries, and in everyday life – changes that have been wrought by a combination of geographical, economical, and political factors.

It’s no secret that most of the electronics manufacturing (semiconductors, televisions, mobile phones, computers, tablets, appliances, wireless gear) in the world is moving to or has moved to mainland China and Taiwan, along with several southeastern Asia countries. Just 25 years ago, it was common to spot the words “Made in Japan” on your table radio, television, camera, and even your car.

Nowadays, “China” has been substituted for “Japan,” even for many products manufactured and sold by Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia. That’s because labor costs are so much lower and the Chinese government as a so-called “silent” partner can easily clear land for (and even build) state-of-the-art factories. They also provide a large labor pool to fill the positions in those factories.

And the Chinese have made major investments of their own in new technology. One of the largest manufacturers of LCD panels in the world is TCL, who has a partnership with Samsung in a large LCD plant known as China Star Optoelectronic Technologies. Not only that, TCL manufactures and sells their own brand of televisions in the U.S. Both TCL and Hisense (another Chinese brand who also owns the Sharp brand name) have been selling 55-inch 4K (yes, 4K!) televisions for as little as $500, with some specials dropping below $400.

The Skyworth OLED TV booth at CES 2017.

The result of this shift to the Far East has been a dramatic drop in the price of not only televisions, but a host of other electronic gadgets. I recently bought a new Lenovo laptop with solid-state drive, 15” screen, a fast i7 Intel processor, tons of RAM for both the PC and video card, and the latest in 802.11ac channel-bonding WiFi tech. My cost was a just under $1300 with shipping and tax.

Because the world of professional electronics (including AV gear) is largely driven by the world of consumer electronics, we’re now seeing those same dramatic price drops in everything from HDMI switchers to pan/tilt/zoom cameras. And the U.S., Japanese, Korean, and European brands that sell that stuff have had to cut their prices as well.

Now, we’ve got the Internet of Things in town. Anything that can be fitted with a Media Access Control (MAC) port and has a WiFi connection can now be accessed, configured, and controlled from an Internet connection just about anywhere in the world. All of the gear you’d install in a conference room or classroom can be set up and operated with nothing more than a tablet and software equipped with simple drag-and-drop GUIs. And the software doesn’t cost all that much.

Throw in artificial intelligence (AI) and you now have an AV installation that can configure itself once powered up. That’s right – all of the displays, lighting, screens, audio mixers, thermostats, amplifiers, and switching equipment can talk to the control software, load the appropriate drivers, and create a touchscreen display without you having to lift a finger. And you can talk to an assistant like Siri or Alexa to walk through the process.

Add it all together – lower manufacturing costs, an increasing percentage of CE products (equipped with IoT functionality) finding their way into commercial AV installations, and artificial intelligence to handle the once-tedious job of writing control code and commands. More power in the products at lower costs to you.

That last part is what’s causing major headaches for manufacturers. Instead of price tags with 3 or 4 zeros following the first integer, a majority of products are being sold with two or three zeros. That has a direct impact on profitability, one which cannot be simply fixed by increasing the volume of sales – the availability of cheap electronics has spawned too many competitors, which is great news for price-sensitive consumers.

And that brings me to trade shows. Alert readers will notice that the once-mammoth booths and stands of Japanese and Korean manufacturers at NAB and InfoComm have gotten noticeably smaller as the Chinese booths have gotten larger. No surprise – if you are selling hardware and software with smaller price tags, you have less money to put into a trade show booth. And some of these well-known brands are pushing more and more of their products through distribution, not traditional dealers. (It’s that margin/profitability thing again.)

What’s more; the lines between residential and commercial gear and installations have been steadily blurring for over a decade. (Admit it – you’ve been installing regular TVs instead of commercial monitors most of the time, right? Not that there’s any real difference between them.) Many residential dealers who were once shoveling in the cash have started bidding on commercial work, and vice-versa.

It’s not surprising to see some of the hardware on view at the annual CES in January make repeat appearances at ISE, NAB, InfoComm, and CEDIA Expo as the year winds on. In fact, one prominent Japanese manufacturer (begins with “P”) has focused more commercial product at CES recently, having dropped out of the TV business altogether.

We’ll probably see some consolidation of trade shows in the next few years as attendees come to realize there isn’t a whole lot of difference from one show to the next. The increasing use of CE products for installations, along with improved AI and support for IoT, will actually deliver the promise of ‘plug and play’ (along with a new set of headaches from hackers and malware) to our industry, reducing the purchasing decisions to best price and warranty/reliability.

Some questions to think about: How long before Amazon starts selling commercial AV gear? Is it now practical to view a manufacturer’s product line using VR technology? (Some companies have already tried this.) Just how much education do you need to learn how to configure a room full of IoT hardware?

And just how much of a difference is there between a video encoder made by “You never heard of us, we’re first-timers at this show” and “Buy from us, we’ve been selling into this industry for 40 years” – especially if both products are made in China, possibly at the same factory and using the same chip sets? (Not much, if any…)

LG Shows Off Its Commercial Displays and Systems

LG Business Solutions held its New York City Roadshow on November 2 in an event venue on 10th Avenue near 31st Street. The area is called Hudson Yards for the railroad yards that dominated the area for decades, an area that was otherwise an inaccessible backwater despite the proximity of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. But the recent extension of the Number 7 subway line and covering over the rail lines has opened the area to energetic luxury development, with many high-rise buildings under simultaneous construction. When you get to the construction cranes and the construction guys eating their lunches on the sidewalks, you know you’re there (Fig. 1).

Gary Kayye of rAVe Publlications and Kayye Consulting presented a morning keynote that was primarily an introductory tutorial on why 4K is good for AV and commercial displays. Kayye pushed the 4K Digital Canvas concept, which he defined as multiple screen covering the walls in a conference room, with some screens having static reference information and others dynamic imagery related to the ongoing presentation or discussion. One version of this is the “collaboration room.” There aren’t many installations now because of the scarcity of 4K material and distribution, but many more are coming in the next year, Kayye said.

If any of this was too basic to hold your interest, you were free to wander, look at the various business solutions, and discuss them with one of the many enthusiastic and well-trained LG representatives.

The most striking solution consisted of two flexible LG OLED displays mounted back to back and laminated between two sheets of glass. This assembly was demonstrated in a variety of configurations; perhaps the most striking was the 55EG5CD, in which the displays were suspended by wires and fed by a ribbon cable (Fig. 2). The unit has a three-year commercial warranty for 18 hrs/day, 7 days/week interior use. A rep said there has not much push-back from retail customers on 18 hours a day rather than 24. There is no problem with dynamic content, the rep said, but LG recommends against the use of static content. Suggested applications are boutiques, art galleries, and high-end retail.

I had an extensive interview with VP of Business Development Dan Smith, both of us standing on the exhibition floor and pointing at the different systems as we discussed them. I commented that the Roadshow seemed to be pushing OLED solutions since OLED was at the center of at least half of the demonstrations. Smith answered that LG Business Solutions is the only provider that offers OLED, LCD, LED, and outdoor LCD products, so they are free to offer the technology best suited for each customer’s application.

OLED-TV in high-end hospitality systems was prominently featured. Is there any push-back on cost? “Well, Smith said with a laugh, we don’t try to sell it to Motel 6.” But there is lots of interest from high-end hotel brands, he said.

Smith unknowingly repeated the comment of his rep that LG does not recommend static content on OLED signs, but they do have OLED way-finding signs in an airport with custom-created imagery that avoids static areas.

For 24/7 applications such as fast-food menu boards, they recommend LCD. MacDonalds is a major LG customer, Smith said.

Smith commented that burn-in is only one of the two major sources of OLED image sticking.  The other is residual charge in pixel switching circuits. LG deals with both, he said. In general, OLED performance has improved significantly over the last 2 years, Smith said, including greater accuracy of the transfer function. OLED lifetime is 30,000 hours, compared with 50,000 for LCD, Smith added, and there is no problem with lifetime in either TV or dynamic-signage applications.

Smith emphasized that the “wallpaper OLED” is flexible but is generally laminated onto or between glass. As a business-development person, he sees it is a powerful building block for making a variety of customer solutions.

A very high-aspect-ratio 86-inch and an even  wider 88-inch stretch display for columns are both resized from a 98-inch LCD. The 86 stretch is 84 x 13 inches with a resolution of 3840 x 600 pixels. The 88 stretch is 3840 x 1080 — one half of a 98-inch LCD.

My tour ended with a decorative LED display fabricated on transparent film. The electronics is contained in the strip on the edge of the display. (The strip is much narrower than the one in the photo, which had to serve a structural function.) Two films can be mounted side by side, with the electronic strips on outside. Smith said the transparent display is intended to be applied to shop windows to attract attention.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices, automotive, and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. He is the 2017 recipient of the Society for Information Display’s Lewis and Beatrice Winner Award. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

 

The Times They Are A-Changing: Hisense Buys Toshiba’s TV Business

This press release crossed my desk this afternoon. There’s not much to add to it. Hisense already owns the right to manufacture and sells televisions with the Sharp brand. Now, they’ve acquired Toshiba’s television business unit.

Toshiba, which had been rocked by an accounting scandal and red ink, and which is reeling under the costs of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, had basically given up on the TV marketplace a couple of years back.

Now, they’re out for good, and some analysts are wondering what future if any the company has “as a going concern.”

 

 

Hisense Purchases Toshiba Television Business

Hisense Electric Co., Ltd, a publicly listed subsidiary of Hisense Group announced the purchase of Toshiba TV production, brand, R&D & operation service 14th November, 2017.

With its 142-year rich history, Toshiba has a leading display technology in Japan with the brand ranked highly international global technology brand list’s.

Hisense will purchase 95% stock shares of Toshiba Visual Solutions Corporation (“TVS”), a wholly owned subsidiary of Toshiba Corporation for 12.9 billion Japanese Yen with Toshiba retaining 5% stock holding. Hisense will obtain the TVS businesses including production, research and development, and sales functions as well as license to use the Toshiba brand for a period of 40 years for visual solution partners operating in Europe, South East Asia and other markets.

TVS primarily operate in TV and variety of ancillary products, including commercial and advertisement display products. The TVS purchase also secures two factories in Japan and hundreds of talented Toshiba R&D employees as well as a significant IP portfolio relating to TV technology business patents for image quality and acoustics.

Mr. Liu Hongxin, the CEO of Hisense Group, said that Hisense would optimize TVS’s resources on R&D, supply chain or global sales channels, cooperate with and support each other in display technology, provide competitive content operation services for smart TVs for the global market and accomplish fast growth in Japanese market.

According to the IHS, sales of Toshiba TV ranked No.3 in Japanese market in 2016 with the Hisense TV market share in Japan the highest among all non-Japanese brands. Collectively both brands cumulative market share reaches over 20% after the transaction. Hisense’s TV business in 2016 ranked third in the world (IHS) and has held NO.1 market share in China for 13 consecutive years.

As Official Television Sponsor of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, Hisense is poised to continue to expand and implement its global brand vision and strategy. With the benefit of this acquisition, Hisense will develop and enlarge its international strategy of TV business in R&D, branding and marketing by operating under multiple brands. The cooperation between Hisense and Toshiba will drive changes to the new picture of TV business.

On LED Walls Versus Projectors and Who Ultimately Wins This Battle

It’s been a busy summer for me, travel-wise. In addition to jaunts through Quebec and Korea, I’ve been in Chicago and New York, meeting with manufacturers and checking out the latest in television, projection, and large screen display technology.

I wrote about my visit to LG Electronics last month and their deep dive into organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. As part of my visit, I saw some clever uses of OLED panels in super-large videowalls mounted conventionally, mounted overhead, and even warped around different surfaces.

My trips to Montreal and Chicago also led me to inspect numerous and more mainstream inorganic LED wall installations, ranging from the Montreal Jazz Festival to the new block of shops and entertainment venues in and around Rosemont, just east of O’Hare Airport.

What’s mind-boggling is how quickly LED signs have become the dominant display medium and how they’ve essentially booted high-brightness projectors to the sidelines. I can’t remember a concert I’ve seen this year that used video projection – either the area behind the stage was filled with an LED wall, or towers of LEDs were arrayed to either side of the stage.

It’s been like that for concerts I’ve attended in recent years by Paul McCartney (twice), The Moody Blues, Steely Dan, and Sting. The move to LEDs for image magnification has put a noticeable dent in the sales and rentals of projectors, as many of my colleagues in the industry have mentioned. While there are still tours that use some complex projection effects (Roger Water’s various “Wall” tours come to mind), it’s clear that LEDs are the new 800-pound gorillas.

For a festival like Montreal, LEDs make perfect sense. Multiple temporary stages are set up outdoors near the downtown area and performances run continuously from noon until late in the evening. Ambient light levels are all over the place and large crowds form around each stage, constraining the available footprint for AV support. Aside from rear projection, direct-view displays make the most sense.

In Rosemont, an area that was supposed to be a casino, nestled between I-294 and the hotels and convention center on River Road, has instead become a vibrant outdoor mall and concert space, surrounded by restaurants, a bowling alley, an indoor sky-diving attraction, a high-end AMC Muvico theater, and the headquarters of the Big Ten television network. Across nearby Balmoral Avenue lies the Fashion Outlets of Chicago Mall and Rosemont Theater – all replete with big LED signage.

Think about it. If you can stuff 4k worth of pixels into a screen this size AND support HDR and WCG, why would you use a projector?

This fascination with LEDs hasn’t gone unnoticed by the leading manufacturers of LED tiles, most of whom are based in China. I noticed at least a dozen LED tile/wall manufacturers at NAB in April and too many to count at InfoComm in June. The problem is that most of these companies are unknowns to folks in the rental and staging business, so the sharper minds are hiring American industry veterans to handle sales and marketing of their products, hoping to get a foot in the door.

I’m also hearing concerns about product reliability, which generally scares away R&S folks. The gear absolutely must work Monday morning at 8:00 AM as the meeting kicks off or 8:00 PM as the house lights go down– no excuses. With projection, stacking redundant projectors might be an expensive fail-safe, but it works. So does having extra lamps in the optical chain – if one fails, the projected images might be slightly dimmer, but the show goes on.

But how do you provide redundancy for LED displays? Granted, the manufacturer can include extra power supplies in case of a major failure. But what if a column or row driver goes out? Driving home last night along a major interstate, I noticed a prominent LED outdoor sign along the road that had a large, L-shaped black area on it – those tiles had failed completely. Whoops!

It’s rare that imagers fail in high brightness projectors – usually the lamp goes, or there’s an issue with the power supply. But projection technology is mature, compared to LEDs: The first solid-state high-brightness projectors made their appearance in the mid-1990s, over two decades ago, and there’s been ample time to work the bugs out. LED displays were around back then, but they had very coarse dot pitches, were extremely costly to install, and were limited to venues like stadiums and arenas.

Now, we can achieve 4K+ resolution with fine-pitch LED tiles that range from 1.8m down to .9mm. This, of course, increases pixel density, wiring complexity, and power requirements. The upside is a level of brightness on huge screens you’d be hard-pressed to match even with stacks of projectors. To equal a 2,000 cd/m2 16×9 LED wall measuring 24 feet x 13.5 feet (324 ft2), we would need a projector stack that could pour out 190,000 lumens. (And likely a separate power plant to operate it, too.)

If the history of the AV community has taught us anything, any new technology that represents a real breakthrough will win out in the end, failures or not. And that describes LED walls to a “T”. Industry veterans will recall continual headaches with the first high-brightness LCD and light-valve projectors (remember the temperamental image light amplifiers from the late 1990s?) that are now just distant memories. High-brightness projectors are very reliable nowadays, which is a great thing.

LED walls are becoming popular for set backdrops, especially for news broadcasts.

What’s not so great is that they’re falling out of favor for larger-than-life displays, and LED walls are rushing in to fill the void. High brightness, excellent contrast and color saturation, fine pixel pitches, small footprints, modular design and assembly, one-piece solutions – these are all substantial advantages over projection.

The sticking point remains product reliability, 24/7 manufacturer support (essential for staging), and customer service in general. And the Chinese LED wall manufacturers appear to be taking these challenges seriously, based on the flurry of press releases I’ve gotten this year that have announced key hires for their American offices.

If these three challenges can be overcome, I think we all know how this story will end. Projector manufacturers will have to be satisfied with a smaller slice of the pie, going forward. And it might even get smaller: Samsung has announced an initiative to place large, fine-pitch LED screens in movie theaters, promising a high dynamic range (HDR) viewing experience that they claim can’t be equaled with projection technology – even those equipped with lasers.

I’ve been in this industry long enough to remember when “state of the art” in staging meant 35mm slide projection, CRT video projection (with standard-definition video), and 16mm film here and there…and that was just three decades ago. Here we go again…