Category: The Front Line

As The World Turns: Vizio Is Acquired by LeEco

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trend, starting with Hitachi several years ago and continuing through Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Sharp; all of whom have withdrawn from the North American TV market.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?

Stay tuned…

On CE Week, Shoot-Outs, And Flies In The Ointment

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.)

This Odyssey drone was flying around the show floor, uncaged.

This Odyssey drone was flying around the show floor, uncaged.

Kodak - or, more correctly, someone licensing the Kodak brand - has a 360-degree VR camera for you.

Kodak – or, more correctly, someone licensing the Kodak brand – has a 360-degree VR camera for you.

Voice Bridge lets you forward your landline calls to your mobile phone, wherever you are. Question: Why not just use a mobile phone all the time?

Voice Bridge lets you forward your landline calls to your mobile phone, wherever you are. Question: Why not just use a mobile phone all the time?

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.

The 1026 Shoot-Out under way. (Yes, they did turn of the lights for certain evaluations.)

The 1026 Shoot-Out under way. (Yes, they did turn the lights off for certain evaluations.)

(Left to right) A vintage 2006-7 Pioneer 60-inch plasma, LG's OLED65G6P, Samsung's UN78KS9800, Sony's XBR-75X940D, and Vizio's RS65-B2 UHDTVs.

(Left to right) A vintage 2006-7 Pioneer 50-inch plasma, LG’s OLED65G6P, Samsung’s UN78KS9800, Sony’s XBR-75X940D, and Vizio’s RS65-B2 HDR UHDTVs.

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.”

The LG 65-inch OLED (left) and Samsung's 78-inch LCD (right) viewed on-axis - at the optical centerline.

The LG 65-inch OLED (left) and Samsung’s 78-inch LCD (right) viewed on-axis – at the optical centerline.

 

The same two displays, now being viewed at at angle of about 35 degrees to the left of the optical centerline.

The same two displays, now being viewed at at angle of about 35 degrees to the left of the optical centerline.

 

A closeup view of LG's OLEDD65G6P (left) and Samsung's UN78KS9800 (right), again viewed at a 35-degree angle to the left.

A closeup view of LG’s OLEDD65G6P (left) and Samsung’s UN78KS9800 (right), again viewed at a 35-degree angle to the left.

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

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.

Kramer's huge booth at InfoComm, touting a shift away from

Kramer’s huge booth at InfoComm, touting a shift away from “big boxes” to software and the cloud, was one of the exceptions to the trend to go smaller.

 

LG is doing some very cool things with curved displays, thanks to advancements in OLED and LCD manufacturing.

LG is doing some very cool things with curved displays, thanks to advancements in OLED and LCD manufacturing.

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.

Toshiba has re-entered the super-competitive world of display walls...a market they once dominated 20 year ago.

Toshiba has re-entered the super-competitive world of display walls…a market they once dominated 20 year ago.

 

The

The “surfer dude engineers” from Santa Barbara have a very nice 4K-over-IP encoder/decoder line-up!

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.

Epson finally got religion and showed its first laser/phosphor 3LCD projector this year - a 25,000 lumens model.

Epson finally got religion and showed its first laser/phosphor 3LCD projector this year – a 25,000 lumens model.

 

And Panasonic harnessed laser/phosphor technology to a new high-brightness 4K projector.

And Panasonic harnessed laser/phosphor technology to a new high-brightness 4K projector.

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.

Sony's CLEDIS 8K x 2K LED wall did an excellent job of hiding its seams - and pixels.

Sony’s CLEDIS 8K x 2K LED wall did an excellent job of hiding its seams – and pixels.

 

Planar (Leyard) is building some amazingly big and bright display walls. And they've got 8K resolution, too, thanks to using 16 2K panels.

Planar (Leyard) is building some amazingly big and bright display walls. And they’ve got 8K resolution, too, thanks to using 16 2K panels.

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.

You know there's considerable interest in AV-over-IP when these guys show up.

You know there’s considerable interest in AV-over-IP when these guys show up.

 

RGB Spectrum's new Zio AV-over-IP system has one of the most user-friendly interfaces I've seen to date - touch and swipe to connect video streams.

RGB Spectrum’s new Zio AV-over-IP system has one of the most user-friendly interfaces I’ve seen to date – touch and swipe to connect video streams.

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…

AV-over-IP: It’s Here. Time To Get On Board!

At InfoComm next week in Las Vegas, I look forward to seeing many familiar faces – both individuals and manufacturers – that have frequented the show since I first attended over 20 years ago. And I also expect to find quite a few newcomers, based on the press releases and product announcements I’ve been receiving daily.

Many of those newcomers will be hawking the latest technology – AV-over-IP. More specifically, transporting video, audio, and metadata that are encoded into some sort of compressed or lightly-compressed format, wrapped with IP headers, and transported over IP networks.

This isn’t exactly a new trend: The broadcast, telecom, and cable/satellite worlds have already begun or completed the migration to IT infrastructures. The increasing use of optical fiber and lower-cost, fast network switches are making it all possible. Think 10 gigabit Ethernet with single-mode fiber interconnections, and you can see where the state-of-the-art is today.

You’ve already experienced this AV-over-IP phenomenon if you watch streaming HD and 4K video. Home Internet connection speeds have accelerated by several orders of magnitude ever since the first “slow as a snail” dial-up connections got us into AOL two decades ago. Now, it’s not unusual to have sustained 10, 15, 25, and even 50 megabit per second (Mb/s) to the home – fast enough to stream Ultra HD content with multichannel sound.

And so it goes with commercial video and audio transport. Broadcast television stations had to migrate to HD-SDI starting nearly 20 years ago when the first HDTV broadcasts commenced. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Now, they’re moving to IP and copper/fiber backbones to achieve greater bandwidth and to take advantage of things like cloud storage and archiving.

So why hasn’t the AV industry gotten with the program? Because we still have a tendency to cling to old, familiar, and often outdated or cumbersome technology, rationalizing that “it’s still good enough, and it works.” (You know who you are…still using VGA and composite video switching and distribution products…)

I’ve observed that there is often considerable and continual aversion in our industry to anything having to do with IT networks and optical fiber. And it just doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it originates from a fear of losing control to IT specialists and administrators. Or, it could just be a reluctance to learn something new.

The result is that we’ve created a monster when it comes to digital signal management. Things were complicated enough when the AV industry was dragged away from analog to digital and hung its hats on the HDMI consumer video interface for switching and distribution. Now, that industry has created behemoth switch matrices to handle the current and next flavors of HDMI (a format that never was suitable for commercial AV applications).

We’ve even figured out a way to digitize the HDMI TMDS signal and extend it using category wire, up to a whopping 300 feet. And somehow, we think that’s impressive? Single-mode fiber can carry an HD video signal over 10 miles. Now, THAT’S impressive – and it’s not exactly new science.

So, now we’re installing ever-larger racks of complex HDMI switching and distribution gear that is expensive and also bandwidth-capped – not nearly fast enough for the next generation of UHD+ displays with full RGB (4:4:4) color, high dynamic range, and high frame rates. How does that make any sense?

What’s worse, the marketing folks have gotten out in front, muddying the waters with all kinds of nonsensical claims about “4K compatibility,” “4K readiness,” and even “4K certified.” What does that even mean? Just because your switch or DA product can support a very basic level of Ultra HD video with slow frame rates and reduced color resolution, it’s considered “ready” or “certified?” Give me a break.

Digitizing HDMI and extending it 300 feet isn’t future-proof. Neither is limiting Ultra HD bandwidth to 30 Hz 8-bit RGB color, or 60 Hz 8-bit 4:2:0 color. Not even close. Not when you can already buy a 27-inch 5K (yes, 5K!) monitor with 5120×2880 resolution and the ability to show 60 Hz 10-bit color. And when 8K monitors are coming to market.

So why we keep playing tricks with specifications, and working with Band-Aid solutions? We shouldn’t. We don’t need to. And the answer is already at hand.

It’s time to move away from the concept of big, bulky, expensive, and basically obsolete switching and distribution hardware that’s based on a proprietary consumer display interface standard. It’s time to move to a software-based switching and distribution concept that uses an IT structure, standard codecs like JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, and H.265, and everyday off-the-shelf switches to move signals around.

Now, we can design a fast, reliable AV network that allows us to manage available bandwidth and add connections as needed. Our video can be lightly compressed with low latency, or more highly compressed for efficiency. The only display interfaces we’ll need will be at the end points where the display is connected.

Even better, our network also provides access to monitoring and controlling every piece of equipment we’ve connected. We can design and configure device controls and interfaces using cloud-based driver databases. We can access content from remote servers (the cloud, again) and send it anywhere we want. And we can log in from anywhere in the world to keep tabs on how it’s all functioning.

And if we’re smart and not afraid to learn something new, we’ll wire all of it up with optical fiber, instead of bulky cables or transmitters and receivers to convert the signals to a packet format and back. (Guess what? AV-over-IP is already digital! You can toss out those distance-limited HDMI extenders, folks!)

For those who apparently haven’t gotten the memo, 40 Gb/s network switches have been available for a few years, with 100 Gb/s models now coming to market. So much for speed limit issues…

To the naysayers who claim AV-over-IP won’t work as well as display interface switching: That’s a bunch of hooey. How are Comcast, Time Warner, NBC, Disney, Universal, Netflix, Amazon, CBS, and other content originators and distributors moving their content around? You guessed it.

AV-over-IP is what you should be looking for as you walk the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center, not new, bigger, and bulkier HDMI/DVI matrices. AV-over-IP is the future of our industry, whether we embrace it or are dragged into it, kicking and screaming.

Are you on board, or what?

The End Of One Era And The Start Of Another

Panasonic, a long-time leader in consumer electronics announced on Tuesday (May 31) that it would stop manufacturing large LCD panels for televisions at its Himeji fab in western Japan. Production will wind down this summer and stop completely in September, with the balance of IPS LCD panels going to transportation and medical markets.

Himeji was a relatively new fab, having come inline in 2010. This is where Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD TVs were born even as the company’s plasma TV manufacturing business was going into a nosedive. And that line of TVs was well-received by the trade press and the general public.

But it turned out that LCD panel manufacturing in Japan is a costly effort, compared to manufacturing in Korea and China. Indeed; many Panasonic LCD TVs use glass that’s made across the China Sea, and that trend goes back a couple of years. According to a story on the Reuters Web site, “…the plant has never logged a profit during years of heavy price competition with South Korean and Chinese rivals.”

It doesn’t help that Panasonic has virtually no U.S. market share in LCD TVs, having fallen behind Vizio and Hisense even as competitors like Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, and Hitachi have all packed it in over the past decade. And with all of the company’s eggs in the plasma basket for many years, they were late to wake up and smell the coffee.

A quick online check of Best Buy, HH Gregg, and Fry’s Web sites showed no listings for Panasonic TVs – not even among Ultra HD models. So I went to the company’s U.S. Web site and searched again, finding six models of Ultra HDTVs ranging in size from 50 inches to 85 inches – and all of them carried the notation “Not available.”

I got the same results when I clicked on “View All TVs,” and actually got a smaller selection of Ultra HD models to peruse. So no major retailer carries Panasonic TVs now. (Not even Sears, which actually has a Kenmore line of HDTVs and even 4K TVs!)

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here...but ya can't buy them.

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here…but ya can’t buy them.

According to the Reuters story, “The decision to close the (Himeji LCD TV panel) business comes after Panasonic scrapped a company-wide revenue target of 10 trillion yen ($90.1 billion) for the year through March 2019 to focus on profitability.” Based on what I found out, it would appear that the entire TV business in North America (if not elsewhere) is also at an end.

Ironically, I just received an invite from Panasonic’s PR agency to come see their new Blu-ray player (DMP-UB900) at the company’s corporate headquarters in a few weeks. So my question now becomes, “Why are you showing me an Ultra HD Blu-ray player when you don’t seem to have any Ultra HDTV models to go with it?”

Puzzling indeed, especially in light of the rapid move away from 1080p (Full HD) televisions to Ultra HD models that’s taking place all over the world! And you need no further proof than to go on the aforementioned big box store Web sites and take a gander at the selection of Full HD and Ultra HDTV models.

A quick search showed that Best Buy currently has 108 models of 2160p (Ultra HD) sets for sale, compared to 58 Full HD models and 27 720p models.  The picture isn’t quite as clear at HH Gregg, as they show 133 “LED TVs” (presumably Full HD) and 78 Ultra HD models. And Fry’s shows two different categories for “4K TVs,” although those account for 173 models with Full HD showing 220 models.

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they're just SO 2005!).

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they’re just SO 2005!).

So what to make of this? Simple – the adoption rate for Ultra HDTV sets is accelerating to the point where (at Best Buy, at least) the offerings now exceed those with Full HD resolution. Keep in mind that the first Ultra HDTVs appeared on our shores not quite four years ago, used the LG 84-inch IPS LCD panel, and cost anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000.

Now, you can buy a first-tier 55-inch Samsung Ultra HD “smart” LCD TV for $700.  As I’m writing this, Vizio has a 50-inch “smart” 4K model for $499, as does Insignia. Westinghouse goes them one better with a 55-inch 4K set for the same price, and LG is clearing out a 49-inch Ultra HD set for $550.  And Hisense recently announced HDR models for less than $600! Mind-boggling.

So here we go at warp speed; zooming into a new world of 4K TVs as Full HD sets fade into the distance, having first appeared a little over a decade ago. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – your next big screen LCD TV is going to be an Ultra HD model, especially if you pick it up in December, or wait a little longer into 2017.

And your new Ultra HDTV will NOT be a Panasonic model, based on what my Web search revealed. In fact, there’s a good chance your next Ultra HDTV could be a Chinese brand, like Hisense or TCL, thanks to their very aggressive pricing. (But make sure your set supports high dynamic range to be future-proof!)