Category: Trade Shows

NAB 2019: Where Does It Go From Here?

This year’s NAB Show marked a milestone for me as it was my 25th consecutive April visit to the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Back in 1995, my first impression was of enormous booths full of expensive hardware (lots of cameras with five-figure price tags), tape-based recording and editing systems, huge audio consoles, and the costly first iterations of non-linear video editing systems.

The World Wide Web was just becoming a thing, and NAB had set up an area in the then-Hilton ballroom so that a bunch of small companies (none of whose names I remember and none of who are around any more) could amaze us with stories of video streaming (basically tiny stamp-sized clips of low-resolution talking heads) and how someday, “all of this will be available to anyone with an Internet connection.” Of course, it would have to be a lot faster than the dial-up speeds available then.

I just remember shaking my head, thinking none of this would ever fly, and moving onto the big, expensive hardware. SDI, VGA, BNC connectors – stuff I could understand. “Reference” video monitors were bulky, heavy chassis with cathode-ray tubes and sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

Video itself was largely standard definition back then – HDTV was still in its infancy, and the so-called “Grand Alliance” of companies like Zenith/LG, AT&T, General Instrument, and others were pushing for an all-digital broadcast television system to replace NTSC. (Grand Alliance banners were prominently featured on the outside facades of the North Hall and Central Hall.)

Sharp’s 8C-30A is the first 8K DSLR to market. It only shoots 30p, but that’s a bus speed and interfacing limitation.

 

NHK’s been broadcasting 8K video content via satellite since last December and will cover the 2020 Olympics extensively in 8K.

And the “broadcast” part of NAB was BIG. Lots of companies showing exciters, transmitters, antennas, monitoring equipment, tubes and solid-state rigs, and hardline and waveguide dominated the North Hall and part of the Central Hall. Industry giants like Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, Sony, Ikegami, Canon, and Toshiba constructed booths larger than the average house. Life was good, sales were brisk, and there was plenty of profit for everyone.

At the time, I was writing columns and feature articles for Video Systems, and our annual NAB issue was so stuffed with ads that it ran well over 300 pages. Other publications were jockeying for ad sales and editorial coverage, filling NAB press conferences to the rafters. You may remember some of them – Videography, Post, Millimeter, AV Video, Broadcast Engineering, TV Technology, and Television Broadcast, to name a few.

We all know what happened in the intervening years. The “broadcast” part of NAB is a tiny portion of the exhibit floor now. Those streaming video guys with their advanced codecs now rule the roost. High-quality video cameras capable of shooting 4K video sell for one-tenth of those 1995 models and do it all to solid-state memory cards. Non-linear editing is so ubiquitous that you can buy the software for about $100 and run it on your everyday laptop. And trade publications are largely dinosaurs.

We made the transition to digital TV broadcasting in 2009 and are about to move again to a newer, more IP-centric system, ATSC 3.0. CRTs are a distant memory, replaced by large high-resolution flat screen LCD and OLED displays. High dynamic range with its associated wider color gamut is muscling its way into our homes and theaters. High frame rate video, once considered a major obstacle, is becoming reality, even at Ultra HD resolution.

Chris Chinnock of the 8K Association ran a full day of 8K seminars on Wednesday.

 

Socionext is the only chip manufacturer able to deliver HDMI 2.1 TX and RX chipsets at present.

And those once-enormous booths are steadily shrinking each year as profit continues to evaporate from hardware sales. Indeed; the focus at this year’s NAB Show seemed to be shifting (as one company VP put it) away from capital expenditures (CapEx) to operating expenditures (OpEx). Hardware is increasingly becoming generic – the ATSC 3.0 single-frequency network broadcasting demos in the North Hall ran off a pair of compact Dell servers – and software is the new king of the hill. (How much booth space do you really need to demo software?)

The shift away from hardware to software may also be impacting attendance. The official head count for 2017 was 103,443. Two years later, attendance was pegged at 91,460; representing a decline of 11.6%, or 12,000 visitors. That’s quite a dip – not as pronounced as the drop from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession, but still enough to give show organizers some reason for concern.

The general feeling among many of my colleagues and friends was that the show was trying to find an identify. The theme of the show was “Every Story Starts Here,” which is about as generic and vague as you can get. Was that a reference to the fact that that high-quality tools to capture, edit, and produce compelling video are a relative bargain these days, and that we should concentrate more on how we use them and less on how they work?

Astro exhibited many things 8K, including this compact 8K/120 camera with built-in CCU.

 

Leyard Planar brought back their 8K LED fine pitch videowall from a year ago.

I don’t have the answers. What I can tell you is that there were still some interesting products to be found in Las Vegas, and from my perspective, a great deal of them pertained to UHD video capture, editing, and distribution. My focus has always been forward-looking (aside from the nostalgia piece I opened this feature with), so the transition of HDTV to Ultra HDTV and the attendant transitions to a new digital TV broadcast system and advanced video codecs held the greatest interest for me.

Yes, 8K has arrived, Yes, it’s not immediately obvious why we need it. But like it or not, the cameras are here, the displays are coming to store shelves, and at least one broadcaster (NHK) is operating a 24/7 8K video channel. Companies that showed 8K cameras at NAB included Sony, Ikegami, RED, Hitachi, and Sharp. The latter brand made 8K the focus of their entire booth, a bold and impressive statement considering Sharp was nearing bankruptcy not that long ago.

Panasonic’s take on 8K was something called an “area of interest” camera, allowing anyone to dynamically select and switch between any of four 2K video slices of the overall image. This technique was described by NHK a few years back at the annual SMPTE Conference as a way to achieve a multi-camera shoot with just one or two cameras. Astro (who has commercialized many of NHK’s 8K innovations) had several flavors of 8K on display including a stereo VR camera, a fisheye lens fitted to an 8K camera, and a compact 8K/120p camera with CCU built-in that weighed less than 10 pounds.

Panasonic’s 8K Area Of Interest (AOI) camera lets you create a virtual four-camera 2K shoot and switcher – all from one static view.

 

Sony’s UHC-8300 8K portable camcorder will get a workout at the 2020 Olympics.

Astro also addressed an on-going challenge for adoption of 8K video and display, and that was upconverting 1080p/2K content in an acceptable manner. Their demo of an AI-based up-scaling system was quite impressive, particularly given the challenging test patterns and fine text used in the demo. Sharp’s big announcement was the availability of the world’s first DLSR with 8K native resolution. The 8C-30A can shoot 8K/30p video using a Micro Four Thirds sensor and a variety of lenses, but will be pricey at around $4,000.

Notable by their absence in this market: Canon. I was told by a company official that Canon does sell an 8K camera in Japan for broadcast and production, but has no plans to offer it stateside unless there is sufficient demand. Of course, Japan remains the focus for every player in 8K, what with the summer Olympics coming up in 2020 and brands like Hitachi and Sony jockeying to provide cameras and hardware to cover the event.

Given the enormous volume of data that 4K and 8K cameras generate, I was also on the lookout for advanced codecs. HEVC H.265 has been around for a few years and could be suitable for the job. The only question is latency, particularly for contribution. NTT seems to have a handle on the problem, as they showed a prototype encoder/decoder combination for 4K/120 video that has an end-to-end latency of just 37 milliseconds.

If you’re having trouble keeping track of all the players in UHD HDR, this chart may help. Or not.

 

Ikegami also has an 8K production camera ready for the 2020 Olympics.

Another approach is to improve codec efficiency. At the Wednesday 8K Association seminars, a more detailed explanation of the new Versatile Video Codec (VVC, perhaps to become H.266?) was offered. The key to improving efficiency is increasing the maximum encoding block size from 64×64 used in H.265 to 128×128, with a targeted reduction of 50% in bit rate. Presently, the actual improvement is about 34% as software evolves.

Astro and Sharp also demonstrated a practical 8K/60p non-linear editing and color correction platform known as Tamazone. It imports 8K 4:2:2 10-bit YUV from Sharp’s 8C-60A camcorder using four 12G SDI connections through BlackMagic Design’s DeckLink 8K Pro interface, with DaVinci Resolve 15 Studio and Resolve Live software. To view what you’re working on, an nVIDIA Quadro Pro 4000 graphics card drives a pair of DisplayPort 1.2 interfaces on an associated 8K monitor, stitching together two 4K images.

Yes, it’s a bit of a “Scotch Tape and paper clips” solution at the display end…but then, so was 4K when it first got off the ground more than a decade ago. The real challenge now is at the monitor – there really aren’t any true 8K reference monitors out there. Sharp showed a 32-inch prototype using their IGZO TFT backplane technology, but for now, the few 8K monitor products being talked about are largely based on consumer television designs. (LG Display has also shown an 8K 31.5” monitor for several years now.)

Advantech was streaming 8K/60 video across their booth over a fast IP network at 200 Mb/s using HEVC H.265.

 

NTT claims they can encode and decode 4K / UHD video with a 120 Hz frame rate using H.265, but with just 37 milliseconds of latency end-to-end.

It’s possible that the new 31.5” 4K LCD monitors shown by Panasonic, Sony, and others might fit the bill eventually. This HDR monitor uses two panels. The first is a 4096×2160 IPS-Alpha LCD with full array backlight, while the second panel is identical in construction but free of color filters. It is precisely aligned with the first panel and works as a monochromatic light shutter to provide really deep black levels. Of course, it requires a lot more horsepower in the backlight as a consequence.

Another popular discussion on the show floor was the concept of shooting, editing, and archiving at higher resolution and using lower-resolution (4K, Full HD) for distribution. In this way, the goals of improving current HD and 4K video quality can be improved significantly, but the finished product is a bit more friendly to bandwidth-constricted distribution systems like broadcast and streaming. Hitachi has argued for Full HD with HDR as a practical broadcast format (it is) and a 4K program derived from an 8K master would look pretty darn good on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

So many questions and not a lot of answers, just possible solutions. I expect NAB to get smaller over time as the emphasis shifts from hardware to software (ironic, given the LVCC is in the middle of another expansion to almost 4 million square feet). No doubt 8K will be a part of it, as will IP-based distribution of media. No wonder there was an air of “where do we go from here?” during the show…

CES 2019 In the Rear View Mirror

I’m not sure when I first started attending CES, but it was back around the turn of the century. My interests then lay primarily in display technologies – televisions, monitors, projectors, and all the gear that interfaced them to things like DVD players, HDTV set-top boxes, and early gaming consoles.

It wasn’t unusual to see manufacturers try to out-do each other in the race for the biggest display or the most pixels. We were wowed by 102-inch plasma TVs (a product that never came to market), 105-inch LCD monitors, “HD” projectors with 1280×720 resolution, upscaling DVD players, line quadruplers, and all kinds of external video signal processors that were designed to clean up standard-definition video, S-video, and analog component video.

Flash forward to 2019, and those times feel like early colonial America. Plasma is gone. “HD” in a front projector means at least 1920×1080 resolution, with an increasing number of home theater models offering 4K resolution. DVD players are fossils now and Blu-ray players have evolved with the times to support Ultra HD resolution.

Not that it matters much. More and more consumers are choosing to stream video content, thanks for faster, more reliable Internet and WiFi connections. Codecs have improved by several generations. The H.264 AVC format was just clearing the drawing board in 2002. Today, we have HEVC H.265, Google’s VP9, and now an even more efficient codec that promises to cut bit rates for 4K content by 50%.

Analog TV interfaces are all gone. It’s either HDMI or DisplayPort, or a streaming connection through WiFi or a Cat 6 cable. Those expensive video processing chips have multiplied in power so many times and shrunk accordingly that they are commonplace in Ultra HDTVs. At CES 2019, new “AI” processors can analyze multiple vectors and aspects of a frame of video and scale, color-correct, gamma-correct, and clean up compression artifacts in a flash.

LG’s got 8K TV covered with both LCD and OLED models.

 

Samsung’s Wall modular LED TV made an appearance again at CES. This time, it measures 219 inches diagonally.

I saw several demos of standard-definition video scaled up to 4K and even 8K TVs and was impressed at just how well these advanced chips work. Unfortunately, there’s lot of potential for mischief with these processors, such as changing the frame rate, gamma, black levels, and even color tone automatically without you asking. That’s progress for ya!

About the only thing that hasn’t changed since the early 2000s is the size of the largest LCD panels. If memory serves, Sharp held the record for many years with that 105-inch beast. Both Samsung and LG eventually wheeled out even larger panels and the record (so far as I can remember) was 120 inches for a VA LCD monitor, shown a few years back by Vizio and also by Samsung. Thing is, none of those products really took off: Today, the largest LCD TV you can buy is Samsung’s new 85-inch 8K offering, with 98-inch models lurking in the wings from LG, Samsung, Sony, and others.

The biggest change I’ve seen in the past decade is how televisions and related products have been de-emphasized at the show. No surprise there – TV prices have collapsed to the point where you can pick up a very nice 55-inch Ultra HD model with HDR support for about $6 per diagonal inch. There are plenty of 65-inch models priced below $1,000 and some 70-inch UHDTVs have dropped as low as $1,200 on sale.

TCL’s XESS “Living Window” TV is supposed to appear as if it’s floating in mid-air.

 

This 65-inch Skyworth UHDTV uses two LCD panels to improve black levels and contrast.

Price drops have been dramatic for both LCD and OLED models. LG just announced special pricing for the next two weeks on 55-inch Ultra HD B8-series TVs ($1500) and 65-inch B8s ($2300). Vizio announced during CES that their 2019 M-series and P-series UHDTV sets will incorporate quantum dots for high dynamic range video, and you can be sure they’ll have aggressive pricing on all models.

Also, not surprisingly, there’s less profit in selling televisions these days, which is why most of the big exhibitors at CES have reduced the footprint in their booths for showing off TVs, allocating more space for everything from refrigerators and washers to smartphones, tablets, small appliances, laptops, and even automotive electronics. Secondarily, many of us analysts and journalists have expanded our coverage to include video encoders, decoders, and signal management systems, video streaming, cloud storage and asset management, and peripheral markets like transportation.

Without further ado, here are some of my highlights from the show.

Sony will offer XBR-Z9G Master-series 85-inch and 98-inch 8K LCD TVs with HDR, complementing their OLED TV lineup.

 

Hisense claims its Adonis 8K display uses micro LEDs for backlights, but they’re more likely “mini” LEDs.

“Yes Virginia, there are 8K televisions!” And CES was awash in them, from LG’s 88-inch OLED to Samsung’s 85-inch QLED 8K. (LG also had 75-inch LCD sets using their NanoCell color filter technology.) Sony showed 85-inch and 98-inch 8K model in their booth to complement their line of 4K OLED TVs. Sharp, which is planning to re-enter the television business in the near future, will offer 60-inch, 70-inch, and 80-inch 8K TVs. TCL, Hisense, Konka, Skyworth, and Changhong also unveiled 8K TV prototypes.

I counted over a dozen different models, including more than a few showing next-generation backlight technology based on “mini” LED arrays. (A few of the demos referred to “micro” LED backlight arrays, but that’s unlikely at this date due to manufacturing challenges.) The advantage of “mini” backlights is more and smaller areas of local dimming, improving contrast and high dynamic range response.

Sharp’s planned re-entry into the television business is intriguing, considering the company’s near-bankruptcy a few years ago and the subsequent purchase of 66% of the company by Hon Hai Precision Industries (Foxconn). Instead of borrowing more money from Japanese banks to stay afloat, Sharp now has Terry Ghou’s huge bankroll to plan its product line and marketing, not to mention a complete line-up of 8K televisions, the BC-60A 8K broadcast camera, an 8K non-linear editing system, and an 8K asset storage and retrieval system (cloud based, of course).

Sharp wants back in to the premium TV business and showed wide range of 8K products, including content streaming.

 

Stream TV networks showed an 8K desktop monitor and his 65-inch autostereo 8K TV. 3D isn’t quite dead yet!

“This will DEFINITELY be the year for 60 GHz wireless!” I’ve lost track of how many 60 GHz wireless video demos I’ve seen over the past decade from companies like Silicon Image and its successor Lattice Semiconductor, DVDO, Qualcomm, and Intel (not to mention the WiFi Alliance). Products come and go (remember the 15 different tri-band WiFi modems from 2016?), but the technology seems to be stuck in a rut.

Maybe 2019 will be different. Keyssa demonstrated near-field connectivity of everything from tablets to TVs and snap-on LED tiles using its KISS technology. The chips are about as big as a deer tick, but the principle is that of coupled energy over a maximum 10mm air gap to transport data in a half-duplex mode at up to 6 Gb/s per lane. To prove the weight-lifting capabilities of this tin titan, Keyssa also built a wireless backplane dock that uses 32 KISS channels to stream 8K video at 96 gigabits per second. (Yes, it IS that fast!)

Several floors up in The Westgate Hotel, Canadian fabless semiconductor company Peraso also has a few millimeter-wave tricks up its sleeve. In addition to 4K wireless USB links, Peraso also showed 60 GHz 802.11ad WiFi access points for high-speed in-room video streaming and super-fast data downloads. At this frequency, radio waves can’t penetrate solid objects, nor is it at all easy to intercept them. That combination provides very robust security, and I’m still puzzled why more manufacturers haven’t adopted the technology.

Did you know you can couple 60 GHz wireless 4K video signals over flexible plastic rods? Keyssa does.

 

This ready-to-buy 60 GHz wireless access point uses chipsets from Peraso.

On the show floor (near its ‘connected beer’ exhibit, I kid you not), Qualcomm had an intriguing demo of super-fast gaming using 60 GHz links from smartphones. There are six channels available in this band, each of which is a little over 2 GHz in size. With light compression, there is near zero latency for gamers. And with steerable antenna arrays, multiple players can work with different screens on the same channels and never interfere with each other.

“Interfaces will get faster. Believe me!” With 8K and HDR looming (not to mention high frame rate video), our display interfaces need to get a heckuva lot faster in a real hurry. Over in the HDMI pavilion, there was a demonstration of Samsung’s Q900R 85-inch 8K TV showing custom 8K video content through an HDMI 2.1 interface built by chip maker Invecas. Given that only Socionext is currently shipping v2.1 TX/RX sets, I had to grill the Invecas rep to verify that “no, you won’t find HDMI 2.1 on the Samsung set currently.” (It’s currently equipped with one HDMI 2.0 interface).

During its press conference on Tuesday, LG claimed that their 2019 8K TVs will “support HDMI 2.1.” Presumably, this means there is some sort of upgrade path for models released earlier in the year, inasmuch as there is still a lot of testing and compliance certification to be done before manufacturers can start rolling out version 2.1. Samsung, for their part, has an upgrade option on the 85-inch model.

Over in the DisplayPort booth, it was announced that DP 2.0 will begin rolling out later in the year. V2.0 raises the per-lane data rate from 8.1 Gb/s to an astounding 24 Gb/s for a total data rate across all four lanes of 96 Gb/s. (Subtract 20% for overhead bits to get the real rate). This is clearly optical fiber territory – I’m not aware of anyone transporting data at this speed over copper links. And while that may seem like a lot of horsepower, keep in mind that an 8K/60 signal with 10-bit RGB color will require about 85 Gb/s to travel.

Invecas demonstrated an 8K home theater, using HDMI 2.1 connections. It will be a while before you see v2.1 on any TVs, though.

 

DisplayPort 2.0 is coming! In the meantime, v1.4 can drive three monitors simultaneously – and with different 4K video on each.

“Taking displays to another level!” Skyworth showed a 65-inch 4K TV using a dual-panel LCD structure. One panel delivers the full-color HDR images while the second panel acts simply as a monochromatic light modulator. In effect, it’s another shutter, allowing the display to achieve OLED-like black levels and very high peak (specular) whites while maintaining a wide contrast ratio. Not a new trick – Panasonic showed a similar approach for a 31.5” HDR 4K monitor a couple of years ago – but this is the first time I’ve seen it in a consumer TV.

In the LG Display booth, among the curved and transparent OLEDs, I found LG’s In-Touch system. Unlike conventional touchscreen film overlays on displays, In-Touch places the touch sensors directly below the LCD glass surface. This results not only in a more sensitive touchscreen, but it’s also a lot more accurate as the gap between the surface and sensors is greatly reduced.

And it appears that the fascination with curved displays has gone the way of 3D. I spotted only one curved 65-inch Ultra HDTV, and that was in the TCL booth. Samsung won an award for its LG was more focused on its premium roll-up/down 4K OLED TVs, a concept first shown last year at CES by LG Display. These roll-up sets don’t have a price yet, but will be part of LG’s Signature OLED line.

Samsung’s 75-inch micro LED TV prototype might have been the only true “micro” shown at CES.

 

Lumens’ .57″ green micro LED display has Full HD resolution for near-to-eye displays. And it’s bright!

Samsung did show a 75-inch class micro LED TV prototype at their Sunday preview event, an interesting demo for a company that apparently wants to get out of the LCD manufacturing business and concentrate on purely emissive LED TVs and displays, going forward. Of all the demonstrations of micro LED, I have no doubt that Samsung’s prototype is the real thing. Keep in mind that we’re taking about tiny LED chips that measure less than 50 micrometers (µm), while “mini” LEDs are in the range of 100 µm to 200 µm.

Lumens demonstrated something a bit simpler but no less important: A .57” green (monochromatic) micro LED display, suitable for head-mounted displays. This device has Full HD (1920×1080) resolution and is capable of brightness levels in excess of 300 nits. Over in the Sands, Kopin showed its 2K OLED near-to-eye display, which is about the size of a quarter. And Vusix demonstrated its Blade AR glasses, which project a small color video image onto the lens surface that isn’t quite as detailed and contrasty a I expected.

I’ll close out this report with a mention of the next-generation video codec for compressing 4K and 8K video. Fraunhofer had a small exhibit that was easy to miss, detailing the Versatile Video Codec (VVC). VVC builds on the coding tree block and unit structure of HEVC H.265 and makes analysis and compression decisions on a more granular level. This codec requires a considerable increase in computing power, but the target of the Joint Video Experts Team (JVET) is to achieve a 50%  bitrate reduction for comparable image quality over H.265. Look for the final standard in 2020.

The Versatile Video Codec can stream 4K content at 2.2 Mb/s that looks as good as H.265 at 5 Mb/s.

 

Audi’s been using red OLEDs in their tailights for some time now. (You didn’t know?)

 

Roll-up TVs are here, thanks to LG. Now you see them, now you don’t!

 

 

 

 

 

NAB 2018 In The Rear View Mirror

I just returned from my annual visit to the NAB Show in Las Vegas and the overall impression was of an industry (or industries) marching in place. Many booths were smaller; there were plenty of empty spaces filled with tables and chairs for eating and lounging, and at times you could hear crickets chirping in the North and Central Halls.  (Not so the South Hall, which was a madhouse all three days I visited.)

There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of energy. The broadcast and film industries are taking the first steps to move to IP backbones for everything from production to post and distribution, and it’s moving slowly. Even so, there was no shortage of vendors trying to convince booth visitors that AV-over-IT is the way to go, chop-chop!

Some NAB exhibitors that were formerly powerhouses in traditional media production infrastructures have staked their entire business model on IT, with flashy exhibits featuring powerful codecs, cloud media storage and retrieval, high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, and production workflows (editing, color correction, and visual effects) all interconnected via an IT infrastructure.

And, of course, there is now a SMPTE standard for transporting professional media over managed AV networks (note the word “managed”), and that’s ST 2110. The pertinent documents that define the standards are (to date) SMPTE ST 2110-10/-20/-30 for addressing system concerns and uncompressed video and audio streams, and SMPTE ST 2110-21 for specifying traffic shaping and delivery timing of uncompressed video.

No doubt about it – the Central Hall booths were definitely smaller and quieter this year.

 

Canon’s Larry Thorpe and Ivo Norenberg talked about the company’s new 50-1000mm zoom lens for Full HD cameras.

 

BlackMagic Design’s Pocket Cinema 4K Camera is quite popular – and affordable.

Others at NAB weren’t so sure about this rush to IT and extolled the virtues of next-generation SDI (6G, 12G, and even 24G). Their argument is that deterministic video doesn’t always travel well with the non-real-time traffic you find on networks. And the “pro” SDI crowd may have an argument, based on all of the 12G connectivity demos we saw. 3G video, to be more specific, runs at about 2.97 Gb/s, so a 12G connection would be good for 11.88 Gb/s – fast enough to transport an uncompressed 4K/60 video signal with 8-bit 4:2:2 color or 10-bit 4:2:0 color.

I’ve talked about 8K video and displays in previous columns, but mostly from a science experiment perspective. Well, we were quite surprised – perhaps pleasantly – to see Sharp exhibiting at NAB, showing an entire acquisition, editing, production, storage, and display system for 8K video. (Yes, that Sharp, the same guys that make those huge LCD displays. Now owned by Hon Hai precision industries.)

Sharp’s 8K broadcast camera, more accurately the 8C-B60A, uses a single Super 35mm sensor with effective resolution of 7680×4320 pixels arrayed in a Bayer format. That’s 16 times the resolution of a Full HD camera, which means data rates that are 16x that of 3G SDI. In case you are math challenged, we’re talking in the range of 48 Gb/s of data for a 4320p/60 video signal with 8-bit 4:2:2 color, which requires four 12G connections.

Sharp is building 8K cameras for live coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

 

NHK demonstrated an 8K 240Hz slow motion video playback system, along with other 8K goodies.

 

Soliton demonstrated H.265 encoding across multiple platforms, including Android devices.

And this isn’t a science experiment at all. Sharp is building cameras for the live 8K broadcasts to take place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, originating from Japanese broadcast network NHK. By now, this should be old hat, as NHK has been covering the Olympics in 8K since 2012 and showed different approaches to home viewing in Las Vegas. They also impressed with demos of 8K “slo-mo” video at a frame rate of 240 Hz, and yes, it is practical and ready to roll.

In the NHK booth, you could also watch a demonstration of 8K/60 video traveling through a 10 Gb/s switch using so-called mezzanine compression based on the TiCo system. In this case, NHK was using 5:1 TiCo compression to slow down a 40 Gb/s 8K/60 video stream to 8 Gb/s. (Four 12G video connections would result in a bit rate of nearly 48 Gb/s in case you’re wondering.)

Not far from NHK’s booth last year was a virtual city of companies showing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) hardware and software. That was about twice the size of the VR/AR exhibits in 2016, so I expected to find a sprawling metropolis of VR goodies. Instead, I came across a very large food court and lots of partitioned-off space. Turns out, what was left of the VR companies occupied a small pavilion known as “Immersive Storytelling.” Is VR the next 3D? (Probably not, but you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that.)

Panasonic’s got a 55-inch 4K OLED monitor for client viewing.

 

Epson showed an ultra short-throw laser projection system with excellent edge-to-edge sharpness.

 

The gadgeteers at NTT built a drone with a spinning LED sign shaped like a globe. Why? Because they could, I suppose.

Upstairs in the South Hall, there were dozens of companies hawking video compression tools, streaming and cloud services, targeted ad insertion, audience analytics, and a bunch of other buzzwords I’m probably getting too old to completely understand. (It will be interesting to see how many of these enterprises are still around a year from now.)

But my primary goal in that hall was to talk to folks from the Alliance for Open Media coalition. In case you haven’t heard of this group, they’ve been promoting an open-source, royalty-free codec labeled AV-1 for “next-generation 4K video.” There are at least 18 prominent members of the group and you may recognize a few of them, such as Google, Apple, Mozilla, YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, and VideoLAN.

And that they’re promoting is a codec that is very similar to HEVC H.265, which is made up of lots of intellectual property that requires licensing from an organization known as MPEG-LA (Licensing Authority, not Los Angeles). The AOM contingent thinks it is taking WAY too long to get H.265 off the ground and would rather just make a suitable codec free to anyone who wants to use it to speed up the transition to 4K video.

In addition to giving out red, yellow, green, and blue lollipops, Google had its jump 360-degree camera out for inspection.

 

Technicolor claims to have solved the problem of rapid switching between different HDR formats streaming in the same program.

 

Keep an eye on the AV-1 codec. It could really upset the apple cart.

Of course, they didn’t have a ready answer when I questioned the future viability of any company that had sunk millions of dollars into H.265 development, only to see their hard work given away for free. The stock answers included “there will be winners and losers” and “some companies will probably be bought out.” Note that the primary goal of the members I listed is content delivery, not living off patent royalties, so that gives you some insights to their thinking.

The last puzzle piece was the new ATSC 3.0 standard for digital TV broadcasting, and it’s being tried out in several markets as I write this; most notably, Phoenix. ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with the current version 1.0 as it uses a different modulation process (ODM vs. VSB) and is very much intertwined with IP to make delivery to mobile devices practical. WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina has been broadcasting in this format for almost a year now.

ATSC 3.0 is already being tested in several TV markets. Will it take off? And how will consumers choose to watch it?

 

CreateLED had this cool LED “waterfall” in their booth.

ATSC 3.0 is designed to be more bandwidth-efficient and can carry 1080p and 4K broadcasts along with high dynamic range video. At the show, I saw demos of ATSC 3.0 receivers married to 802.11ac WiFi routers, ATSC 3.0 set-top boxes, and even an autonomous shuttle vehicle between the Central and South Halls that was supposedly carrying live ATSC 3.0 mobile broadcasts. (It wasn’t working at the time, though. More crickets…)

All in all; a very subdued show, but reflective of an industry in transition from a world of deterministic video traveling uncompressed over coaxial cable to compressed audio and video packets streaming through wired and wireless networks with varying degrees of latency. Where do we go from here?

 

 

CES 2018 In The Rear View Mirror (Or, what a difference a decade makes…)

BACK IN THE DAY…

I’ve lost track of how many Consumer Electronic Shows I’ve been to over the years. While recently going through my photo archives, I found images from the 2008 show, and what an eye opener! Prominent TV brands from back then that are no longer with us included Mitsubishi, who had just launched their premium Laser DLP rear-projection TV sets, and Hitachi, who had the good sense to read the writing on the wall and bail out on the TV business shortly after.

Pioneer was another brand about to pull the plug on televisions, but they continued to showcase their ultra-thin Kuro plasma sets. Panasonic also featured plasma TVs in their booth, claiming their picture quality was every bit as good as Pioneer (it was) and dazzling visitors with a one-off 150-inch 4K (3840×2160) plasma monitor. No one could have predicted at the time that plasma display technology would disappear just five years later.

Over in the Samsung booth, there was a small tower of small OLED TVs out for inspection, along with a full array of plasma and LCD TVs, the latter featuring Full HD (1920×1080) resolution – a big deal at the time! JVC showed what they claimed to be the world’s thinnest LCD TV (about 2 inches thick) and Sony was offering an 11-inch AM OLED monitor for sale, the XEL-1 a/k/a “the torch.” It didn’t run very long before the brightness fell off dramatically.

FLASHBACK: Remember Mitsubishi’s Laser DLP rear projection TV? It was launched in 2008. Today, Mitsubishi is out of the TV business.

 

FLASHBACK: Ten years ago, OLED TVs were expensive, cutting edge (and small) displays. Today? A mainstream product.

Dolby was taking its first steps into high dynamic range imaging by its acquisition of Canadian tech startup Brightside Technologies. The latter pioneered and patented a technique for LCD local area dimming with white LEDs, ostensibly to improve LCD contrast and also to obtain much lower black levels. LG Philips (today’s LG Display) was demonstrating smooth motion on LCDs and reducing blur on fast-moving objects.

The first iPhone had just made its appearance and tablets didn’t exist yet. Netflix had just started a streaming service, while a company called Vudu launched at Pepcom’s Digital Experience and promised smooth downloads of HD movies and TV shows to the home. And of course, 2008 as the year that the HD DVD – Blu-ray wars came to an end as Warner Brothers was apparently convinced by Sony to go all in with the BD format. That was to prove the coup de grade for HD DVD – Toshiba pulled the plug on this format a couple years later. (I still have a player and about 20 HD DVD movies, many still in their shrink wrap.)

Televisions were of course the big news for most of us at the show, and they dominated the booths of Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba (remember Toshiba?), Sharp, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Philips, JVC, and a bunch of smaller brands – not to mention a handful of Chinese companies no one had ever heard of. Today, many of those manufacturers are out of the TV business altogether or have licensed their names to Japanese, Korean, or Chinese TV manufacturers. A notable example would be Hisense, which controls the Sharp and Toshiba TV brands (even though Hon Hai Precision Industries now owns Sharp).

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

LG will offer Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in its 2018 TVs, like other manufacturers.

 

Samsung claims all of their products will be interconnected by 2020 – and 5G will be a key to making that happen.

This little detour down memory lane showed me just how much the show has changed in a decade. Perhaps the biggest change is the diminished importance of televisions: A quick check at Best Buy’s pre-Super Bowl TV sales shows that you can pick up a first-tier 55-inch 4K (Ultra HD) TV with “smart” functionality for about $500, and about $100 less for a 2nd-tier brand. Want high dynamic range? Add around $300 – $400 to the price. Compared to what a 1080 Kuro plasma cost back in 2008 (about $3,000 to $5,000, if my memory serves me correctly), that is an incomprehensible decline in pricing. And we’re talking about Ultra HDTVs here, not Full HD sets that can be had in the same screen size for as little as $399!

Sure, there were plenty of televisions to look at in Las Vegas. But the fact is that they just don’t matter that much anymore in the grand scheme of things. For perspective, my daughter’s brand-new Google Pixel 2 smartphone costs about as much money as a Sony XBR49X800E 49-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR and Dolby Digital Plus audio. (I don’t know if I’m more surprised that Sony would offer such a discount or that smartphones are still grossly overpriced!)

Sony demonstrated an 8K LCD monitor with micro LED backlighting that they claim can achieve a peak (specular) brightness level of 10,000 nits.

 

TCL has fully embraced quantum dot illumination for high dynamic range.

In any case, I spent three days at the show, wandering the LVCC and seeing a few surprises here and there (and getting caught in the Wednesday noontime blackout while in the Samsung booth). And the overwhelming emphasis was not on “what you got” but “what you do with it.” Being connected with voice commands is the thing nowadays. So is faster WiFi and 5G cellular, along with smart, connected appliances and smart, connected cars.

Think about this interesting paradox. Auto manufacturers, along with display giants Samsung and LG Display, are showing sophisticated dashboards and center consoles with audio, navigation, contacts, and adaptive machine learning. The goal is to provide an unparalleled, immersive driving experience, or as Samsung put it during their press conference, “to do anything in your car you can do with your TV.”

On the other hand, we’re seeing big advances in autonomous cars that wouldn’t need any of that stuff built into the dashboard and center console because there isn’t a driver to begin with. So, which is it? Immersive AI consoles, or smart self-driving cars? (I couldn’t get a feel one way or the other during the show.)

The Mercedes AMG Project 1 car mixes a conventional gas engine with multiple electric motors to achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph.

 

Talk about connecting everything: Continental showed a “smart” tire that can provide real-time performance data to drivers.

One thing I did notice was the proliferation of Amazon and Google voice command systems across everything from televisions to cars. If you had a bullhorn and walked through the convention center yelling “Hi, Alexa!” you’d have been a very unpopular person in short order. Speech recognition and control has come a long way since I first saw it implemented at the turn of this decade, and it works. And it’s cheap. And you can use it to control just about everything in your home, and likely your office.

In no particular order, here are ten products, trends, and/or demos I spotted in Vegas that are worth paying attention to over the next 12 months.

AI / Speech Recognition – Every TV manufacturer had at least one model at CES that supports Amazon, Google Home, or Google Assistant. (Some support both!) You can link your TV to your refrigerator, washer, dryer, and other appliances in your home and control just about anything or get status updates. Or you can just ask your assistant general questions, and depending on the question, the system can anticipate what you’re about to do and activate or deactivate devices.

LG has this feature in their 2018 TVs (ThinQ with Cloi), while Samsung claims that every product they make will be interconnected by 2020 and voice controlled using their Bixby system. While the Chinese brands are not quite up that level, they did show sample rooms with interconnected devices that all respond to voice prompts. (My personal favorite was Haier’s “conscious bathroom.” No idea what that means…)

Panasonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and emphasized design concepts and integrated projects in its booth over individual products.

 

LG Display pulled another surprise from its bag of tricks with this 65-inch rollable 4K OLED display.

Samsung’s purchase of Harman in 2016 gives them entry to the multi-billion-dollar car audio market, which appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much. And by extension, they can support voice recognition and control in cars, linking them back to homes and offices. On the TV side, both TiVo and Comcast have had voice control and search features for some time, using adaptive intelligence to hunt down and locate programs. (Who needs TV Guide, anyway?)

Flexible displays: LG Display stole part of the show by exhibiting a 65-inch roll-up 4K OLED TV in their technology suite. They also impressed with stacked 55-inch transparent OLEDs and p-OLED dashboards. But the fact that plastic displays have arrived means that just about any surface can be covered with a display. Need proof? Look at the latest crop of smartphones with wrap-around displays where a frame used to be.

And all of those hopped-up dashboards and center consoles I mentioned earlier are likely to take advantage of flexible OLEDs and even LCDs. (Yes, those are being developed now.) The key is to minimize the effects of vibration and G-forces, two things that can be fatal to displays. One big advantage of this approach is the use of virtual gauges and indicators: You’ll be able to create and recall multiple custom looks for your dashboard. (That would be helpful for those of us who need reading glasses.)

Canadian chip manufacturer Peraso showed how you can play an immersive VR game without any cables to the console.

 

Call up a recipe using Whirlpool’s Yummly app and it will turn on your oven and set it to the correct temperature automatically.

“Smart” refrigerators: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen products like this, but they appear to be mainstream now. Just like the days of old where we taped or used magnets to attach every important piece of paper in our lives to the fridge, we can now access everything from recipes to personal schedules using a built-in touchscreen. On some models, it can even turn transparent so you can see what’s on the shelves.

Samsung and LG both demoed technology that would scan in food items and determine their useful shelf life, tell you that you needed to use up said items soon, and even suggest recipes to use up those items. You could even access your fridge from your television, and with some appliances shown by Whirlpool, have the oven set itself while the recipe was being called up. (George Jetson would be envious!)

Autonomous delivery vehicles: Understandably, there has been some pushback on unmanned cars by people who just can’t bring themselves to trust the technology. But the adoption curve could be a lot faster for autonomous delivery vehicles. Ford is testing just that in a partnership with Dominoes Pizza, with an unmanned car pulling up your driveway no long after you order that piping-hot 16” pie with sausage and peppers. (Who would care if a pizza gets hurt in a crash?)

Yes, Ford is testing autonomous delivery of Domino’s pizza.

 

Ethertronics is developing steerable TV antennas for off-air TV reception, something we’ve seen in the past. It may catch on this time.

Cutting the cord: No, not dropping cable TV, although some developments at the show may hasten that trend. I’m talking about cutting the cord for virtual reality game players by using a high-speed 60 GHz WiFi link. Peraso showed just how this would work in their Westgate suite, sending video and audio to a headset while back-channeling control signals from joysticks. The FCC opened up two more channels in the 60 GHz band last year and each channel is about 2 GHz wide – 100 times the width of 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi channels.

This opens up a wealth of possibilities, such as wireless hard drives or SSDs connected by 802.11ad links. While millimeter-wave technology has not exactly burned up the marketplace, it is a practical solution for short-range, high-bandwidth video and audio links. Plus, the radio waves are so small that beam-steering antennas would allow multiple TX/RX links in the same room, on the same channel, with zero interference. Pretty cool!

Self-configuring IoT gadgets: We’ve been hearing a lot about the Internet of Things for several years, but it seemed like the dam broke this year. More and more CE gadgets come with some form of network interface and a WiFi connection, and large manufacturers like LG and Samsung claim that in the very near future, all you’ll have to do is plug ‘em in and turn ‘em on to link everything together.

This is a relatively new trend on the world of home theater and commercial AV, but make no mistake – it is the next wave. And this level of connectivity and control will require faster WiFi connections, most likely using dual-band WiFi routers to boot traffic to the 5 GHz band when coping with interference. Perhaps the most significant part of the trend is just how inexpensive the hardware will be. After all, you can buy the full-sized Echo for $100 and the stubby Dot for $50 – and those are basically your control interfaces.

Robots have gotten very good at smiling and blinking!

 

Bell Helicopter showed an autonomous chopper for city commuters.

High dynamic range TV – I haven’t talked about TVs very much, mostly because there isn’t much to say right now. The exception is HDR and its companion, wide color gamut (WCG), which were the main attraction in most TV exhibits. On the one hand, you have the current “hot” technology, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs from LG that can probably squeeze out 600 – 800 nits small area white, but oh! Those black levels!

On the other hand, you have LCD panels married to backlights that use quantum dot (QD) particles to generate intense, saturated greens and reds with blue LEDs filling in the rest.  Samsung is probably best known for using QDs in their premium LCD TVs (a/k/a Q-LEDS), but TCL and Hisense have them, too. LG goes a different route to get to HDR with their Nano Cell technology, and Sony has been experimenting with LED backlights to get more “oomph!” out of 4K images.

At the show, Samsung showed “The Wall,” a 146-inch modular display using micro LED emissive technology to achieve HDR and wider colors. Micro LEDs are a relatively new technology and can create red, green, and blue light, so it is possible (but expensive) to build an emissive display with them. Sony showed a similar prototype several years ago, and it looked amazing – but was hand-wired and probably cost over a hundred grand to build.

Samsung’s 146-inch micro LED “wall” attracted a ton of viewers…

 

…that is, until the power went out in the Central Hall just before noon on Wednesday! (Ooops…)

Speaking of Sony, they had an impressive if somewhat confusing demo of an 8K LCD TV that could supposedly hit a brightness level of 10,000 nits with intense specular highlights. But they weren’t discussing how that was actually happening, only to say that “there are hundreds of LED arrays” in the backlight. The claim was that a true HDR 10,000 video image could be viewed without clipping, although most of what I saw was in the 200 – 400 nits range.

Robots and drones: There were plenty of them in Vegas, but the vast majority are only capable of simple functions like blinking (this is something all robots do constantly) and responding to your voice commands. LG showed valet, guide, and shopping robots that can roll around and talk to you. Other exhibitors had robots that can sing, read to your kids, and wave their arms a lot (something else robots are really good at).

But it’s still early in the game. Keep in mind an autonomous car is a robot, after all. Yamaha took that concept a step further and created a robotic motorcycle rider, putting it on a test track against one of the world’s fastest (human) riders. Needless to say, Yamaha’s robot didn’t crash, nor did it set any speed records. An extension of that research is a motorcycle that rolls up to or away from you, depending on your hand gesture. (Shades of the Twilight Zone.)

As for drones, they were everywhere like a cloud of annoying mosquitoes. Surprisingly, Bell Helicopter showed a prototype of an autonomous drone copter for intra-city commuting. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to test fly it, but the concept is solid and not far off.

Panasonic announced a new line of OLED TVs in 55-inch and 65-inch sizes for the U.S. market.

 

Canon demonstrated an inventory scanning robot.

Steerable TV antennas: The statistics don’t lie. More and more people are dumping pay TV channel packages in favor of streaming, adding free off-air television along the way. I’ve been a big advocate for this going back to the DTV transition almost 20 years ago, but it’s easy for me – my house has two outdoor TV antennas and one indoor to feed all of my sets.

But the average homeowner doesn’t have an antenna, nor do they know much about installing one. Ethertronics showed a prototype steerable antenna for window or wall mounting that’s based on their steerable technology for WiFi. You install the flat antenna, connect power to it, and push a button on the housing. The antenna then scans for channels several times, trying different antenna patterns. The pattern that results in the most signals is then set as the default (it can be overridden). This is another great example of artificial intelligence and machine learning at work.

Analog is back: Okay, a weird one, but Polaroid and Kodak both showed instant print cameras as the show. Polaroid went so far as to bring back their 40+ year-old One Step as the One Step 2 (that’s confusing). Apparently, Millennials and Generations Y and Z love instant prints, and why not? While you can easily share digital photos via Instagram and Facebook, there’s just something different about having a physical print in your hand.

Polaroid has resurrected the OneStep instant camera – and it’s wildly popular (although not really this big)!

Add that to the list of “retro” things like vinyl records, Kodak’s 8mm movie camera (didn’t see that this year), and even audiocassettes that have come back from the grave. Some of this desire for the past may be a reaction to the blinding speed of technological change: I know people that prefer older wristwatches to the “connected” models that monitor everything about you. (And yes, some of us still write checks to pay our bills, putting them in stamped envelopes and mailing them. Imagine that.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the welcome fact that Panasonic is fully back in the U.S. TV game, introducing two new 4K OLED TV models (FZ 950 and FZ 800) at the show. They also announced a new line of Blu-ray players and it will be considerably easier to sell those if they have a TV to add to the package. (LG Display is happy too, since they make the OLED panels for both Sony and Panasonic.)  Yes, we’ll all miss those beautiful Viera plasma TVs (but we won’t miss those high electricity bills!)…

 

 

 

 

The RCA Brand Prospers

RCA, the iconic company that — more than any other — brought color television to the consumer mass market was dissolved years ago. But its brand has survived and sometimes prospered. The brand is owned and licensed by Technicolor. After some mis-steps in years past, Technicolor is now managing the brand in an intelligent and unusually hands-on fashion.

For the last four years, the brand has been licensed to the ON Corporation of Seongnam, Korea, which will continue to manufacture RCA TV sets for the U.S. and some other markets until at least 2020. ON has the license for TV production and distribution only, with other companies having the licenses for “video tablets,” telephones, and accessories. However, an indication of the way Technicolor is managing the brand could be seen in the RCA booth, which combined ON Corp’s RCA TVs, Digital Stream’s mobile RCA TVs, and Telefield’s RCA business telephones. If you didn’t know better, you might think that RCA still existed as a company.

ON Corp US positions its TV models on the value end of the spectrum, but not at the bottom of it. The sets don’t look cheap, and the design of the higher-end sets, with ultra-thin bezels, is attractive. RCA is entering the 4Kx2K (or Ultra HD) TV market this year with three screen sizes: 55, 65, and 84 inches. These sets have LED backlights and smart TV functions. The Android (formerly Google) TV platform built into each of the sets provides an integrated on-screen interface with access to cable/satellite TV, apps and online content, including more than 100,000 on-demand movies and TV episodes, and thousands of YouTube channels. The UHD-TV sets all have a native 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160.

xRCA 65_4k_

The RCA 65-inch UHD-TV with smart functions provided by the Google TV platform. The set was described as having a “curved design,” which refers the the curved bar of the base, not to the screen being curved rather than flat. (Photo: ON Corp)

“Our first Ultra HD TVs are priced very competitively because we anticipate 2014 to be a pivotal year for this new class of TVs as more consumers become exposed to the striking picture quality that is possible with virtually any source material,” said Jonathan Zupnik, ON Corp US Executive VP of Marketing.

Smart features include the Google Chrome web browser; Google’s PrimeTime guide, which permits browsing channels while streaming or watching live TV and recommends shows based on personal preferences; Google TV Search for quickly finding shows by title, channel name, actor, or genre; and voice search.

RCA says the higher-end sets have a “curved design,” but that refers to the curved-bar base, not to the screen. Zupnik said he did not anticipate people might think RCA was referring to a curved screen. Indeed, all of the RCA models have flat, rather than curved, screens. Zupnik said that ON Corp has built curved-screen sets but decided not to make them part of the U.S. line-up or to show them at CES. “I’m very cautious about curved screens,” Zupnik said.

The less expensive tier of RCA sets are HDTV rather than UHD-TV, and implement their smart TV features with a Roku Streaming Stick, which provides access to over a thousand entertainment channels. Some of the sets simply provide an exposed MHL port into which the Roku stick is inserted, but some come with the stick already installed in an MHL port that is concealed behind a simple screw-on panel. Screen sizes for the HDTV line-up run from 28 to 65 inches.

RCA is doing well, said Zupnik, with sales up over 20% in the last year. For an old RCA hand such as yours truly, it’s good to see the old brand prosper. This is surely not what General Sarnoff had in mind for his legacy, but it’s not nothin’ either.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.