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.

 

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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…