InfoComm Tech Trends for 2017

Although I’ve been working in the AV industry since 1978 (the good old days of tape recorders, CRT projectors, and multi-image 35mm slide projection), I only started attending InfoComm in 1994.

At that time, the Projection Shoot-Out was picking up steam with the first solid-state light modulators (LCDs). Monitors still used CRTs, and some new-fangled and very expensive ‘plasma’ monitors were arriving on our shores. “HD resolution” meant 1024×768 pixels, and a ‘light valve’ projector could crank out at best about 2,000 lumens. The DB15 and composite video interfaces dominated connections, and a ‘large’ distribution amplifier had maybe four output ports on it.

I don’t need to tell you what’s transpired in the 23 years since then. This will be my 24th InfoComm, and it might be the most mind-boggling in terms of technology trends. We’ve come a long way from XGA, composite video, CRTs, 35mm slides, analog audio, and RS232. (Okay, so that last one is still hanging around like an overripe wine.)

I’ve mentioned many of the trends in previous columns, so I’ll list what I think are the most impactful and exactly why I feel that way. I should add that I’m writing this just after attending the NAB 2017 show, where many of my beliefs have been confirmed in spades.

Light-emitting Diodes (LEDs) are taking over (the world): This is an obvious one, but now they’re simultaneously threatening both the large venue projection and direct-view display markets. I saw at least a dozen LED brands at NAB – most of them from mainland China – offering so-called ‘fine pitch’ tiled displays. These range from 1.8mm all the way down to .9mm, which is about the same pitch as a 50-inch plasma TV had 17 years ago.

The challenge for anyone here is who to buy from and which products are reliable. You wouldn’t recognize most of these companies, as they are largely set up to market LED tiles to the outside world. And some of them supply companies you do know in the LED marketplace. With brightness levels hitting 400 – 800 nits for fine pitch (and over 2,000 nits for coarser pixel arrays), it’s no wonder that more applications are swinging away from front projection to tiles.

And there are even finer screens in the works with pixel pitches at .8mm and smaller. That’s most definitely direct-view LCD territory, at least at greater viewing distances. But the LCD guys have some tricks of their own…

Cheaper, bigger, 1080p and UHD flat screens: Right now, there are too many LCD ‘fabs’ running in Asia, making too much ‘glass.’ More and more of that ‘glass’ will have Ultra HD resolution. That, in turn, is forcing down prices of 1080p LCD panels, making it possible for consumers to buy super-cheap 60-inch, 65-inch, and 70-inch televisions.

Consequently, it will be easy to pick up 65-, 70-, and even 85-inch LCD screens for commercial installations for dirt-cheap prices. We’re talking about displays that can be amortized pretty quickly – if they last a couple of years, great. But even if they have to be replaced after a year, the replacement costs will be lower. And with the slow migration to UHD resolution in larger sizes (it’s a matter of manufacturing economies); you can put together tiled 8K and even 16K displays for a rational budget.

Don’t expect OLEDs to make too many inroads here. They don’t yet have the reliability or sheer brightness of LCDs, and you’re going to start seeing some high-end models equipped with quantum dot enhancements for high brightness and high dynamic range (HDR) support. Speaking of which…

High dynamic range and wide color gamut technologies were all over the place at NAB. There is so much interest in both (they go hand-in-hand anyway) that you will numerous demos of them in Orlando. Who will use HDR and WCG? Anyone who wants a more realistic way to show images with brightness, color saturation, and contrast levels that are comparable to the human eye.

Obviously, higher resolution is very much part of this equation, but you don’t always need 4K to make it work. Several companies at NAB, led by Hitachi, had compelling demos of 2K (1080p) HDR. On a big screen, the average viewer might not even know they’re looking at a 1080p image. And yes, both enhancements do make a difference – they’re not just bells and whistles.

AV distribution over networks: I’ve been teaching classes in networked AV for over a decade, but it has finally arrived. You won’t hear nearly as much about HDMI switching and distribution in Orlando as you will about JPEG2000, latency, network switch speeds, and quality of service issues.

That’s because our industry has finally woken up and smelled the coffee: Signal management and distribution over TCP/IP networks is the future. It’s not proprietary HDMI formats for category wire. It’s not big, bulky racks full of HDMI hardware switches. No, our future is codecs, Layer 2/3 switches, cloud servers and storage, faster channel-bonding WiFi, and distribution to mobile devices.

You couldn’t throw a rock at NAB without hitting a company booth that was showcasing a codec or related software-based switching (SBS) product. More and more of them are using the HEVC H.265 codec for efficiency or M-JPEG2000 for near-zero latency. Some companies demonstrated 25 Gb/s network hardware for transport and workflows, while others had scheduling and playout software programs.

Internet of Things control for AV: You can defend proprietary control systems all day long, but I’m sorry to tell you that you’re on the losing end of that argument. IoT is running wild in the consumer sector, which of course wields great influence over our market. App-based control has never been easier to pull off, which is why the long-time powers in control are scrambling to change gears and keep up with the crowd.

In short; if it has a network interface card or chip, it can be addressed over wireless and wireless networks with APIs and controlled from just about any piece of hardware. And control systems have gotten smart enough that you can simply connect a piece of AV hardware to a network and it will be identified and configured automatically. You won’t have to lift a finger to do it.

It is a sobering thought to realize I’m in my 40th year working in this industry. Yet, I have never seen the technology changes coming as hard and as fast as I have in the past decade (remember, the first iPhone appeared in 2007). It’s all migrating to networks, software control, and displays that have LEDs somewhere in the chain. Tempus fugit…