Posts Tagged ‘HDR’

The 2018 HPA Tech Retreat: Digital In The Desert

2018 brought a new venue (The J.W. Marriott) for the annual Hollywood Professional Association Technology Retreat and a program chock-full of interesting talks, not to mention the usual enormous Innovation Zone (formerly the Demo Room). I first attended the Retreat in 2002 out of simple curiosity, and back then there were perhaps 100 – 120 in attendance. Zoom ahead to 2018, and well over 600 people made the trek to Palm Desert.

The primary focus of HPA has been and continues to be post-production, and in recent years there have been numerous presentations on managing workflows, metadata, and “director’s intent.” So it went this year, with an entire section of the Innovation Zone devoted to the Interchange Media Format (IMF, not the International Monetary Fund).

But there’s more to the conference than workflows. I can’t remember precisely when I started doing this presentation, but I attempt to recap my impressions of the Consumer Electronics Show every year – and do it in exactly 30 minutes. Jim Burger from Thomson Coburn opens the first day with a review of what’s happening in Washington DC with regard to copyrights and other legal issues, and we both try to spice things up with a little humor here and there. (Very little…)

Over 600 people attended this year’s Tech Retreat.

Of course, there are other things to talk about, such as the emergence of solid-state cinema screens using light-emitting diodes and how likely they are to replace conventional digital cinema projectors. Peter Lude of Mission Rock Digital covered this topic nicely and it appears we’re not quite there yet, although it’s been my experience that Asian countries are often happy to dive into new cinema technologies where we in the U.S. and Canada would proceed more cautiously.

High dynamic range (HDR) is another hot topic, as you might imagine. One of the highlights of my talk was how cheap Ultra HDTVs have become, with certain models available for as little as $8 per diagonal inch and equipped with basic HDR (HDR 10 static metadata) for just $1 more per diagonal inch. My conclusion was that the economic impact of televisions on the CE world has been greatly diminished – televisions are commodities now, and the average consumer buys TVs these days by looking for the best price on the biggest screen they can fit at home.

Of course, my observations stirred up a bunch of discussions and counter-arguments, the strongest coming from representatives of Sony. From my perspective, no one hurts themselves by waiting a bit longer to invest in an HDR TV, as there are still a few bugs in the system. Not all HDR formats are supported on all models, and some content players and TVs don’t establish HDMI connections correctly, enabling a lower bit rate connection and blocking HDR signals –  something that would drive the average viewer crazy.

HDR was a hot topic at the Retreat and Panasonic demonstrated dual HDR (left) and SDR (right) output from their newest 4K camera.

The Sony camp argued that it has never been a better time to buy an Ultra HDTV with HDR, and in fact older models might actually out-perform newer models as the race to lower manufacturing costs could sacrifice quality. However; Sony’s own Z9 LCD Ultra HDTV, held up as a paragon of HDR playback (albeit a very expensive one at $9,000 originally), has been discontinued and the likely cause is far lower prices for OLED and quantum dot-equipped LCD TVs. And they did admit that there are still ample problems with HDMI interconnections and clock rate detection that adversely impact Ultra HD playback on current models of televisions.

The elephant in the room is that there isn’t enough HDR content to watch in the first place. Yes, Comcast provided 4K coverage of the Olympics via streaming connections, some of it with HDR. And DirecTV (AT&T) carried the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 4K with HDR. But the pickings are still slim. An informal show of hands after Day 2 seemed to confirm my advice to sit on one’s hands – more attendees who were considering an Ultra HDTV with HDR purchase seemed happy to wait it out a bit longer than those who just had to jump in and get a set today.

I don’t know of too many people who have picked up Ultra HD Blu-ray players to watch HDR content, either (I haven’t) but I am aware of a couple of instances where said players didn’t work correctly with compatible TVs. In one case, the manufacturer of the TV and UHD BD player were the same! But given how low prices have dropped for HDR-equipped sets, it appears that HDR will become a standard feature soon enough, just like the late, lamented 3D did. And UHD BD players will come down in price to match conventional Full HD models soon enough.

Thursday’s session opened with a panel discussion on HDR “flavors” and featured participants from Dolby, Sony, Samsung, and the BBC. It was timely: A recent article in the Hollywood Reporter talked about people getting confused with all of the different HDR formats – HDR 10, Dolby Vision, Hybrid Log Gamma, and HDR 10+ (Samsung’s take on dynamic metadata). So far, I know of only one manufacturer (LG) that supports four HDR formats (HDR 10, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Technicolor, which is more of a transport than a display format). In theory, the TV should recognize these formats automatically, but consumers may perceive we’re in the midst of another “format war” like we were with Blu-ray and HD DVD ten years ago.

This panel was followed by another titled, “Establishing Metadata Guidelines for Downstream Image Presentation Management on Consumer Displays.” In other words, maintaining creative intent all the way through to the television. Another panel on Day 2 discussed the Academy Color Exchange System (ACES), which was developed to ensure color volume and data didn’t change from the camera through post and mastering. There is a never-ending discussion about preserving the director’s and colorists’ intent to the TV screen, but that’s much easier said than done – TV manufacturers have very different axes to grind.

While we already have a system to deliver HDR metadata to televisions using CTA 861.3 extensions, my thought was that perhaps the Cinema/Movie/User picture settings on Ultra HDTVs could be configured to also recognize ACES metadata and provide that more accurate cinema experience. This would involve encoding that data into Blu-ray discs and also streaming content, but it shouldn’t be impossible to pull off – and would actually provide some value to manufacturers, especially if they could re-label this setting “Academy” instead of Cinema or Movie.

I hosted three breakfast roundtables during the conference on OLED technology, HDR signal interfacing, and gadget fatigue. And the last roundtable was the most intriguing, as my colleagues talked about mixed experiences with Alexa, Siri, and Google, using flip phones more than smart phones, trying out VR goggles that are now gathering dust, preferring hardcover and softcover books to tablets, and just trying to disconnect whenever possible.

The fact is; we live in a world of abundant, cheap electronics. It’s hard to disconnect from all of this stuff as it’s become an integral part of our lives, but it appears some of us are trying to maintain some separation and are questioning why everything in our lives needs to be connected, as we were repeatedly told at CES 2018. I can say that a majority of HPA attendees don’t think it’s a good idea to have everything in their house connected to the Internet, based on a show of hands after Day 1.

If you’ve never attended the Tech Retreat, you should. The general sessions are thought-provoking and the sidebar conversations and informal discussions (including the breakfast roundtables) are well worth the trip. I’m looking forward to the 2019 Retreat, at which I will likely report once again on my impressions of CES….

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!)…

 

 

 

 

On LED Walls Versus Projectors and Who Ultimately Wins This Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

High Dynamic Range: It’s Here!

Ever since the launch of high definition television in the 1990s, it seems as if some new ‘bell and whistle’ enhancement comes along every few years. First it was the changeover to flat screen plasma displays in the late 1990s, followed by a shift to 1080p and Wide UXGA resolution in the early 2000s.

The industry transitioned to liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels for TVs and monitors a few years later. UHD (4K) imaging popped into our consciousness in 2012. And of course, 3D made its “once every few sunspot cycles” appearance in 2009, followed by virtual reality last year.

Some of these trends actually stuck, like 4K: Display manufacturers are slowing down production of Full HD (1920×1080) display panels in favor of UHD (3840×2160) as consumers increasingly choose the higher resolution. That, in turn, means that the displays we select for digital signage, classrooms, meeting rooms, and other applications will also be of the 4K variety.

The latest trend to rear its head is high dynamic range (HDR), which is accompanied by wide color gamut (WCG) imaging. In a nutshell, HDR means a greatly expanded range of tonal values that can be shown in still and moving images. Conventional cameras and imaging systems can capture anywhere from 9 to 11 f-stops of light. (Each f-stop increase represents a luminance value twice as bright as the previous one.)

HDR takes that to a higher level by capturing as many as 22 f-stops of light, and reproducing those tonal values becomes a real challenge to displays that employ conventional backlight or illumination systems. Hence, we are now seeing a new crop of LCD TVs with turbocharged backlights to reproduce the extreme dynamic ranges of HDR images. On the emissive display side, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs can also reproduce HDR content, although with lower peak brightness levels.

At NAB 2017, NEC showed this 4K HDR encoder prototype, streaming 77 Mb/s with 99 ms latency.

For some perspective, the venerable CRT display had a peak brightness level somewhere around 29 foot-Lamberts (100 candelas per square meter), which represented close to 100% diffuse white. In an HDR display, that value largely holds, but more intense specular highlights (like the sun reflecting off a pane of glass or the water, or a bright streetlight at nighttime) can hit peaks much, much higher in the thousands of cd/m2 .

And HDR isn’t just about extreme brightness. The entire grayscale is expanded, so we should see more shadow details along with intense specular light sources. When done correctly, HDR images are quite the departure from ‘everyday’ HDTV, and more closely resemble the range of tonal values our eyes can register – with their visual contrast ratio approaching 1,000,000:1.

There are numerous ways to achieve higher levels of brightness. Dense arrays of light-emitting diodes can do it when used in a direct-illumination architecture. However, the favored approach is to employ a special optical film embedded with nano-sized red and green quantum dot particles, stimulated by an array of blue LEDs. 2017 TV models using this approach can achieve peak small-area brightness values of 2,000 cd/m2.

For perspective, consider that an LED (emissive) videowall for indoor use will routinely hit 3,000 cd/m2 brightness with full white images, and you can appreciate just how much of a leap HDR represents over current imaging technology. What’s more significant is how quickly the prices for HDR displays are coming down, particularly as Chinese TV manufacturers enter the marketplace.

Just prior to the Super Bowl – the best time to score a deal on a new TV, by the way – it was possible to purchase a 55-inch ‘smart’ Ultra HDTV for just $499 from a Tier 1 manufacturer. And a 65-inch model with basic HDR (static metadata) could be had from a Chinese brand for less than $700, while a Tier 1 HDR model of the same screen size was less than $900.

I mentioned wide color gamut earlier. It stands to reason that if a camera can capture a much wider range of luminance values, it can also record a much wider range of color shades. And that’s exactly what winds up happening. With the current 8-bit color system widely in use for everything from broadcast and cable television to Blu-ray discs and streaming media, a total of 16.7 million colors can be represented.

With HDR and WCG, the playing field is expanded considerably and now requires 10 bits per color pixel, resulting in 1,073,741,800 colors – over 1 billion color shades! That’s too much heavy lifting for LCD displays that use white LEDs with color filters, but it’s within reach of quantum dot LCDs and OLEDs.

The availability of HDR/WCG content has also forced a speed upgrade to display interfaces. HDMI 1.3/1.4 simply can’t handle a 4K HDR signal, so we must use HDMI 2.0 to do the job. And even version 2.0 is barely fast enough – if the 4K video signal uses lower color resolution (4:2:0, 4:2:2), then it can transport HDR signals as fast as 60 Hz. But switch to RGB (4:4:4) color mode – such as we’d see with 4K video from a computer video card – and HDMI 2.0 can’t pass a 60 Hz signal with anything more than 8-bit color.

On the DisplayPort side, things are somewhat more accommodating. Version 1.2 (the current one) can pass a 3840x2160p/60 signal 10-bit RGB (4:4:4) color, but nothing more. The newest DP version – 1.3 – raises its maximum speed to 32.4 Gb/s, which makes imaging 12-bit and even 16-bit 4K HDR content possible. However, version 1.4 is required to recognize the HDR ‘flags’ that travel with the content and must be passed on to the display. (HDMI uses extensions for HDR and WCG, with ‘a’ used for static HDR metadata and ‘b’ used for dynamic metadata.)

Marketing folks have a field day confusing people with new display tech and apparently they’re going to town with HDR. We’re now hearing about “HDR-compatible” products, particularly in signal interfacing. Nothing to see here, folks – if the signal distribution and switching equipment is fast enough to pass the required clock rate and hands over HDR metadata (CTA.861.3) to the display without alteration, then it is indeed “HDR compatible.” Simple as that.

I return to my original question: Will HDR have an impact on our industry? The answer is an emphatic “yes!” There are many customers that would realize a benefit from HDR imaging – medical, surveillance, military, research, virtual reality, and simulation verticals will embrace it pretty quickly, and others will follow.