Posts Tagged ‘Internet of Things’

On China, IoT, AI, and Trade Shows

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s worth stepping off the technology express for a moment to consider some of the changes we’re seeing in our industry, in parallel industries, and in everyday life – changes that have been wrought by a combination of geographical, economical, and political factors.

It’s no secret that most of the electronics manufacturing (semiconductors, televisions, mobile phones, computers, tablets, appliances, wireless gear) in the world is moving to or has moved to mainland China and Taiwan, along with several southeastern Asia countries. Just 25 years ago, it was common to spot the words “Made in Japan” on your table radio, television, camera, and even your car.

Nowadays, “China” has been substituted for “Japan,” even for many products manufactured and sold by Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia. That’s because labor costs are so much lower and the Chinese government as a so-called “silent” partner can easily clear land for (and even build) state-of-the-art factories. They also provide a large labor pool to fill the positions in those factories.

And the Chinese have made major investments of their own in new technology. One of the largest manufacturers of LCD panels in the world is TCL, who has a partnership with Samsung in a large LCD plant known as China Star Optoelectronic Technologies. Not only that, TCL manufactures and sells their own brand of televisions in the U.S. Both TCL and Hisense (another Chinese brand who also owns the Sharp brand name) have been selling 55-inch 4K (yes, 4K!) televisions for as little as $500, with some specials dropping below $400.

The Skyworth OLED TV booth at CES 2017.

The result of this shift to the Far East has been a dramatic drop in the price of not only televisions, but a host of other electronic gadgets. I recently bought a new Lenovo laptop with solid-state drive, 15” screen, a fast i7 Intel processor, tons of RAM for both the PC and video card, and the latest in 802.11ac channel-bonding WiFi tech. My cost was a just under $1300 with shipping and tax.

Because the world of professional electronics (including AV gear) is largely driven by the world of consumer electronics, we’re now seeing those same dramatic price drops in everything from HDMI switchers to pan/tilt/zoom cameras. And the U.S., Japanese, Korean, and European brands that sell that stuff have had to cut their prices as well.

Now, we’ve got the Internet of Things in town. Anything that can be fitted with a Media Access Control (MAC) port and has a WiFi connection can now be accessed, configured, and controlled from an Internet connection just about anywhere in the world. All of the gear you’d install in a conference room or classroom can be set up and operated with nothing more than a tablet and software equipped with simple drag-and-drop GUIs. And the software doesn’t cost all that much.

Throw in artificial intelligence (AI) and you now have an AV installation that can configure itself once powered up. That’s right – all of the displays, lighting, screens, audio mixers, thermostats, amplifiers, and switching equipment can talk to the control software, load the appropriate drivers, and create a touchscreen display without you having to lift a finger. And you can talk to an assistant like Siri or Alexa to walk through the process.

Add it all together – lower manufacturing costs, an increasing percentage of CE products (equipped with IoT functionality) finding their way into commercial AV installations, and artificial intelligence to handle the once-tedious job of writing control code and commands. More power in the products at lower costs to you.

That last part is what’s causing major headaches for manufacturers. Instead of price tags with 3 or 4 zeros following the first integer, a majority of products are being sold with two or three zeros. That has a direct impact on profitability, one which cannot be simply fixed by increasing the volume of sales – the availability of cheap electronics has spawned too many competitors, which is great news for price-sensitive consumers.

And that brings me to trade shows. Alert readers will notice that the once-mammoth booths and stands of Japanese and Korean manufacturers at NAB and InfoComm have gotten noticeably smaller as the Chinese booths have gotten larger. No surprise – if you are selling hardware and software with smaller price tags, you have less money to put into a trade show booth. And some of these well-known brands are pushing more and more of their products through distribution, not traditional dealers. (It’s that margin/profitability thing again.)

What’s more; the lines between residential and commercial gear and installations have been steadily blurring for over a decade. (Admit it – you’ve been installing regular TVs instead of commercial monitors most of the time, right? Not that there’s any real difference between them.) Many residential dealers who were once shoveling in the cash have started bidding on commercial work, and vice-versa.

It’s not surprising to see some of the hardware on view at the annual CES in January make repeat appearances at ISE, NAB, InfoComm, and CEDIA Expo as the year winds on. In fact, one prominent Japanese manufacturer (begins with “P”) has focused more commercial product at CES recently, having dropped out of the TV business altogether.

We’ll probably see some consolidation of trade shows in the next few years as attendees come to realize there isn’t a whole lot of difference from one show to the next. The increasing use of CE products for installations, along with improved AI and support for IoT, will actually deliver the promise of ‘plug and play’ (along with a new set of headaches from hackers and malware) to our industry, reducing the purchasing decisions to best price and warranty/reliability.

Some questions to think about: How long before Amazon starts selling commercial AV gear? Is it now practical to view a manufacturer’s product line using VR technology? (Some companies have already tried this.) Just how much education do you need to learn how to configure a room full of IoT hardware?

And just how much of a difference is there between a video encoder made by “You never heard of us, we’re first-timers at this show” and “Buy from us, we’ve been selling into this industry for 40 years” – especially if both products are made in China, possibly at the same factory and using the same chip sets? (Not much, if any…)

CES 2017: Afterthoughts and Second Thoughts

It’s been a few weeks since the annual extravaganza of consumer electronics in Las Vegas. As usual, it’s difficult to process everything one sees and produce a coherent show review within a few days. There are always products, trends, and demos that one winds up dwelling on for a few weeks. (Sometimes it’s better not to be the first to report on something!)

Overall, the show was busy and loaded with gadgets. Mind you; a good part of those gadgets were “shiny, sparkly” things, such as mobile phone cases with glitter and mirrors. Or must-have accessories, none of which really cost all that much. Numerous booths in the upper and lower South Hall were filled with exactly that, showcased by numerous Chinese/Korean/Taiwanese trading companies you’ve never heard of.

Add in a scattering of U.S. audio companies toward the front of the hall, plus the large areas reserved for AR/VR demos and the drone cages, and that pretty much sums up the South Hall experience. (A continuing puzzler is the presence of the United States Postal Service in the middle of all of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers.)

In the Central Hall, the show continues to be dominated by the big CE brands – LG, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm, Casio, Canon, Nikon, and relative newcomers TCL, Hisense, and Haier (who now owns the GE appliances business and made it a focal point of their booth). And the North Hall is basically divided between audio companies and automobile manufacturers, with the lines often blurring between them.

Much of the new tech appears in the Sands Expo Center, which due to the challenging logistics of travel, I don’t focus on much. There’s another crop of audio companies set up on the upper floors of the Venetian Hotel, and other venues host a variety of small, table top expos like Digital Experience and ShowStoppers.

So the first trend that jumped out at me is just how many of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers have taken over the show. In the past, I’ve joked about large parts of the South Hall becoming the “Chinese Electronics Show,” but that’s a pretty good description of what you see there.

Shiny, sparkly stuff everywhere!

Another trend you couldn’t miss is just how important appliances have become to the product lines of companies like Panasonic, LG, and Samsung (not to mention Haier and Hisense). That shouldn’t come as a surprise – there’s much more profit in refrigerators, washers, dryers, and even things like the induction oven Panasonic showed this year when you compare appliances to the former kings of CES, televisions.

That’s not to say television isn’t important anymore. But when the amount of booth space devoted to TVs continues to shrink while the square footage given to appliances is growing, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots. In fact, more of the TV demos focused on the underlying technology than on specific lines or models. And right now (while this is being written), I can walk into Best Buy and pick up with a 55-inch LG Ultra HDTV with Web OS for all of $500 – or walk out with a 55-inch Hisense version with basic HDR support for the same price.  (Remember the good old days, when a 50-inch 1080p plasma TV cost $5,000?)

So it doesn’t make as much sense for manufacturers to invest a lot of time and money into promoting a category of products which has slim profit margins to begin with. But those ‘connected’ refrigerators? Dual-chamber washing machines? Cool kitchen gadgets? Now, there’s where a decent profit can be made, especially when you can sell a swath of these products in a bundle for consumers who are remodeling kitchens.

Never heard of Skyworth? Don’t worry, you will…

 

Appliances are where the action (and money) is these days.

One area that was disappointing was wireless connectivity – specifically, 60 GHz WiFi and wireless USB. Although I did mention some impressive demos from Peraso in my post-show coverage, I was surprised to see little space Qualcomm gave to 802.11ad products, particularly after the impressive demos shown last year. Despite the unique advantages of wireless operation in this band – limited, secure in-room connectivity with high bit rates over large channels – we’re still not seeing enough in the way of finished products.

Although other press accounts have talked about voice recognition being a big deal at the show (mostly with the autonomous car demonstrations), I didn’t see much that really wowed me. In past years, Conexant had excellent demos of voice recognition in noisy environments, but either they didn’t exhibit or didn’t reach out to me as they have in the past. The same observation applies to gesture recognition – there were some interesting products here and there that used a basic implementation, but nothing earth-shaking.

I mentioned augmented reality and virtual reality. From my view, the biggest problem with VR taking off in a big way is the size and weight of the headsets. Sure, we’ve all seen the Samsung Galaxy VR TV commercial where everyone is “thrilled” to get a VR (Oculus Rift) headset for Christmas, and they all “ooh!” and “ahhh!” at the VR experience.

Wearing VR headsets isn’t as comfortable as it looks…

What we don’t see is people taking these headsets off and putting them aside after the initial VR novelty wears off and sore necks start to manifest – not to mention possible problems with nausea due to a disconnect in the brain between perceived motion and actual motion. The latter is a real problem, similar to the issues with failed stereoscopic perception revealed by the roll-out of 3D seven years ago.

That’s not to say there isn’t a market for VR. There definitely is, but by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, we will need about 8K pixel resolution per eye to make it really work. (Some VR manufacturers and users are advocating for 11K per eye, refreshed as fast as 120 Hz to eliminate flicker.) With AR, on the other hand, things are much farther along, as Kopin demonstrated with its 2K x 2K near-to-eye OLED microdisplay fitted to a firefighter’s oxygen mask for search and rescue.

I may have said this before, but it’s worth repeating: LEDs are simply dominating the display sector. From the white LEDs with color filters used in conventional LCD TVs and the blue LEDs combined with quantum dots in HDR/WCG UHDTV models to organic white OLEDs with color filters in Ultra HDTVs, RGB OLEDs in smartphones and tablets, and the new super-small “micro” LEDs that make up the building blocks of super-bright, colorful videowalls with as much as 8K resolution…LEDs are basically taking over the world. (And I left out automotive displays and lights, appliances, indoor and outdoor lighting, and indicator lamps.)

How’s this for a cool keyboard design, which each key illuminated by a micro LED?

About the only area left to mention is the ever-growing Internet of Things trend. It was impossible to keep tabs on all of the IoT products at the show – remote pet food dispenser monitors, heart monitors, water quality monitors, connected TVs, massage chairs, doorbell cameras, connected appliances, home security systems, teenage driver monitors, control systems, and of course a slew of connected sensors in the most advanced car designs.

Memo to those readers in the commercial AV industry: If you haven’t figured out that room control systems for AV gear, lighting, shades, thermostats, audio, screens, and projectors are all entering the IoT world and leaving behind clunky, proprietary and expensive programming systems – well, that train is leaving the station, and you’d better not miss it.

As for interfacing all of this gear, we’re seeing a slow and steady move to the next-generation USB connector (version 3.0 Type-C) for new laptops and eventually, tablets and smartphones. Given that USB Type-C can also support display connections like HDMI and DisplayPort, that’s one or two less connectors to deal with. And given a move to AV-over-IT connectivity, we may be more concerned with USB-based switching and distribution equipment – or we’ll just encode all of our video and audio to JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, or H.265 and use conventional fast network switches to do the job.

See you in Vegas next year?

Of Samsung, Big Screens, IoT, HDR, And Patience

Last Tuesday, April 12, Samsung held its annual press briefing and TV launch event at its new, “hip” facility in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The multi-story building is known as Samsung837 (like a Twitter handle), as its location is on 837 Washington Street by the High Line elevated walkway.

Samsung, who has dominated the worldwide television market for many years – and who has a pretty good market share in smartphones, too – has been a leader in developing Ultra HD (4K) televisions with high dynamic range and wider color gamuts, most notably in their S-line.

At the briefing, they announced their new, top-of-the-line Ultra HDTVs, equipped for high dynamic range with quantum dot backlights manufactured by Nanosys of Sunnyvale, CA. There are a few new sizes in the line that are re-defining what a “small” TV screen means! The flagship model is the KS9800 curved SUHDTV, which will be available in a 65-inch size ($4,499), 78 inches ($9,999), and a mammoth 88-inch version ($19,999).

Samsung's Dave Dar fills in the press on the company's new line of S-UHDTVs.

Samsung’s Dave Dar fills in the press on the company’s new line of S-UHDTVs.

Stepping down, we find the KS9500-series, with a 55” model for $2,499, a 65” model for $3,699, and a 78” model for $7,999 (June). The flat-screen KS9000 comes in three flavors – 55” ($2,299), 65” ($3,499) and 75” ($6,499, June). There are two entry-level SKUs (if that’s even the right term to use) as well – the KS8500, a curved-screen version, is aimed at the consumer wanting a smaller screen, with a 55” model for $1,999 and a 65” model for $2,999. A 49” model will be available in May for $1,699.  The line is rounded out with the KS8000 flat SUHDTV (55” $1, 799; and 65” $2,799, with a 49” model for $1,499 and a 60” model for $2,299; both to come in May).

There’s not a huge difference between these models – the differences have mostly to do with curved and flat surfaces and the screen size options available. Plus a bevy of “bells and whistles.” Perhaps the most intriguing are a set of “connect and control” features.

Samsung’s been offering a Smart Hub feature for some time, and this year’s iteration lets you plug in a cable box from Comcast or Time Warner or a set-top from DirecTV, and the TV will automatically recognize the box and set up all the required control functions on the Samsung TV remote. All you have to do is plug in an HDMI cable.

The KS9800 will make you forget you ever lusted for a Pioneer Elite plasma TV. (As long as you don't watch it off-axis.)

The KS9800 will make you forget you ever lusted for a Pioneer Elite plasma TV. (As long as you don’t watch it off-axis.)

 

And here's where the magic happens - two jars with indium phosphide quantum dots suspended in fluid to produce those brilliant reds and greens.

And here’s where the magic happens – two jars with indium phosphide quantum dots suspended in fluid to produce those brilliant reds and greens.

On top of that, Samsung’s Smart Things feature provides on-off control of things like locks, lamps, and other devices connected by Wi-Fi, ZigBee, or Z-Wave protocols. The company offers switchable outlets, water sensors, proximity sensors, and motion sensors; all of which connect back to your television and smart phone for monitoring and control. (And yes, the television can also be controlled by this system.)

Samsung’s concept is this: Since we spend so much time in front of our big screen TVs, why not make them the hub of a home monitoring and control system? And why not make the connection and activation of everything from set-top boxes to remotely-controlled AC outlets a plug-and-play operation? A Smart Things starter kit is available for $249, and you can add compatible ZigBee and Z-Wave devices like thermostats, smoke and CO detectors, and locks from companies like Honeywell, Schlage, Cree, Leviton, and First Alert.

So why are Samsung and other TV manufacturers looking to get into home control systems? A combination of declining TV sales and falling prices has resulted in an accelerating transition away from Full HD (1920×1080) televisions and displays to Ultra HD (3840×2160), as TV manufacturing shifts to China and manufacturers frantically search for profitability.

Samsung – likely motivated by this trend – is looking a way to add value to TV sales, pitching a complete home entertainment and control system (with sound bars, surround audio, and Ultra HD Blu-ray players, of course) to consumers. It’s all about the Internet of Things (IoT) – the idea that every electronic gadget in your home has an IP address and can be controlled with a driver and an app.

The three-story atrium at Samsung's new 837 Washington Street is enormous - and has a working cafe with live entertainment.

The three-story atrium at Samsung’s new 837 Washington Street is enormous – and has a working cafe with live entertainment.

Think about this for a moment: Seven years ago, a first-tier 50-inch 1080p plasma equipped with active-shutter 3D playback was priced at $2,500. Today, you can buy four times the resolution, eight times the brightness, a much wider color gamut, a much lighter set with lower power consumption, and five more inches of screen for about $600 less.

Amazing! You’re thinking. My next TV is going to be an Ultra HDTV!  Good thinking, as your next TV sized 55 inches or larger will probably be an Ultra HD set anyway, since TV manufacturers are ramping down production of 1080p sets and retailers are devoting more shelf space to UHD.

While there are and will continue to be some amazing deals on Ultra HD sets, don’t forget the enhancements. In addition to the aforementioned high dynamic range and wider color gamut, higher frame rates (HFR) will also become a part of the UHD ecosystem. (So will 8K displays, but I’m getting ahead of myself…)

Problem is; no two companies are implementing all of these add-ons the same way. We have competing systems for HDR (Dolby Vision, Technicolor, BBC/NHK HLG, and yes, Samsung), and yet another controversy about pixel resolution in displays using the pentile red-green-blue-white (RGBW) pixel array (LG’s new Ultra HD OLEDs).

To date, only two HDR Blu-ray players have been announced, and only one (Samsung) is available at retail. A bigger problem: Many Ultra HDTVs have only one HDMI 2.0 input, which needs to support the CTA 861.3 HDR metadata standard. (DisplayPort 1.4 also works with CTA 861.3, but it was just announced). And HDMI 2.0 is barely fast enough for 4K HDR: If you want to connect a PC for Ultra HD gaming at 60Hz with 10-bit RGB (4:4:4) color, you’re out of luck.

Yep, I want one, too. But I think I'm going to wait a little while longer until the HDR picture clears up a bit...

Yep, I want one, too. But I think I’m going to wait a little while longer until the HDR picture clears up a bit…

In other words; it’s chaos as usual in the CE world, like HDTV was circa 1998. I don’t know how fast these issues will be worked out. All HDR-10 compatible TVs should play back 10-bit content from Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and media files. When it comes to enhanced HDR systems, Vizio, TCL, and LG support Dolby Vision, but Samsung does not; neither do Panasonic and Sony.

Only a handful of TV models have opted to include the still royalty-free DisplayPort interface to overcome some of the UHD speed limit issues of HDMI. 4K content isn’t exactly in abundance, either. No broadcasts are planned in the near future, and a handful of cable systems are working on 4K channels (remember the 3D channels from Comcast and DirecTV?). Netflix and Amazon Prime do stream in UHD, but you need a TV that supports the VP9/VP10 and H.265 codecs to watch.

If you are considering a purchase of an Ultra HDTV and not in a big hurry, my advice is to sit on your hands for another year until many of these issues get ironed out. Sometimes doing nothing really is the best option…