Posts Tagged ‘LEDs’

InfoComm 2018 In The Rear View Mirror

If you managed to make it out to this year’s running of InfoComm, you might have summarized your trip to colleagues with these talking points:

(a) LED displays, and

(b) AV-over-IT.

Indeed; it was impossible to escape these two trends. LED walls and cubes were everywhere in the Las Vegas Convention Center, in many cases promoted by a phalanx of Chinese brands you’ve likely never heard of. But make no mistake about it – LEDs are the future of displays, whether they are used for massive outdoor signage or compact indoor arrays.

With the development of micro LED technology, we’re going to see an expansion of LEDs into televisions, monitors, and even that smart watch on your wrist. (Yes, Apple is working on micro LEDs for personal electronics.)

Projector manufacturers are understandably nervous about the inroads LEDs are making into large venues. Indeed; this author recently saw Paul Simon’s “farewell tour” performance at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and the backdrop was an enormous widescreen LED wall that provided crystal-clear image magnification (very handy when concertgoers around you are up and dancing, blocking your view of the stage).

 

As for the other talking point – well, it was impossible to avoid in conversations at InfoComm. Between manufacturers hawking their “ideal” solutions for compressing and streaming audio and video and all of the seminars in classrooms and booths, you’d think that AV-over-IT is a done deal.

The truth is a little different. Not all installations are looking to route signals through a 10 Gb/s Cisco switch. In fact, a brand-spanking-new studio built for ESPN in lower Manhattan, overlooking the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge, relies on almost 500 circuits of 3G SDI video through an enormous router. Any network-centric signal distribution within this space is mostly for IT traffic.

That’s not to say that installers are poo-pooing AV-over-IT and the new SMPTE 2110 standards for network distribution of deterministic video. It’s still early in the game and sometimes tried-and-tested signal distribution methods like SDI are perfectly acceptable, especially in the case of this particular facility with its 1080p/60 backbone.

Even so, the writing on the all couldn’t be more distinct with respect to LEDs and network distribution of AV. But there were other concerns at the show that didn’t receive nearly as much media attention.

At the IMCCA Emerging Trends session on Tuesday, several presentations focused on interfacing humans and technology. With “OK Google” and Alexa all the rage, discussions focused on how fast these consumer interfaces would migrate to AV control systems. An important point was made about the need for two-factor authentication – simple voice control might not be adequately secure for say, a boardroom in a large financial institution.

What would the second factor be? Facial recognition? (This was a popular suggestion.) Fingerprints? Retinal scans? A numeric code that could be spoken or entered on a keypad? The name of your favorite pet? Given that hackers in England recently gained access to a casino’s customer database via an Internet-connected thermometer in a fish tank, two-factor authentication for AV control systems doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

Another topic of discussion was 8K video. With a majority of display manufacturers showing 4K LCD (and in some cases OLED) monitors in Vegas, the logical question was: Could resolutions be pushed higher? Of course, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Display analysts predict there will be over 5 million 8K televisions shipped by 2022 and we’re bound to see commercial monitors adapted from those products. But 8K doesn’t have to be achieved in a single, stand-alone display: With the advent of smaller 4K monitors (some as small as 43 inches), it is a simple matter to tile a 2×2 array to achieve 7680×4320 pixels. And there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of customers for such a display, especially in the command and control and process control verticals.

The other conversations of interest revolved around the need for faster wireless. We now have 802.1ac channel bonding, with 802.11ax on the horizon. For in-room super-speed WiFi, 802.11ad provides six channels at 60 GHz, each 2 GHz wide or 100x the bandwidth of individual channels at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

But wise voices counsel to pay attention to 5G mobile networks, which promise download speeds of 1 Gb/s. While not appropriate for in-room AV connectivity, 5G delivery of streaming video assets to classrooms and meetings is inevitable. Some purveyors of wireless connectivity services like AT&T and Verizon insist that 5G could eventually make WiFi obsolete. (That’s a bit of a stretch, but this author understands the motivation for making such a claim.)

The point of this missive? Simply that our industry is headed for some mind-boggling changes in the next decade. Networked AV, LEDs, 8K video and displays, multi-factor authentication for control systems, and super-fast wireless connections are all in the wings.

And if you were observant at InfoComm, you know it’s coming…and quickly.

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…

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?