Business

From The Crow’s Nest

We’re just 18 years into the 21st century, and the changes in technology over that time have come hard and fast. Here’s where things are headed in 2018—and beyond.

I’ve been penning this feature ever since I joined the editorial staff of Sound & Communications a few years back, and it’s a mixed blessing. I do get to make a lot of predictions, using my years of experience in the AV industry as an educator, small business operator and journalist who attends perhaps too many trade shows and technology conferences.

What’s the downside? Some of those predictions never come to fruition. Others depend on trends that drag on for so long that, eventually, I give up on them altogether. And, despite all that, a handful of my guesses are spot on. Of course, there are always trends that pop up on their own—seemingly out of the blue and totally unexpected. That’s what makes this job fun: You just don’t see a lot of these trends and shifts coming.

Still, the AV industry, along with related market segments, such as broadcasting and wireless communications, is undergoing profound shifts. The most pronounced are away from hardware as a profit center and toward software, managed services and subscriptions (that is, incremental recurring revenue streams).

In my “AVent Horizon” column this month, I mention some of these paradigm shifts (e.g., falling prices on hardware, manufacturing shifting to China, “smart” hardware and software). In this feature, however, I’d like to go into more detail about specific trends that reared their heads in 2017, and that continue to change the course of the AV world.

LCD Displays vs. Projection Systems

Let’s start with one trend that I hadn’t been paying much attention to, but that I should have—the shrinking market for front and rear projection. We all know that flat-screen (LCD) displays have gotten so large and inexpensive that they’ve largely displaced the old “hang and bang” projection systems for small classrooms and meeting rooms. At the Midwest AV Summit that I attended a year ago, a facilities manager for a large public university told me that their rule of thumb was as follows: up to, and including, 70 diagonal inches = LCD monitor or TV; more than 70 diagonal inches = front projection. (I suspect the bar has been raised to 80 inches by now.) And, if the room is large and a single monitor won’t do the trick, then more monitors—not a larger projection screen—are installed.

Now, it appears that the high end of the market—specifically, high-brightness, large-venue projection—is taking an increasing hit from self-contained LED display walls. And, as I mentioned in “AVent Horizon,” the vast majority of those LED walls are manufactured in China, which means multiple companies that you’ve likely never heard of showing up at NAB and InfoComm, all competing to get a piece of the large-screen display business in North America.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw projected images at a concert? Having watched Paul McCartney (twice), Steely Dan (twice), Sting, Jeff Beck, Brian Wilson (twice), The Moody Blues and a bunch of other performers live, in a variety of venues, in the past two years, my answer is—I can’t remember. Touring companies like LED walls because they’re modular, they’re super bright, and they provide high-dynamic-range (HDR) and wide-color-gamut (WCG) imaging, with less complexity than a two-piece projection solution.

About seven years ago, at CES, Sony showed prototype televisions made entirely out of inorganic light-emitting diodes. They looked beautiful, as you can imagine, and the underlying technology (micro LED) is the basis for the company’s dazzling CLEDIS videowall. The challenge for consumer use is to dial back the brightness a bit. After all, 3,000cd/m2 is a bit harsh on the eyes at 10pm!

Now that we’re starting to see pixel pitch numbers in the range of one millimeter and less, there is considerable interest in using LED walls indoors. Many TV stations already have them in place as backdrops for doing weather forecasts, or to show video clips. Samsung has even proposed a 32-foot (diagonal) LED wall as a practical replacement for screens in movie theaters (again, offering HDR and WCG). That doesn’t leave a lot of “safe space” for the projection business, does it? (Aside from curved field and mapped projection systems.)

So, the trend (if I can define it precisely) is the slow and steady encroachment on the front-projection business by direct-view LED displays and walls. How fast this trend will develop depends on a few things, such as product reliability and the willingness to take a chance on a Chinese brand you’ve never heard of before. Indeed, some of the Chinese manufacturers are hiring US industry veterans to head up their marketing and sales efforts in an attempt to overcome the “unfamiliarity” issue.

Going Green

Is there any way to stave off the inevitable? Well, if you’re a projector manufacturer and you haven’t started to build solid-state light engines (LEDs and lasers), you might as well close your doors. The transition to solid-state illumination continues unabated, with some prototypes exceeding 20,000 lumens for premium large-venue viewing. With the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) rules getting tighter, any product that contains mercury/arsenic/cadmium/lead, and a host of other heavy metals, is quickly being ushered out the door.

It’s rare that you would find an LCD TV that uses cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) for backlights these days—just about everyone has switched to edge-lit or direct-backlight white LEDs. (Tried to find a fluorescent work light for your basement at Home Depot lately? Even those use LEDs now.) Regardless of whether you, I and we have been paying attention, a lot of the gear we use is going green, and that trend will continue to accelerate in 2018.

Let’s illustrate how widespread this has become. If you’re moving toward signal switching and distribution over IT networks, you might notice that the switches you buy nowadays have a “green” mode for each switch port to save energy when no signals are being transmitted or received. Needless to say, the solder used in those switches has very little lead in it, and the only metals you’ll find in the semiconductors will be oxides with trace amounts of compounds like arsenic and gallium.

Higher Resolutions

On the display front, the race to higher resolutions continues unabated. Display manufacturers want to optimize both the physical and financial yields from their fabrication lines (“fabs,” as we call ’em), and they’re realizing there’s little to no profit in turning out full HD (1920×1080) resolution “glass” these days. Not surprisingly, full HD manufacturing is slowing as ultra HD (3840×2160) panel production picks up steam. In our industry, the availability of low-cost LCD panels has revitalized the videowall industry, LED technology notwithstanding (it’s that “concern about LED reliability” thing that still favors tiled LCD monitors). Bare-bones LCD displays with 1920×1080 resolution are ridiculously inexpensive now, and ultra HD (4K) monitors are creeping into the market. The concept of using four 55-inch ultra HD displays to build a 110-inch tiled monitor with (effectively) 8K resolution is both feasible and affordable.

Although displays with native 8K resolution are still scarce, they’re lurking in the wings; it won’t be too long before we start to see them in high-end installations. Look for our industry to start to use more ultra HD monitors and TVs in AV installations, particularly if there might be a future requirement to support HDR and WCG imaging. Command-and-control applications will be enthusiastic customers for tiled displays that have more and better pixels.

Faster Wireless Connections

Let’s turn our attention to wireless connectivity, which is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’ve written before about efforts to sell 60GHz in-room, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity for displays. These solutions have been proprietary and somewhat expensive, although $179 for an HDMI transmitter and receiver module isn’t really going to break anyone’s bank.

We have another wrinkle to consider, and that’s the expanded use of the 802.11ac channel-bonding standard. That lets us pair two, three or four 20MHz channels in the 5GHz Wi-Fi band to transmit compressed video and audio (such as you’d have in an HDMI connection) from point A to point B. Newer cable modems, from companies like Arris, are also 802.11ac-compatible, making streaming video a real pleasure as compared to the torture it was at the start of the decade. Given that this is based on an open standard (not a proprietary standard, such as Amimon’s WHDI), it should be easy for manufacturers to jump on this.

And, indeed, they have. This year, I’ve tested a few off-the-shelf wireless HDMI connectivity kits that employ channel bonding, and they work surprisingly well (although they’re not all that cheap). I set up one to replace the long HDMI cable from my AV receiver to a home theater projector (yeah…I know…I should replace it with a flat screen). The version of HDMI supported is 1.3/1.4, so this system takes a signal with a maximum bandwidth of about 9Gb/s and packs it down efficiently enough to travel through 80MHz worth of spectrum.

That form of connectivity is already being used in some models of wireless collaboration products to enable smooth 60Hz streaming of full HD video from laptops, tablets and smartphones to large screens for shared viewing. And it works very well. (It would work even better at 60GHz, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Expect some manufacturers you’ve never heard of to start to push more 802.11ac channel-bonding wireless products like this into the commercial AV space.

Control System Changes

Let’s turn our attention to another area of interest—control systems. Surely, you’ve noticed a trend away from complex and proprietary wired control systems that require writing lines of code and toward systems based on Internet of Things (IoT) architectures. You install a piece of AV gear and connect it to the internet. It’s now a simple matter to find it, access it and control it, downloading drivers from a cloud database and operating things with user-friendly graphic icons.

Again, no earth-shattering news there. But, what we’re starting to see coming to our industry is what we call “machine learning.” Take a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera and connect it to your AV network. Now, suppose the camera has a bit more onboard intelligence, and it can reach out to a central server to (a) get an IP address; (b) download its drivers to whatever control system is running the show; and (c) automatically configure itself without human intervention. We do have a precedent. It’s known as extended display identification data (EDID), the information programmed into a projector or LCD display’s erasable, programmable, read-only memory (EPROM) that’s read by a video card when a connection is made. You don’t have to adjust anything on your display (theoretically); a successful EDID “handshake” ensures the images will be sent at optimal resolution and refresh rate, with an appropriate color space.

EDID is a very primitive version of artificial intelligence (AI). The “machine learning” part comes in when you connect multiple displays to a distribution amplifier or matrix switcher, and the switching device reads and stores EDID in memory to ensure fast connections in the future. With a bit more info burned into non-volatile memory, drivers and even control icons for a piece of equipment can easily be downloaded to any control system once the hardware is connected to a network. It would work exactly the same way as EDID.

Need another example? When you set up your brand new tablet, smart TV or mobile phone on your home Wi-Fi network, all you need to know is the network name and password. The network switch/router will detect your device and automatically assign it an IP address. You don’t have to lift a finger (except to order something from Amazon or stream a TV show from Netflix). That’s machine learning and artificial intelligence at work.

Organic LEDs

A technology that could be just as disruptive to the display industry as machine learning and AI have been to control systems is the organic light-emitting diode. (Yes, we’ve come full circle to LEDs again; this time, however, we’ll focus on the organic variety.) OLEDs are “the next big thing” in display technology, and it doesn’t hurt that the new Apple iPhone 8 screens now use them. (Samsung has employed OLED technology in their smartphones and tablets for several years now.)

Unlike LCD displays, OLEDs are emissive, and they have wide viewing angles with excellent color saturation. They can already display high-dynamic-range content with wide color gamuts, and they have become real favorites with video enthusiasts for large ultra HD screens. There’s more to the story, though. OLED pixel matrices and addressing electrodes can be manufactured onto thin, super-flexible plastic substrates. That characteristic has created a new class of flexible and curved displays, many of them suited to applications like automotive dashboards and curved digital signage for pillars. I’ve even seen demonstrations of concave (U-shaped) OLEDs in a 65-inch screen size for immersive viewing with spatial sound (take that, virtual reality headsets!).

Although not as bright as their inorganic siblings, OLEDs still provide images with sufficient intensity for viewing under almost any conditions (direct unfiltered sunlight is still a challenge). They can emulate any type of gamma curve, coming smoothly out of black while free of noise. For large-screen applications, they’re still more expensive than LCDs—but, then again, large LCDs can’t bend and warp, as OLEDs can.

For even more fun, you can make OLED displays semi-transparent and semi-reflective (think of a TV inside a mirror). And, at CES two years ago, LG Display showed a roll-up OLED television that could be carried around in your pocket. (It had 1280×800 HD pixel resolution, for you technical freaks out there.) I’ve also seen OLEDs used for watch faces and user-definable instrument clusters, as well as for free-form “art” shown on digital signage screens in South Korea.

Look for more companies to jump on the OLED bandwagon in 2018, especially for architecturally challenging display concepts. You can’t get there with LCDs, and projection systems might not fit in the available space. I should add that OLEDs can switch from off to on and back off again several hundred times per second, making them ideal candidates for high-frame-rate (HFR) video content and, by extension, virtual reality and augmented reality applications that use large, immersive screens.

That’s it! Inorganic and organic LEDs, green products, a move to ultra HD resolution for tiled displays, faster Wi-Fi connections for streaming audio and video, machine learning/artificial intelligence and…whoops!…my LCD crystal ball just ran out of power and shut down.

See you next December to do it all over again?

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