IT/AV

Predicting The Next Steps In AV

Solid-state light engines, including LEDs, LED/laser hybrids and pure laser light engines are becoming more common.

If there’s one constant about the AV industry, it’s change. Audio, video and control science are constantly changing and evolving, but it seems like the pace of change has accelerated to ridiculous speeds in the past half decade.

Need an example? Look at the rapidly growing market for Ultra HD televisions. The first models made their appearance in 2012 and carried hefty price tags of $18,000 to $25,000 (granted, these were 84-inch screens). Not quite four years later, you can buy a 60-inch Ultra HDTV for all of $800. You read that correctly: $800.

Rapid Advances

These rapid advances in technology (and waves of price cutting that have almost reduced hardware to commodities) are being driven by several factors. The first and most impactful is the migration of electronics manufacturing to China, and to a lesser degree, southeast Asian nations where labor costs are very low and industrial expansion is often subsidized by government.

The second factor is the increasingly-dense nature of application-specific integrated circuits, known by their shorthand name, ASICs. You need look no further than your late-model smartphone to see proof: Practically every function of your phone is performed by one or two large ASICs that contain a central processing unit (CPU), video card, memory and input interfaces.

The third factor is the inevitable migration of device control and management to IP networks, also known in the consumer world as the “Internet of Things.” Home security systems, thermostats, security cameras, appliances, televisions, cameras, and even cars, can have IP addresses and can be accessed from networks, often with unintended consequences. (Look up the story about the Jeep Wrangler that was hacked last year while the driver was going 70mph…and this was an intentional test!)

Hand in hand with the third factor is the migration of signal transports away from traditional AV interfaces like HDMI, VGA and HD-SDI to video and audio riding within IP packets on networks. This transition is well under way in the broadcast, telecom and related communication industries (check out the NAB, IBC and CCW shows if you need further proof) and eventually will wash over our industry.

Increasing Reliance

And the last factor is the increasing reliance on wireless technology to communicate and control devices. There are numerous common and proprietary standards used to connect and send internet traffic, stream video, provide HD and UHD video links for remote cameras and drones, and transmit high-resolution wireless audio at frequencies as high as 2.4GHz.

Of course, the example I mentioned of UHDTV continues to be a game changer. When the first large (70 inches and up) LCD monitors appeared, there was speculation that they could start to take market share from projectors. “Never happen!” said more than a few industry veterans, figuring that the high cost and logistics of moving and installing these screens would stall them in their tracks.

Guess what? The experts were wrong. And large LCD screens have, indeed, been displacing projectors in small to mid-size meeting rooms, with the pace of changeover accelerating as screens get bigger and prices continue to drop. You can buy a 75-inch Full HD for your home now for less than $2000, and those size increases/price drops are part of the reason why projectors have also dropped in price.

While I was writing this article, a friend called asking for a recommendation for a 3000 lumen projector with Wide XGA (1280×800) resolution that his wife could use for presentations at her local art group. A quick search of the Staples website showed an appropriate model for less than $500, with free shipping. Ten years ago, that would have been a $3000 projector, and perhaps not as bright.

I have a mantra I use when I present my Future Trends talk at InfoComm and around the country each year: “Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.” You can argue all you want about the premise, but the facts back me up. You might be surprised to learn just how much of the equipment installed in racks is being made in Asia, or in other low-cost locations like eastern Europe. And that’s why a 4K video camera can be sold for $2500 today, when 20 years ago a 480i broadcast camera cost north of $10K!

As you head off to InfoComm16, these are the trends you’ll want to keep an eye on. Let’s break them down into categories and I’ll dust off my trusty old liquid-crystal ball to see if I can’t give you a few predictions of what you’ll see in Las Vegas.

Displays

The move to bigger and cheaper displays continues unabated. Right now, there is an oversupply of LCD display panels, thanks to excess fab capacity. And the laws of economics dictate that this will force prices down to meet demand. This is exactly why you’re seeing UHDTV prices fall faster than an elevator!

For some perspective, consider that the first 50-inch plasma monitors with 720p/768p resolution had retail prices of $50,000 two decades ago. (Crazy, right?) By the turn of the 21st century, they had dropped by about 50% to $25K. A few years later, they had fallen to $10,000, with Full HD (1080p resolution) lurking, and by 2005 you could buy a decent 50-inch plasma TV for $2500. (Today? They’re all gone.)

So, as you walk the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, expect to see some amazingly large LCD displays for very affordable prices, somewhere in the range of $10 to $20 per square inch. And also expect to see some of the Chinese brands stick their nose in the door, as display manufacturing in Japan has almost disappeared and Korean manufacturers are starting to feel the heat.

What’s ‘Large’ Today?

Remember when a 42-inch display was considered large? Those are now “small” displays, and quite inexpensive. The continued decline in worldwide TV shipments and prices means that more LCD fabs are moving to Ultra HD (3840×2160) resolution for panels that measure 50 inch and larger. That means you’re going to find more Ultra HD monitors for everything from command and control to classrooms and digital signage.

The move to Ultra HD will help preserve those elusive profit margins for manufacturers and dealers. You may not think that Ultra HD resolution makes any sense at certain screen sizes, but it doesn’t matter if the only glass coming out of a factory is Ultra HD glass. (The same thing is happening to televisions, with almost 40% of stocking units now reserved for Ultra HD models at big-box retailers.)

You may also spot some oddball screen sizes and resolutions at the show. Super-wide desktop monitors are catching on for immersive environments, and a very popular 27-inch glass cut with 3440×1800 resolution is now being sold by several major computer brands. There’s also a 27-inch 16×9 monitor on the market with 5120×2880 (5K) resolution at an affordable price. And at least one company has commercialized its 85-inch 8K (yep, 8K!) display monitor. It’s expensive, but there will be customers for it.

Projection

Even though the projector guys have lost significant share to large LCDs, they’re not rolling over and playing dead. The trend now is to move away from short-arc lamps (not so great for the environment) to solid-state light engines, including LEDs, LED/laser hybrids and pure laser light engines. Although this trend is nothing new, I think you’ll see many more manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon.

You will also see much brighter solid-state models with greatly improved color rendering. As it turns out, color accuracy is something that most people care about, and projector manufacturers have made great strides in this area. And, of course, prices continue to drop, as what used to be the mainstream “business” projector (2500 lumens, Wide XGA) can be had for less than $500 at retail.

Chinese manufacturers have made inroads in the LED space.
Chinese manufacturers have made inroads in the LED space.

Will we see more 4K large-venue projectors at the show? That’s hard to answer, as the supply chain and profitability issues for 4K imagers are very different than televisions. But I think you may spot a few new models here and there, and they may also be powered by solid-state light engines. I saw a demo last year of an enhanced RGB LED light engine with 3000 lumen light output and its designers expect to hit the 5000 lumen mark this year.

Direct-View LED

This is a rapidly growing category and includes all display walls that use light-emitting diodes. Chinese manufacturers such as Leyard are fast becoming the kings of the hill here (Leyard bought Planar last year), and there have been significant breakthroughs in manufacturing of fine-pitch LEDs. In fact, I’ve seen demos of walls with pitches as small as 1mm and even .8mm, the same pitch as a 50-inch 720p/768p plasma monitor from 20 years ago!

Of course, these walls are amazingly bright, with 3000 nits being a common specification for fine-pitch LED displays. That’s almost too bright for indoor use with close-up viewing, but at a distance in large venues, nothing can touch the combination of small footprint and high brightness that LEDs offer. Expect to see quite a few companies exhibiting fine-pitch LED walls at InfoComm, and more than a few will have names you don’t recognize.

Signal Transport

This could be a big year for what we call “AV over IP.” Simply put, this involves what the rest of the world is doing: encapsulating digital video and audio within IP packets for transport over fast networks, like 1GigE and 10GigE.

The encapsulated video can be encoded in several ways, but the two most practical are as JPEG2000 frames (near-zero latency, but high bit rates with large file sizes) or MPEG4 HEVC (latency with forward error correction, but smaller file size and much lower bit rates).

The advantage of transporting AV signals this way is that the switches are already widely available from our friends in the IT world. As long as they support Layer 3 of the OSI model stack, you’re in business. And, of course, you can transmit these signals over structured wire or optical fiber, with the latter being the logical choice for long-haul transport.

Another advantage of converting video and audio to IP signals is that you avoid obsolescence from proprietary platforms. There are plenty of ways to get audio and video from point A to point B, but several of them involve proprietary designs that require licensing and are, quite frankly, too slow. In contrast, AV over IP is largely an open standard, incorporating standard IP addressing and switching, and widely used codecs.

Granted, there will still be a need for interfaces at the far ends to convert to HDMI, DisplayPort or whatever your preferred interface happens to be. However, the cord of the switching and routing takes place in the world of IP, and that standard isn’t likely to change for some time; it will just get faster. Look for quite a few established brands along with newcomers to show AV-over-IP products at the show…and you may recognize some of those newcomers from other shows, such as NAB and IBC.

IP Control

This could be the biggest game changer of all. Yeah, I know we still employ RS232 control (54 years old and counting) in our industry, but the wave of the near future is an app-based control system that uses the IP addresses that are increasingly found in all kinds of AV gear.

The idea is that you connect your devices to some form of internet connection: It could be a subnet for each room or a network connecting all rooms in a facility, and then you create custom icons with drivers for each piece of equipment, along with a control panel to show the different functions you want to control. This approach greatly simplifies programming because all you really have to maintain is a database of drivers. Those are easily added as new products come to market, and can be accessed and downloaded from cloud storage anywhere in the world.

Configuring a control system now becomes a matter of loading all the applicable drivers, creating a touchscreen interface and enabling the different control functions. This programming job can be done on a laptop or tablet and doesn’t require a ton of knowledge because it’s largely icon-based. And the connections to cloud storage mean that any system so programmed can be accessed, monitored and maintained from anywhere there is an internet connection.

Some companies have already shown app-based control systems at past InfoComms. Look for a lot more to join the fun as the costs of developing apps and interfaces drop. All of this is being driven by the Internet of Things phenomenon in the consumer electronics world, which has led to “do it yourself” home security systems for less than $500 that have gotten rave reviews from technology and consumer magazines for simplicity and reliability. (Remember the mantra!)

Wireless

The transition to app-based control interfaces is greatly aided by wider adoption of faster wireless protocols and increasing use of the 5GHz band. In fact, the communication channels provided by channel-bonding modems (2.4 and 5GHz) can be wide enough to duplex real-time video streaming of controlled facilities, so you can see the room in question while you’re also running diagnostics. Or, you could upload video and audio files to the same piece of equipment you’re controlling.

And although you’re not likely to see or hear much about it in Vegas, the emerging 60GHz WiFi band (802.11ad) offers even more possibilities for in-room, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity with physical security. It’s not inconceivable that all wired connections to/from racks and AV equipment could be replaced with 60GHz links. In fact, several consumer products are available that do exactly that, replacing HDMI cables.

The emerging 60GHz WiFi band (802.11ad) offers even more possibilities for in-room, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity with physical security.
The emerging 60GHz WiFi band (802.11ad) offers even more possibilities for in-room, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity with physical security.

I’m planning to demo at least one 60GHz link in my classes, possibly two. These would be used to stream 4K (Ultra HD) video content with audio from a media player or computer to a large UHDTV, using either HDMI or USB ports. With channels measuring in excess of 2GHz and bit rates pushing 3GB/s, it’s practical to transmit high-resolution images with little or no compression at distances up to 100 feet. And the wavelength of the signal is so small that the custom ASICs (remember those?) that contain the radios can also hold multiple antenna arrays to pick up incident or reflected signals.

Software & Services

S&S will become an increasingly important part of revenue streams for dealers, given the low cost of hardware and diminishing profitability on hardware sales. Think of that same smartphone in your pocket (it doesn’t cost much to make) and your service provider doesn’t really care about profit on the phone. What they want is that guaranteed $100 or so every month that you fork over to use their network and services.

And so it will go in our industry. Hardware and software installations will come with monthly maintenance, upgrades, monitoring and other managed services that provide that recurring incremental monthly, semi-annual or annual revenue stream. If you sniff around enough, you may find companies offering these services in addition to the hardware/software bundles they’re already peddling.

There’s plenty of precedent for this in the IT world, where service contracts are quite common and maintenance and software/hardware upgrades are routinely performed by outside contractors. And as I’ve just shown, so much of our industry is moving to the IT model, where the installed hardware has an expected shelf life of just a few years before obsolescence, and software and security updates are performed regularly.

So there you have it: Larger and less-expensive displays with higher resolution, more solid-state projection systems, fine-pitch LED walls, more AV-over-IP companies and products, IP and app-based device control, expanded use of wireless for control and streaming, and an increasing emphasis on managed services. Quite a different world from InfoComm 10 years ago…but change is what it’s all about, right?

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