IT/AV, Video

The Dog Days of Wireless AV Connectivity

Have we actually regressed?

As I write this column, I’m finalizing a course outline for an all-day workshop I’m going to teach this fall at the annual Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC, ccumc.org) convention in Pittsburgh PA. The workshop will be an updated version of the RF and Wireless Update class I taught for many years at InfoComm. For several of those sessions, the fine folks from Shure also co-taught a section on wireless audio.

I also taught a two-hour class on wireless AV, and some of that content will be incorporated into my all-day workshop. Adding those sections to my course outline got me to thinking about the current state of wireless AV and how, in many ways, it has actually regressed in the past five years.

Go back to my first classes on wireless AV connectivity from seven to eight years ago, and there were all kinds of ways to connect a high-bandwidth video or display signal without using any cables. Several companies offered WiFi connectivity kits, promising to stream full 1080p/60 video from an HDMI connection using the 2.4GHz WiFi bands.

Another technology (Ultra Wideband, UWB) would let you connect a small dongle to your laptop and stream signals up to 10 feet to your television. Still another (Wireless High Definition Interface, WHDI) relied on the 5GHz WiFi band to do the same thing, only more reliably. And one more system (SiBEAM) claimed to do the same thing while operating in the 60GHz millimeter-wave band.

Those were fun days. I would stream 1080p content from my Nook tablet using a jury-rigged 5GHz WHDI system to multiple TVs in my classes, even while walking around the room. I used the 60GHz links to stream Blu-ray content over distances as long as 30 feet.

Meanwhile, the 2.4GHz WiFi systems would connect, disconnect, reconnect and then crash (not unexpectedly). Meanwhile, the UWB system struggled to maintain a reliable connection, even when the transmitter and receiver were only a foot apart!

Other demonstrations in my classes include 5GHz WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio), with a 10.2-channel playback of audio from House of Flying Daggers. And I even played around with a broadcast-band white space wireless link from MELD technologies, which used open TV channels to stream video and audio using the 720p or 1080i standards, so they could be picked up on conventional TVs.

Fast-forward to 2015! UWB is now history. It was consigned to the dustbin a few years ago when both standards organizations and the handful of companies supporting chipset manufacturing threw up their hands and walked away. You can still buy those 2.4GHz WiFi connectivity kits that don’t work half the time, but now they’re less than $100 (such a deal!).

And what about WHDI? It looks like Amimon (the inventor of the technology) has decided that deploying its technology for 5GHz wireless linking of drone cameras is much more fertile ground than selling chipsets for wireless HDMI links. Indeed; the company had a booth setup in the Drone Pavilion area at April’s NAB show, promoting Connex for that very purpose. (A handful of companies still sell wireless HDMI connectivity kits using WHDI as of this writing.)

SiBEAM had the hardest slog of anyone, going to the verge of bankruptcy before being acquired by Silicon Image (SI) in 2011, for pennies on the dollar. SI was aggressively promoting the WiHD 60GHz technology, selling it through subsidiary DVDO as the Air and Air3 products.

At this year’s CES, SI swung back to using the SiBEAM name and introduced a docking wireless interface called Snap that could stream HD video and audio from tablets and phones at a maximum data rate of 12Gb/s. SI was acquired by Oregon-based Lattice Semiconductor earlier this year, and presumably Snap and SiBEAM connectivity are still a “go” for the future.

MELD continues to show its TV channel white space solution, recently deploying it for live video at stock car and dragster races. And WiSA continues to sign up manufacturers to build its system into powered speakers, primarily for the home theater and CEDIA channels.

Is anyone really doing anything different or innovative with wireless AV connectivity? Aside from these guys, no. And part of the reason is that the playing field has changed somewhat. First off, we have a new WiFi standard that employs channel bonding to gain greater bandwidth (802.11ac) and, although the 2.4GHz WiFi band is almost useless for wireless AV connectivity, the 5GHz band is still largely untapped, except in densely-populated areas.

It doesn’t hurt that the FCC opened up all 24 of the 20MHz channels in the 5GHz band last year for white space operations, requiring only that devices in the 15 “core” channels employ dynamic frequency selection and transmit power control to minimize interference to other services. The nine “out of core” channels are still open for basic 5GHz white space operation.

As a result, some manufacturers are looking at alternate ways to enable high-bandwidth wireless connectivity without having to pay royalties or buy licenses. These systems would conform to the 802.11 protocols, but take advantage of channel bonding and some form of bit ordering to ensure real-time delivery of video frames in sequence.

We also have a new standard for WiFi operation in the 60GHz band: 802.11ad. The group that promotes this standard (Certified Wireless Gigabit) says on its website (wi-fi.org/discover-wi-fi/wigig-certified) that, “WiGig CERTIFIED products operate in the 60GHz frequency band and deliver multi-gigabit speeds, low latency and security-protected connectivity between nearby devices. Popular use cases for WiGig include cable replacement for popular I/O and display extensions, wireless docking between devices like laptops and tables, instant sync and backup, and simultaneous streaming of multiple, ultra-high-definition and 4K videos.”

The site also claims that “Multi-gigabit, low-latency connectivity” is “coming in 2016.” Of all the wireless connectivity solutions out there, this one may be the most promising for in-home and in-office wireless connectivity. No, the radio signals can’t pass through solid objects, but that may be a good thing when it comes to security and keeping signals within a room.

The radio waves at 60GHz are so small (about .06 inches for a full wavelength) that it’s possible to have multiple users streaming video simultaneously on the same channel! This is accomplished by beam-steering techniques and multiple antenna arrays on the small chipsets. And the channels are much wider than those found in the 2.4 and 5GHz bands: 2.16GHz versus 20MHz, or about 100 times larger.

So there you have it. Companies are re-evaluating existing wireless products, new 802.11 wireless standards have been finalized and new markets have opened up (drones) that may help stimulate sales. Aside from that, I wouldn’t expect any significant wireless product announcements until the end of the year.

Until then, we’ll just lean back and relax. These are the real dog days of summer, after all.

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