AVent Horizon: In The Rear-View Mirror

Musings on InfoComm15.

As you read this, it’s late August and the summer doldrums are setting in. Our industry’s annual get together, this time in  in Orlando, is but a fading memory, so why bother with a recap?

Yes, I know that, in this digital age, printed publication recaps of trade shows are quite an anachronism, and I’ve written many such recaps in my 28+ years of working for AV trade journals. But there is still value in looking back, if only to clear your head of all the PR and marketing “noise” associated with InfoComm and the trade show floor.

This year was a different InfoComm experience for me. In the past, I usually had a good part of my Tuesday tied up with Super Tuesday classes. Then, I’d have a pair of 8:00am or 10:30am classes on Wednesday and Thursday. Add in my setup and strike time, and I could easily spend 10 to 11 hours involved with classes during the show.

But I dialed it back this time, presenting only during the morning Future Trends session and teaching a single two-hour class on UHD and 4K on Wednesday. That gave me a lot more time to walk the show floor, and I’m glad I did. There were quite a few cool products to be found even in the handful of booths I managed to visit.

So here’s a summary of the products and trends that I think will have a significant impact on our industry in the short term (and likely the long term, too). I’m not going to rank them in any particular order, just lay them out there for you to study. You may already be familiar with some of these products and trends. Others may draw a blank. Onward!

Let’s start with the “elephant in the room” that no one wants to talk much about: Video over Ethernet, aka VoIP, and streaming. Of all the industries directly involved with switching and distribution of video and audio, ours is a true laggard when it comes to adopting new technologies.

VoIP is a perfect example. It’s been embraced for some time and is in wide use in telecommunications, broadcast and cable television facilities, not to mention post-production video and audio houses. And I’m sure many readers use VoIP on a regular basis at home to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, YouTube and other streaming services.

Even so, InfoComm still features hosts of companies that show humongous hardware switches for HDMI, DVI and, to a lesser extent, DisplayPort. Truth be told, this approach is getting to be a bit of a headache as screen resolutions increase and audio formats become more sophisticated. The emergence of UHD just complicates things, forcing said manufacturers to calculate the highest possible frame rate for an Ultra HD signal that they can accommodate, and then announce that their systems are “4K certified” or “4K ready.”

The problem with that approach is that we have high dynamic range (HDR) and high frame rate (HFR) options looming, not to mention a much larger color space in BT.2020. And now manufacturers are coming out with 5K desktop monitors and televisions. (And how long before we see 6K and 8K displays?)

Any and all of these enhancements will require data rates and color bit depths much faster than HDMI 2.0 can accommodate, and most commercial AV switchers are still using the older, slower HDMI 1.4. To make things more confusing, we now have faster versions of DisplayPort (1.3) and TMDS (superMHL) coming. Which standard should you hang your hat on?

Video over IP solves that problem, provided the network it runs on has sufficient bandwidth. Practically speaking, if you are planning to install a 1Gig or 10Gig Ethernet backbone, you can distribute all of your HD content and video using VoIP, reserving display connections for the end points. And VoIP is essentially infinitely expandable: no need to add more cards to a cage to add connections; just configure more IP addresses.

Although the rest of the communications world has already figured this out, we AV guys still cling to hardware-based switching of digital and analog display formats. Only a handful of companies (Evertz, Visionary Solutions, Matrox, Haivision, Arrive, et al) showed VoIP products in Orlando, but one company (AMX) apparently looked long and hard into the crystal ball and opted to buy SVSi to add to its portfolio, presumably to make a big push into VoIP design and installation going forward.

Make no mistake about it: VoIP is the next step in signal distribution. And trying to stay ahead of the latest hardware-based display interface is not, at least when it comes to large-scale matrix switching and distribution.

Another trend that popped out at the show is fine-pitch videowalls. It used to be that 4mm was about the finest pitch one could buy in an LED display, but that was simply too coarse for close-up indoor viewing. Accordingly, 4mm LED displays were consigned to stadiums, arenas and outdoor signs…until recently.

Now, several companies (Panasonic, Christie, Barco, Leyard, Mitsubishi, et al) are showing LED cubes with dot pitch as fine as 1mm, with 1.6mm and 1.8mm being quite popular. For some perspective, a dot pitch of 1mm is about what you’d have found on a 50-inch 720p/768p plasma monitor or TV in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These displays have hot, saturated colors and create some spectacular images with brightness levels in the 3000+ cd/m2 range, more than enough for indoor viewing. Given that much of this industry is moving to China (or already manufacturing there), you can expect cube prices will continue to drop.

Let’s turn our attention to lamp-free projectors. These have been on the market for quite a few years now, but more and more companies are jumping into the fray with each passing year as prices continue to fall. We are starting to see laser-powered projectors at the high end (think digital cinema). And there are now several laser-powered 3LCD and DLP offerings with brightness specs in the range of 6000 to 7000 lumens. But there hasn’t been much progress in brightness with 100% LED-equipped models…until now.

At the show, Philips (along with Hitachi and Optoma) showed prototype LED projectors with as much as 3000 lumen light output, an astounding number for this technology, and one that could write the final obituary for the old UHP-equipped “hang and bang” models.

Philips’ technology is called HLD and uses a special cavity to take light from a blue LED emitter and concentrate it in a waveguide, refracting through yellow dichroics to produce an intense beam of saturated green light. I saw a demo of this offsite in Orlando and it works very well, producing an intense green you’d never get out of a standard green LED.

According to Philips engineers, they expect to hit 5000 lumens with this technology in a few years. Between lasers, laser/LED hybrids and pure LED light engines, we’re looking at the end of lamp changes much sooner than later. Will that give projectors a leg up competitively against large LCD displays? Hard to say, but 5000 lumens with UHD resolution in a small form factor is nothing to sneeze at.

My final “watch out” is cloud-based AV control systems. In this day and age, it makes no sense to install dedicated, proprietary hardware-based control systems when virtually any device in an AV installation has a MAC address and IP interface. Not only that, driver databases can be stored in the Cloud (as can the videos that show you how to use such a programming system)!

There are a few companies offering products like this now, and what’s interesting is that they can go hand in hand with VoIP system installations. Why not? IP-based control systems send small, bursty data packets that don’t slow down video traffic, and you can use existing touchscreen devices (even BYODs) to operate them: remotely, from anywhere you can find an internet connection. Plus, you’ll save mucho $$ in programming charges.

So, there are four trends you need to keep an eye on. In each case, either the products are already here or they will make an appearance within the year. Give them some serious study, because their adoption rate will have an impact on the projects you quote and install before the end of this decade….

ISE 2020 New Product Spotlight
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