IT/AV, Video

From The Crow’s Nest

Hard to believe, but it’s already December: Time for me to once again peer into the future and try to make some credible predictions for the AV industry in the coming year.
I’ve been working in this industry for 36 years now, ever since I wandered into a now-defunct AV production house in New Jersey and was promptly hired as a production manager (something I knew nothing about). That was my introduction to the world of multi-image 35mm slide projection, multi-track audio recording, 16mm film production and editing, ¾-inch video and, last but not least, staging meetings.

Change Is Constant
Over the years, I’ve learned that nothing is as constant as change, especially in our industry, which is driven by advances in hardware. All of the slide projectors, tape decks, multi-image controllers, analog video formats, and film cameras and flatbed editors I worked with back then are distant, fading memories. My own company, started in 1980, has evolved five times since then, and I’ve carted lots of obsolete hardware off to the recyclers in recent years.

I’ll admit; I didn’t see a lot of the changes coming. My last film-based multi-image show was staged in 1995, albeit with computer-rendered images recorded to film. I turned my back on video production not much longer after that (too competitive with low profit margins) and shifted into consulting and teaching, thanks to a few trips to InfoComm and NAB.

Now, I spend most of my time writing, advising clients on product planning, and developing and teaching courses on new technologies. Plus, I attend a lot of trade shows and even present at some of them. (That’s the only way to stay ahead these days!)

This year, I’d like to try something different by going back to my 2014 predictions and seeing if I got any of them right…and if the winds have changed for some of them. That’s the fun part about being an analyst: Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised when one or more of your predictions actually comes true. (Hey, even the best baseball players strike out, fly out or are thrown out 66% of the time!)

Somewhat Right
I led off last year’s article by stating that you would see the first 4K (3840×2160) large LCD panels come to market as LCD prices continue to drop like a stone. Did I get this one right? Somewhat: Panasonic, which bit the bullet and shut down plasma display production at the end of 2013, introduced 84-inch and 98-inch 4K LCD monitors to fill the gap at NAB in April. Samsung followed suit with new 4K monitors at InfoComm.

But there hasn’t been a flood of these into the market so far, and part of the reason is the bargain-basement pricing of 2K LCD glass, with Sharp’s 80-inch product being the most popular (also as an OEM product). Okay, so I was a bit premature. But the winds continue to shift: Vizio, one of the top TV brands, unveiled its full line of 4K LCD TVs in mid-September and, among other things, will offer a 70-inch 4K set for $2999.

Prices for 4K LCD TVs are dropping rapidly already. As of this writing, several of the major TV brands had cut the tags on their 55-inch offerings well below $2000, anticipating another round of price slashing this month and next. A lot of the LCD “glass” used in these TVs comes from fabs in China, with some still being sourced from Korea. And you know how this stuff “trickles up” into our market. Look for more manufacturers to get aboard the 4K LCD bandwagon in 2015.

Another prediction I made last December had to do with more laser-powered projectors coming to market as projector brands try to slow down the market erosion caused by large, cheap LCDs. (Indeed; Mitsubishi threw in the towel on projectors last year to concentrate on large tiled displays.) Now, we’re seeing more laser-powered models come to market and brightness levels are increasing dramatically.

At InfoComm, Sony unveiled the VPL-FHZ700L, a 7000 lumen version of its original 3LCD laser projector that came out in 2012. In early October, Panasonic started shipping the PT-RZ670, a 6500 lumen laser DLP projector, and I can tell you that, having seen it up close and personal, the color quality is amazing: a long way from the early days of laser/LED hybrids.

There will be others. We’re not far from the days of a 10K lumen laser chassis, and that’s good news for integrators who either aren’t sold on large LCDs or don’t feel they can deliver a large enough image for their applications. Our customers would dearly love to move away from lamp changes and install “set it and forget it” projectors. Lasers and hybrids will be the way to go: Expect several major laser projector announcements in 2015.

Let’s turn our attention to the connections on these gadgets. With 4K/UHDTV looming and expanded color gamuts, high dynamic range and deep color sampling coming, we’re facing an imminent speed crisis in our display interfaces. Until recently, we’ve had two choices for display interfaces: DVI (which has been orphaned as a standard) and HDMI.
Now, there’s another player: DisplayPort, which has been around since 2006, recently announced some significant upgrades (see Sound & Communications’ NEWSLETTER, October 2014 and “AVent Horizon” in this issue), and will push its speed limit to 32 gigabits per second (Gb/s). That goes way beyond the ceiling of HDMI 2.0, which made its debut a year ago but is still rolling out slowly.

Unlike HDMI, there are no royalties associated with DisplayPort. That, combined with its 100% digital packet design and ability to easily multiplex signals like USB and PCI Xpress through the same connector, should lead more manufacturers to start adding it to presentation switchers, distribution amplifiers and matrix switchers, not to mention signal format converters. More AV interface and display manufacturers will get on the DisplayPort bandwagon next year.

I’ve taught a class on wireless connectivity at InfoComm for the past five years, and every year it seems that we’ll see a breakthrough in wireless adoption. The problem with that thinking is that several new standards for wireless have popped up in the past couple of years, creating inertia for manufacturers as they try to place their bets on the future of cord cutting.

802.11-based standards are still the most popular, and with channel bonding (802.11ac) now rolling out, popular collaboration products have an easier time streaming video from and to meeting participants. But there are times when you want a connection that isn’t dependent on negotiating bit rates or employing TCP/IP to send video.

Amimon’s 5GHz WHDI standard has become quite popular in the past year, and is available in single-input and dual-input versions for wireless HDMI connectivity. We’re also seeing it used for wireless streaming of HD video from cameras, particularly robotic “drone” designs. They will arrive in dribs and drabs, but you will see expanded offerings of WHDI connectivity kits next year.

Silicon Image’s WiHD format, which operates in the 60GHz band, holds promise for short-range, secure HDMI links (in-room). Only a handful of interface brands offers WiHD products, but I expect that number to grow in 2015. The development of prototype WiHD dongles for tablets and smartphones earlier this year was a real breakthrough; I’ve tested one with tablets and phones, and it works great.

Another development that will stimulate wireless connectivity is the nascent Wireless Gigabit standard (802.111ad). This mode operates alongside WiHD on six channels in the 60GHz radio band and uses such clever enhancements as steerable antenna arrays to accommodate multiple users without interference. Both WiGig and WiHD can support 3Gb/s 1080p/60 display connections.

Interest in this mode has already been heightened by Intel’s announcement that it will start moving to wireless display connectivity for motherboards in the future, hoping to do away altogether with HDMI and DisplayPort hookups. The most likely way to make that connection will be with the WiGig standard because the 5GHz band is getting too congested for multiple streams of 1080p video. Keep your eyes open for products that support Certified Wireless Gigabit connections (you’ll see the WiGig logo on them somewhere).

Revisiting the topic of video streaming, expect a full roll-out of the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) in our industry. HEVC chips for hardware-based decoding are now widely available from Broadcom, and manufacturers of video codecs are adopting this codec as a way to improve 2K videoconferencing links at bit rates as low as 2Mb/s.
HEVC Support If needed

Several TV manufacturers are now including HEVC support on Ultra HD models, and numerous set-top boxes will also offer HEVC decoding. The impetus for this is coming from video streaming in the consumer world (Netflix is already streaming selected TV shows and movies in 4K@15Mb/s using HEVC). From conversations in my digital video classes, I’ve seen a lot more IPTV integration projects in the works, and the timing couldn’t be better with HEVC.

Last year, I predicted an increasing adoption of HDBaseT by interface and display manufacturers. It’s happening, helped by the announcement of HDBaseT 2.0 which can now support USB 2.0 through its physical layer. USB has become an increasingly important part of any interface design: More and more customers want to switch it along with display and audio.

But the growth of HDBaseT is dependent on our industry’s continued preference for using structured wire signal extenders to move HDMI, audio and a host of other signals from point A to point B. This love affair with category wire goes back more than a decade to the first VGA extenders, and we’re still smitten.

Easy To Combine
Fact is; you can just as easily combine these signals into optical fiber cables and move them much greater distances without having to adopt any particular standard. HDBaseT’s continued success depends on support for its proprietary TMDS-to-packet conversion system and its direct integration into presentation switchers and displays (projectors with HDBaseT inputs are “hot” right now).

With fiber, there’s no particular standard to license and pay royalties on. If you haven’t looked lately, there are dozens of companies pushing fiberoptic interfaces for multiplexing and distributing AV signals, and most of them work quite well. Multimode optical fiber is very cost-competitive with structured wire (especially STP Category 6, which most sensible manufacturers are adopting for HDBaseT). And it’s pretty easy to install: no-epoxy, no-polish connectors these days.

I’ll go out on a limb and state that you will see expanded support for optical fiber signal multiplexing in 2015, and not just by those companies that take 8×8 booths in the rear hall at InfoComm. Some major interfacing brands will be pushing fiber as a way to cope with the higher clock and data rates required by 4K and UHDTV. Will we see presentation switchers with direct optical fiber outputs next year? Not yet, but they’re definitely in the works.

How about content delivery? Along with display interfaces, this is one of the weakest links in the chain from camera to screen. I’ve already mentioned the highly-anticipated HEVC codec, but the real question is whether recorded media will be accessible via optical disc (read: Blu-ray) or online, from cloud servers.

At the IFA show in early September, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced that it is finishing the standard for 4K Blu-ray in early January, and that 4K BD players will be widely available by the end of 2015. Many readers support the Blu-ray format in their installations and are probably wondering what the future holds for this format. The updated standards call for increased disc capacity of 66GB and 100GB, plus support for the expanded Rec. BT2020 color space, high dynamic range and even high frame rates.

Support for wider color gamuts and high dynamic range means we’re going to see the end of 8-bit color encoding. Indeed; many laptops already default to 10-bit and 12-bit color if support for it is detected in a display’s EDID. Now, the next generation of Blu-ray discs will likely be encoded with 10-bit color as a minimum. What that means to you is higher clock rates and data rates for your switchers and extenders (oh, joy!) and possible bandwidth issues.

HDCP 2.2
Along with 4K (Ultra HD) Blu-ray comes HDCP 2.2, an update to the current AACS copy protection system. HDCP will use more convoluted algorithms to generate keys and ensure security. It will also be a lot less tolerant of missing or corrupted keys: If a key request from a sink isn’t answered within about 20 milliseconds, the connection will be disabled. (That’s going to make a lot of customers really unhappy!).

HDCP 2.2 isn’t backward-compatible with current HDCP standards, so there’s another potential interfacing problem to look forward to. And HDCP 2.2 won’t be implemented just on HDMI ports: You’ll also see it on wired and wireless networks when streaming protected content. This means that your ability to access TV shows and movies may be limited to 2K files for some time, even if you are running the latest HEVC codec. (And before you ask, yes, HDCP 2.2 is supported by DisplayPort 1.3!)

More training Opportunities
My last prediction has more to do with observations in the past year about industry education. As you can see, changes in technology and the standards that support them are happening so rapidly that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Several manufacturers in our industry have therefore taken it upon themselves to design and teach courses to support these technologies as used in their own products. Usually, a “certification” goes hand-in-hand with such classes, which were originally intended to cut down on technical support calls.

Look for a greatly increased number of manufacturer training courses in 2015 as the bigger players attempt to lock up customers with comprehensive “solutions” for everything from video codecs and IPTV products to HDMI matrix switchers and interfaces. I think the days of generic, technology-based training are on the wane in favor of this product-specific approach.

Is this trend good, or bad? That depends on your perspective. However, product-based training is certainly an effective way to push out new lines to dealers and integrators, and capture market share.

See you next December!

Contributing Editor Pete Putman, MS, president of ROAM Consulting LLC, is a Senior Academy Instructor for InfoComm and was named their Educator of the Year for 2008. He is a member of SMPTE and SID, and holds CTS and ISF industry certifications. A member of Sound & Communications’ Technical Council, Pete also writes the monthly “AVent Horizon.” Contact him at pputman@testa.com.

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