Business, InfoComm

In The Wake Of InfoComm: Trends To Keep An Eye On

infocomm16

I’m writing this column a week after InfoComm16, but you won’t read it until August. So, I’m not going to focus on specific products and press announcements; all of that stuff became old news a few weeks after the show.

What I will focus on are trends I saw there that will continue to impact our industry for some time to come. And there were plenty of them, everywhere you looked.

First off, I’ve been saying for several years now that software is becoming increasingly more important than hardware in our industry (and across all market segments: Look at how inexpensive Ultra HDTVs have become already), and that we’d start to see less of a focus on expensive hardware and more of an emphasis on software and managed services.

That’s exactly what I spotted in Las Vegas. Astute observers noticed that the once humongous booths set up by the likes of Panasonic and Barco, for example, have gotten a bit smaller. AMX, when it was a standalone company, used to have an enormous booth at the show (not to mention a huge party every year). Now, AMX is limited to a few small stands within the Harman booth.

I’m not saying this trend is good or bad; it’s just inevitable. When hardware used to sell for four or five figures and, in some cases six figures, you could justify those million-dollar booths that looked like mini malls. But that’s not the case anymore.

To show you how much the landscape has changed, think about this: A 500 lumen VGA (640×480) LCD projector would have set you back nearly $10,000 in 1995. Today, a 3000 lumen Wide XGA (1280×800) projector (a lot smaller and lighter than that 1995 model) can be picked up at Staples for about $500. Six times the brightness and 1/20 the original price in 20 years!

Practically speaking, how much real estate do you need to talk about software programs and managed services? The same thing is happening at NAB, where once humongous companies like Harris (now Imagine) are largely touting services and not hardware.

Here’s another trend: LED walls. I tried to count all of the exhibitors at InfoComm and lost track after wandering through the North Hall. And most exhibitors were based in China, with names you would not recognize. Were they looking for US dealer/distributor partners? It’s not likely many would pick up customers here, and that may be why Leyard (another Chinese manufacturer) bought Planar last year; everyone knows who Planar is.

I also saw LED walls with pitches as small as .9mm. That’s smaller than the pixel pitch of a 50-inch 1366×768 plasma monitor from 1995! And if anyone continues to go big with their booths, it’s the LED wall manufacturers (not like they have any choice!). Leyard’s 100-foot-plus 8K LED wall was a perfect example of why bigger is still better with InfoComm booths.

The Chinese dominance in LED displays shouldn’t be surprising. They’re moving to a similar level in the manufacturing of LCD panels, monitors and televisions, undermining the Korean manufacturers (who undermined the Japanese, who took our US-based television business away in the 1980s).

In fact, so much of our hardware is fabricated, soldered and assembled in China and Southeast Asia these days, it should be no surprise that prices have dropped as much as they have. Back in the day, a quality line doubler (remember those?) would set you back as much as $5000 to $8000. Today, you can buy a compact scaler that works to 1080p and Wide UXGA for a few hundred bucks.

Another trend that’s really picking up speed is the move away from projection lamps to solid-state illumination systems, most often lasers with color phosphor wheels. In an interesting example of how tech trends toggle each other like falling dominoes, the availability of large, inexpensive LCD displays has cut into sales of projectors, particularly in small classrooms and meeting rooms, where we used to put in “hang and bang” projection systems.

If you talk to people who’ve made this switch away from projection to direct-view, the reason they most frequently cite is that they don’t have to change out lamps anymore, and the LCD displays can be used under normal room lighting and turn on instantly.

Well, projector manufacturers have gotten the message and are moving en masse to solid-state light sources. Early adopters like Casio have reaped the benefits, but now everyone from Sony and Panasonic to Vivitek and Optoma is on board.

Even so, the corner wasn’t really turned until this year when Epson, one of the big manufacturers of projection lamps, showed a 25,000 lumen 3LCD projector powered by a laser light engine. And I saw more than one UHD-resolution projector using the laser-phosphor combination, even in ultra-short throw configurations.

How much longer will we be changing out lamps? I don’t think it will be more than a few years before the majority of projectors offered for sale will use laser or LED light engines (or both). There will be exceptions for certain models, but for all intents and purposes, short-arc lamps are toast.

My last trend has to do with the slow migration of video and audio signal distribution and switching away from hardware-intensive platforms based on display interface standards to software-based platforms that use IT switches, encoders and decoders. Wow, did I spot a lot of those products at the show, even from some previously vigorous defenders of HDMI-based architectures.

The interest in learning how to move to an “open” IP-type AV distribution architecture must be considerable: I taught a class about AV-over-IP this year at InfoComm and was astounded to see that 185 people had signed up to attend. There were few no-shows as I found out when I spotted attendees sitting on the floor and standing along the back wall for almost the entire 90-minute class.

What’s more, a substantial portion of those attendees came from the higher education market segment. An informal poll revealed that most of them are still upgrading from older analog systems to all-digital infrastructure. In essence, they were telling me that they preferred to skip HDMI-based solutions and move directly to an IP-type solution.

Hand-in-hand with this discovery came more responses about transitioning to app-based AV control systems and away from proprietary, code-based control that requires specialized programming. There were a few companies showing app-based AV control products in Vegas that had super-simple GUIs; software that just about anyone could learn to use in a few hours.

Throw in the accelerating transition to UHD resolution LCD and OLED displays (they’ll largely replace Full HD within a year), and you have some very interesting times in store for the AV industry as this decade winds on….

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