A Market Unto Itself

A Market Unto Itself

The Scale, Complexity, And Sheer Sense Of Adventure In End User Applications Makes Asia Fertile Ground For An Extrordinary Influx Of Large Display Technologies

Reuters thought it was one billion. The Wall Street Journal said experts estimated it was two billion. Sky News thought it was three billion. McClatchy thought it was four billion. And Bloomberg played safe by saying that it thought it was “probably the largest live television audience in history”. They were, of course, talking about the number of people who saw the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Seldom, if ever, has there been such an audiovisual spectacular. Unsurprisingly, a key role was played by the two dominant large screen technologies: projection and LED displays. And, from talking to the industry, it seems that what we saw in the Bird’s Nest this past summer was representative of a large-screen market that is thriving throughout Asia.

Asian customers have pioneered the use of large LED advertising hoardings being placed on the sides of buildings, often as design components that are integrated architecturally into the structure. more with their prospective customers at trade exhibitions, on the street and in the stores, and large screens play a big part in that.”

“The Asian market for large scale displays is definitely a market unto itself,” smiles Jonathan Lim, general manager of Christie Asia, which supplied the projection technology for the opening of the Beijing Olympics [see SCNAsia’s premiere issue]. “It’s the largest and fastest-growing market in the world, and is experiencing a high tech growth curve like no other region in history.”

“From the commercial enquiries that we are receiving, demand for large-screen displays across Asia appears to be increasing,” adds Yutaka Watanabe, who is the manager in charge of all of Mitsubishi Electric’s DiamondVision LED products. “In particular, we have noticed a marked increase in enquiries from China, Singapore and Dubai.”

Implicit in Watanabe’s remark is, of course, the observation that it may be misleading to talk about “the Asian market”—a point emphasized by Dave Bateman, who has responsibility for DisplayLED’s business in the region. “Asia is not a homogeneous market,” he says. “There are definitely differences between countries in acceptance of quality levels, price levels and creativity of the proposed projects.”

“Yes, the cultures and market dynamics are different from country to country,” agrees Gary Fuller, vicepresident of business products at Christie, “but we’ve noticed that they’ve become less extreme over the past five years.”

“Actually, Asia is made up of several markets, each with unique characteristics,” notes C C Lam, who is director of sales operations for Lighthouse. “Many of those individual markets do, however, share one common characteristic, which is that they are price-sensitive and are less concerned about quality and technology: China is an obvious example. On the other hand, markets like Japan, Australia and Hong Kong, are perhaps more mature and are focused on value rather than price.”

Richard Marples agrees. “Japan and Australia, for example, tend to be early adopters of new technology because they are less sensitive to price. India, on the other hand, is a market still in its infancy—today, it’s an opportunity for companies with the lowest price offerings.”

Large rental projects such as the Beijing Olympic ceremonies often use a combination of LED wall and projection technology, as these massed ranks of Christie projectors at the Bird’s Nest show. tomorrow’s value-sensitive customers. “Image quality is of particular importance for European and North American buyers,” he says, “which explains why we have traditionally done very well in those markets with our high-quality products. The Asian market generally is more price-sensitive. However, this is starting to change as buyers come to realize the value of a well-built, quality system that will last a long time.”

It’s no surprise that the major manufacturers are keenly anticipating the time when prospective customers look at the long-term implications of a planned purchase. “Low-cost, China- based suppliers have grown on their domestic market and expanded through Asia as clients have been attracted to the low upfront buying price and the sense of comfort gained by having the manufacturer relatively close,” says Bateman. “But I believe there is a growing understanding that true value is the cost of ownership over the life of the product, including the product reliability, pre-sale and post-sale service.”

Gary Fuller believes that trend is already establishing itself. “The Asian market prides itself on driving a hard bargain,” he says, “but it will not accept weak after-sales service and support. That’s why manufacturers truly committed to the Asian market not only have sales offices in the region, but also show significant commitment to the market with large, established technical support organizations across the region.”

Yutaka Watanabe believes that those who have bought on price will emerge from the experience sadder and wiser. “Today, initial price is perhaps the biggest factor,” he says. “But we believe this is changing. There is increasing recognition of the need to look at the lifetime costs of the screen rather than its asking price. There is a saying in Japan that cheap is the most expensive. Unfortunately this has often proved to be the case for buyers of low-cost large-screen systems.”

Dave Bateman continues. “If you compare the Asian market with the European and North American markets, there are definitely differences in market scale—but at a project level, those projects being developed around Asia are as large and spectacular as any around the world,” he says. “China has installed some impressive architectural screens. As far as product acceptance is concerned, though, I would say that Asia is still the main market for low-cost screens manufactured in China, while the North American market is generally dominated by the top brand names. In Europe I believe there has been less acceptance of low-cost China product with concerns over reliability and after sales service.

“For Asia, we have taken a strategic decision that we will offer both types of solution. We can not only support our clients with the most suitable brand products, but also, where appropriate, we can offer our own digiLED range which is designed to deliver a quality product and good performance with affordability.”

Barco is also reacting to what the company sees in the market. “Low-cost products from China are forcing ‘western’ manufacturers to look at their product offering and reinforce their competitive position,” says Richard Marples. “We’re approaching that in two ways. First, we’re improving our price/performance ratio still further, driving down costs while maintaining our quality advantage. And second, we’re creating differentiation with new generations of greener, more energy-efficient products—products that the low cost manufacturers can’t deliver.”

Lighthouse is adopting a slightly different approach. “China’s role as a manufacturer of inexpensive LED screens will continue to grow as the market expands, and will always be the benchmark for manufacturing cost;” says C C Lam. “Lighthouse will continue making significant investments in R&D. We’ll patent each new technology we develop in order to protect our key advantages in the industry and continue being competitive in the market.”

The opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics saw a mix of both LED displays and projectors, a combination facilitated by the fact that the ceremony took place in darkness where projectors—as bright as they are—can be seen at their best. Certainly, LED technology drives the most noticeable large screens in Asia because the market for outdoor applications is so vibrant. “The most visible applications are the rooftop corporate advertising billboards,” notes Bateman, “and spectacular architectural LED screen applications.”

C C Lam sees a similar phenomenon. “Many buildings or brands like to install large LED screens on their store or building front to attract customers and to increase advertising revenue,” he says. “The Wuhan Gongyi Building in China and Hong Kong’s Olympian City II shopping mall are excellent examples of this.” Lam goes on to note other ‘hot’ applications for large-scale displays, including sporting venues and casinos such as Wynn Casino and Starworld Hotel and Casino in Macau, as well as the increasing number of major events, conferences and trade shows that are taking place throughout the region.

This emphasis on architectural displays is leading to innovations in both the technology and the applications to which it’s put. Gone are the day when the sole purpose of an LED wall was to act as a giant TV set. Dave Bateman describes DisplayLED’s flexible digiFLEX video skin, its digiPIX displays that are designed to be mounted onto surfaces in large pitch configurations, and its Mirage semi-transparent screens. C C Lam talks about Lighthouse’s Bar, Mesh and Tile non-panel LED products which, he says, offer light weight, transparency, weather resistance, high brightness and almost unlimited installation options. Barco’s Richard Marples focuses on the applications— such as the use of Barco’s MiStrip LED modules by Japanese rock bad B’z to create the impression of a magic carpet flying above the group on stage, or by Hong Kong rental company AV Promotions to create a 13 meter high by 3.5 meter diameter Coke bottle.

But if LED displays are the most noticeable, projection technology is also experiencing significant growth. “It’s not just the corporate market,” says Jonathan Lim. “Virtually every major rock band in the world now tours Asia—and the majority of them use high-brightness projection. Asia is also characterized by the creativity of the applications to which it puts display technology, and projection offers unrivalled flexibility and affordability. It is also true that Asia has been a leader in adopting digital cinema technology— and that’s a market of which Christie has an 80 percent share.”

Yutaka Watanabe believes he has spotted an important trend—one that underscores the growing maturity of many markets within Asia. “For high-end products such at Mitsubishi’s Diamond Vision, another big area of growth is sports venues,” he says. “It is now unthinkable for a major league sports club to not have some form of video screen or scoreboard. In these applications, high quality is much more important. Fans attending games in markets like Japan and the US expect the same kind of quality from the big screen as they see at home, where HD is now widely available. Clubs have to think for the future when planning major investments like screens. For these customers, a proven high-performance screen technology from a wellknown and trusted supplier is a much more attractive option than just a low initial price tag.”

Watanabe goes on to point out that the LED screens used at the Beijing Olympics came from major brands, rather than indigenous manufacturers. “We feel that, having now seen the difference in picture quality in screens from overseas suppliers, the Chinese market will be less willing to accept the poor performance and reliability problems found in some of its cheaper domestic products,” he says.

But if Watanabe is right about a growing preference for high-def, projection technology is, competitively speaking, very well placed. “For HD, projectors are much more affordable,” says Gary Fuller. “In fact, that’s true across the board when you factor in purchase price, power consumption, ease of installation and maintenance and flexibility. LED technology works well in specific vertical markets—but it doesn’t come close to what projection technology brings to a wide variety of applications.”

The Beijing Olympics may have represented the apotheosis of what audiovisual technology is capable of—but has also, according to many, had the effect of bringing accelerated growth to an Asian large screen market that is undoubtedly thriving. “There’s no doubt,” says C C Lam, “that the impact will be positive— hugely positive.”

Richard Marples agrees—seeing impetus not just for growth, but for greater market maturity. “Yes. I believe that many events will simulate or emulate some of the components of the Olympics ceremonies, albeit on a smaller scale,” he says. “I also believe that the scale and sophistication of the audiovisual effects, and the technical challenges that had to be overcome to produce them, will cause prospective customers to think about the total value proposition— including experience, expertise and reliability—offered by suppliers, and to focus less on purchase price.” His colleagues in the large-scale displays industry would doubtless say ‘amen’ to that.