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Seeing Spots

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Video Format Troubles Can Increase Your Heart-Rate And Your Bottom Line
Visual displays. You love them and you hate them. You love the now-standard, amazingly bright and resolute images in every imaginable format. You love the lightweight projectors and the brackets or lifts made to mount any projector or flat-panel display anywhere. You love all the inputs, bells, and whistles. And admit it, you're amazed by the low prices. What once went for $60,000 is now $6,000 or less. What once was $250,000 is now $80,000, and the prices just seem to keep falling.

Unfortunately so are reseller margins, which gets the hate list going. You hate not making enough money on displays and still having to provide full service. You hate having to tell your customers that the replacement bulb is going to cost almost as much as they paid for the projector. You hate having to explain why the lights in the ceiling of a conference room shouldn't be aimed at the projection screen. Oh, and I know you hate having to deal with throw-distance calculations and proper screen fills of different formatted content, which of course has you now hating your customers for wanting to watch action movies at lunch in 2.40:1 true widescreen format and then complaining that their 15:1 widescreen PC display format doesn't quite fill the screen completely.

Welcome to systems integration reality. Oftentimes it's a painful position to be in, but isn't it where we systems integrators truly show our worth by taking on the tough issues foisted upon us and then solving the problems? You bet it is. And it's where we make our money, if we can survive the sometimes difficult learning curves.

One such challenge might feel a bit like a choke chain around your neck being yanked by forces beyond your control. Who's pulling your chain? The consumer electronics industry, HDMI, and HDCP (high-definition content protection).

The line between consumer systems and professional systems has been blurred for some time now, but it only becomes a problem when the whims of mass consumerism dictate what restrictions, benefits, or features should be included in product specs.

The consumer-based Blu-ray player's HDMI video output panders to the whims of consumer display technology, where the source typically isn't located far from the display, like in a living room. (I'm not picking on Blu-ray in particular, it's just a leading example.) HDMI and its accompanying limitations is a bad idea from the integrator's viewpoint and makes getting that Blu-ray player homogenized into our system a pain.

Add to this the HDCP "handshaking" between an HDMI source and display-which content providers have required to keep unwashed consumers from "stealing" their content, and which also assumes a one-to-one source/display ratio-and you're now turning blue. Not from the glow of the Blu-ray player's nifty blue laser, but from a lack of breathing room in your systems deployment.

There is another hand pulling on our systems integration choke chain as well-the computing industry. Computer display cards also have a handshake process between display cards and monitors called EDID (or extended display identification data). Lose this handshaking via a routing change, and many times the outcome is loss of images.

The definition of a systems integrator is one of taking disparate equipment, features, and functions from a wide variety of manufacturers and then bringing them all together in an elegant, value-added manner. There are specialty boxes on the market that spoof both HDCP and EDID, and there are boxes to make HDMI routable and extendable over long distances. Kudos must go out to those integrators and manufacturers who recognize the challenges created by the convergence of our core capabilities with the equipment and standards of other industries and then find workarounds or build gear to solve the problems.

It's a big world, and we are not the largest fish in the pond. So, until we either finally converge commercial AV, consumer electronics, computer technologies, and telephony into the bit-stream world and abdicate our jobs to "plug and play" systems, or become a big enough industry to drive the standards, we'll just have to continue to play along and provide the value-added role of solving problems and providing great systems. That's why we're still around and growing and why I think we're going to be in business for a long time as a valuable resource to our clients.

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