Put Home To Work

No matter how remote your connection to the world of consumer electronics, it is likely that you've seen or heard some sort of report from January's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that took place in Las Vegas early in January. Coverage was all over the place from the morning news shows and financial press to "enthusiast" blogs and all over the internet.

If your interests are more towards "What kind of TV should I buy?" those reports have likely satisfied your need for information. However, since the likelihood is that most people reading this magazine have a more direct connection to the electronics world, you need a different type of information. To paraphrase the late Jack Webb: "That's when I go to work...I carry a press card."

Sifting through all the blather about forms and formats, our goal this month is to provide a quick summary of the hot items as they impact those who toil in the world of commercial, industrial, institutional and educational installations, as your needs are different than those of your cousins in the consumer world. As space permits in the months to come, we'll cover some of the sidelights from CES that are also of interest to the systems professional, but this month it's all headlines!

Battle Of The Hi-Def Disc Formats: Yes, it does look as though both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray (BD) formats will come to market; all attempts reported last year at reaching a compromise on a single, unified blue-laser-based format for high-definition optical discs have failed. At the top level, reports from CES put the projected introduction of HD-DVD starting in March from Toshiba at $499 and up with Thomson and Sanyo to follow later. Samsung is the first to claim a BD intro, at $999 in April. One is advised to take those dates with a grain of salt, as at this point one of the key software cores needed for the players, the AACS system that is intended to keep prerecorded material secure from unauthorized copying and/or distribution, has not been finalized. Until that code is finalized, tested and released to the hardware manufacturers, consumer-level blue-laser players can't be made. Thus, the schedules announced at CES may or may not hold, depending on how things progress.

More important for non-consumer applications is the uncertainty over whether or not HD signals (720p and 1080i) from the consumer players will be available at the analog video outputs or only via the HDMI outputs. Some manufacturers said this topic was still "under consideration." Some say it will be set by the authoring in the pre-recorded discs (read: the "studios"), and some just aren't saying. Why is this important? In most cases the connection to the displays in existing non-consumer fixed installations are anything but HDMI. That being the case, if all HD output is restricted to the HDMI outputs, you may face a dilemma in using these players for HD, and after all, what else do you need them for? We can't give you a complete answer to this one coming out of CES, so the best we can do at this time is alert you to the possible problem. We'll keep you posted as things get clearer.

Other random CES notes on high-def DVD for the professional? First, note that all the initial consumer players will be just that, players. To record discs with content for your clients, or to enable them to author it themselves, you will need to buy computer drives. No problem, but without the consumer recorders that are not likely to appear until very late in 2006, expect to pay high prices. Next, if you plan to take advantage of the advanced, high-resolution multichannel audio systems that are part of both formats, be prepared for analog distribution until the HDMI 1.3 standard is finalized, released, and available in surround decoders. And that won't be until much later this year.

1080p Displays: This was one of the most talked-about display trends at this year's CES, and there were certainly more 1080p displays in all of the forms and formats than there were before the show. DLP rear screens, LCD and LCoS rear screens, front projectors, PDP displays and LCD direct view displays were all shown with 1080p resolution. Here, as is the case in the consumer world, the key is to determine if the added resolution is worth the price and signal distribution issues.

Other "Display Stuff": Along with more 1080p displays, a number of video display products were shown at CES that merit your attention on a variety of levels. One, to be available some time in the third quarter of 2006 was a 56-inch LCD direct view display from Westinghouse Digital with a 3840 x 2160 resolution that is ideal for medical imaging or critical graphics viewing display applications. Indeed, at the moment there aren't even any drivers available for this incredibly crisp and clear display that allow motion video to be shown, but that should be solved by the time it is a go-to-market product. It won't be cheap, but if you have a system where four full 1920 x 1080 images need to be shown on the same panel, this is an answer.

Looking into the future, within the next 12 months you will see consumer, and most likely "commercial" products with LED illumination of both direct view LCD panels and DLP, LCD and LCoS rear-screen displays. For direct view this will mean longer life, faster response time and better colorimetry. In rear-screen projection display systems it will eliminate the need for bulb changes and reduce ventilation requirements.

Another technology on display from a number of manufacturers was RPTV sets with a depth at about 10 inches. That still may seem large in comparison to the panel depth of LCD and PDP, but when the total mounted (wall or stand) footprint of a flat panel is measured, 10 inches is not all that much of a difference. Where these new designs differ from previous attempts by InFocus and Thomson is that they do not have the large "chin" of the earlier "thin RPTV" models. Here, there are typically less than three inches from the bottom of the screen to the cabinet floor. This makes these models much more appropriate for a wide variety of CRT monitor replacement applications.

Again, given the publicity attendant to its demonstrations at CES, a mention is in order of the SED flat-panel display technology from Toshiba and Canon. True to its billing, the display was high contrast and colors were accurate. However, the displays that were promised at last year's CES for "early 2006" introduction are now said to be significantly further off in the distance. The same 720p displays at 36 inches (W) diagonal shown last year were demo'd, not the larger size, 55-inch (W) diagonal at 1080p units promised. Perhaps InfoComm will provide a better window into the future of SED for both consumer and commercial display applications. Despite the hype, it still seems too early to provide anything definite.

"Location Shift": If you read any reports about CES in the business, enthusiast or general press, or certainly anywhere on the internet or in the "blogosphere," you undoubtedly saw mention of the concept of "location shift." In plain language, this is the accumulation of audio or video content from a variety of sources (anything from "ripped in" CD content to live broadcasts to downloaded content) to a central server and then transferring it with appropriate DRM to a portable player for listening and/or viewing in a location other than where the server is located or a network connection is available. The immediate poster child for this is Apple's iTunes service and its ability to download not only audio, but now both video and podcasts as well, but there are many other variations.

This may seem to have limited application for non-consumer use, but with a little imagination and the right software it is very easy to imagine using this concept for training or library applications where the players and DRM can be used to allow students, employees or parishioners to "check out" a player with training material, product or corporate updates, or the latest sermon or bible lesson. The key here is the ease of use perfected for the consumer world and the content protection schemes developed to meet the requirements of studios, broadcasters and record labels. Both make it easy for you to provision location shift material for clients with an ease and security not previously possible.

Networking Technologies: While location shift uses networking to download content from the server to a player, networking is used for a wider range of content and data distribution. Of note in the networking world at CES was the reemergence of Power Line and coax-based networking schemes as more than second-place technologies. A number of consumer products will embody them this year with data rates that are up to the requirements of today's streaming media and video-over-IP applications. This could prove to be a classic example of "trickle-up" technology where the volume of a consumer product creates professional offshoots-once it was the other way around. Even the best contractor sometimes comes up against a situation where wires simply can't be run in an existing structure. Look to PLC and MOCA as a potential way out in those cases.

On the wireless side of the fence, the industry is, to some extent, still waiting for final approval of a "1.0" version of the 802.11n standard, but that still seems to be more than a few months away. In the interim, more and more of the wireless products manufacturers are getting on the "pre-N" bandwagon by taking advantage of the multiple in/multiple out, or MIMO technology that will be a core part of the new standard to give it increased range. At this point, however, it is still wise to carefully query a wireless products supplier that says their goods will be upgradeable to the eventual standard. Some will be, but many may not. If you want to provide some of the benefits of "n" now, it is easy to do, but make certain that you don't over promise on future upgrade potential or the client-and you-may be left holding the bag for products that are not compatible with the eventual standard.