Frequent visitors to this space know that it has long been an advocate of reaching into the consumer products bag of tricks where appropriate to solve commercial systems problems. Thus, towards that end, before the "Show Season" gets into full swing with this month's NSCA, NAB the following month, and InfoComm in June, it is probably appropriate to take a look at what was on display at this year's CES through the lens of a commercial, rather than consumer, point of view.
Looking at things a bit differently, however, we're going to presume that savvy SCN readers have already heard all about the new products that will be here in the near term. Indeed, some of those displays were covered in this space recently, so you already know all about them. However, it is worth taking a look at some of the things shown at CES that won't be available to you anytime soon. What's the value in that? Remember that your clients and prospects are likely to be as hip as you are to consumer electronic trends, and having seen coverage of the show in the general, business and possibly "enthusiast" press, not to mention in internet forums and chat rooms, they may have seen reports about things that they are being led to believe will be available soon, when, in fact, they are somewhat far out there.
Thus, this will provide a bit of a defense mechanism for you: Here's how to deal with things on display at a show that are neat, but which you can't buy, at least for the time being.
First on the list are the "mega-size" PDP and LCD displays. It's all well and good that Samsung showed a 102-inch-wide plasma, but don't expect to be able to deliver it anytime soon. Remember, they showed an 80-inch-wide PDP last year, and it still does not have a firm delivery date beyond "this summer" and there is no indication of the price. At the moment, LG's 71-inch-wide PDP is, as they did not hesitate to point out in the CES display, the largest "production" plasma that can be the focal point of a client's venue for the low, low price of $75,000. With that as a guidance point, one can only imagine what the price of the Samsung giant would be if and when it is available.
Let any client who says they will wait for one of these be reminded that, while there is an undeniable "cool factor" to a very large PDP display, for the time it will take, and the uncertainty in planning a delivery date, and what this type of unit will cost, there are any number of other options that will produce just as "flat," large and bright an image, if not more so for less money. While not wanting to throw cold water on the prospect of being the first to claim an installation with such a groundbreaking product, my personal fear would be having to explain the concept of phosphor burn and image retention to the client after someone left a static image up for too long on a 6-figure display.
Who will take the heat for that?
While the extra-large size PDP is out there in the distance, the question of availability for the large-size LCD products shown by Sharp, Samsung and LG next comes to mind. There, things are a bit more predictable and more affordable, relatively speaking. All things being equal, the 65-inch-wide LCD from Sharp, a 57-inch-wide LCD from Samsung, and a 55-inch-wide LCD from LG should all be shipping sometime between June and Labor Day at prices in the $16K and above range. Here, there is some reason to quote products with a bit more certainty, provided you are cautious on the timing.
The same goes for applications where a high-definition DVD solution is required. Tell 'em to keep their shirts on, because this one is far from settled yet. Both the HD-DVD and BluRay camps were out in force at CES, showcasing prototype hardware, announcing "studio deals" for packaged media software, and generally trying to paint as good a picture of the future for their respective formats as possible. Since we all know that everyone loves a good format battle, the general and financial media, in particular, picked up on this one, playing the competition between the two sides for all it's worth.
Hey, we're not below that here at SCN! Yes, there definitely is a world-class game of "chicken" going on here as everyone professes that they really want a single, unified format for high-definition optical discs, while at the same time saying that its format is better and refusing to step back to a point where a compromise is possible. Each side was steadfast in its commitment to bring its format to market for the "selling season" this year in the case of HD-DVD, or sometime between then and early 2006 for BluRay. Of course, it's way too early for anything approaching actual model specs that you could put into a bid or quote, let alone pricing for either the recorders, players or blank media to be consumed for home-grown HD presentations using one format or the other.
Feeding the uncertainty is that, as pages fall off the calendar, the two formats are proceeding down the path to production. This is definitely one that we will all have to continue to watch, but for the time being seems as though this is the one equipment choice where you will have to caution everyone to sit back and watch things play out. To commit to either format for a job requiring a "date certain" delivery is just not something one might want to do at this point.
A few other notes from CES that will have some impact on jobs past, present and future involve getting signals, particularly HD, from here to there. For the moment, that is something done almost exclusively by RF or as analog component, perhaps in some cases as DVI signals. That is all going to change over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, particularly in cases where HD is being used in sports bars and similar applications where off-air, cable or satellite signals start in a receiver box. From there, you have to design the distribution system and mate everything up to a display.
Widely demonstrated at CES were solutions using power line communications (PLC) or ultra-wideband (UWB) technologies that have the bandwidth to carry the bit-hogging HDTV signals. In both cases, when the situation calls for getting signals to existing projectors or displays where a distribution system retrofit could be problematic, either of these might do the trick. Yet, once again, for all the convincing demonstrations and news about them, the practical application of either system for reliable commercial applications is something that you probably won't be able to take advantage of until about this time next year. Plan, educate yourself, but be careful about putting these things into quotes yet.
In the meantime, you will see increasing use of HDMI as a distribution path between HD sources and displays, something that the eventual arrival of HD-DVD and/or BluRay will only accelerate. Here, the use of consumer products will almost certainly be necessary, as "pro" or "commercial" HDMI-equipped products are few and far between, if any, at this writing. Going one step further, even the latest consumer electronics products are not yet equipped for the 1.2 or beyond versions of HDMI that will carry all the current high-resolution audio and video formats. Add to that the fact that both HD-DVD and BluRay will use new surround codecs (Dolby Digital + and DTS-HD) that not only require advanced HDMI connectivity, but upgrades for the surround processing gear, as well.
Has there been much written and discussed about all of this at and after CES? Yes, of course. Can anyone who has read the reports or participated in the sometimes confused online discussions actually buy gear that is compatible with these systems? No, not yet. And of course, neither can you. Remember, though, when the time comes to buy them, there is a fair chance that you will have to turn to consumer gear such as that shown at CES in the early stages of availability.
Michael Heiss (CaptnVid@aol.com) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles, CA.
With more than 20 years of experience in the professional and consumer electronics industries, he has worked with video hardware and software in an extensive range of applications.
What They SED
The most interesting unknown in terms of size, pricing and delivery specifics is a display category that nevertheless received a great deal of attention at and after CES, and that is the SED display from Canon and Toshiba. While we were only able to speculate about it in January's column, coming out of CES it can be reported first-hand that the color and contrast were just as advertised: stunning. Given that this is a phosphor-based display, there were no problems with response time, and viewing angle was more than you could ask for. One other important point of comparison to both of SED's putative competitors, LCD and PDP, power consumption, even on the most demanding scenes, was close to a third that of a plasma and anywhere from 20 to 40 percent less than an LCD.
That's the good news, summarized by saying that this is one instance where the advance billing and hype about a technology came true when it was actually available to look at. Now the news that isn't so good about the technology, itself. Based on finally getting a first-hand look at SED, it looks as though it may be a great product for commercial and systems applications. However, at this point, there is little information about exactly when it will be available, what the sizes will be, what the distribution channels will be (particularly for the commercial customer-for now there is no indication of products other than those for the consumer market), and, most importantly, what the pricing will be. Other than saying it will be available "very late this year or early next year in limited quantities at a premium price, probably in 50-inch-wide size and definitely with full 1920 x 1080 resolution," there isn't much else to say other than it shows great promise. Anyone looking to bid it into an installation is well advised to wait.
Speed Of Satellite
One thing that definitely will happen with certainty this year, starting some time in the second half and gradually spreading out into end of the year, is the conversion of both DirecTV's and EchoStar's HD feeds from the current MPEG-2 compression scheme to the more efficient MPEG-4 methodology. The good news from those announcements at CES is that the codec change will make it possible to deliver more high-definition signals. This includes both the national network programming that finds its way into your commercial, hospitality and food service installations for sports bars and the like, as well as increased "local into local" station coverage that may find its way into HD systems you have installed in the lodging industry world.
The bad news-again, not so bad here-is that the switch will require the receivers currently in place to be changed out for new boxes. The plans for exactly how this will happen, and what it will mean in terms of cost and equipment capability for customers has not been announced by either of the satellite providers for the consumer world, let alone for the commercial world. But at least we all have now been forewarned that it is going to happen. Will there be a charge for the new equipment? That is hard to say. Will there be any compensation to the customer for your costs and charges to go out to the installation site to change out the equipment? Again, nothing at all on that side.
However, with the "heads up" on this one, you should at the very least put a tickler on your PDA, datebook or calendar to begin asking your satellite provider reps about this starting in another few months. This switch from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 is one item that may perhaps have been a bit too technical to catch the eye of the general press. But once it begins to happen, you will need to be prepared to react to it both in terms of customer information and technical/truck roll time to actually do the swap-outs as needed. Don't play this card with the customer base before you have the details. Unlike some of the other items in this month's column, this is one piece of CES news that will absolutely happen sometime before the end of the year, and if you have any satellite-based HD installations, it will absolutely impact your business.