Why Pro AV Should be Watching HDMI 2.1

A good bit of time has passed November 2017 release of HDMI 2.1, and while it’s likely to be a while longer before you’re using it to connect devices in your facility, things are certainly beginning to take off for the new highest standard. We caught up with Rob Tobias, CEO and President of HDMI Licensing Administrator, to drill down into the ways HDMI 2.1 will shape the pro AV industry in the coming years.

Rob Tobias, HDMI Licensing Administrator

Rob Tobias, HDMI Licensing Administrator

AV Technology: Can you give our readers a quick recap of the standard and what it enables?

Rob Tobias: It’s a big upgrade for HDMI and it adds a number of exciting new features. The headline is increase in bandwidth from 18Gbps to 48Gbps—that increases the resolution into the 8K realm, and with an optional digitally lossless compression called DSC it can even get to 10K.

So, that’s the feature everybody really looks at, but there’s a number of other things that are just as important. There’s Audio Return Channel (ARC)… that’s been upgraded to what’s called eARC, or Enhanced Audio Return Channel, and that adds all the newest sound formats—the high-bitrate formats from Dolby and DTS plus the object audio formats like Dolby Atmos. There’s also a number of features that enhance the picture experience, like Variable Rate Refresh and Auto Low Latency.

Do you see medical and simulation leading the way for its adoption in pro AV?

They’re going to be the early adopters for 8K. Samsung, TCL, Sony, LG, and Sharp all made a splash at CES talking about selling 8K to consumers. A lot of that is going to make its way into the pro AV space. Digital signage is really going to take advantage of it; you’re going to have really large displays. When people are close, it can pull up more information at a higher resolution, so we’re seeing a strong interest in the digital signage area.

Also, the medical field: they want higher resolutions for imaging and things like that, so we’ll see it there. And in aerospace, in certain applications that are pushing the envelope where they want to see higher resolutions for things like surveillance, I think we’ll see the push to 8K screens fairly quickly. In that case, HDMI 2.1 will become the mandatory interface to connect to the devices that are feeding the video images.

What’s new in HDMI 2.1 since CES?

Certain manufacturers have extended it into their 4K realm, but it can be HDMI 2.1 and have some of the other features. So, things like Variable Rate Refresh and eARC are 2.1 features, but they don’t also have the higher bandwidth, so they can be classified as 2.1 devices. We’re seeing most TV companies putting in eARC or Variable Rate Refresh, and Auto Low Latency to create advanced gaming. We’re seeing some 4K displays that are moving toward 120Hz refresh rate, and those are adding the higher bandwidth to get to 4K120.

Are any manufacturers of AV-over-IP equipment working on implementing HDMI 2.1 yet?

Not that I know of, or at least that have announced. The industry has caught up to 4K60 with 18Gbps, so this will be their next step, but it is a large step going from 18Gb to 48Gb, so it will take them a little time. But the industry is interested in getting there.

One area that’s going to really become important is the Active Optical Cables. So the challenge as you go to these higher speeds is that the length of cables just over copper becomes shorter. So, we’re going to see more and more active optical HDMI 2.1 cables. At CES, we were showing off some prototype designs from companies that are planning to take those to market, and they’re very bullish on the demand, and especially in the pro AV space, because longer cable lengths are more the norm than they would be in a consumer home environment.

Why should the pro AV community keep an eye on HDMI 2.1?

It’s coming at us like a freight train. The devices are here today, and more getting announced every day with HDMI 2.1, so it makes a lot of sense to stay up to speed with what these devices’ capabilities are and what the interface capabilities are. And ensuring, as you do installations, that they’re upgradable. Especially with this new cable that has been designed for higher performance.

So today, maybe you’re putting in a 4K60 environment. But if you envision that you’re going to have to upgrade those displays to 8K, then you’re going to have to redo the cabling infrastructure. So it’s good to learn about it today, it’s good to plan for the future.

Matt Pruznick

Matt Pruznick is the former editor of AV Technology, and senior editor for Systems Contractor News and Residential Systems. He is based in New York.