Letter from America: IoT is where the action is, but home entertainment is where the money is

sharp 8k display showcased in Shenzhen, china
An 8K consumer display from Sharp was on display recently in a Gomé store in China. Will that type of set be available in your market? Will consumers want it?

We are a business that, in many respects, started with “home theatre and high-end audio”. However, taking the “I is for Integration” in the original name for CEDIA, we’ve gone on to become experts in the expanded capabilities of what new technologies are possible and how those of us on the “inside” design, configure, install, maintain and update them. We’ve gone from simple X-10 automation to heavily programmed, touchscreen displays to gesture and, more recently, voice interfaces and control.

The range of what we provide to clients had grown beyond a great viewing and listening experience to a fully integrated home where lighting, blinds, HVAC, security and gate/door control, irrigation control and much, much more are all the things we are expected to control in a unified fashion. IoT has become the heart of that, and it has become an intense focus area, almost to the exclusion of what once was the heart of our industry.

Don’t get me wrong. IoT and the products and ecosystems that revolve around them are a necessary part of the business today. I’m all for it as the multiple Echos, Dots, Google Homes and Google Home Minis around talking to the lights, the lawn sprinklers, the thermostat, and more, in my home confirm. After all, IoT is what many see is “where the action is”.

That aside, the flip side is that home entertainment is still “where the MONEY is”.

Given that, let’s return to our roots for this month with some comments and observations from both September’s CEDIA event in San Diego and the annual SMPTE Technical Conference held in late October in the same Hollywood and Highland complex where the Oscars take place. The products and technical discussions at both events should help you guide the “entertainment-oriented” side of your business.

At ISE back in February, it was no surprise to see numerous exhibits where LED-module displays were featured. After all, the show is as much or more of a commercial/digital signage show as it is for the custom residential side of the business. Sony’s Crystal LED (formerly known as CLEDIS) and module-walls from many other vendors proved that they are more than displays that required a large viewing distance to offer reasonable resolution.

What was presaged at ISE for the consumer market came to pass at CEDIA. Quite a few vendors showed tight-pitch displays that could be viewed close-up and still deliver a good display. In fact, one of the products regarded by many as one of the hits of CEDIA was the joint presentation by Barco Residential and Niio that displayed stunningly bright and sharp art billed as a digital canvas.

“Seeing these displays at CEDIA, along with their use by Samsung in two prototype cinemas, shows that the industry is serious about this technology.”

Beyond that, advancements in these types of displays were shown for outdoor viewing and large-screen indoor applications. Yes, they are big. Yes, they are expensive. However, yes, they are impressive for the right client and the right application. Seeing these LED display walls at CEDIA, along with their use by Samsung in two prototype cinemas where direct-display LED, rather than a laser-scan projector is the screen, shows that the industry is serious about this technology.

This is no longer something for scoreboards or public information displays. Keep a sharp eye out on this space. By the time CES comes around you’ll be seeing more about it.

The increasing value of HDR/HLG

One item that captured much attention at both CEDIA and SMPTE was HDR. For the most part, it is almost an expected feature in mid- to high-end displays and to many it is the true benefit of UHD, much more so than the 4K resolution, itself. At CEDIA it was mostly a question of “who had it, and which flavour did they have”. Since SMPTE talks to the people to create the programs that are played on systems provisioned by CEDIA firms, what was said there was quite important.

First, given the usual comment that “format battles” are (sometimes, unfortunately) the life blood of the CE industry, it is proper top report on that side of things. Mirroring the models shown at CEDIA, HDR-10 and, to a lesser degree, Dolby Vision are the top contenders. HDR-10+ and Advanced HDR by Technicolor had nary a mention from the engineers and technology executives are SMPTE.

However, it must be noted that there was considerable mention of Hybrid Log Gamma, or HLG, jointly developed by the BBC and Japan’s NHK. HLG is likely to be the go-to HDR format for live broadcasts such as sports and special events, while HDR-10 and Dolby Vision will continue to predominate for recorded and “filmed” content where there is sufficient time to do the labour-intensive job of properly grading the images.

Thus, a quick conclusion is in order on this score: As you select displays for HDR content reproduction, pay attention to the availability of HLG functionality either “as shipped”, or added as a future upgrade.

Canon 2000 nit monitorAlso on HDR, one positive note to keep on your radar is the suggestion from SMPTE that their standards-making apparatus create a specific standard or recommended practice for calibration of HDR displays. Without going into the technical deep dive, the proposition is that there is currently no standard for the tone mapping and colour-volume mapping of a display. Thus, it is difficult to make good on the promise of using calibration to enable display-to-display matching with the monitor used for the colour grading. Remember, a decent consumer display may output about 1,000 nits. The mastering monitor, however, could be that same figure or it could be 2,000 nits from monitors such as those from Canon or as many as 4,000 nits from the Dolby Reference Monitor. Even worse, there is the problem of matching the incoming HDR signal’s PQ or HLG transfer function (EOTF) to the gamma EOTF of the consumer monitor.

Hopefully, the proposal for a standard will simplify this and make calibration more accurate. Until then, a suggestion was that, if possible, the set’s own tone-mapping be disabled before calibration. Taking it out of the signal path means that the calibration may be done without the variability of tone mapping. There is more to this that space does not permit us to explain here, but for those involved in display calibration news on the progress of a proposed standard for HDR calibration is something to keep an eye on.

8K – on the horizon?

8K may be the thing that some people see as the monster under the bed that will come up and disrupt the market just as we’ve gotten everyone on the 4K/UHD bandwagon. Nothing on that from CEDIA, but a few observations from SMPTE and a recent business trip to China.

Astro 8K Head on display at show

At SMPTE the message was mixed. Two or three technical papers were delivered about 8K cameras and other production workflow issues. Listening to them one can say that there is no doubt that it will be commercialised given the intense push behind this from NHK and the commitment for a trial launch in 2018 and a full rollout for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Indeed, while scouting the CE retail landscape in Shenzhen, China, an 8K display was prominently featured at a price that is equivalent to a bit over $10,000USD. No one could tell me if one could purchase it (and my Chinese is virtually non-existent, anyway). However, note that the program content is shown on the screen as “4K”. Clearly, demo material, let alone true native 8K content isn’t there yet, any more than there is a means of playing it back in a consumer-centric situation.

Countering this at SMPTE was a fascinating paper that dealt with the possible place for 8K content from a story-telling perspective. Boiling it down, the conclusion was that it isn’t just the fact that the increased resolution is only perceptible when the viewer’s face is almost literally up against the screen. That fact, in turn, leads to a much more “intimate” feeling that doesn’t jive with most aspects of traditional storytelling. The presenter’s conclusion is that, to his mind, 8K really doesn’t bring much to the party.

“[his conclusion was that] 8K really doesn’t bring much to the party.”

My take? It’s clear from technical papers and live demonstrations at trade shows and conferences over the past few years that the 8K train has left the station and the sighting of an actual 8K set confirms that it is real. The question, however, is even when the train is on the tracks, will anyone other than broadcasting supporters get on board? Good question, indeed. I’ll hold my opinion until next spring’s NAB, but I think you can guess the answer from here at this point.

One thing talked about in the courses and hallways at CEDIA, if not demonstrated to any degree on the Show floor, was Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). At this moment a quick survey of the market would seem to go in favour of full immersion of VR products such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR and Google’s Cardboard and Daydream.

However, listening to the presentations at SMPTE, one came away with the feeling that AR may possibly be the tortoise that wins the market race. AR is more than the current consumer-market expression of Pokémon GO. The ability to mesh physical reality with CGI content is set to create a new type of narrative experience that may well push AR to the top of the heap. NO, VR is definitely NOT going away for serious gamers, but for more casual gamers as well as those who simply can’t deal with the nausea-inducing aspect of VR I suggest that you don’t ignore AR as an up-and-comer.

One more insight from SMPTE was the strong attention to the delivery to transport and delivery of content files via IP, rather than traditional video or HD-SDI methods. While the ST-2110 standard is production/broadcast facility oriented, the demo using racks of managed switches presages additional adoption of consumer-scale “video over IP” products and systems. Perhaps the world is even turning to “trickle down” from pro to consumer is coming back, as well.

As all of this suggest, entertainment systems, and the video aspect of that in particular is far from a dead subject area. To keep ahead of the game – and your competitors – keeping up with the direction of our historical business core remains as important as ever. We’ll do our part to assist you with this going forward.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group. Follow him on Twitter: @captnvid.