04.01.16

Letter From America: Trends that Will Shape Integration in 2016

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With an old year just ended and a new year just starting it is customary to take a look back at where we’ve gone, what we’ve done, and what we’ve seen. Then, with that perspective, put things together to look forward to where we are going in preparation for some of the concepts, products and services that will likely drive our businesses ahead in 2016.

There is much to talk about, so we’ll forgo our typical and often admittedly a bit lengthy introduction and get right to the point. Do note, however, that we’re listing these trends in alphabetical order, so no inference should be made to where one item appears compared to another. With that, our “Trends From America” for 2015 into 2016. 

3D Printing: In 2015, 3D printing was taken for the most part as something for big companies to use for prototyping or for hobbyists and “maker faire” types to fool around with. With price drops and improved application suites, that is changing and we see 3D printing as maybe not something you supply to clients, but rather as a consideration that will become a standard part of the installation world’s kit box during 2016. With 3D printing it will become much easier and affordable to create bespoke parts for simple things like wall plates and parts of physical models, and perhaps to even replace parts of an object lost or broken on a job. You were able to get along without one in 2015, you may not be able to do that in 2016, particularly when the competition has one!

4K/UHD and Object-Based-Audio: Somewhat bitten by the debacle that 3D became, some on both the professional and consumer sides of the fence view Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro3D as just another attempt by the audio companies to get us to buy something new, and by the studios home theatre divisions to not only get us to buy new titles but eventually to invest in yet another remastered copy of a title we’ve bought over the years on formats often going back to VHS and Beta. And, yes, some are also saying the same for 4K/UHD. That will not be the case here, for either the new audio or video systems. Yes, the launches are considered slow and mis-managed by some. Yes, there is a relative sparsity of titles at this point on the audio side and the 4K native content is, for the most part, waiting for the delivery systems to catch up with the titles shot or re-mastered to 4K. However, what started in 2015, and even in 2014 to a limited degree, will bear fruit in 2016. On the audio side, as more features are released theatrically in these formats, the flow through to homes will accelerate. Some of that will be driven by the need to have the best audio accompany the best video for UltraHD Blu-ray. Some of it will be driven by the theatrical side. Clearly, when a demo venue is available, “hearing” is also “believing.”

However, more than anything, it isn’t the software and content that will make this happen, it will be the hardware. Moving into this year, we will have a good version of a “perfect storm” as the vast majority of the hardware you are likely to provision will have Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, speakers in a variety of configurations and installation applications will be widely available, and the encoded content will multiply through different physical/optical and electronically delivers conduits. You will no longer be able to call it “Just another thing like 3D was” in 2016. The same will hold true for 4K/UHD. With prices dropping, virtually any set you will provision will have it. With UltraHD Blu-ray coming on the scene in the first half of 2016, or sooner and with devices such as the Roku 4 as well as the apps in smartTV units facilitating 4K streaming, you won’t be able to use the “It’s 3D again” excuse. To put the icing on the 4K/UHD cake, the growth of displays and content kitted out for HDR/WCG will make the quality improvements palpable — and you won’t need special glasses to see it! The trend for both of these home theatre technologies in 2016? For that I’ll reach back to an old cliché: “Be there or be square!”

Cellular as a replacement for cable or DSL: A trend that started in the US during 2015 may pick up global steam in 2016 — telling us that “cord cutting” is not just for those moving away from traditional cable and satellite services for content delivery. According to research released in late December by the highly respected Pew Research Centre, it is happening for broadband service provision, as well! [http://pewrsr.ch/1QVC65b for the summary and http://pewrsr.ch/1TmhPmU for the full report]. Given the speed and bandwidth required for HRA audio and 4K video streaming, the need to support multiple data streams in the same residence, the need for high QoS and the issue of “data caps” we’re not necessarily suggesting that you provision “cell phone as a constant broadband source” in any application other than for travel or as am emergency backup. (Indeed, we do just that in our own home here in LA where earthquakes are always in the back of your mind.) Rather, we suggest that you understand the trend and be ready to explain, particularly to Millennial clients, why a reliable, secure and high speed source for broadband is not only easier to network throughout the home, but the way to go for a variety of reasons.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Colour Gamut (WCG): Somewhat different, but definitely related concepts, HDR and WCG saw some product and content introductions in 2015, but expect them to the big news in the video world in 2016. If 4K resolution gave our installations “more pixels”, these will be as, or in the long term possibly more important in promoting the switch to the full suite that truly makes a display “UHD”. For your system eco-systems this will come at a variety of installation costs. The continued price compression for displays will keep size-to-size pricing relatively close to today’s 4K/UHD displays, but the cost will lie elsewhere. For example, to insure that the system is capable of dealing with the requirements of 4K and HDR/WCG, make certain that all devices in the chain, particularly AVRs or surround processors include HDMI 2.0a with 600MHz bandwidth and HDCP 2.2. Do the upgrade once so that things will be capable of whatever the content world throws at us in 2016 — at least until 8K rears its head sometime later in the decade.

The Sensorization of Everything: In order to respond to conditions in a home or one’s self, something has to detect the current condition(s) and then connect to somewhere/something/someone to compare against preset norms or upper/lower limit conditions, directly to another device, to a dashboard, or, heaven forbid, to a human for analysis and response. To date the sensors are most frequently in a device that is also a controller, whether it is a connected thermostat, water-sensing irrigation controller, or a connected lockset. That trend will no doubt continue, but going forward we may see the sensor, itself, as a device that does not control something itself, but rather report and leave it to something else to analyse and react. A good example are the sensor that are part of the Ecobee thermostat in my home or the motion/heat/vibration sensors common to security systems. They “report the news”, but can’t act on it themselves; that is left to some other connected device. Why is “Sensorization” important? By adding more devices there are physical installation issues to contend with, the need for power either by PoE or hard wire, or when battery-powered, the need to physically reach what may be an embedded device on occasion to change the battery. More critically, as with any connected device, each client places on the network imposes yet additional system traffic. Is the wireless system robust enough to handle it both from a bandwidth perspective as well as when it comes to the range required to reach sensors that might be outside the range of a typical system.

USB-C: About the only thing that is a constant in our business is that it is in a constant state of change. That was true in 2015 and years past, and it will continue into 2016 and beyond. Nowhere is that more true than in the world of connections and connectivity. As analogue connections continue to fall by the wayside and connection speeds increase, new wired and wireless formats will be an important part of your world in the year ahead. We expect HDMI to remain the default audio/video standard in its current “HDMI 2.0a/600 MHz/HDCP 2.2” form until sometime in 2017. Indeed, products meeting those requirements are still just making their way to the broad market in some categories. However, DisplayPort will continue to make its presence felt in the “computer to display” area and superMHL will probably begin to see the light of day in 2016.

Increasingly, we’ll see more than a few of those connections be replaced with the new USB-C parts, particularly on computers, phones and tablets. In some regards USB-C (which is a connector and not to be confused with USB 3.1 which it can carry) will become the “Swiss Army Knife” of connections. It can carry 5 amps at 20 volts, or 100 watts, sufficient to run most laptops and other devices. It can carry MHL, DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3. Best of all, the connector is symmetrical, meaning that there is no more worrying about which side is up when connecting a plug to a port. Hmm. That’s just like the way you use a Lightning connector in either position. Apple was among the first brands to feature USB-C in a front-line product. If they wanted to they could use it in the next iPhone and iPad iterations, as well. Nah, that’s too much to wish for. That said, be prepared to both deal with USB-C across many aspects of your installations and similarly be prepared to both educate clients about it as you have to explain the need for new cables, chargers and cross-connector adaptor dongles you’ll need to deal with. On the other hand, once it gets a bit more traction it will be a daily occurrence that you’ll be happy about to ultimately simplify the many wired connections you’ll still have to deal with not only for 2016, but for years ahead.

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality: After years of promised introductions, started to a limited degree last year, 2016 may well be the “make it or break it” year for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. The ability to see created images overlaid on reality, or Augmented Reality, is somewhat assured of a place on your enterprise side for use in presentations and planning. The use of “goggles” to display Virtual Reality, totally generated images that move and change in response to head position and/or game controllers is something different. The impact is impressive, but to some it may cause disorientation at best and nausea at worst. Somewhat benign with the Google Cardboard type viewer used with a smartphone for applications such as the New York Times or totally immersive with Samsung Gear VR or the Oculus Rift and Sony VR products we’ll see in 2016.

The idea is a great one. For some clients it will sell itself while for others it will take not only explanation, but questions about ability to deal with the images and how to reproduce the sound. In other words, it has great potential but it may not be for everyone. This is one to watch for, experiment with, become an expert on, and then fashion your own plan as to how to present it, install it and the peripherals and offer instruction on its use. These are just a quick review of what we saw in 2015 and only some of the trends will have to follow in 2016. We’ll be there along the way to assist you with Letters from America to let you know it is happening on this side of the pond so that you can keep your business growing. We look forward to that!

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, or comment on his article, below.