Letter from America: What are We Selling?

When we last addressed the topic of voice interface and control in our post-CEDIA Letter, Google Home was not yet available and all the buzz then was on the combination of the compatible hardware for Amazon Echo and the skills it enables.

Since then Google Home is available (at least in the US), and I’ve also attended the annual Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) Technical Conference. Finally, I’m still recovering from the fun of the annual Black Friday insanity; an American custom that seems to now have (unfortunately, for those in retail) spread to the UK and beyond.

While these three things may not seem to have much in common, upon reflection they raise a question that may help you guide your business to success in the year ahead.

The question: As custom market specialists/designers/integrator just what are we selling? To whom, and for what intended use and benefit to the customer client? To some extent the answer might sound obvious: you assess a prospect or client’s needs, you educate them about technologies and services that they may benefit from but which they do not know about, design a system that fits in their budget and which satisfies their stated RFQ requirements. If you get the sale, you then configure, integrate, install the system and hopefully get a contract to maintain and upgrade the home ecosystem going forward.

Easy enough, but what the three items mentioned at the beginning of this Letter point to is a few ideas that might alter your thinking about just what we sell, and how to sell it.

Take Google Home as an example. For those reading this outside of North America, you can’t offer it yet, but one presumes that you are familiar with it as a competitor to Amazon’s Echo, Tap and Dot. When Home started shipping here in the US early in November, the popular press and the blogosphere were filled with reports and YouTube videos questioning the two competing units to see which one could best answer a series of questions. That’s fine, but for us, what does it mean? What does it prove?

A Google Home and both an Amazon Echo and Dot sit right here on the desk. After having everyone who comes into the office ask a variety of questions, the initial answer to “Which is better? Which should I sell? Which should I recommend?” is definitely a mixed bag. Both answer some queries, one, but not the other are able to answer some questions, and in some case neither could help.

Fast forward to the American Thanksgiving holiday. You know, the one that comes the day before Black Friday. Putting an Amazon Dot in the kitchen we could play music that varied to the taste of who was in the room, set multiple timers for various things in the ovens, turn on (or off) some of the lights and tell the thermostat to make it warmer or to turn off the heat. At this point in time, Dot could do all of that, but Google Home can’t control the devices in the house…yet.

From that reasoning, one might say that Amazon’s products are what we should sell. Perhaps, perhaps not. Let’s turn to Friday, when your intrepid correspondent braves the crowds and searched, sometimes unsuccessfully, for a close parking spot. From an economic perspective, although the sales results are not in as this is written in late November, it can be reported that the checkout lines are equal to, or even a bit longer than they have been in past years. Let’s just say long enough that my purchases were put aside given the “wait time vs. discount” equation.

While scouting the sales floor of the only remaining nationwide chain devoted to a full array of consumer electronics products we found two things that could influence what you sell and how you may wish to sell it. First, it was interesting that the stand-alone Google Home display was totally bare; without knowing how much of that was due to a price discounted from $129 to $99, vs. $179 down to $139 for Amazon’s Echo is not clear. Quite frankly, the Amazon Dot at $39, down from $49, was the better bet. Indeed, so much so that I bought one, albeit by telling my own Echo to purchase one directly at the Black Friday price without waiting in any line.

Heiss_BB Home EmptyOne of the reasons why the Google Home display may have been empty was due to a Millennial-aged couple encountered in the “Smart Devices” aisle. Knowing that this article was in the works I asked them why they picked Google over Amazon. To them, having their four-year old son ask Google all the questions a child constantly has at that age was important, and they thought that the Google search engine was better. (For the most part, that, along with the contextual search capability, is something concurred with here.)

As they looked at the smart bulbs, thermostats and similar on display I asked if they thought that home control was important the answer was interesting. “Yes”, they said, but quickly adding “not now”. When I ‘fessed up that I’m “in the business” and explained that Amazon’s products are able to work with considerably more devices at this time, they were undeterred. “We trust Google”, they said, adding that they felt that when they were ready to add more devices Google would either be ready or would make available the wherewithal to allow someone to customise things for them. (Are you listening out there? That’s YOU!)

Call it a draw, if you will, but don’t think of this as a lesson of which products you offer, but rather what your client base might want and what they expect you to do other than just move some boxes and connect them.

Looking through the ads for Black Friday sales, as well as online for Cyber Monday, perhaps the most popular item remains televisions. Phones, tablets, DSLR and “action cameras” and video game hardware and software are important, but if there is one thing that gets people out in line one, of not two, days before is a great deal on a TV. Granted, the low priced, “limited quantity available” models in the circulars are typically not what you’d sell in a custom environment, but what is in the stores and what people are shopping for is very instructive.

First, a look at the ads and in-store displays reveals that 4K/UHD is clearly taking over all sizes above 40in. The pace of adoption is much greater than we saw at this point in the time line for the analog/CRT/SD to digital/flat panel/HD transition. There is, however, a divergence that points to what people see, literally, when they view sets of different sizes.

Between 24in. and other sizes under 40in. it is interesting to note that there are still a significant number of models that are “only” 720p. Perhaps because it is the manufacturing cost that creates a vacuum for smaller sized 1080/”Full HD” sets in the smaller sizes. Then again, if consumers demanded Full HD, one can be certain that the brands would deliver them.

What does this tell you? Perhaps the acceptance of 720p in smaller, price aside, means that they are used in situations where the viewer is far enough from the set that the added resolution just doesn’t provide and measurable difference.

That same rubric has been used frequently with regard to UHD/2160p sets. “If you don’t sit real close, it won’t make much of a difference”, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

That’s true to some extent, and it has given rise to the benefits of High Dynamic Range (HDR) as part of the UHD experience in service to promoting not just “more pixels” (4K), but also “better pixels” (HDR and Wide Colour Gamut) and “faster pixels” (high frame rate/HDR). Together, the whole package gives you a very compelling reason to offer and integrate not only 4K, but higher priced HDR models, as well.

We’ve been a proponent of that, but even as there were some HDR sets and HDR sales kiosks in the stores on Black Friday, the clear majority of 4K sets were not HDR. Selling those sets on more than just price on Black Friday and beyond brings up our third experiential message for this month.

One of the more interesting papers at the SMPTE Conference was titled “Beyond the Limits of Visual Acuity - The Real Reason for 4K & 8K Image Resolution”, by noted Engineering Consultant Edward Reuss. One of the main propositions he put forward was that “the point of television is to see the image, not the pixels.”

In other words, again, in Reuss’s words, “Making the pixels too small to perceive them permits: Filtering image artifacts while not degrading the image quality [and thus] preserving the suspension of disbelief…”
In non-technical terms this means that it isn’t just the resolution, itself, but the way that it interacts with the human vision system. By helping to reduce spatial artifacts the viewer sees a significant reduction in “jaggies” and other similar issues. How can you see this in a way that a technophobe viewer can understand? Think of a three-quarter shot of a tennis court. Point out that in a 1080p set you will common see uneven stair-step or jagged edges across the lines and the patterning of the net will not be completely distinct. In 2016p (4K) the lines will be much straighter and the net will be crisp and clear as it is in real life. This is something that is unrelated to viewing distance; you can see it no matter where the viewer is in relation to the screen.

For the lower priced, smaller screen, sets on sale on Black Friday and particularly for front projectors, where HDR is not yet common, this technical nugget can help explain our premise as to not only why we sell this stuff, but the increased benefit it brings to the user. Yes, while chatting up folks in the store during the midst of the shopping hysteria, people still wondered aloud about the value of 4K/UHD, particularly if they could not afford the added cost of HDR. This simple explanation clearly answered their queries.

Please don’t mistake this as an assessment that there is no value in HDR. There very much is value, and even in his SMPTE presentation Mr. Reuss agrees there is, but without the benefits of 4K resolution they may be compromised. Where the customer’s budget allows, by all means sell 4K/UHD and HDR. However, when it doesn’t, don’t let them back out of 4K; it adds to the total viewing experience in a palpable manner.
At the end of the day, all of this tells us that sometimes the rational for what products you carry, to whom you sell them and the way in which you make your sales argument is not always apparent. Sometimes it requires argumentation counter to what people hear in the popular press and blogs, as may often be the case in voice search and control. Sometimes one must fly in the face of popular opinion, but as in the case of selling 4K in smaller sized, non-HDR sets, that is easy to do if you have the proper information. We encourage you to look for other similar bits of background that help justify your line card and sales approach.

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.

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