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CES Quick Takes: OLED, Short-Thow Projectors, and More

“Short Takes” has long been a media staple, presenting top stories in a condensed form so that they are easy to understand and digest.

“Short Takes” has long been a media staple, presenting top stories in a condensed form so that they are easy to understand and digest. On the electronic news side, a famous slogan originated by an all-news radio station in New York City sums up the notion of presenting the news in a quick take, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world!” Of course, that is not always possible, but it is a good notion when there is so much going on.

Color volume, as well as color space, was discussed as a selling point by a number of manufacturers, here by Samsung in its CES press conference.

With more than 3,800 exhibiting companies including over 600 start-ups, more than 2.6 million net square feet of exhibit space, and over 175,000 attendees, CES 2017 was almost more than one person could handle. There was news and individual product announcements across the board, from automotive to wireless, and all points in between. You’ve probably read about many of the new products individually, but what did it all mean when you look at it from a future trends standpoint?

That is the mission here, particularly in our wheelhouse of video and audio. Or, to paraphrase the radio slogan, “You give us three pages, we’ll give you CES.”

Trend #1: It’s Still OLED Versus LCD

With CRT and plasma now more or less museum pieces, the battle for market dominance in video displays, particularly for the higher end market, is now between LCD and OLED. At the lower price ranges, it is interesting to note that while LED backlighting has all but replaced the earlier CCFL technology, 720p is about all you will find in sets under 40 inches. Above 42 inches, however, it is quickly becoming a 4K/UHD world. Even though over-the-air 4K, and even widespread cable or satellite distribution of 4K native content is still a year away, the dynamics of the worldwide flat-panel and TV market is gradually squeezing 1080p out of the mainstream and off to the low-priced sidelines.

Short-throw projectors in a three-screen installation were seen in more than one CES display areas.

The debate about higher-end sets then becomes one of “OLED versus Quantum Dot.” Particularly with the remaining “tier-1” legacy brands, while some may prefer one technology approach or the other, the difference between the two has greatly narrowed. Properly calibrated, awarding the “best picture” is simply a matter of “your eyes versus mine.” For those with brand preference, CES saw the debut of OLED models from Sony, which joins LG in offering both. Similarly, Sony has also joined LG, TCL, Vizio, Hisense, LeEco, and Philips in offering both Dolby Vision, as well as HDR-10. Among the majors, Samsung remains steadfast in offering HDR-10 only.

OLED has blacker blacks. LED-illuminated LCD sets with quantum dot have an edge in brightness. Some will prefer one, some the other. Coming out of CES, the clear winner is not one technology or the other, but rather viewers.

Trend #2: Short-Throw Projectors on the Rise

While the main focus in displays is on flat panels, CES saw a continuation of the emergence of short-throw projectors as a mainstay product. Long used in classrooms, this technology is becoming more applicable for residential use, as well.

Along with a new version of Sony’s high-end 4K, laser-based model, there were more brands stepping up with both 4K and Full HD models, as well as more affordable laser-driven units. Using three short-throw projectors to create a wrap-around, immersive-gaming environment is now much easier to configure and install using short throw projectors, and it’s also less expensive without sacrificing image quality. Even better, one example at CES combined three projectors with a 65-inch flat screen below the center screen, angled up toward the gamer to create a “cockpit instrumentation” display.

Trend #3: OTA is More Important Than Ever

There are two parts of this trend. Both are aimed squarely at “cord cutters” and “cord nevers” and simplify the integration of streaming services and over-the-air (OTA) reception for those who no longer want to (or never did) pay for cable or satellite services.

Part One: While some mainstream, legacy brands promoted their own features and interface for “Smart TV” and some Sony models included Android TV, there was a definite increase in the brands and models using a standard third-party UI. TCL, Hisense and Sharp are among the brands with “Roku Inside.” Westinghouse, Seiki, and Elements led the charge for “Fire TV on board,” and Philips and Haier will soon join the ranks of sets with built-in Chromecast.

AirTV, shown here with the optional off-air tuner installed, is among the products at CES that integrated OTA with streaming.

Use of a thin optical connection cable was central to thin panels, as shown here by Samsung.

Why surrender your UI to a third-party company? It’s actually quite reasonable. The set maker is able to keep the roster of available streaming services, even in 4K, more up to date than if they had to constantly do the updates on their own. This approach also integrates all aspects of the control into a single, unified system that users may already be familiar with from outboard boxes and dongles. Even better, for sets with Fire TV, the voice-controlled remote allows the consumer to access Alexa skills.

There is a caution that with Roku and Fire TV the use of a simplified remote means that there is no separate numeric keypad for channel selection and no direct access controls beyond the basic volume and navigation buttons. That said, this approach to TV design is growing, and deserves strong consideration.

Part Two: Combining streaming service access and OTA reception in a product outside the TV was also in the news at CES. Among the most visible products for that was AirTV, a subsidiary of DISH, that offers access to a wide range of builtin services as well as access to many more through the Google Play store. Where it differentiates from similar boxes is with the option to add a companion off-air tuner so that one device provides a guide and portal to both TV and streaming content.

In a similar vein, Mohu’s AirWave combines an off-air tuner with, as one would expect from them, an off-air antenna. Combined in a single unit, it uses Wi-Fi to connect to almost every popular streaming device and app (Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, and web apps). The user is then presented with a guide that unifies OTA and streaming content without switching between sources.

Similarly, Nuvyyo’s “Tablo LIVE” antenna anywhere stick will also stream off-air content via Wi-Fi so that it, too, may be viewed on any set in the home via streaming boxes. Use of this type of product will allow for better placement of the tuner in relation to the antenna, and will eliminate the need to run coax from an antenna to every TV.

Trend #4: 8K is Coming

We’ve been talking about 8K almost concurrently with the introduction of 4K, but while the latter is in the here and now, the former remains at least two years off. Yes, there were 8K displays at the LG and Samsung booths, as well as those of many of the China-based brands. Yes, there were 65- and 98-inch flat panels that seemed close to production. Finally, with the formal announcement of HDMI 2.1 there is what appears to be a standardized way of connecting 8K-capable sources to a display. But, the reality is that we’re still digesting 4K and the infrastructure for delivering 8K isn’t even on the boards yet. Just think of the bandwidth problems for delivery of streaming 4K content, multiply it a few times, and you’ll get the idea. Oh, and don’t even ask what this might cost. Suffice it to say that the beautiful HDR-capable system you just installed will remain at the pinnacle of practical video display for quite a ways into the future.

Trend #6: Reports of Physical Media’s Death are Still Greatly Exaggerated

Yes, streaming and downloaded content continues to grow at the expense of physical media products, but vinyl continues to survive even in a high-resolution world, and DVDs, and even CDs, are still go-to distribution methodologies for both popular and specialized content. At the high-quality part of the content world, Ultra HD Blu-ray continues to grow as the ultimate way to view 4K/HDR content. Particularly given the bandwidth required for acceptable 4K streaming, there is a very good case to be made for physical media.

As Victor Matsuda, chair of the BDA Global Promotions Committee and VP of Sony’s Visual Entertainment Product Group, told Residential Systems during an interview at CES, “There is no better sidekick partner for 4K TV than Ultra HD Blu-ray.” I have to agree.

To continue to grow the market, LG and Sony showed their first Ultra HD Blu-ray players at CES, and Samsung, Panasonic, and Philips joined Oppo and the newcomers in unveiling players that will be software upgradeable to Dolby Vision to complement the current HDR-10 technology. With the broader availability of that key driver for 4K/UHD, the addition of another 250 titles to the existing 100-plus, and with software unit sales of more than two million units in 2016, it is clear from CES that physical media is NOT dead, and should be a key part of your installations going forward.

Trend #6: Color Volume will Become as Important as Color Space

You’ve heard it in the description of almost any video display: “100 percent of NTSC,” “90 percent of SMPTE 709,” “Close to Full P3,” and so forth. We’ve become accustomed to that way of describing the colors a display is capable of reproducing, and while those remain valid labels, they don’t tell the entire story. More than one brand made note of the “color volume” capability to convey the color across the entire range of a display’s brightness. To think of it another way, consider that the CIE 1931 space charts that we are all familiar with is a flat, two-dimensional representation. Take that chart and view it in a 3D manner, and see not only which colors can be shown, but how much of the colors fill the vessel.

Ultra HD Blu-ray was front stage in a number of CES displays.

A full explanation of this requires more space than we have room for here, and we’ll explore this concept more fully in the months ahead. For now, however, a key takeaway from CES is that color volume will become an increasingly important point of comparison, and you are well advised to do some research so that you can properly explain it and discuss with clients and prospects.

Trend #7: Displays are Getting Even Thinner

TV brands boasted of their “even-thinner” TVs by turning them sideways and placing them on revolving tables. Advancements in flat panel technology have made this possible, but under the rubric of “physics, it’s the law!” there is no easy way to reduce the size and physical volume of connectors, tuners, and the other bits and pieces that a display depends on.

To deal with this, at least three of the TV brands shown at CES took a novel, though not necessarily new, approach. Rather than shoe horn everything into the set, which would make it too thick, the tuner and connectors are put in separate control box, about the size of a full-sized Blu-ray player. The connection is then made via a very thin cable, typically, but not always, optical fiber.

This idea, unfortunately, presents other issues to consider. First, while the typical cable bundle is greatly reduced in diameter, at least for now you still have the AC power cable to consider. Next, this new connection cable is likely to be a proprietary system. So, be very careful about specifying how far to place the TV from the rack or wherever the source equipment is. It’s unclear if these cables and connectors will be standard or if you can cut to length. Also, the need for the external tuner/controller unit means that you now have yet one more box to hide. If the “entertainment unit” is in view, is there room for one more piece of gear? If there is cabinet work with limited space, is there sufficient shelf space clearance and air flow to accommodate one more “box?”

Finally, though video display exhibitors made a point of showing how the connecting cables blended into the room, you may well want to run them in the wall. Are these cables in-wall rated? That is just not known at this point, and I rather doubt that they are. The solution? Probably that old standby, conduit.

There was so much to see and absorb at CES that you should look beyond the standalone product announcements and take a step back. Look at how one product relates to another, what the total ecosystem implications are, and their influence on the category, rather than “Which one should I specify.” Only with that type of analysis can you get a true and useful view of “what happened at CES.”

Michael Heiss is a contributing editor for Residential Systems.