On my third day walking the immense halls of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, I was amazed at the bewildering changes ahead and pondering how these may all affect our custom installation business.
The changes mainly looked like this: Bigger and brighter pictures for less money. Bigger and louder multi-channel sound for less money and a promise of full system automation for less money. 76-inch and 80-inch plasma sets featured on some booths, and higher end home theater in a box audio packages on other booths make it look like our jobs are going to get easier. Some in the paranoid camp might even say that consumers may need us less and less to set up and enjoy a stunning theater experience.
Okay, let’s all throw in the towel and get a job renting rollerblades in a seaside resort! Well, not quite so fast, I say. In fact, even though it may look like a lot of this stuff is getting easier to do, the plethora of technology choices, configuration options and ultimate quality still make it all just too complex and confusing for our clientele to deal with. That’s where you come in to save the day, explain the choices and install what they really need and what really works.
Realize that HDTV program material is really required to make all these new projectors, plasma TVs and muti-channel audio systems sing. That’s because I find that even well-transferred DVDs just don’t look that great on a large-format screen. I guess my eyes have gotten more picky with time; 480 lines with 5.5MHz bandwidth just doesn’t cut it any more. I want HDTV. I want it all the time, I want it everywhere and I want it now. But I find that most of our customers aren’t even aware of its availability, and fewer have ever seen a well-done demonstration. (Sorry, the HD demos at Best Buy and Circuit City, just don’t look good!) It is our ability to assemble the pieces into a good presentation that continues to make us relevant in the marketplace. Customers are willing to pay for that knowledge and service if we stay on top of emerging technologies and learn how to work with them.
I had been hearing of new HDTV offers from lots of sources, so I wanted to find out about all the choices at the show. Much to my delight, many exhibitors were showcasing their wares. On the atellite side, we now have Dish Network, DirecTV and ncomer Voom (offering 39 HDTV channels) up and running. Many cable companies now offer HDTV packages. Of course we have D-VHS, and now, it finally looks like we may have some real-life disc-based offerings. Several manufacturers were showing prototype samples of Blu-Ray player/recorders that can store up to 25 GB per layer, allowing video recording rates up to 36 Mbps. (Broadcast quality HDTV video is 19 Mbps.) This is a completely new hardware platform, with a blue-violet laser pickup that runs at a shorter wavelength (405nm) for higher storage density. It isn’t clear when software will be plentiful and when players will be available, but it sure is cool.
On the more “now” front, Microsoft was at the show in force, pushing Windows Media Player 9 High-Definition Video, and I have to say it looks really good. It’s particularly interesting because the format supports compression of HDTV pictures and multi-channel sound into a standard DVD at 9 Mbps. There’s no need for a major hardware platform overhaul, and compatibility is maintained. But there’s a catch. Our friends at Microsoft would like to have us believe that we all have to shift to a PC-type platform to enjoy the benefits of WMVHD, as it is known, and some of the representatives at the Microsoft booth went so far as to tel me that no stand-alone players were planned. Consumers will simply use a PC set-up with the Windows Media Center platform, and life will be grand. The problem I have with this approach is that just in writing this article, my laptop running WinXP crashed twice, and I’m not willing to specify that level of unreliability into a customer’s system.
Next, I went over to another innovator’s booth and saw a stand-alone unit that plays virtually any type of disc media, incorporates a WM9 decoder and outputs HD video over DVI and component, as well as decoded 5.1-channel audio.
This Danish company is a newcomer to the U.S. market, and is called KISS Technologies. They build OEM products for other brands too, and have, in my view, taken the right approach to the stand-alone product feature sets. Their DP-600 player includes an 80 GB drive, ethernet port for streaming A/V files from any other server device in a network, a card slot for wireless networks and a host of other cool interconnectivity features. It will play MPEG2, MPEG4, DivX, XviD and WMA files. They are working on video-on-demand sites now, and the graphic interface that I saw in the demo was very intuitive. To me, this is the way I want to see the source product in a system. It is a centralized unit that does all of the playing, sourcing, accessing, etc. for the system, and puts out a unified audio and video format so that you don’t have to mess with complex switching for every source.
Now, from the above list you can see that the choices in HD programming are already getting pretty deep, and the consumer will be overwhelmed and confused. If we stay informed of the developments, and can relay the info in simple distilled form to our customers, they will continue to see the expertise we offer and keep us gainfully employed rather than attempting to set up an HD A/V system with networked signal distribution by themselves. We’ve got plenty of work ahead, and we have really cool toys to do it with.
Anthony Grimani is president of Performance Media Industries in Fairfax, California.