Published in December 2004 IT/AV Report

HD: The Pieces Are Coming Into Place
By Scott Lehane

Consumers are driving the market, putting downward pressure on costs.

Atlanta-based Waveguide Consulting designed this dual screen, 150-seat auditorium for Emory Crawford Long Hospital.
From the central control suite, Emory can route HD signals all over the world via satellite.

      As high-definition TV sets begin to make a dent in the consumer market, there’s a growing downward pressure on costs, making HD more and more affordable and opening up a range of niche markets and applications in the corporate, commercial, educational, medical, point-of-sale and digital-signage markets. Whether it’s in public spaces, where the pristine, wide-screen image of a high-definition display can really have the most impact, or private spaces such as corporate boardrooms where CEOs’ expectations are rising, HD is definitely here to stay.
     According to the most recent statistics from the Washington-based lobby group, the Consumer Electronics Association, more than 10 million digital television sets have been sold in the US since 1998 and sales are rising rapidly. Through May 2004, unit sales saw an 85% increase compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters reports that 1307 TV stations currently broadcast a digital signal in some 208 markets.

Learning Experience
     The “build-out” for those stations has meant a lot of work over the past three years for contractors and systems integrators, giving them a chance to learn the technology inside and out in one of the most demanding applications, before taking it out into the commercial market.
     But ironically, many feel that this is a technology that it being driven from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
     “I think what will happen is that, as more CEOs and decision-makers have HD in their homes, they’re not going to understand why they don’t have it in the boardrooms, or their conference center, or meeting facilities. It’s similar to what happened in the early/mid-90s when CEOs started to put rear-projection TVs in their homes along with laser disc players and surround sound; they suddenly wanted to up the quality in their boardrooms,” said Scott Walker, president of the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA), and president of Atlanta GA-based Waveguide Consulting. “So in some odd ways the home market, because of its commoditization and ability to drive down prices, can raise the expectation levels in the professional AV market, when you’d think it might be the other way around.”
     One of the most complicated HD projects that Walker’s Waveguide Consulting has faced was a complete HD distance-learning system for Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. The University wanted to outfit its Caryle Fraser Heart Center with a state-of-the-art training tool for remote and local audiences to study the types of cutting-edge medical procedures developed at the center.
     The system employs two 1080i HD cameras capable of broadcasting from any one of 10 catheterization labs and operating rooms on campus.
     “All of these rooms feed HD video from the two cameras as well as audio back to a high-definition production environment, so they go through a large router and then any signal can be run through the HD production switcher and sent out to a number of different audiences,” explained Walker. “When we’re talking about shuttling between the ORs to the production room, it’s all over single HD SDI cables. When we are shuttling between buildings, it’s all over a dedicated fiberoptic cable so we’re doing all sorts of conversions.”

Production Hub
     From the production hub, the school can feed several classrooms and auditoriums within the facility, as well as remote locations via a local satellite uplink in Atlanta.
     “A large group of people can interact with the physician and ask questions as they’re going through the procedure, so there is a range of audio and video return options. A doctor who’s watching from a foreign country can be talking to the cardiologist during the procedure, saying, ‘Why did you choose this particular catheter?’,” Walker explained. “What was very challenging about this was that we had to mix into this HD landscape all the different types of telemetry that these doctors are using to monitor vital signs—things such as fluoroscopes and echocardiograms. We had to turn those into signals that could be recognized by the types of routing and switching gear that we have in our industry.
     “These are very highly specialized devices with strange output resolutions and strange cabling topographies. We had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to turn those into 1080i signals, and jump through a lot of conversions, so it can all come up on the same Snell and Wilcox Switcher and look like it’s just another camera.
     “In addition, we had to know all the normal AV things, because a typical case might have a doctor in an auditorium who’s facilitating the case study and he needs to go through a PowerPoint. He may have a document camera; there may be other media such as a DVD he wants to show. All of this has to be turned into HD, so it can be sent out to remote audiences.”
     The company is building a similar system for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and works in a range of vertical markets including government, education, corporate, health care, conference rooms and convention centers.
     Walker reported that, although growth in HD has been slow, it is starting to catch on. “There are certain leading-edge applications such as themed entertainment, high-end experience market that benefit greatly from that signal quality. And certainly, I think the museum marketplace is another key market.”

HD Growth in Signage, Retail
     Kevin Groves, COO of Minneapolis MN-based Alpha Video, a leading digital video systems dealer, integrator and provider of corporate digital video services, reported that his company is seeing growth in HD for digital signage and point-of-sale displays. “We have about 20 people dedicated to digital signage in a lot of different spaces, including retail, education and corporate entry-way technology, as well as corporate communications among employees, call-center staff and things like that,” he said.
     “We’re seeing a lot of additions of LCD and plasma screens in point-of-sale applications, corporate greeting areas and waiting areas. We’re also seeing it in more public areas of larger companies where they’ll want information displayed about their organization,” added Groves. “On the digital-signage front, we have many companies trying to spread information among employees in multiple locations and they’ll put in a little larger screen than the standard TV set. But, of course, a lot of those solutions are a little expensive still, so they’re catching on slowly but surely.”
     Groves reported, however, that, for many of these applications, it’s not necessarily HD that clients are looking for today, but rather 16:9. “There are certain corporate image spaces where they would really like to see HD content displayed, but even in meeting rooms or in newer areas that are being developed and installed, they’re looking for products that are HD capable. It’s not that they’re necessarily going to be using HD content today, but they want to be prepared because they have planned for that type of content in the future,” he explained. “What they are looking at is 16:9 aspect ratio content, but that doesn’t necessarily mean HD.”
     But it is considered a major stepping stone toward HD, and nowadays if you’re going to spend the money on technology, you might as well go for something that will last for awhile. Indeed, this need to “future-proof” capital investments often becomes a primary concern for any new installations or even retrofits. And that is driving the overall architecture toward more of an IT-based system than the traditional AV-centric network.

More IT-Based Systems
     “We certainly continue to do standard AV and RF video line integration, but we’re seeing a lot more IT-based systems, and a lot more IT implementation on the type of stuff we’re doing,” said Groves. “We’ll see situations where there are servers for each display, or a server that provides content for multiple displays, or a centralized server for content that then spreads that content out to individual playback devices that are on the edges. There are some displays out now that have built-in PCs, which help playback, but when you’re looking at full video playback, some of those smaller PCs that are on the edge built into those appliances may not have the kind of storage you want, depending on the kind of quality of the video you want to have.”
     “It’s certainly being held back by cost. It’s not at that mass-market level where the cost benefit is reachable by enough clients, but it’s becoming a no-brainer to put the HD infrastructure in place: Build it in so they don’t have to rip out cables or pull new cables in short order,” added Waveguide’s Walker.
     But often the content just isn’t there to support the technology and the images presented are simply upconverted standard definition images.
     “Many of the rental companies are renting video scalers right and left for that particular reason, and that has been a very cost-effective solution for a lot of these guys right now. And you can’t blame them,” said Chris Miller, executive director of PSNI, a nationwide conglomeration of some 79 owner-operated affiliated systems integrators, consultants and contractors. According to Miller, the problem with HD is that people still aren’t quite sold on the idea of paying a premium for pixels.
     “They’ll pay a premium when their customers will pay a premium. In essence, what moves production to the next level is client need, and what clients will pay for and what clients demand. When clients demand something better than SD, then they’ll move up.”

HD gives doctors in remote locations an unprecedentted view of cutting-edge procedures being developed at Emory Crawford Long Hospital.

HD Production vs. Upconversion
     For Miller, until the corporate production market converts, the amount of HD content available will be limited and upconversion will be the norm.
     “It’s still a little premature for video facilities to purchase a lot of HD acquisition equipment yet, especially on the corporate side, because a lot of the equipment that they currently have is putting out excellent pictures and they just haven’t had the need to upgrade to HD yet,” Miller explained. “We’re very optimistic that that migration path will take place, but for now it’s very slow to come into place.”
     He stressed, however, that even if clients aren’t prepared to pay extra for HD displays and servers today, it’s important to keep it in mind for the future when designing networks and leave plenty of headroom.
     “I think the IT folks are being very astute in continuing to leave more bandwidth out there, and at this point we’re not taking all the bandwidth they’ve got,” said Miller. “They know that the signal is just going to take more and more bandwidth and they have to be prepared accordingly. And you’re also finding much of the networks that are in place, certainly in the corporate and education area, are being managed by the IT groups rather the traditional AV groups and they’re always looking to have more bandwidth than they actually need, not just to allow for increased video quality, but for any type of graphic needs.”
     For Walker, HD opens up a whole new set of dilemmas for clients, and creates a need for ongoing customer support.
     “How does an owner handle all that flexibility? These are some of the challenges we’re facing in terms of how we lay out the structured cabling plant to prevent them from making mistakes or just being confused,” said Walker. “There’s a growing need for ongoing support and our company is providing that support to several of our key accounts now. On large projects, many times the owner needs more staff because quite often [existing] staff doesn’t grow even though the amount of technology it’s managing might be growing substantially, such that there is a need by the AV professionals, we believe, to continue to offer support in the long term—to help them understand how their system can grow. We have the knowledge of what we intended and designed at the time.
     “When it comes to HD, the needs are so much more delicate that we can’t just assume that the HD signal is going to pass if we just use a standard structured cabling patching in the data closet,” he added. “HD is just a whole other level of concern.”

Scott Lehane is a New York-based journalist and documentary film producer.

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