Reach out and touch: What is happening in the LED videowall market?

The world of LED is constantly evolving, Paul Milligan speaks with Samsung’s head of display UK, Damon Crowhurst, to explore the latest product trends and applications for LED videowalls.

The LED videowall market has been a fascinating one to watch in recent years, we’ve seen new entrants both big (Samsung) and small (too many Chinese companies to mention) which has helped to drive innovation but also make it one of the most competitive proAV product segments around. The result has been better quality products at lower prices, which has seen LED replace LCD displays and front/rear projection in many proAV installations. We spoke to Damon Crowhurst, Samsung’s head of display, UK, to get his perspective on what the future holds for LED products and LED applications.

Traditionally LED was popular in broadcast because the brightness of LED looks great on camera, this same appeal then led to it being used more in retail. Cost and some other factors has limited the corporate market’s take-up of LED technology, but that is changing too says Crowhurst, especially in boardrooms, where LED is taking over from LCD technology. “The videowall panel market for us two years ago was one of my significant revenue contributors. Over the last 24 months, I’d say we've seen a decrease in that market, and it's moved to LED videowalls.” Before the typical boardroom would have featured a 3x3 LCD videowall, now integrators are putting in a 110-in or even larger LED canvas, he adds.

 

What factors are at play in driving LED sales in corporate boardrooms? The answer is maybe more straightforward than you think. “First and foremost, it was pixel pitch coming down to 1.2mm, that made viewing an Excel spreadsheet feasible on an LED,” says Crowhurst. “It's a very simple thing to say but anything bigger than that and text on a spreadsheet didn't look very good.” The consistency of LED is also attractive to corporates says Crowhurst over other technologies, “With LCD videowalls all manufacturers suffer from degradation of panels as time passes and each panel declines at a different pace, and in a fairly disappointingly short space of time you’ll find your colour balancing isn't quite right. As soon as LED came along, which is much more uniform and consistent in its colour and brightness, customers were ready for it, it was just a matter of the price being right.” That last point is being addressed too, with Crowhurst adding in the last 18 months, a 110-in LED canvas has dropped in price from €65,000 down to €45,000.


TCO
Even though costs are falling, an LED wall is still more expensive to buy than an LCD videowall, probably to the tune of 1.8
times states Crowhurst, but the price is falling, and even more importantly, the lifecycle of an LED videowall is now five to seven years, against an LCD videowall panel which would need to be refreshed every three years. In recent years TCO (total cost of ownership) which was always TOUCHimportant, has risen to the top of the agenda for integrators and end users alike, and this is where LED can prove its worth. “When we start talking with the client about TCO it also plays into a dialogue we're seeing more and more with integrators where they are putting in managed service products like Utelogy for maximising the five-year value of the space in meeting rooms. That plays beautifully into using our LED videowall, which is a little bit more expensive but is going to last five or more years, and over five years is vastly more cost efficient.”

One criticism in the past was that LED videowall tiles could sometimes be fragile, but this is improving too adds Crowhurst. “LED is way more robust than it was three to four years ago. Even Samsung's Wall LED product now has a special coating so if kids bump against it or it is hit by a trolley it will be fine. The next step of that protection mechanism is from U-Touch, who as well as making touch overlays, is making non-touch overlays on LED videowalls purely from a security perspective.”

Interactivity
Samsung and U-Touch have recently become partners to provide touch overlays for LED products, so what is it about the timing that has made Samsung seek a partner like U-Touch for an LED touch solution? “Interactivity has always been a part of our products, originally it was flat panels and 46-in interactive screens, then it was 3x3 LCD videowalls with a massive overlay on top. It was inevitable that you would start to see interactive LED as narrow pixel pitch became affordable.”

What does the U-Touch partnership bring to Samsung and to Samsung’s customers? “What I think U-Touch has done differently to anyone else is in the mechanics, it has made it easy to implement and easy to support. If one LED module goes down and you’ve got a massive overlay it becomes a really annoying task to remove. The mechanics have been designed so its easy to take that module out, replace it and then put it all back together. Additionally, addressing the thermal challenges of an overlay on LED, is something that is critical to solve. That is really where their intelligence and experiences added value.”
Is the interactive LED market one Crowhurst feels will grow over the next two to three years? “Absolutely. I think the unfortunate thing is that Covid came just as we were starting to see very significant interest in interactive LED in the corporate boardroom.”

Trends
What other trends has Crowhurst seen in the LED market? The addition of a little more creativity in the retail sector could drive sales he thinks. “Post-Covid, retailers will have smaller footprints, but the experience investment will be significantly more, because in order to get you to those shopping malls and stores it's going to have to be really meaningful. Currently we don't see enough aesthetically integrated LED totems in retail, we’ll see pillars wrapped in LED, ceiling LED is going to grow too. The innovation of what LED will bring is going to be very interesting to watch in retail.”

Servicing
A key LED issue is post-sales and servicing. The market is so competitive, with lots of low cost LED walls available, so it can be all-too tempting for buyers to make savings in the budget that way. However, as many have found out, when you buy a cheap product, that cost is often made because the manufacturer has a small and/or untrained service department, unable to deal with calls it’s receiving from stressed-out integrators. “It's probably been the biggest hurdle for us,” says Crowhurst. “We have more people in our service department than most manufacturers will have in their sales department, but we have been tough on our distribution partners, as well as our integration partners. We insisted they do three-day certification training, you're not qualified to install a Samsung LED until you’ve been through the course.” Buyers can still purchase Samsung LED products without completing the course, but they must go through what it calls Samsung blue glove, “which is where our staff will do the installation, we will sign it off as installed appropriately, which makes the warranty valid.”

Getting service right was a learning process says Crowhurst, “We've been aggressively activein LED for three and a half years now, in those first 12 months we learned an enormous amount about how LED can be mis-installed, and the service cost burden that you pick up when a really great partner of yours makes a mistake, because Samsung cannot afford for that bad job to impact on a customer.” To do this Samsung has implemented its training protocols and certification courses, and during Covid has continued to run those courses remotely, with one-on-one final day sign off and training.

Its distribution partners PSCO and Westcoast are also now certified to run these courses. LED is here to stay, what will be interesting to see over the next few years is the new products that come along (bigger and bigger LED walls with touch?) and new applications (university lecture theatres?) that will embrace the technology.