A Standard to Stand On

With DisplayPort and the latest version of HDMI, AV vendors and their customers face more decisions. This month Tim Kridel looks at the impact they could have on the Pro AV market.

Another day, another interface standard. Or so it sometimes seems. Two new ones are version 1.3 of the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) and DisplayPort 1.1, which aims to replace Digital Visual Interface (DVI) and VGA. Their arrival means that AV vendors and their customers may have to rethink their options for the next few years.

HDMI supports uncompressed high-definition (HD) video and multichannel audio. The new HDMI 1.3 version supports throughput of up to 10 Gbps, which is roughly twice what’s necessary to support high-end video such as 1080p HD content and 24-bit RGB color. As a result, HDMI 1.3 provides AV vendors, integrators and users with the ability to execute a grow-into-it strategy: deploy equipment that has capabilities that seem like overkill today but might be just right in a few years – thereby delaying the need for expensive replacements.

HDMI debuted in December 2002, followed by the 1.2 version in August 2005. The spec’s current version, 1.3, was released in June 2006, followed by the first 1.3 products in November. By the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Los Vegas in January 2007, HDMI 1.3 seemed to be everywhere.

“Almost every major TV manufacturer had it on the show floor, and a lot of them said that this is how they’re going to differentiate [their products] in the coming year,” says Les Chard, president of HDMI Licensing, the U.S.-based association that oversees the technology.

HDMI 1.3 adoption on the consumer side is noteworthy because it’s being driven partly by the trend toward HD video. (An HDMI input is one requirement for vendors that want to put the European Information & Communications Technology Industry Association’s “HD Ready” logo on their products.) As HD shifts from the exception to the rule in consumers’ homes, they begin to expect in other areas.

For example, digital signage applications eventually will have to upgrade to HD as consumers develop the perception that SD or ED is second-rate – potentially creating a negative perception of the products and brands advertised on those displays. “There’s going to be a movement in signage toward high-def,” says Joe Lee, HDMI evangelist at HDMI Licensing. “We’re seeing a lot of activity in development of products that will allow industrial applications such as distribution to many displays along long cable lengths.”

HDMI could be particularly useful for pro applications that involve copyrighted content such as movie trailers, which could leverage its High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) feature. HDMI also dovetails with the slow trend toward larger displays, with the ability to drive 1440p and WQXGA. “With 1.3 doubling the bandwidth of the HDMI connection to over 10 Gbps [compared to 1.2], people are starting to use higher frame rate monitors and TVs,” Chard says.

HDMI 1.3’s key features include support for a wider range of audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. It also supports “deep color”: 48 bit, which is billions of colors, or far more than the 16 million that 24-bit RGB delivers. Although the human eye can’t perceive all of those billions of colors, the difference is still noticeable, at least in certain environments, such as retail.

“I had a chance to see a demonstration at CES, and the deep color capability improves the displayed picture quality,” says Ed Kiyoi, product manager for signal management at Merchandising Technologies Inc., a U.S.-based company. “Of course, HDTV is all about picture quality and the viewing experience. But for our applications – switching and distribution systems to support merchandising of HD televisions and other consumer HDMI products – the best enhancement is the deep color capability.”

Good-Bye, DVI

Another new standard worth watching is DisplayPort. In December 2006, several silicon manufacturers showed off their initial products, which AV vendors then would build into their gear. “We’ll see the first DisplayPort products enter the market in the latter half of 2007,” says Bob Myers, chairman of Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), which is shepherding DisplayPort.

VESA designed DisplayPort primarily at the PC market, where it would replace DVI and VGA. “It’s really driven by the needs of the PC market,” Myers says. “We’re not expecting to see a lot of consumer electronics or AV use, at least not initially. The interface is capable of that, but we recognize that HDMI is very well established in that market, and I don’t see any great motivation to change.”

Despite the PC focus, DisplayPort is likely to impact the pro AV space, too. For example, it could affect desktop videoconferencing requirements, and it could impact digital signage, where displays often are effectively monitors for a central PC. Myers agree that digital signage is a potential application even though it’s not DisplayPort’s target market. “We see DisplayPort going into any application where you’d currently see a DVI or VGA connector,” Myers says.

DisplayPort’s key features include a small, HDMI-like connector – a nod to laptops, where space is always tight – and support for up 10.8 Gbps in order to accommodate high resolutions and refresh rates, as well as greater color bit depths. (The entire DisplayPort spec is available at https://fs16.formsite.com/VESA/form608559305/secure_index.html.) Although the initial 1.1 release is fully packetized, it doesn’t take complete advantage of packetization. The 2.0 release, due out in 2008, will go a step further and use packetization to enable, for example, tiled displays.

Although DisplayPort 2.0’s other features are still being hashed out, Myers expects the data rate to double. The new version will use the same connector as 1.1 and be completely backward-compatible with it, so that will reduce change-over costs for AV and PC vendors that want to upgrade to the new spec as soon as it’s available. However, 2.0 is more than a software upgrade, meaning vendors will have to make changes at the silicon level.

[x-head]Jockeying for Market Share

As each new standard arrives, it begs a question: Which old one will get knocked out of the market?

Shipments of HDMI-enabled devices will grow 78% annually through 2010, while DVI will begin declining this year, according to In-Stat, a U.S.-based research firm that tracks the AV Market. That’s surprising, considering that DVI shipped in more than 90 million products in 2005, the most ever for the technology, In-Stat says.

Part of the reason for that outlook is that consumer electronics vendors have been building HDMI into products such as TVs, DVD players and set-top boxes for the past few years, so HDMI has incumbency and momentum on its side. Those trends bear watching because the consumer AV market is larger than the pro space, so it influences what shows up in gear aimed at commercial applications. In-Stat also predicts that DisplayPort will displace DVI and VGA in the PC market. That possibility bears watching by AV vendors and integrators that specialize in desktop videoconferencing.

A standard’s features go a long way toward determining its adoption by vendors and their customers, but royalties often play a key role, too. VESA says that DisplayPort will be royalty-free, which could help it build market share. Meanwhile, HDMI 1.3’s royalty rates have dropped from 1.2’s, which charged $15,000 annually, plus a 4-cent royalty for each unit sold.

“We lowered the annual fee from $15,000 to $10,000,” Chard says. “We did that in part [after] working with some of the Chinese manufacturers that felt it was a barrier to entry for them.”

The new royalty structure also could help HDMI 1.3 find a bigger market in the pro space. For vendors that produce small volumes of equipment – such as commercial and enterprise AV gear – the new rate is $5,000 annually, plus $1 per device.

“So far, we haven’t gotten any pushback on that,” Chard says. “We launched with this low royalty because we wanted to make this a worldwide standard.”

That strategy seems to be paying off. At the beginning of 2007, HDMI had more than 500 adopters, or about 200 more than one year earlier. “I could see us easily hitting 600 adopters this year,” Chard says. (DisplayPort, meanwhile, has about 160, which is respectable, considering that technology is barely three years old.)

That adoption helps on the market share side simply because the more vendors building HDMI-ready gear. “In 2006, there were more than 60 million HDMI-enabled devices,” Chard says. “I think we’ll do over 130 million in 2007, with an installed base of 1 billion by 2010.”

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