LED in higher education has a bright future

LED may not have made many inroads in to higher education projects so far, but rising demand and falling prices means that’s all about to change says Paul Milligan.

There is little denying LED has been the product on most people’s lips in the last five years in the AV world. You can’t walk 5 metres on a trade show floor without bumping into it, with product quality ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. So its perhaps surprising that one sector has remained relatively resistant to embrace the technology until now. The reason we haven’t seen much LED in education is simple enough, it’s money. Up until now it’s been financially out of reach, that’s also the reason this article will only look at higher education (HE). We are still a few years off seeing any LED at all in schools (but it will come).

As with all technology, the cost of LED started very high as it was only available from a few select companies. That is no longer the case. So with falling prices are we seeing starting to see more LED in education? “Yes, definitely. I would say it’s one of the bigger growth areas we’re beginning to see come through,” says Sukh Basi, sales director, London and South-East for systems integrator GVAV.

Darren Banks, industry development director Europe, Absen agrees, “We are seeing more LED, especially in certain applications within universities and colleges - auditoriums and lecture theatres. The first uptake we are seeing is in retrospective upgrades, but we are also seeing it with new-build campuses for universities and colleges too, for applications such as lobby displays. The cost of getting LED into a lobby to create a big display can be absorbed into the overall cost of the design of the building itself, which helps.”

If there is a rise in LED purchases, what factors can we put that down to? It’s a combination of a few things. Price is obviously one, as this example from Banks illustrates; “In universities where they’re not subject to an absolute requirement for 4K/UHD, the pricing for traditional SMD technology is not a huge amount more than a large format projector and screen would be.” Maintenance is another key issue, with LED falling far more into the ‘fit and forget’ bracket than projection. “The long term maintenance aspect of LED was key for us,” says Adam Harvey, solution architect, AV and digital media, at the UK’s University of Hertfordshire. “With our lecture theatre running 10 hours a day teaching we don’t have much time to tweak things, so it has to be working from morning to night, 365 days a year. Low maintenance is important as is the ability to swap out virtually any part of the LED pixel card, the modules, power supplies etc.”

Falling prices of LED are clearly catching the eye of HE establishments, but so is LED’s lower TCO adds Harvey; “If we did a cost of ownership study on LED we’re looking at minimum of 15 years before we start getting any degradation on it, in that same period we’re probably looking at two to three projectors, plus lenses, plus maintenance, plus all the time we need to recalibrate it, so LED just makes a lot more sense.” Brightness has always been a huge plus for LED, and is a huge reason why TV studios around the world have always embraced the technology. It seems like those benefits can also be enjoyed in larger teaching spaces too says Banks. “LED fits very well into the mindset of the users in the lecture theatre environment, one of the big benefits of LEDs is that you can have the house lights on, typically with large format projectors often the lights have to be controlled.” This benefit is not only felt by lecturers who don’t have to scramble around in the dark to find a vital piece of paper, but also by students working in modern spaces designed for collaboration.

“Our latest lecture theatre has ‘turn and learn’ seating, so you can spin around and talk to people behind you, but for group engagement you need to see each other properly, and if you’re struggling in dim lighting, it’s not quite the same. With LED we don’t have to worry about any of that, everything can run at 100%,” adds Harvey.

Another appealing aspect of LED is the adaptability of the product in comparison to other alternatives, LED tiles by their very nature are modular, and can be fitted as such. As anyone who has ever worked in a university will know, the architecture can
be 200 years old or still have wet paint on the walls, it doesn’t mean it’s receptive to the installation of AV kit. This is where LED can help. “Some lecture theatres might not have the height but they have the width, and they want to have more of a digital canvas. The only way to achieve this with sightlines from the audience in the back of the room is to widen the screen. This is another reason why the technology will be so popular in this space is because it’s digital Lego, you can make the aspect ratios to suit the requirement,” says Banks.

There was never a lack of desire when it came to LED admits Basi, “It was just the case of what was practical from a budgeting perspective. As the pricing of LED has become a bit more palatable, we’re now getting inquiries on a much more frequent basis.” Despite a growth in sales, LED still makes up a small part of the market for integrators in higher education installs Basi says. “I would probably put it around the 5% mark (of LED in total HE installs), but we have to put that into context, this summer we’ve delivered around 1,000 rooms, based on the quantity of rooms it’s around 5%. But from a spend perspective as a value it’s quite a reasonable chunk in comparison to the LFD and projection spent, I would actually argue it’s not far off competing with the projection spend.”

The 5% figure may sound small, but it shows how the high price has put off HE in the past. What it also shows is the big opportunity that lies ahead for integrators because the desire to buy LED is clearly there.The pricing of LED, a key issue to its adoption so far, is often in line with its pixel pitch. The finer the pixel pitch, the higher the cost. What is the sweet spot right now for LED in HE where price meets quality? “We’ve found 1.5mm is the sweet spot because some of the seats are right at the front of the room so the content will be looked at close up,” says Basi. “We found when you have a desktop icon app or you’re viewing a spreadsheet for example, there’s a certain level of detail needed to be seen. The only time customers maybe go for 2.5mm is if they’ve got a particularly big lecture theatre. As time goes on 1.2mm will probably become the norm.”

One key aspect in driving adoption has been the introduction of all-in-one packages from LED vendors. It is demystifying some of the myths of installing LED in the minds of buyers says Banks. “Previously LED was seen as a little bit of a black art. People sometimes panic and ask ‘how am I going to get a 162-in screen in a room?’ but we have to explain it’s modular. The all-in-one packages certainly help people understand more about LED.” Basi agrees; “Before it had to be fully designed and factored, now LG for example has a 136-in LED ready to go, everything’s built-in, it’s literally out of the box, hang it, power it up, and away you go.” It’s something other vendors such as Absen are looking at too, as Banks outlines; “The all-in-one LED market is a huge growth area for us. They are being positioned in the same way an LFD would be positioned and ultimately sold.”

The Absen packages come in different sizes (110-in, 136-in and 162-in) as a modular kit, with everything you need to install it in one package.

“We are seeing an uptake of those in smaller teaching spaces or meeting/collaboration rooms where a 98-in LCD screen is not big enough,” Banks adds. The all-in-one packages have been designed for meeting rooms and collaboration rooms, “but in reality when you’ve got 110-in seamless display that can start to cannibalise any application in a university or a college where the alternative is to buy to a 2x2 of 55-inch LCDs. It’s the same size physically (110-in diagonally) but it’s completely seamless, and it’s got a longer life.”

If LED is now being specified by system integrators, what technology is it typically replacing? “We’re seeing a migration with end users wanting to explore LED as a replacement for large format projection,” says Banks, but that is dependent on the size of the screen being asked for however. “Sub 100-in LED is not really viable yet unless it’s replacing a 98-in screen. For that level I think LED’s still got some way to go.” Big lecture theatres with blended projection are still happening says Basi, but again it’s down to money. “I’ve got customers where we’re still putting in 25,000 or 30,000 lumens projectors because they haven’t got the money to do LED, or they don’t have the infrastructure. The fact is most customers would say yes to an LED wall if they could.” Installing LED in one site can create a domino effect throughout a campus admits Harvey.

“We designed an LED wall for our engineering computer science space, but now the creative arts students have been in there they want to use it as a base for TV and filming. People are starting to get used to LED and are seeing different environments and what they can do with them. The flip side of that is some of our biggest spaces that have projection, even though we only completed them recently, are starting to look like the poor relation, you become your own worst enemy in a way.”

If LED is being specified where is it being installed within a university or college? Is it just big lecture theatres or are there other applications for LED too? “Right now it tends to be in the signature spaces of a university - the main auditorium, or the biggest lecture theatre, an area where they can hire a space out, and then you can get a return on investment as well,” explains Basi. “For us its teaching spaces and the bigger ones for lecture theatres,” adds Harvey, “But we will be using it in reception areas and foyers for signage purposes going forward.” It’s in auditoriums and lecture theatres for sure adds Banks, but he’s also seeing it in lobby areas, especially on new-build projects. Another opportunity lies ahead for medium-sized teaching areas too he says. “With any space where the requirement is for a screen above 100-in, meeting rooms, boardrooms, teaching spaces, collaboration spaces, any application where it would previously have been a 2x2 or 3x3 array of LCD panels can now be using all-in-one LED displays.”

We may only be talking about potential at the moment, but (pardon the pun) the future is undoubtedly looking bright for LED in education, as Basi explains; “LED is the biggest untapped area of technology for customers right now. We see it as a display solution for the future because of the flexibility in how you can install it and implement it. LED costs are only getting cheaper and more competitive, the market is always evolving and is forever improving so costs are always coming down and becoming more palatable.”

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