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Attendance was off, traffic was good, booths were smaller, but there were more of them. What did it all mean?

There were a great many people anticipating this year’s running of InfoComm, and with good reason. With the AV industry experiencing a bit of a slump, many questions needed to be answered, including:

· Would there be any breakthrough products at the show?

· What technological innovations would help kick-start the industry again?

· How about the effect of lower-price pressures on flat screens and projectors?

· Is the AV industry “getting it” with AV/IT convergence products?

· What’s the attraction of the home theater marketplace?

Although attendance was down somewhat from last year (ICIA’s official headcount figure was just over 19,000), there were plenty of booths to visit with lots of products to check out.

Trouble is, many of those products were “me too” or lower-priced versions of things we’d seen before. And others were conceptual “see if it flies” products fishing around for some sort of distribution channel.

Most significantly, many of the new products being shown sell in the three-figure range, such as IP control software or Ethernet-to-RS-232 converters. That almost ensures multiple product offerings from multiple competitors in the short run! As a result, some of the booths at InfoComm looked more like those you might have seen at computer shows.

There were several trends at InfoComm 2003 worth mentioning that will have an direct impact on the Pro AV channel, including the entrance of Extron into the IP-controlled interface business and Crestron’s introduction of a video scalar/mixer/switcher product, first seen at NAB 2003. (The traditional lines between video and audio signal distribution and control interfaces are rapidly blurring!) 

Another trend was the increasing number of flat-panel product distributors, which is driving the cost of panels down faster than perhaps they ought to. Orion’s 84” 4x4 tiled plasma monitor (similar to NEC’s version) was of interest only because the company didn’t seem to have any distribution arrangement, nor could they come up with a real-world price. Expect to see more of this soft of thing as the year progresses.

And it appears that everybody (and their brother) is getting into the home theater channel. A significant part of Sharp’s booth was devoted to their consumer LCD line, and several companies (Panasonic, Samsung, Mitsubishi, Optoma, and BenQ among others) unveiled new home theater front projectors.

One result of the current AV technology ‘glut’ is that attendees need to learn more about topics as diverse as the convergence of AV and IT, and plasma and LCD technology. ICIA’s educational offerings were as strong as ever, and class attendance was excellent across the board.

Down on the show floor, the feeling seemed to be “where do we go from here?” The pro AV business has had an amazing ten-year run, and it was largely driven by the migration from CRT-based imaging and NTSC/PAL resolution to multi-scan, fixed-pixel projectors and monitors. Technologies such as digital video, LANs, HDTV, digital cinema, and wireless connectivity would pop up from time to time to keep this momentum moving forward.

Today? Everything seems to have slowed down to a crawl as manufacturers look around to hitch their wagons to a new ‘shooting star’. A combination of market saturation, technology plateaus, aggressive pricing, and generic product platforms are making it tough to be in the Pro AV business these days.

Some manufacturers seem to feel the Pro AV channel is “mined out” and that they meet largely the same customers year after year at InfoComm. As a result, several companies held dealer and rep meetings in less-costly hotel suites instead of setting up large booths, something that started happening to the fall Comdex show a few years back.

At present, only one frontier (other than the consumer market) remains largely virgin territory for this industry, and that’s the price-sensitive education marketplace. As a result, I saw many lower-priced projectors, anti-theft/security devices, and dirt-simple user interfaces. The sub-$1,000 barrier for projectors was broken by Epson, InFocus, and NEC this year, and we’ll see a bunch more of that marketing action as 2003 winds on.

Ditto flat screens! I fully expected to see a sub-$5,000 50” plasma monitor at the show (I didn’t), and await the appearance of a $1,999 42” WVGA plasma monitor later this year. There’s just too much flat panel product out there and not enough demand for it. The fact that LCD monitors can now achieve 40” and larger screen sizes will just hasten the downward price pressure.



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