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Plug And Pray

Two more AV interfaces are on their way. Here's what you can expect.

DOES AV really need another interface standard? The question is almost rhetorical because although the debate rages on, new standards continue to appear. The two latest: the Unified Display Interface (UDI) and version 1.3 of the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI).

HDMI debuted in December 2002, and the latest major revision, 1.2, was released in August 2005. The HDMI 1.3 spec should be released this month, with the first commercial products available by late summer. “I imagine that there will be some products taking advantage of 1.3 features coming out shortly after its release,” says Les Chard, president of HDMI Licensing, the Sunnyvale, CA-based association that oversees the technology. “I see a significant number of products with 1.3 features in the latter part of this year, especially in Q4.”

Like its predecessors, HDMI 1.3 supports uncompressed high-definition (HD) video and multichannel audio in a single cable, along with High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). Content protection isn't a must-have for many pro applications, such as videoconferences and company presentations, but pro gets it anyway because like much of AV today, HDMI is driven largely by the consumer side of the market.

The current HDMI 1.2 version supports throughput of up to 5 Gb/s, a cap that was chosen in order to make it compatible with other technologies, particularly Digital Visual Interface (DVI). The new 1.3 version is expected to be significantly faster, although the actual amount was still being hashed out at press time. “We're looking at increasing the speed initially about 50 percent,” Chard says.

A 5-Gb/s pipe is big enough to handle 1080p HD content and 24-bit RGB color. By going beyond the high end of today's market, HDMI 1.3 hopes to be the protocol that vendors and integrators adopt for the long haul.

“This additional bandwidth will enable us to support what we're calling ‘deep color,'” Chard says. “Currently you're looking at 24-bit RGB, which works out to about 16 million colors. The human eye can distinguish between those. There are some applications where you'll see that difference onscreen, such as in tiling.”

To help erase those differences, HDMI 1.3 supports up to 48-bit color, which translates into billions of different colors. “That's beyond the range that the human eye can distinguish,” Chard says. “We feel that that's where things are going to end up, and HDMI will be a leader in enabling that evolution.”

Something for everyone?

HDMI already has a major vendor following. “We're now at over 390 adopters,” Chard says. “Since the first of the year, we've gained 90 adopters.”

Despite that backing, there are plenty of other technologies that could one day displace HDMI. HDMI hopes to win over more of the market and build a bigger beachhead with several other features in 1.3, including:

  • Tighter PC integration — HDMI 1.3 is designed in a way that's supposed to encourage graphics-card vendors to build the technology into their products. The technology's backers also see that adoption as making HDMI the de facto standard for digital multimedia in PCs and consumer electronics applications. If that ambition pans out, it could affect pro AV by, for example, producing equipment volumes that significantly reduce the cost of HDMI technology and thus make vendors more receptive to using it.
  • Smaller footprint — HDMI 1.3 will let vendors offer a mini connector, although how much smaller is still being ironed out. A smaller connector could improve the chances of HDMI getting into more laptop PCs, where space is always limited. If that happens, then the trend could affect requirements for projectors, which often need to plug directly into laptops for presentations. The smaller connector also could be a good fit — literally — for discrete cameras, such as in a fancy boardroom.
  • More audio — With 1.3, HDMI expands its audio support to include new compressed formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD.
  • Lip sync — Designed primarily to address audio-video syncing problems with consumer products, HDMI 1.3 adds a feature called lip sync. “This allows the system to communicate the latency of each device back to the source so it can get everything in sync across the entire system,” Chard says.

    HDMI was founded by Hitachi, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), Royal Philips Electronics, Silicon Image, Sony, Thomson, and Toshiba — all major, deep-pocketed companies. Some smaller AV vendors have complained about the technology's licensing fees, which currently are $15,000 annually, plus a 4-cent royalty for each unit sold. “For small companies that ship limited numbers of products, we've created an alternative annual fee structure with a $5,000 annual payment and a $1 per unit fee,” Chard says.

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