Analog Rides Into the Sunset

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Display

Date: January 2012

By Tim Kridel, Special to InfoComm International®

If you haven’t heard of the analog sunset, the good news is you’re not alone. The bad news is, ignorance won’t be bliss for AV professionals and clients alike.

“Are we aware of it as an industry? Not as much as we need to be,” says Joseph Thomas, AVI-SPL senior design engineer. “There are going to be some sudden service calls because people are going to be experiencing things differently than they’re used to.”

Here’s one example: An HD display that’s been showing 720p or 1080p video for years one day drops to 480i for no apparent reason. The downgrade was set in motion in June 2009 as part of the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) license agreement, which aims to thwart piracy by limiting a Blu-ray disc’s or Blu-ray player’s ability to output analog video – thus the analog sunset.

Exactly how that limitation is achieved is one of the analog sunset’s many wild cards (more on that in a moment). Another is the impact. For some clients  particularly those with applications that work best at the highest resolutions  the downgrade will be not only noticeable, but unacceptable. For others, the change might provoke only some head-scratching.

“Suppose you’ve got a digital video player, and you’re coming out of an analog port on it,” Thomas says. “Today it’s outputting 1366x768 resolution, and tomorrow it outputs 480i. You’re still going to see a picture, but it’s not going to look the same. People will go around asking, ‘Does the look funny to you?’ It’s going to be one of those things that sneak up on people.”

Sunset Within a Sunset

The AACS license requirements are a subset of a larger analog sunset, which is the ongoing migration toward all-digital AV in both the consumer and pro AV worlds. So in a sense, AACS just assigns a timeline to a phase-out that was always a matter of when rather than if.

“From our perspective, most integrators may not be focused on the analog sunset itself,” says Steve Somers, vice president of engineering at Extron, which published a primer [PDF] about the transition. “Instead, they are dealing with the bigger, industrywide migration from analog to digital systems.”

(Aside from AACS, the computer industry is another market force pushing analog toward obsolescence. AMD, Dell, Intel, Samsung and LG are among the major IT vendors that plan to eliminate analog interfaces from all of their products starting next year.)

One AACS milestone was Dec. 31, 2010. As that date, vendors no longer could manufacture Blu-ray players – including those built into PCs – with HD analog video outputs. The next milestone is Dec. 31, 2013, when vendors have to eliminate analog video outputs altogether. Neither milestone represents a hard deadline, because even after manufacturing stops, vendors and resellers still have inventory they can continue to sell.

After Dec. 31, 2010, Blu-ray disc manufacturers could begin embedding discs with a Digital Only Token, which disables the player’s analog output, and an Image Constrain Token, which allows analog output but at no more than 520,000 pixels per frame. Those tokens are noteworthy for installations that need to show third-party content such as movies.

The tokens also are one of the analog sunset’s many wild cards. Some recent Blu-ray titles have them, while others don’t, partly because film studios are concerned about customers getting upset when a new disc won’t play. “I bought a Disney disc earlier this summer that does disable the movie on the HD component ports,” says Eric Snider, a senior engineer at St. Louis-based Conference Technologies who also teaches an InfoComm digital video course.

The AACS analog sunset doesn’t affect cable, satellite and telco TV set-top boxes, with one exception: Their analog outputs can be disabled for video-on-demand presentations of movies that are still in theaters.

In theory, the sunset also shouldn’t affect content that a client develops internally and thus isn’t subject to AACS. But that isn’t always the case, such as when an installation handles multiple content types.

“The content throughput will be affected by the hardware and by the HDMI licensing,” says AVI-SPL's Thomas. “One problem we’re having on some devices is that if you ever output any restricted content, it’s very difficult to get, for example, a laptop with DisplayPort to go back to full bandwidth because it does a limitation on that. We’re learning these things as we go. These issues are never going to be a simple as a hardware solution.”

Expect the Unexpected

When assessing the analog sunset’s potential impact, the first step is to determine whether the system is currently playing digital content and, if so, whether that's the case systemwide or just via some displays and projectors. The next step is to trace the signal paths to identify junctions that could block the analog stream from going any farther. That sleuthing gets complicated in large-scale systems.

“There are so many caveats,” says AVI-SPL's Thomas. “It may be something as unusual as something going through a transcoder in a distribution system, with the constraints on the conversion causing a problem with distribution somewhere else downstream. The analog sunset may affect one device in a system and not another."

Mapping the distribution is even trickier if the system was expanded over the years or it was built by multiple integrators. Even more legwork is necessary when the client has added players to a system that an integrator built years earlier. Those clients will be surprised when they bring in another set of Blu-ray players and either get SD video or no video at all.

The point of creating an analog-sunset checklist is to avoid those kinds of surprises. In fact, by identifying affected installations before clients do, integrators come across as proactive in the eyes of clients. And as crass as it might sound, that outreach also is a sales opportunity, as was the case a few years ago when owners of 700 MHz wireless mics faced a similar regulatory sunset. One place to start is with high-profile, high-value clients, or those whose mission-critical applications will be affected by the analog sunset.

“My advice is, go through your client base and find out who’s got what and at least warn them,” Thomas says. “It’s the only responsible thing for us as an industry. They’re probably not going to like it when you call, but they’ll like it a whole lot better than if they discover it on their own.”

Some clients inevitably will balk at the prospect of having to replace equipment that’s currently working fine. To help overcome cost-related objections, some vendors and integrators offer trade-in programs. For example, New York-based integrator BBH Solutions is offering up to a 100-percent credit toward a Crestron DigitalMedia system. For clients with a tight budget, another option is to do digital upgrades in stages.

“They don’t have to go all-digital all at once,” says Jeff Singer, Creston’s director for global marketing campaigns. “We have input cards for every signal type that exists. You can load it up based on your current system requirements, and as you upgrade or change your system, you just swap out cards. You could have a combination of analog and digital inputs. Everything gets normalized to HDMI at the other end.”

Then there’s the challenge of working in an all-digital environment. For example, there are more than a dozen different embedded signals in HDMI, and the most prominent ones  EDID, HDCP and CEC  can cause issues if they’re not managed properly. 

“Every single connection point is unique,” Singer says. “There is no standard or common response or handshake. These are all unique.”

To minimize those kinds of problems, some vendors are playing up their ability to provide firmware updates based on real-world installations. Crestron, for example, says its 13,000-plus digital media installations so far translate into more than 130,000 unique connection points, learning experiences that it’s plowing into firmware updates.

“There are 130,000 issues that you’ll never run into because we already did it,” Singer says.

If you have questions or experience in dealing with analog sunset issues, join InfoComm’s new Analog Sunset Group on LinkedIn and get in on the conversation.