Tobias Lang Of Lang AG On How Our Understanding Of Screens Is Evolving
August 22, 2023 by Dave Haynes
Germany’s Lang AG is a family-owned and run business that has developed through the years into one of the larger and more influential players in the pro AV market – operating as both a supplier for rentals and staging market, as well as a distributor for systems integrators.
The company is run by Tobias Lang, who based on a couple of chats, clearly has both passion and deep knowledge of the sector, business demands and both the state and opportunity of emerging display technologies.
We had a 30 minute-plus conversation that flew by, getting into a bunch of things – including the potential for a projection systems, which these days don’t get anywhere near the attention of LED displays.
We also spend a lot of time talking about LED, and how he thinks that technology isn’t necessarily supplanting LCD. From his perspective, he thinks LCD and LED technologies are actually merging. Have a listen and he’ll explain.
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Tobias, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown of what your company is all about, what it does, and its background?
Tobias Lang: Yeah. Thank you, Dave. Lang AG is a video-only company, which is doing only B2B, which means we cover both verticals, which are rental and staging and system integration.
We supply mostly the European rental and staging market with big projectors, LED screens, cameras, converters, whatever you need in video, and as a distributor, we supply both rental companies and system integrators with the staff of the manufacturers we work with such as Epson, Panasonic, several LED manufacturers to supply the modern technology to them in a good way to consult them, which is fitting to each other.
What amount of your business would you describe as being involved in digital signage?
Tobias Lang: First of all, if you look at the turnover of Lang AG, we do have companies in Switzerland, Spain, the UK, and Germany, which is the biggest. Germany did more than 80 million last year, and 60% of this is done by sales. If you look at digital signage, which is part of sales, this is a significant number, maybe 15 to 20% of our business.
The business itself is in the orbit of Cologne, that area?
Tobias Lang: Yeah, we are spotted in the western part of Germany. We have everything in Germany in one warehouse, as we have in Zurich, Switzerland, Barcelona, Spain, and London, UK because it’s very important for our customers to have the opportunity of a one-stop video strategy.
How long has the company been around?
Tobias Lang: We are now 45 years old. My father, when my brother was born, said, “Hey, I have three kids now. I should start something serious.” He founded a company in 1978 without any other ideas because he loved stuff like projection at this time. With the evolution of technology, we ended up being where we are today.
Were you groomed to run the company one day or were you doing other things and decided to go into the family business?
Tobias Lang: I worked for the company as a child which is typical for a family business, then I tried to step away a bit. I studied mathematics. I founded a software company. I did some interesting things.
This stuff is still existing and I still have my chairs, but at one point, I decided that it was a great opportunity to join the family business Lang AG and to be honest, this was maybe one of the best decisions in my life. I love what I’m doing.
That always helps, doesn’t it?
Tobias Lang: It does, yeah.
Is there a particular market where you’re seeing a lot of activity right now and is it evolving?
Tobias Lang: Over the last two years, this immersive art experience vertical projection was said to be dead or going down five years ago, ten years ago, and what we were able to see over the last months is that projection is growing, and we enjoy this because we love projection and this is based on all these immersive experience setups which are done worldwide mostly based on art, but we believe other verticals can follow.
So these are effectively entertainment venues?
Tobias Lang: So far, yes. But we believe that corporations will use similar setups for brand experience and stuff like that.
I’ve been to at least a couple of those venues, they work because they’re darkened, they’re purpose-built and you can control the lighting and everything else.
When you get into a corporate environment, that becomes more challenging but is the technology catching up in terms of laser light brightness, the projection engines getting smaller and detached, the projection head being away from the rest of the equipment, and so on?
Tobias Lang: This is a challenge for sure, but if you look at most installations, most of the projectors are around 10,000 lumens, and you could use brighter projectors, and there are opportunities from the technology side to set up even brighter projectors than we have today. The brightest projector at the moment for the event market or the integration market is 50,000 lumen. You could easily go above.
It’s a question about the demand, how much it will rise. But, I believe we will see this too because if you look at the Pavillion of Dubai Expo, 2/3 of these pavilions used projection over LED because of the flexibility of the technology. LED is a strong technology and a strong growing technology, but there will always be room for projection because of its flexibility. For example, the setup time of a projector, don’t underestimate that.
Yeah. It used to be for projection mapping and edge blending and everything else. That was like a lot of work and a lot of mathematics and everything else, and now you can do it in software quite quickly from what I understand.
Tobias Lang: Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s true.
Yeah, makes a huge difference. The thing I like about projection is the way it can just arrive and be unexpected versus if it’s fixed hard physical displays, you know that there’s something there in most cases with the exception of places like the Comcast Tower, but the projection, you can have a wall that all of a sudden is a digital canvas.
Tobias Lang: Yeah, and our understanding of the word, “screen” will change.
Mapping is a good example, we use buildings as screens. Decades ago, we had a television at home and this was the screen for us, and yeah, we see changes happening and we see different dimensions of screens and in this flexible world, we will use projectors more. But in our world, we’ll be LED, and we’ll be covered with some kind of display, but where we don’t have a display, we could add a projection screen to add some value.
Is the partner reseller market and as well as the end user market getting more sophisticated, do they understand this technology more or is part of the role of your company doing education and holding their hand?
Tobias Lang: I think it is both. This is always about technology that has different layers. First, you have to train the experts. You have to give an understanding of the possibilities, and then you need to set up a discussion about opportunities for creative people, and then demands rise, and there’s some latency in this process as you could feel from the immersive art experience and the change to other verticals, and I believe that they’re by nature and you can’t change it.
From what I saw on your website, you have a lot of technical people on board. People who can pull apart devices and get down to the board level with them and everything else. Is that a bit unusual?
Tobias Lang: I wouldn’t say this is unusual. What may be is unusual that we have technical staff who can decide every single day what they want to do, because of some service and stuff like this, it’s necessary sometimes, but we drive an R&D team, which is absolutely free to make a choice of what they believe is important for us tomorrow.
The market expects us to give feedback on future technology and therefore we have to look deep with our partners into product planning and technology, and this is what we love, and I think that’s within our organization, a great job opportunity if you join one of those teams.
So when you say you’re doing R&D, you’re not coming up with your own products, I assume, or am I getting that wrong?
Tobias Lang: No, we are not a manufacturer, but we have to set up solutions sometimes. So what we try to do is, we add value to a product. For example, in the US market, most people know us as the cage company, as we did all the projector frames. They almost thought for a while, this is our business.
What we did, in reality, is that we looked for a solution for our projectors to use them in rental, and we added a mechanical solution on top. For other products, we add batteries as a solution to run wireless. Now, we added some drone business because we believe if you’re strong in mappings and you supply media servers and high-brightness projectors to the markets, you should cover the pixels in the sky in the future too.
It also means you’re future-proof.
Tobias Lang: Future-proof is a hard word. Let’s say we are interested in the future, and how it will go.
Yeah, I guess you can never be totally sure because it moves so fast.
Tobias Lang: That’s true.
I would assume that when you’re doing all this value-added engineering work, it’s in part that in order to service a customer and address a project, you can’t wait on the marketplace for the suppliers to just develop something and put it on their roadmap to serve your needs.
Sometimes, you must do it yourself to make it all happen.
Tobias Lang: You have to bring together the information of the need of the market on the one hand and the possibility of, what’s on the technical side thinkable on the other hand. So we have to bridge between our customers and the manufacturers, and it depends on the demand or the project.
To be honest, in the first project, you understand the need, but the solution is not available yet. But you learn from it to bring it back to the discussion of product planning, and future roadmap, and then you can return with the right solution for the future because if there is a need in AV for a solution, this will hit you a second, a third time and so on.
Are you in front of end-user customers at all, or your team, or is that something that you stay at arm’s length?
Tobias Lang: We try, and I believe we are mostly invisible. Most of the end customers in the European market have no clue that we exist. If our customers rent material from us, it’s just a gray case without any brand of Lang AG.
I assume that your business partners prefer it that way, they want to own the customer?
Tobias Lang: Yeah. We always say we are behind, we let the show to our customers and I think those who like this come back to us and we understand this as one of our values.
When we were talking ahead of turning the recording on, you were talking about one of the things that your firm does is you work hard to try to forecast what will be possible and what matters and what the need is of the marketplace. That has to be challenging just because of the way technology shifts, and also, there are so many different factors as to what the marketplace wants including, the war in Ukraine and supply chains and everything else that has happened in the last couple of years.
Tobias Lang: Yeah, around 10 or 15 years ago, it was much easier to drive a mid-size family business.
But today, with the experience of a pandemic, of such a war influencing the supply chains, you have to make sure that you have an understanding of the global world and the effects which are happening for your industry. So we try to be in shape around this. For the actual situations, we handle this quite well. It is easier if you always love to ask yourself what’s new, and what’s next, because, then you are flexible and agile enough to change fast.
Some of the trends that I’ve been hearing a lot of discussion about are moving manufacturing out of China into other countries, having storage warehouses, different methodologies for shipping, and everything else.
Has that been critical with the weather the last two, or three years?
Tobias Lang: I wouldn’t say critical, but it is part of the game. This is mostly a discussion around LEDs, and in the end, you have to understand that even if you produce an LED panel in Europe, there will still be parts that will be supplied from Asia.
So it’s only bringing the challenge to different classes regarding customs rules. It is a bit about politics because it depends on what the European Union will change in the rules of customs, I think there is a similar story in the US.
When I was at the Munich Digital Signage Summit Europe, one of the areas that was discussed quite a bit was green signage and sustainability. Is that factoring into how you do business?
Tobias Lang: Yeah, a lot, and this is rising fast, and I believe there’s no stopping it. So it will continue to rise.
In every single supply chain, you will have to report what you do regarding sustainability. You will have to explain yourself in the future much more intensively, much more often how you face this challenge. As a company, it’s very important that you have to accept these circumstances and then you should work on it.
Energy management and conservation and cutting energy costs were something that was around prior to the Ukraine War and everything that kind of bubbled out that, but has that really heightened in the last year and a half?
Tobias Lang: Yes, there is a different pace of this change. I’ll give you an example.
Last September, there was a new rule by the European Union that all signage displays had to be turned off in Germany between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, and most LED screens were never built to be turned off, so they just used a black image to be turned off. But in reality, they were still running.
So this was a challenge, no one was prepared for and I think it’s sustainable and good that we now have the discussion of how to manufacture an LED screen, which is easy, honestly speaking, that you can turn off every day.
Yeah, I didn’t even know that until I was at the Munich thing, because you just assume it’s a display, there’s an on-and-off. Why is it difficult for them to be turned off and then turned back on gracefully?
Tobias Lang: Honestly, in most installations, those screens were done modular, which is no surprise because it’s cheaper in transport, and then you set up the screen, and you do some kind of dressing, and not all screens understand the dressing once you turn the screen on.
The result is if you turn the screens off, you can turn it on again. You need to have an LED Technician too, because the dressing is no longer working. These are just simple things, but this is a different way of thinking because, in the past, people were consulted to let the screen runs.
And are there workarounds? Is this all being addressed?
Tobias Lang: Yes, there are some workarounds out there. There’s a lot ongoing and I believe this story will be done in 12 to 18 months completely.
It is a learning curve, and it also shows the strengths of our industry that we can adapt fast. We can do a lot regarding sustainability because we can save energy quickly if we focus on the right questions. In an absolute way of thinking, we are maybe not the greenest industry, but in relation from year to year, we improved so much that we can be proud as an industry of what we are doing.
Is it a hardware fix that puts an intermediary device, or is it a software fix, or is it like the new generation of Nova Star controllers and so on that will get around that?
Tobias Lang: So, in the first step, it is a hardware fix, what is done now, and in the second step, it will be mostly a software fix.
One of the things that I read in another article that was attributed to you was, and we were talking ahead of this discussion, you were saying how LED and LCD will merge, and I was thinking it kind of is because LCDs are using LEDs as their backlighting and so on, but you’re talking about something different here, right?
Tobias Lang: First of all, I have to mention that it is tremendous what is happening in 2023 in the LED market. When I went to ISE, I was surprised at how many manufacturers talked about micro LEDs…
And some of it actually was true micro LED.
Tobias Lang: Yeah, that’s true. But before this year’s ISE, it looked like all the manufacturers of high-resolution LEDs were going to chip-on-board technology, and then the semiconductors offered a micro LED package, so a package again with where you could do pick and place like with SMDs to produce an LED panel, and a lot of companies looked into this and announced that where they will have a product in future based on this technology. And I wondered, okay. Is this even before COB has started to come to the top the end of COB because there is a superior technology?
This is still an open question. I can’t answer it by today. But it shows how interesting it is, and the comment about LED and LCD merging is based on the fact that now nearly every former LCD manufacturer, like the Chinese BOE, is joining the LED race because everyone is accepting that there will be a lot of replacement from the LED or former LCD installations and based on this challenge, a lot of LCD manufacturers ask their health how to use the stuff they did in the past, and they found out that if they use the transistor film, they have an LCD, they could supply active matrix solutions based on LED as the video source. So driving every single pixel by a transistor to get a value as a product that is superior to what we know.
So I believe we will see screens that are more flexible, and more transparent than we used to, and this is incredibly interesting because it will change our understanding of the word display and screen to have just one dimension in a 4:3 or 16:9 screen. We have to start to think completely differently, and the funny thing is that the concept of active matrix and passive matrix, I don’t know, maybe 30 years old or whatever, was there as long as I am in the industry, but it was always too expensive to drive every single pixel and there were no advantages, but now it seems like an active matrix became reachable in a price range, and there are supplies added values because you get such light and flexible products and for example, the hype of the transparent LED from Muxwave we saw at the last shows was one of the rising stars, gives us a first look in the first understanding of what could be the future, what could be possible and I’m pretty sure we will see many more products based on this technology.
Not everyone, to be honest, agrees that this is the way to go. There are some manufacturers which believe passive matrix is still the way to go, but there are also a lot of manufacturers which believe in active matrix. It is very interesting to follow this discussion and to see every single move of the different manufacturers, and this is for example, for me, a strong argument why it is wrong as a market player just to visit one show a year. That’s the reason why you have to show ISE and InfoComm, Display Week because the different levels of information you get at the different shows by the different timing is helping me so much to face these questions.
I’m trying to wrap my head around this. When you’re talking about TFT, does that limit the dimensions and shape of the displays to how LCD is made right now in terms of having mother glass, and the largest display you’re going to get is 105 inches, or does that not really in play here?
Tobias Lang: Yeah, I’m not an expert, to be honest, on LCD factories. What is the limitation of the size? Is it the glass? Is this the Tft? Is it a combination? But for sure, this will have an influence on active matrix products.
For example, at Muxwave, it’s about the drivers, the number of pixels, you can reach, it’s not about the transistors. So this question will be answered by yes/maybe if you have really high-resolution products, and maybe by no, if you have lower-resolution products.
Because you do a lot of work in the rental market, equipment is going to be put up and torn down repeatedly. You have to think a lot about durability, right?
Tobias Lang: Yes, that’s true, and redundancy. This is one of the main challenges. If we face AV over IP, which will come into our market for sure, and we believe based on XMTP and IPMX but it is a change, and people in the event, want to be sure that everything is working out because if you look at a modern event what kind of amount of setup timing those professional players have left, it’s quite tight, and they need to be sure that everything is working and therefore, we have to understand that our role is to make their work as easy as possible.
Having chip-on-board and things with hardened or more durable surfaces and having lightweight, grid-based systems, even down to something like the Muxwave product, which is super thin and would go up and down pretty easily, that stuff, I assume, is pretty attractive?
Tobias Lang: Yeah, that’s one of the arguments we believe you will see those solutions in rental and staging too because there are advantages in rental and staging regarding transport cost, which is also a question which is regarding sustainability, and then it is an advantage quite often, in setup timing.
There will be a mix, and this is somehow in our life so incredible that you can always learn from one vertical to the other, so sometimes technology, which is done for integration, will be helpful in event and staging and vice versa.
Last question. I’m curious if there’s a project that you’ve seen in the last year or so, digital signage or pro AV in some way where you thought, okay, that’s really good, that’s where this is all going.
Tobias Lang: As you can imagine, I was involved in several projects, and I don’t want to mention any particular out of this, but I can tell you I’m really looking forward to coming to Vegas to see the fair by myself in real life because I did some running when they were setting it up while different shows in the morning and I always pass by, and when I saw the first images on social media, I was excited and this is for sure a big thing, and like I think everyone in the industry, I would love to see it in real life.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to that in December when I go to Digital Signage Experience. I’ve been watching it for a while now and actually trying to do a podcast with them, and maybe one day they’ll say, yes.
Tobias Lang: I will for sure listen to this podcast.
Yes. It’s the company that’s the LED suppliers, the same one that put the LEDs on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Montreal Company. Alright. Tobias, thank you very much for spending time with me.
Tobias Lang: Much appreciated, Dave. Thank you for having the interest, and I enjoyed every single second.