In a strange kind of way, the pro-AV mar­ket is just start­ing to catch up with trends that had their ge­n­e­sis in the do­mes­tic mar­ket. It’s all sys­tems go, re­ports Derek Pow­ell.

Sound+Image - - Contents - Derek Pow­ell

The pro-AV mar­ket is tak­ing lessons from con­sumer AV for once, says Derek Pow­ell.

We have looked at a few crossovers be­tween the cor­po­rate AV mar­ket and con­sumer sound and im­age prod­ucts lately, and it con­tin­ues to be a fas­ci­nat­ing com­par­i­son. The lat­est thing to hit the en­ter­prise end of the pro AV mar­ket is the ‘fully con­verged net­work’. This es­sen­tially means two quite sep­a­rate things.

Firstly, in an in­stal­la­tion that fol­lows the prin­ci­ples of a fully con­verged net­work, there is very lit­tle ded­i­cated AV wiring con­nect­ing the var­i­ous pieces of equip­ment. In a typ­i­cal meet­ing room or teach­ing space you’ll still find speaker ca­bles and the oc­ca­sional short run of HDMI cable, but ex­ten­sive runs of HDBaseT (for trans­port­ing video) or RS-232 (for con­trol sig­nals) are rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing. In­stead, mon­i­tors, am­pli­fiers and all the other in­put and out­put de­vices now con­nect ei­ther di­rectly or via a de­coder to the stan­dard data net­work. That’s the same net­work that con­nects all the usual IT de­vices like servers, PCs, print­ers and disk stor­age. Frankly, that part is not so much of a sur­prise. Last year we looked at the steady pro­gres­sion of con­tent mi­grat­ing to Eth­er­net trans­port (see ‘Blue Planet’ in Vol­ume 29 num­ber 3).

It’s the sec­ond part of the ‘fully con­verged net­work’ that’s un­ex­pected. Var­i­ous ‘black boxes’ like DSPs, ma­trix switch­ers and au­to­ma­tion con­trollers — equip­ment we’d nor­mally ex­pect find racked up in each class­room or meet­ing room — are rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing! And it’s hap­pen­ing be­cause much of the pro­cess­ing in­volved is now car­ried out re­motely. The video rout­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems, the Dig­i­tal Sig­nal Pro­ces­sors (DSPs) that han­dle the sound, the con­trol pro­ces­sors that tie every­thing to­gether — these are now lo­cated in a data cen­tre, rather than in the rooms where the users are lo­cated.

Much of the equip­ment that’s ac­tu­ally in a room (mon­i­tors, mi­cro­phones, ac­tive speak­ers and so on) is sim­ply plugged into a con­ve­nient net­work socket — and power, if needed, though plenty of de­vices now work on Power over Eth­er­net (POE). There’s no need to plug a mi­cro­phone into a phys­i­cal mixer in the room. To set the sys­tem up you sim­ply plug the mike into an in­ter­face box and al­lo­cate an ad­dress (an IP num­ber) on the net­work. Then you pro­gram that IP num­ber into a DSP some­where, and tell it how you want the mi­cro­phone am­pli­fied, equalised and com­pressed, and where to send that sig­nal. The DSP will process the sound in a heart­beat and in­stantly send it back, maybe to a speaker in that room, a video-con­fer­enc­ing sys­tem, or both. The trick is that most DSPs now have enough pro­cess­ing power to han­dle hun­dreds of au­dio sources at the same time — and to keep them all sep­a­rate. There’s no need to buy a new mixer when you add an ex­tra meet­ing room — just route any new mi­cro­phones over the net­work to an ex­ist­ing DSP and it will hap­pily deal with that mi­cro­phone along with scores of other au­dio sig­nals that it is al­ready pro­cess­ing for dozens of other rooms.

While this ‘con­verged net­work’ model with its cen­tralised AV re­sources doesn’t add up fi­nan­cially for very sim­ple in­stal­la­tions or just a few rooms, it is hit­ting the mar­ket that

Do­mes­tic ‘as­sis­tants’ are cur­rently mar­keted on their abil­ity to re­spond by voice to var­i­ous ques­tions and re­quests for en­ter­tain­ment. But make no mis­take, they are also po­si­tion­ing to con­trol your light­ing and ap­pli­ances.”

deals with uni­ver­si­ties and cor­po­rate build­ings like a thun­der­bolt right now. The thing is, no one should be sur­prised, be­cause the pre­cur­sors to this kind of think­ing have been with us for some time — in the do­mes­tic scene.

Do­mes­tic help

Not so long ago, we were used to han­dling ana­logue YUV video sig­nals us­ing 75-ohm coax­ial cable and plug­ging to­gether play­ers and pro­jec­tors through BNC con­nec­tors. We’d con­nect up the au­dio to the AV re­ceiver with speak­ers set up ‘just so’ around our ded­i­cated me­dia room. Then we’d pop in a DVD (or, sigh, a VHS tape) from our col­lec­tion and set­tle back.

Now, it’s dif­fer­ent. Do­mes­tic users are em­brac­ing me­dia — whether video or mu­sic — that ar­rives as a dig­i­tal stream ei­ther from the cloud (Net­flix, Spo­tify) or from your phone or home server via Wi-Fi. And it in­creas­ingly ap­pears in ev­ery room, thanks to the pop­u­lar­ity of any one of a dozen brands of distributed au­dio sys­tems, or sim­ply by merit of a por­ta­ble dig­i­tal source (aka your phone). When me­dia is en­coded as a stream, it can pass across al­most any kind of data net­work, whether that be wired, Wi-Fi or even the in­ter­net. En­abling the trend, the last few years have seen band­width boosted with bet­ter broad­band ac­cess (for some, so far), more ef­fi­cient codecs (like MPEG-4) and gi­ga­bit­ca­pable home routers that are less likely to choke on high res­o­lu­tion me­dia.

This has meant that there is no need to run au­dio or video ca­bles through your walls to get en­ter­tain­ment in ev­ery room. It is easy to use the data net­work (or Wi-Fi) that you al­ready have in place.

That trend has taken off in the cor­po­rate mar­ket as well. Cor­po­rate AV pur­chasers these days tend to be from the IT depart­ment, and they see the ad­van­tages of us­ing a sin­gle net­work for all kinds of busi­ness con­tent. Man­u­fac­tur­ers, lever­ag­ing the lessons learned in the con­sumer and broad­cast mar­kets, are fig­ur­ing out how to use so­phis­ti­cated MPEG and M-JPEG en­coders to pack­e­tise ev­ery kind of in­put and shoot it across the net­work to mon­i­tors, pro­jec­tors or speak­ers any­where in the build­ing — or be­yond.

At the same time (at least in the US) we’ve seen the growth sec­tor in home au­to­ma­tion sys­tems shift from the pro­pri­etary hard­wired sys­tems like Cre­stron and AMX to the wire­less plug’n’play ‘as­sis­tants’ such as Google Home, Ama­zon Echo and Ap­ple’s Home Pod.

These do­mes­tic ‘as­sis­tants’ are cur­rently mar­keted on their abil­ity to re­spond by voice to var­i­ous ques­tions and re­quests for en­ter­tain­ment. But make no mis­take, they are also po­si­tion­ing to con­trol your house­hold light­ing and ap­pli­ances as well.

The key here is the ubiq­ui­tous In­ter­net of Things (the IoT). It used to be dif­fi­cult to con­trol de­vices which might re­quire dif­fer­ent in­ter­faces — re­lays, in­fra-red, RS-232 and so on. But now every­thing from your AV re­ceiver to your re­frig­er­a­tor has a net­work con­nec­tion, mak­ing con­trol via the net­work (wired or Wi-Fi) a snap. The com­mon thread to these as­sis­tants (apart from voice in­ter­ac­tion) is that most of the in­tel­li­gence re­quired is ac­tu­ally based re­motely, with servers lo­cated in the cloud.

Hav­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and pro­cess­ing power stored on the in­ter­net gives do­mes­tic as­sis­tants enor­mous ad­van­tages in de­vice con­trol. For ‘tra­di­tional’ con­trol sys­tems to take com­mand of a TV, or an AV re­ceiver — or an air con­di­tioner — a tech­ni­cian would have to come and wire in a di­rect con­nec­tion and pro­gram the con­troller with the spe­cific codes for each de­vice to turn it on, or change in­put, or what­ever. With an in­tel­li­gent net­work-con­nected con­troller you can sim­ply say “change the TV chan­nel” and the as­sis­tant can do the rest. It will con­tact the de­vice to read out its model num­ber, then con­sult an on­line data­base to de­ter­mine the cor­rect code for ‘chan­nel up’ on that set be­fore is­su­ing the com­mand over the net­work. If you buy a new TV, the process is the same — so no re-pro­gram­ming re­quired.

With a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions, that’s pretty much the way pro AV con­trol sys­tems are now headed. If a user in a meet­ing room wants to say, turn on the AV sys­tem, they now make that re­quest by log­ging in to a web page. That might be from a ded­i­cated con­trol screen on the wall, but they might choose to use any browser on their phone, tablet PC — or in fu­ture a voice as­sis­tant. A re­mote server de­tects where the user is, looks up the com­mands to power up the equip­ment in the room, and is­sues those over the net­work to the equip­ment. All sys­tems go.

It’s a seis­mic shift in the way pro au­dio­vi­sual in­stal­la­tions are de­signed, in­stalled and main­tained, be­cause it’s all about shift­ing data, not deal­ing sep­a­rately with sound, images and con­trol sig­nals.

So, take a bow (or per­haps take the blame) if you have adopted a net­work-cen­tric ap­proach to home en­ter­tain­ment. You are push­ing change on a big­ger scale than you prob­a­bly re­alised!

WOT, NO BLACK­BOARD? Nope — nor likely any hard-wired AV con­nec­tion be­tween the dis­plays and their source ma­te­rial, as pro AV mar­kets fol­low con­sumer elec­tron­ics into net­work me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion.

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