Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Earthday Everyday! Making Sound Decisions and Being Green

I'll start with a very brief note regarding my recent foray into the "switcher wars" - my recent post was not meant  as an endorsement of any one manufacturer over another. I have great respect for AMX, Biamp, Crestron, Dtrovision,  Extron, and quite a few other entries in the commercial-av alphabet. Also, note the new disclaimer; all opinions expressed on this blog are those of your humble pixel-and-ink-stained wretch and exactly nobody else. That said.... on with today's post.

The NYC Subway - a green way to travel!
Happy Earthday +1/365th everyone! We'll celebrate by recycling yesterday's holiday and talk briefly about how we in the commercial AV world can be green.
Yesterday's earthday discussion brought a question to mind: what can we do to be environmentally conscious in our industry? It's a simple question without a single simple answer. There are choices from equipment specifications and design considerations through personal choices in how we fill our roles. Some are easy, some less so, but there are many ways to make a difference.

This is the obvious one that will leap to most people's minds when they hear "green AV" and there are more and more options from which to choose. From the pun with which I titled this post, I'm sure you'd guess the first one:  high-efficiency "Class D" amplifiers.  This technology not only saves on energy, but the higher efficiency means less waste heat and, therefore, less fan noise. Some Class D amplifiers, such as Extron's XPA series or Crestron's MP-AMP series, are completely fanless! This means that in educating end-users as to why this is a good choice there's the added benefit of eliminating fan noise in addition to energy savings.

Class D amplifier topology. Courtesy of Extron Electronics
What's a Class D amplifier? The short version is that it is a switching amplifier usually using some form of transistors followed in series with some kind of filtering to give a smooth waveform. The long version is outside the scope of this post. Perhaps a discussion for another day? The important thing is that it's a technology very much in vogue because of the potential for energy efficiency, and is available in quite a few high-quality commercial products. Crown Audio's CDi series, to give another example, consists of high-efficiency class-D amplifiers.

Projectors are another area with intriguing new choices; quite a few manufacturers have developed lampless hybrid LED/LASER projectors. Aside from the injection of coolness the word "Laser" adds to anything, these not only use less energy but don't rely on the replacement of physical lamps some of which can, if not disposed of properly, be a source of toxic waste.

As an aside, sustainable technology often has benefits beyond energy conservation, and these benefits need to be explained to clients. This is especially true given the relatively few professional AV products which have the kinds of certifications that can help earn LEED points. Given that LEED is the metric by which most commercial projects show their dedication to environmental sensitivity it becomes somewhat of a challenge to sell the benefits of environmentally sensitive choices which don't earn LEED points. "It isn't as loud" is a nice little extra reason. The Extron and Crestron products also feature plenum-rated enclosures for placement above a suspended ceiling (with the added bonus of not violating any fire codes!) Lampless projectors have a much flatter light curve with respect to age, so one doesn't need as bright a projector to compensate for eventual decline.

Personal Choices
This is the less obvious, and less "sexy" side of being green in this industry; the little day-to-day choices we all make seem small, but can add up. Here are two small steps we can all take:

I'll confess - some days my desk looks like this. Some days
the fact that there's a wood surface beneath the paper
needs to be taken as a matter of faith.
First, save a tree - think before you print. I carry a tablet and smartphone onto which I can upload PDFs, write notes, and even make quick markups. Marking up a PDF rather than a physical copy might take a bit of getting used to, but it saves paper as well as clutter. Don't print your email unless there's a good reason. Etc, etc.

Second, travel as greenly as possible. Take the subway instead of a cab. Take public transportation to the office if you can. And, dear to our hearts in the commercial AV world, try to use videoconferencing rather than force people from distant cities to physically attend meetings.

A Final Word
Avoid wasteful packaging. Pack your cat in the smallest
box possible.
We're all on this planet together, and while the big problems of curbing carbon emissions and reducing energy use might seem daunting small steps add up. Think about making sustainability as much a part of your thinking as speaker coverage or video content delivery. Educate yourself so you can educate your clients and co-workers. Take a step.

Friday, April 12, 2013

About that Crestron/Extron/AMX "Shootout" video

For those not following the commercial AV field, this happened last week. Crestron released two videos on their site, comparing their Digital Media switching system to "similar" (more on this point later) offerings from rivals AMX and Extron. This first came to my attention not through Ravepub's write-up on it or even from Crestron, but in an email blast from Extron accusing their competitors of chicanery in rigging the test. Are their accusations true? I'm not sure, but don't know if it really matters.  From where the industry stands now, Extron is clearly a bit behind AMX and Crestron in availability of products. Crestron and AMX are very close to each-other, with each leading in some areas. Would I be interested in a third-party neutral "shootout" between the three (and perhaps others)? Perhaps, although switching speed and performance are not the only metrics, and there are other intriguing options on the way for some spaces.

Form Factors, Specifications, and More
Before we discuss tje performance issues, we need to look at what each side is actually offering. After all, a high level of performance is a bit of a moot point if a device lacks the capability for which you're looking. The Crestron shootout compared Extron's DXP with a Crestron DMPS and AMX Enova. It's a fair comparison on the Crestron/AMX side; each is an "all-in-one" unit comprised of a digital video switcher, audio mixer, and control system, each has HDBaseT (Crestron's DM 8G+ and AMX's DXLink) inputs and outputs, local HDMI inputs and outputs, and a variety of analog video inputs.

The Extron device, on the other hand, is a simple HDMI matrix. It lacks the audio breakaway, integrated control processor, and integrated amplifier of the other products. Reviewing the devices for actual design into a system, I'd completely ignore Extron on this one. They have their places, but this sadly isn't one of them.

So far as Crestron and AMX are concerned, in form-factor and capabilities it's very close. AMX has an edge in that they have an onboard scaler for each local output as well as scalers integrated into all of their DXLink receivers. Crestron has a scaling receiver option, but you'd need to add an external scaler if you want to scale your local output. Crestron does have an option with built-in acoustic echo cancellation (AEC) for conferencing applications. I've not had the opportunity to test this, but it's an intriguing option for small conference rooms and might sometimes save the need for a full DSP.

AMX also claims one more advantage; energy use. The DGX and DVX are presented as being more energy  efficient than competitors. They have their own comparison tool, the DVX Energy Calculator which compares a DVX to a conventional system and a "non-AMX Presentation Switcher". It's pretty much an open secret that the non-AMX PS is a Crestron DMPS. AMX claims about a 4:1 power savings in active mode and over 10:1 in standby mode - a big issue considering that these units will usually be always on. (Why are they always on? Because the control processor is built in. If you power it down, there's no way for the system to power itself back up!) With today's increased emphasis on sustainable technology this should be an issue, the lack of an Energy Star of similar certification or the ability to earn LEED points makes it a harder case to make, even though it is a real advantage.

A test set-up at Crestron's training facility
Performance aside, which of these would I suggest? It depends. In a control-system-agnostic environment, Crestron has an edge on cost, AMX on onboard scaling, Crestron with AEC (if needed), AMX in energy savings. The latter pushes the needle towards AMX for me, but not so dramatically that I'd not consider Crestron a very viable alternative.

About those Videos
I'm not getting into Extron's accusations of outright cheating; I'm not a forensic video analyst, I am disinterested in engaging in a frame-by-frame analysis, and as I said, it's an apples to oranges comparison.

The innards of an AMX Enova DVX
What did interest me is is that the set-ups for the Extron and AMX comparisons are different; for one, they added extra hardware (an HD Scaler) in the latter, while giving the option of not scaling as a benefit. This strikes me as dishonest in the least. The second is that they used two outputs of their test generator to feed both units. I have no idea how EDID and HDCP keys are handled by this sort of unit; it's quite possible that it needs to negotiate both keys and get a "best common" in order to sync. Interestingly, the only times Crestron appeared faster was when showing the test bars - a source shared between the two systems. I'd be very interested in seeing the same demonstration with truly separate sources.

I don't have one as of yet. We have, at the very least, two great products from two great companies. Performance between Crestron DM and AMX Enova is close enough that "one switches faster" is most likely not going to be the deciding factor, but simply one factor amongst many. The videos should be taken as what they are: marketing. Would there be value in an independent "shootout"? Perhaps, but as stated before, that ignores real difference in form, capabilities, power consumption, and other factors. Going farther, in a larger install these systems would be part of a larger infrastructure, including control programming, remote asset management, and other factors.

Is it ironic that the discussion of Extron's video lead to a discussion of everyone but Extron?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review - Without a Summer

In Without a Summer,  the third (and final?) installment of her Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of her magical alternate Victorian England while reminding us why we read about this time period in the first place. For those new to Kowal's work, the series began with Shades of Milk and Honey, a Jane Austen-inspired regency romance with the added fantasy element of glamour - the ability of certain naturally gifted individuals  to create semi-permanent illusions and otherwise effect the electromagnetic spectrum through direct manipulation of the aether. 

The previous volume, Glamour in Glass, left protagonist Jane Vincent literally bloodied and bruised after her part in the war effort but otherwise near the apex of personal and professional success with a marriage to a thoughtful and intelligent man and a great measure of success and fame as a glamourist. The one loose end, dangling since the end of the first book, is the continued lack of marriage prospects for Jane's prettier but otherwise less talented younger sister, Melody. So, when presented with a fortuitously-timed commission, Jane and family head to London thankfully leaving her mother behind. This is thankful to the reader as well as to the characters; the mother was a little bit of a one-note melodramatic hypochondriac whose appearances began to feel a touch tiresome in contrast with the other more complex and richly drawn characters.

In London, the weather proves to be a major topic of discussion and running theme through the book; as the title suggests, the action takes place in the year without a summer, a historic cold spell likely caused by a major volcanic eruption. We're still in the early stage of the industrial revolution and Luddites are smashing looms in the streets while London's coldmongers (glamourists who work with heat and cold rather than light) are scapegoated for the unseasonable cold. Weaving these details of social and economic disruption throughout the novel is one element that makes the Glamourist Histories stand out from many Victorian fantasy novels; the time period is interesting because we stood with one set of economic and social realities behind us, a different set before us, and no clear path to navigate the change. The coldmongers of this alternate London are often young, made sickly by the nature of their work, underpaid, and unappreciated. Yes, it's a fantasy element, but they are as real as coal miners and garment workers of yesteryear and the underage employees of some electronics factories even today. At a time when a new layer of technology is again disrupting the economic and social order this feels very relevant.

Without a Summer also deals with rising religious plurality in England, and Kowal pulls no punches in showing us how even the most sympathetic characters can be driven by ignorance and, yes, bigotry. After hearing about them for the past two books, we meet Vincent's family. And, about two-thirds of the way through, we get one of the most delightful kinds of moments in fiction: a revelation that a fundamental assumption we'd made turns out to have been wrong, and we're forced to look at past events and a wel-established character in a new light.

It ends on a positive note, with the door cracked open just enough that I'd suspect another sequel is possible, but well-enough wrapped up to walk away satisfied should Kowal choose to wander someplace else next. If you'd not read the Glamourist Histories as of yet, do so!

Very highly recommended. Four stars.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Playtime - The World is Not as it Appears!

I attacked a post office this morning.

Before you call the FBI and I end up on a government watch list, I should explain. You see, it was really the Post Office, but I was actually attacking a portal rather than the building itself or, more specifically, the resonators controlling that portal. For those not in the know, this is part of Ingress, Google's augmented reality game (ARG). It's still technically in closed beta, but they've been trickling out invites to join at a pretty steady pace since late last year. And, while there are flaws, it's an intriguing concept for gaming, storytelling, and even marketing. I've faded into and out of and back into it again,  seduced by the ease of picking it up and the temptation to climb the ladder and simultaneously pushed away by the level of grinding and frustration. (Grinding is an expression mostly dealing with computer role-playing type games. It denotes the act of repeatedly fighting the same challenges to gain the experience and equipment needed to progress in the game. Ingress can feel very grind-y at times. More on that later).

The game starts with the premise that the secretive Niantic corporation has been performing experiments with a new form of matter/energy called "XM" or "exotic matter". There's a science-fictional back-story regarding XM, "portals" through which this energy flows, mysterious extra-dimensional entities called "Shapers" which can influence people's thoughts through the XM and a vast global conspiracy keeping everything quiet. As an ARG, the story and "game board" are not given as expositional flavor text but are woven through various websites and in-game discoveries. New features and rule-changes are introduced as short videos, website links, and audio recordings discovered at various in-game locations - the aforementioned portals. When you sign up, you're given a choice of joining the Resistance - dedicated to protecting humanity from the Shapers - and the Enlightened, who believe that the Shapers can offer us great gifts if we have the courage to embrace them.

The field of play  - links I placed from the NYPL
to Grand Central Station, NY
And what are these "portals"? They're locations and landmarks in the real world, which you need to approach by physically walking to them with a GPS-enabled Android phone (this is Google's project. Apple and Blackberry users need not apply!). Once you get within range (about 40 meters), you do a few things:
-"hack" the portal - shaping its XM into in-game items.
-Deploy a "resonator" on the portal. You receive resonators by hacking, and a cluster of 8 resonators fully powers a portal for your team.
- Link the portal to others. Link lines that make up triangles create control fields which impact your team's overall score.

What makes it challenging is that the other faction is competing for the same portals, to create the same fields. If you find a portal already claimed, you have to attack it with single-use bombs called "bursters". There's an experience bonus for creating links and fields, and half as much for destroying them. Earning experience allows you to use more powerful items and create longer links.

That's the game in a nutshell. What makes it work? There's a cooperative aspect which is quite appealing; there are various in-game limitations that encourage or even mandate group play. There also is a "level cap" at 8. This is a source of frustration for high-level players who can be lacking in goals, but it prevents the discrepancy between newer players starting out and those who've been around a while from getting too large. It seems possible to "catch up" no matter how late you joined and how sporadically you play.

It's also sometimes possible to see some really amazing feats. At one point a group of players in California accomplished this:

It must have involved not only several players, but someone would have had to physically travel to the portal at each corner of the triangle. And yes, that's nearly the whole state of California.

So what are the problems with the game?

First, while there is what appears to be an interesting story, the more one looks the thinner it appears; whatever narrative arcs there are move very slowly and the whole thing reminds me a bit about the old joke about writing a series rather than a novel; instead of a beginning a middle and an end there's a beginning and a middle and a middle and a middle and a middle. The story, in other words, can't end without ending the game. So, everything I talked about - building control fields, the global MU score, the battle between Resistance and Enlightened - those are all just window dressing. Some days the Resistance leads, some the enlightened leads, but in the end it's like a baseball game with infinite innings; being ahead today only means what you decide it means.

It also means that an epic feat like the giant California control field can be undone by one person attacking one spot, with no long-term impact on the game.

This brings the next interesting thing to me, and what's interesting as a writer and even a designer of technology; absent a real "winning condition" people tailor their gameplay to their own local goals. So, rather than build fields players will make "farms" of high level portals to collect items, and deliberately avoid connecting them into fields to make them less appealing targets for the opponents to attack. In-game chatter becomes more war-gamey than in-character; people follow the overall story to some extent or other, but mostly talk strategy and tactics.

There's also a fair bit of wrestling with ones GPS and, again, a fair bit of repetition. Still, there's just enough promised change - and in-game events - to keep things lively.

Where the war-gaming dominant community and game have really come together is for in-game special events; there'd be a post on social media somewhere about, say, a Niantic Corporation operative being spotted at a Duane Reade drugstore (all Duane Reades have portals in them; this is one of the most overt examples of using the game as a marketting tool), and the next week a challenge was announced - the team that controlled the most Duane Reade's at a certain time would win some advantage in-game. What followed was an extraordinarily coordinated plan of attack. I didn't get to participate (I'm a very casual player, with the job, kids, and family eating up the time that some people seem to have to wander around attacking portals), but the recap was pretty amazing; an under-manned Enlightented team managed to hold dozens of portals and handily win the event with the assistance of a player sitting at home monitoring the battle on a PC and directing traffic. It was a moment in which game play, social elements, and the creativity of the playing public combined to create something that otherwise couldn't exist. So what is the bigger lesson here? Technology, including the growing ubiquity of GPS enabled phones, can continue to give us be ways to pay, work, and tell stories that wouldn't have been available to us otherwise. That people will use what you give them in their own way, for their own ends.

 And, most importantly, the world isn't what it seems. The shapers are out there, waiting for us. Should we welcome them, or fight them?