Friday, May 17, 2013

Did you hear what's up? A morning with a ceiling mic

I remember my first ceiling speaker experience. I was the project manager on a simple bid-build job for a local presentation space. In addition to the usual VGA, composite video, and DVD/VHS combo deck (this was quite some years ago), the client wanted some way to record local meetings. No video conferencing, no audio conferencing, portable furniture to be plugged in via floor-boxes. With no good options for placement of microphones and lacking the budget for wireless boundary mics, the consultant decided to take a pair of omnidirectional boundary microphones and screw them to the ceiling. It worked pretty much as you'd expect; Recordings in this room were absolutely perfect if your goal was to replicate the feeling of talking to someone from across the platform at a medium-busy railway station. If you wanted the actual content to be louder than the HVAC noise you were pretty much out of luck.

There are, of course, better solutions, but the end result always seems the same; the ceiling is not the optimal place to locate microphones. They're far from the talker. They're close to all kinds of ceiling noise. The best results one could hope for are "barely adequate". So it was with hope but some degree of sketicism that I took part in a test of Clear One's new digital beam-forming ceiling mic array.
It's neither a bird nor a plane, but a ceiling mic array.

Physically, it's a nice looking piece of hardware. It's thirty inches long, five and three-quarters wide, by only one inch deep. On the bottom (if ceiling-mounted) are cutouts for the individual mic elements and two LED/touch buttons, one of which has the Clear One 'C' log discretely wrapped around it. It connects to a Clear One Converge DSP (and only a Clear One Converge - more on this later) and power-injector through two Cat5-type cables which can be neatly managed through the hollow rectangular support pole. It also comes with a tile-bridge to easily mount to a standard two-foot drop-ceiling. It's certainly a nice physical package.

The big question, of course, is what it sounds like. We set one up in the center of a fifteen by thirty foot room and made calls from various positions. Sitting at a table. Standing next to the table. Walking around the room. Standing in the corner. We turned on a projector about five feet away from it on the ceiling. Then we did a quick-and-dirty A/B test with some wireless boundary mics (from the good folks at Revolabs). Remember that bit of skepticism I mentioned? It turned out to be completely unwarranted. In as unscientific a test as could possibly be devised in which we were absurdly unfair to the hardware under test (passing it through an extra DSP to avoid having to reconfigure an existing system) it performed splendidly. Intelligent tracking software built into the mic follows the sound of voices, giving a clear and even signal as one of us walked in a circle around the room. Audio was clear from all four corners of the room. Clear One's noise cancellation dealt nicely with the projector noise, although at the expense of slight artifacts perceived by those of us with the most sensitive ears for such things.

Those LEDs light blue when the mic is live, red for muted, off for off (and can be turned off entirely via software). Sadly, there's no ability to actually direct the beams although one can switch them on or off. Switching off a beam pretty effectively would cut off audio to half of the room, making the mic somewhat more directional. Configuration is relatively simple through Clear One's Converge Console software.

There are two issues I saw with this mic array; first is that it connects to the Clear One DSP through a proprietary expansion bus. The ability to daisy-chain three of them together is nice, as is the cleanliness of the installation. It's an additional nice touch that even if you inadvertently switch the power and link wires (we tried) you'll not let any of the magic smoke out of the unit; it'll just  hang there until you get the wiring right. The problem is that it locks you into one DSP option, which wouldn't be my preferred option for all applications.

The other concern is that it isn't an inexpensive option. MSRP is close to $4000, and the DSP will be another four. You could get eight nice boundary mics for half of that, assuming you have anywhere to put them. So it's not the budget choice, but is one of the best I've seen thus far. If anyone's interested, perhaps some more on this after some more experimentation.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of Brevity

And now for something completely different.

For those of you who found this blog through my thoughts on digital video matrix switchers, fear not! I'll be back later in the week with another "pixels" post about some aspect of AV technology. That is, after all, what I do and a real passion of mine. These are, however, the confessions of a pixel and ink stained wretch, so we oughtn't go too much longer ignoring my inkstained fingers. With National Poetry Month having just closed and National Short Story Month in full swing (and no, I don't know who names these. Just take it for what it's worth and enjoy it), the time seems right to talk about the place where the two come closest to intersecting: flash fiction.

Flash is loosely defined as "short-short", "micro-fiction", or anything under five hundred words or so. A traditional short story will usually weigh in at ten times that length. This is one of those things I like because it pushes against my usual tendencies; readers of this blog will ikely be unsurprised to read that I tend towards verbosity. The drive to condense - to take a story or idea or emotion and distill it to a single scene, sometimes a single sentence - isn't my natural one, but it is one that can yield striking results.

Back to flash in a moment, but here's a fascinating story that I learned during Al Filreis's Modern Poetry class from UPenn on the Coursera platform. Filreis is teaching this again in the fall, and I highly, highly recommend it (despite my misgivings about Coursera's utterly useless peer-review system). Ezra Pound was riding the metro in Paris one evening, and was struck by what he saw as the beauty of people's faces illuminated for an instant as a train ran past. So he wrote about it. And wrote. At one point he had ninetysome lines, but was still dissatisfied and didn't feel he'd captured the experience. So he cut, he condensed. In the end, he had this:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
petals on a wet, black bough.

That's it. It's pretty much an English language Haiku - not in the formal sense, but in tone and content.
Flash fiction can be like that. One can take a single scene or a scrap of  dialog and leave the reader with a single, clear impression.  One can think of it as literary distillation.

Here's a flash experiment of mine; the seed was a typo in someone else's manuscript, changing the  phrase "shallow water" into "willow water". Any odd phrasing comes from a bit of an experimental game in attempt to not use any single word more than once. I can say more on this kind of thing in a later post; imposing artificial constraints like that sometimes can form interesting  results.

Strip slender branches of bark, soak in pure spring water. Mix lustrous hair, salty tears. Two drops fresh blood, three pages torn from your journal. All into the cauldron, slowly simmering, leaving air thickly scented;  decaying pulp, moist earth, echoes.

Plant a bough entwined with another stolen lock, bloody tooth. Pour hallowed willow tonic, whisper prayers to beloved memories.

No matter if it fails to take root. From my dungeon more eyelashes, skin, bones, and humours still to be harvested, and  salty flow from eyes that once held devotion.

If you want to see what others do with this format, there are plenty of options. The talented Andrea Trask has collections of short-short horror and erotica. The enigmatic Johannes Punkt has a blog in which he publishes delightfully varied and strange pieces of his own fiction. Many can be read in a small handful of minutes, but will leave you thinking.

Want to try it yourself and need some inspiration? Head over to the Google+ social network and drop in on Becket Moorby's Flash Fiction Project, where you'll find prompts, contests, and a vibrant community of writers.

This post is, after all, in praise of brevity, so I'll practice a touch of what I preach and leave you for now. AV friends, expect more technology later in the week. Writers, keep writing and readers keep reading.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Roadshow, roadshow

Last week and this two technology reps hit New York with their roadshows; Sapphire Marketting last week and SYMCO this. I managed time for a very quick visit to each, and saw a handful of interesting things.
For those who don't know the  nice folk at Sapphire, they're reps for several major tech manufacturers, including Crestron, Vaddio, Tripplite, Delta (the displays, not the faucets) and others. Symco reps Savant Systems, Barco, SVSI, Biamp, and different others.  

With the big Infocomm tradeshow just around the corner this is a tiny bit of an off time to be checking out new products. There was a handful of hardware I'd not  seen in person as of yet, including the EasyUSB line from Vaddio (more on this later), but there wasn't a wow, gee-whiz, crazy innovation that would knock your socks off - unless, of course, your socks are knocked off by seeing one of Sapphire's familiar faces don a motorcycle helmet and do some variant of the Harlem Shake. If that's the case, I suggest you invest in some sock-garters. To the best of my knowledge, nobody at Symco did the Harlem Shake. Whether that's a point in favor of Sapphire or a point for Symco is, I suppose, a question for the reader.

I'd caught demos of Cybertouch and Delta Displays recently (see earlier post), so I didn't dwell on those at the Sapphire event. It was a treat to see Vaddio in person, especially with some of their new products destined for use in a current project of mine. They have some very nice quality high-definition pan-tilt-zoom cameras and digital mic arrays in their "EasyUSB" line as well as an audio/video to USB (or H.264) encoder called the AVBridge. Why would you want to do such a thing? So you could use a software-based conference solution (Lync, Jabber, etc) or recording solution in a conference room. It's not always the best solution, but it can be a very attractive option for organizations with existing unified communications infrastructure to leverage. More on that in a later post. The products, of course, have the quality I expect from Vaddio.

Next door to Vaddio was MondoPad. Their product is a flat-panel display with integrated camera, microphone, speakers, and PC with both interactive whiteboarding and collaborative software. There were smartphone apps and videoconferencing (SIP and h.323). When I asked about a better camera for a larger room (it's a 55" display; you're not necessarily going to be right on top of it) the rep nodded next door at Vadio.

Coincidentally, Symco also had an all-in-one PC/multitouch flatpanel/VTC endpoint from Clary.icon. Like MondoPad, the Clari.icon product had an integrated PC, high-definition camera, mic, speakers, interactive whiteboard software, etc. Where MondoPad has a slight edge is with the inclusion of a second WiFi radio. Why two? One points at the network for internet access and videoconferencing while the other can be used with smartphone screen capture and control apps. A cranky wifi at the event space hampered the demo of Clary.icon's remote control app with considerable lag. While this  clearly appeared to be a network issue rather than a problem inherent in the device it did highlight what a thoughtful design choice the second WiFi radio is.

Other products over the two days? I'll confess to not stopping by Crestron as I'm fairly up-to-date with their offerings, having gone so far as to specify the new 64x64 DM switch. They also offered a brief introductory class to the "smart objects" in their newly updated programming environment (relabeled from Core3 to alleviate confusion with their 3 series processors).  There were also some very nice architectural items at Sapphire, including this groovy LCD lift which would be a great fit for a conference table in a high-end boardroom. Someone else had already articulated my wish before I got there: an option for an HDBaseT LCD taking its power along with video and control over the single Cat5. Not today, but perhaps someday soon.

Again at the Symco side I got my first in-person look at Savant Systems' switching solutions. I'd already been introduced to their control options which use an Apple Mac Mini as a host and iOS devices as control interfaces. It's a very nice thought, but for many applications the absence of support for non-Apple platforms (so far!) is a bit of a deal-breaker. A 12x12 switcher fits into a 3RU box (compare 4RU for an AMX Enova 8x8 or 16x16, 4 for a Crestron 8x8, and 7 for a Crestron 16x16). They were showing off local HDMI inputs and outputs along with a tiling card that switched sources in up to five tiles (in what seemed to be fixed configurations). The switching was very slow, but that might have been a matter of the physical configuration; they'd taken the output of the tile processor to the display rather than use it as another switcher input and send a "regular" output to the display. This means that, in addition to negotiating EDID and the HDCP and the like, the tiling processor might have had to recalculate with each switch. I'd like to see the unit in action before judging any farther (and they tell me that it's much, much faster if configured correctly). It's clear that Savant wants to compete in the same space as Crestron and AMX.

There is, of course, more to discuss about some of these. Look for more details on Vaddio, on Savant, on SVSI (not mentioned in this post).