Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Choices, Part the Fourth

Continuing where we left off on our mid-summer Blog Hop story. For those who came in late, this is a writers' game I'm playing with Carrie K Sorensen, Nicole Pyles, Tena Carr, and Heather Musk. Carrie wrote the first bit of a story, and is now passing it along to the rest of us to continue. This one is taking shape oddly. There are points which are compelling enough, but it's moving a bit slowly and everyone seems to be holding back on making a big reveal. Therein, of course, lies the challenge; how would you continue a piece which you'd never have started yourself, and where will it end up after you pass the baton to the next runner?
So, please, catch up on parts one (Nicole Pyles) , two (Carrie Sorensten) , and three (Tena Carr) 

Done? Excellent. Let's continue.

"Kip's Story, Part Four. No Gun, No Arab."

Sand beneath his feet, the roar of the surf harmonizing with something louder and closer, within his ears.

Damn wet jeans and a cold dampness on his shirt, smells of fresh sea air and stale vomit, bile burn and tequila burn did it really happen?

Those stupid cards. Had the sense of danger really faded with the stupid truth or dare type questions, or just faded behind tequila, vodka, tequila again. Never mix your liquors. He shoulda remembered that before. Before the roaring in his ears drowned out the laughing voices of his buddies, before that last damn question. "What summer choice do you most regret?"

What summer choices had he even made? Kip's mind blanked, the bile rose in his throat, his cheeks flushed with shame and alcohol. What choice did he regret? He pushed words, slowly, deliberately, "I regret... I.. I need the can." The race for the bathroom, closing the door, kneeling against cool porcelain.

The window.

 Double-hung, above the toilet, on the ground floor. He barely remembered the thought process. Staggering back drunk would be pathetic. An escape act... would be epic.

The jeep, the roads at night. Safe at night, nobody else around. Safe. AC on high, fan on high, air blasting him awake. And, of course, the beach.

It's different at night. Enough summer had burned away to leave it cool, drifting towards cold. The moonlight and spilledover dregs of she parking lot's yellow sodium lamps colored the sand an unworldly greyblack.
Everything is different at night.

Summer choices. Did he even make any? Or did he just let her make them around him, near him, about him.

She chose to leave him.

Mick chose the stupid party game.

Kip hadn't chosen anything.

He lie back in the dying light of the jeep's headlamps and resolved that the summer wouldn't end without making a choice. Without doing something.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Infocomm 2013 - A miscellany of the good and bad

In this last of three posts recapping Infocomm 2013, I'll give some rants and raves about things I saw and experienced at the show. As always, my opinions are my own and don't reflect those of my employers, my co-workers, the stranger in the airplane seat next to mine, or even my pet cats. Although I think the cats would agree...

So what am I looking for in a tradeshow booth? I have a few tips - and rants - in no particular order. Read on..

THIS is how you show a product
Place your product facing the right way
By this I mean that I want to see the back of it. The back shows me what kind of connectors you use, how they are laid out, if there's room for easy wire management, and how many inputs and outputs of varying types there are. The front of it, in most AV components, shows that you have a pretty faceplate. If there are front panel controls or an LCD display, then exhibit two of it, one pointing each way. Better yet, take the cover off so I can see the innards. I like innards.

Know Who You Are, Know the Market
This should go without saying, but if you're exhibiting at a trade show you need to understand the market, understand how your product fits into the market, and know what you don't know. When I asked the folk at Comnet why I should consider their video-over-ethernet encoders over similar offerings from SVSI, they could tell me their advantages (lower bandwidth requirements, lower cost) and disadvantages (a proprietary variant of JPEG2000 which is lossy). Likewise,  the good folks at Xilic were able to tell me that their Jupiter line of audio DSPs were low cost, high audio-quality, and easier but less flexibly configured than others.
Contrast that with someone demoing an HDMI extender which the OSD said was running at 1080p/24 FPS. I asked if this was a function of the source or if it could handle 1080p/60, and got a deer-in-the-headlight look before the rep asked "uh... you mean 60... gigahertz?" If you want me to walk away from you, that's a good start. I don't expect everyone manning a booth to be an engineer, but knowing the very basics of what you're displaying is kind of a nice thing.

Also, don't bash your competition and please don't direct me to the results of comparison studies, shoot-outs,  or comparative lab tests that you did yourself. I not only won't believe you, but I'll take it as a sign that you lack the confidence in your own product to tell me how it stands on its own merits.

Beware Mixed messages
I only found one group guilty as this one and it's really a quibble - the folk at Projector Lamp Services. They recycle lamps, which saves money and is more environmentally friendly. So what does a company committed to the environment to the point of using the recycle logo symbol as part of their recycle logo give out at their booth? Bottled water.When confronted with the fact that bottled water is terrible for the the environment they said that they knew but gave in to the temptation to give out something. I grabbed a bottle to rehydrate on the show floor. It tasted of refreshment and irony.

Matrix switchers. With a
side-order of boobs.
Don't be sexist. Be open to concerns.
This should be obvious, but it's not.The guilty party here was Key Digital who were running a loop of what appeared to be a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photoshoot on giant displays atop their booth. I asked the person manning said booth (whose name badge identified him as a national VP of sales or similar) if he thought this was appropriate and got a smirking "I like it" as an answer. I'll start off by saying that if we want what is currently a male-dominated industry to gain some level of gender balance we really need to not use women as eye-candy. The shame of it is that the smirking, frat-boy response cost them the chance to tell me about their product. It's a crowded market for video transport and routing, and there are plenty of vendors who did try to set themselves apart from the crowd. Some of us in this industry - as is the case everywhere else - need to grow up.

For a better take on how to handle potential off-messages, I brought a concern to who my possibly faulty memory tells me was Jan Sandri of FSR at the Women in AV reception. They generously invited a local charity to their event and solicited donations so as to leave Orlando a little better off than before we arrived. My concern is that the charity of their choice - The Salvation Army - has a poor track record as of late for statements about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered population. Jan took my concern seriously, explained her reason for choosing the SA (that they spend a very large percentage of their money on actual operations as opposed to overhead) and assured me that WAVE in general and she in particular did not want to be exclusionary. The WAVE reception, as an aside, was a terrific event about which I probably should write more. Let it suffice to say that I left feeling good about both the cause and those working to promote it.

Be Interactive. Be fun
I'll close on a lighter note about how some manufacturers managed to bring an element of interactivity and fun to their booths. I already talked about the pure whimsy from vendors like Vaddio and Gator earlier. This time I'm talking about those who showcased their product in a way we can remember. One favorite was Beam telepresence robots, who had about a half-dozen milling around their part of the show floor. Real people from the company were using them to chat with eachother (robot to robot) and with guests. Better yet, they had a console set up where you could drive one yourself around the office where there remote personnel were. So, I could drive a robot to talk to someone driving a robot which I could then stand up and chat with. Pretty cool.

If you smelled burning electronics, you might have been near the SurgeX booth where they took the very obvious strategy of blowing things up.  It made a point not only about the quality of their protection, but also the durability of their product. They claim that the unit protecting the AMX panel (shown here) was a veteran of several Infocomms, where it had spent hours being "zapped" several times per minute. Still no smoke from the panel, even if stuff next to it got exploded.

And with that, I'll end the recap of Infocomm 2013. It was a great week for meeting people, learning about technology, and taking a look forward at where the industry is heading. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Infocomm 2013 - Part the Second. Death of the AV System?

Part two of my Infocomm recap, in which I'll talk about the bigger stories. I managed to learn about several things, including classes on various AV networking protocols (present and future) and mass-notification systems and some private chats about large-venue speakers, MS Lync integration, and personal branding. The show floor is an impressive array of glittering toys,  but the level of human talent at the show is even more impressive. I hope that the rest of the attendees got to meet as many brilliant people as I did. Now, on to a few things that caught my attention in a big-story way.

I know that the "Death of the AV System" is a provocative title, and I don't really expect our business to completely vanish anytime soon. What I do see changing is the existence of an AV system as an entity separate from the larger information technology infrastructure. One word I kept hearing is "convergence". We're quickly approaching a point at which room systems, unified communications, paging, emergency notification, and the larger world of IT are no longer separated by bright lines. Further, there is increasing availability of software-based solutions to needs formerly fulfilled by dedicated appliances. What did I see that fit this mold?

Barco AV over IP Demo
One exciting group to visit was the AVNu alliance pavillion. They're pushing hard for the adoption of the AVB standard, and by now have a fairly impressive array of manufacturers involved, including Biamp, Meyer Sound, Renkhus-Heinz, Yamaha, and Barco. Barco was especially interesting in that they had a demo of video transport over an AVB network. The unit they were showing is only a trade-show demo, but a brief chat with them was enough to whet my appetite for further news. For those few of you not keeping up, most AVB solutions rely on the IEEE 1722 protocol for transport, which is a level 2  protocol inoperable without an AVB-compliant switch. Barco's unit uses a similar level three protocol which will send real-time uncompressed video over any standard switch (with, I assume, the same caveats the folks at Audinate gave about Dante; it needs sufficient bandwidth, needs certain QoS features, etc). Add to this less bandwidth-intensive solutions like SVSI's JPEG2000 encrypted video and another vendor with even lower bandwidth proprietary JPEG2000 variant and there are suddenly a suite of choices for what looks like full-matrix switching without an actual matrix switcher!

This is part of what I mean about the death of the AV system. One of my colleagues went so far to say that I was wrong to frame it as a virtualized matrix switch; that the better way to look at it is the transformation of sources, displays,  microphones, and speakers from elements of standalone systems to a suite of tools usable by software running on the PC, which is already moving into a central position in the AV system. It means that the traditional topology of a system (inputs --> Matrix switch --> outputs) might be ready to fade away.

In a similar vein on the unified communications front was one of the new exhibitors about whom I'd heard some pre-show buzz: the forgettably-named but memorably-trousered industry veterans at Pexip. Their founding members were a good part of the brainpower behind former videoconference giant Tandberg, and they're back with a completely software based approach to conferencing. Pexip's virtual MCU can live on any standard server, can easily be scaled up or down in number of licenses, and allows impressively high-quality conferencing among multiple platforms. Traditional hardware-based endpoints, software clients, an even SIP-based audio calls fit together seamlessly. Those without either a hard or soft endpoint can connect through WebRTC, an HTML5 browser-based Codec which doesn't require downloads, plug-ins, or any other special effort to set up.  Bob Romano of VCA has a three-part interview with them in which they discuss their origins, the software-MCU concept, and how their approach answers concerns regarding bandwidth and security. They had a nice demo in which they showed both interoperability and how the system seamlessly handles network disruptions, losing only those callers  Pexip is impressive, but are far from alone. Vidyo and newcomer Starleaf offer cloud-based MCUs, as does the venerable Polycom.  Lifesize gives you the option of virtualizing their MCU. These approaches and the various products involved all have enough pluses and minuses that a substantive post can be written about just those.  For the nonce, let is suffice to say that it's an interesting time in which the hardware and software can be more easily separated than ever before.

What else can be virtualized? How about a control system? Relative newcomers HRS Control  have an architecture which fits on a Windows or Linux server. Is this going to be a Crestron or AMX-killer? Doubtful; I've not seen it up close yet, but it doesn't look as if it has the breadth of support and level of sophistication that the best commercial control systems currently have. Could this mean, within the next years, that control companies might move to software the way VTC companies have? Time shall tell.

What about Crestron and AMX? Crestron made a strong move to embrace chance with the introduction of its Airmedia video-over-wifi device as well as a Lync Room System (RL). Airmedia is a nice product in that it's simple and, at an MSRP of $1600, relatively inexpensive. This is one place where I break with Gary Kayye who included the Wow Vision Collab8 on his top-ten tour. I agree with Gary that the Collab8 is an impressive piece of hardware with more capability than the Crestron device, but it also sports a $5000+ price tag. Gary's theme was collaboration - the ability to bring people together through technology. I am looking more at convergence - the melding of AV systems and the PC-based office infrastructure. From that point of view, I find it hard to justify such a high-cost appliance with a single use profile. These items are competing not only with Barco clickshare, but also with a standard room-PC running a WebEx session. Smaller might be better. The Room Lync system didn't seem interesting at first blush; Microsoft has put enough restrictions on these that it's hard for vendors to offer much differentiation. Crestron is offering a mindful solution in that they've taken steps to address issues with handling logins and with the ability to tie into a Crestron infrastructure or not. Years ago, Crestron was in the forefront of the move to digital video transport. I'm not sure where this year's offerings will take them, but they clearly are attempting to continue to look forward.

AMX took a different tack; rather than embrace the PC in a room environment, they're looking to replace it with their Enzo device. This is a small network device which can handle cloud access, integrate with existing dropbox accounts, run some applications, and provide basic room control. It's a very different approach to Crestron's, and one which offers an ease-of-use and integration which is arguable higher than that of a PC-based system. I'm not sure that it is as forward-looking, however. The future looks like it will embrace the PC, not replace it. Once again, time shall tell.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Infocom 2013 Recap - Part the First. Some Whimsy

This year's Infocomm is now officially behind us and, weather permitting, this pixel-and-ink-stained wretch is heading home. In addition to the technology, there were plenty of social moments, parties, and chances to meet all of the "AV Tweeps" (the twitterati of the AV industry) as well as all of the people I know only from LinkedIn, Google+, or even just a voice on the phone from whom I'd requested a quote or asked a technical question. There was magic, there was music, classes, speaker demos, parties, wildlife, nightlife, and some technology. This post will be a light-hearted one, of things I found fun and nifty. Part two will be more of my big picture - the stories I think could be important. I'll round things off with social observations, a shout-out to the Women in AV, and perhaps a rant or two.

This isn't about things which are groundbreaking, but about what's interesting. After day 1, I ran into one of my fellow New York based consultants in a fly-a-thousand-miles-to-have-dinner-with-the-guy-from-across-the-street moments (this is a thing. trust me). He said that thus far he'd seen lots of incremental improvements, and I find that hard to argue on a broad scale. HDBaseT isn't a new story. Dante isn't a new story. There are lots of stories that aren't new.

I unplugged their TV so I could take
a snapshot. Look ma, no electrician!
One of my favorite "me too" products was Altinex's HDMI over Cat5 Tx/Rx pair. What made this one special? It doesn't meet the HDBaseT standard - it exceeds it in a rather surprising way. HDBaseT specifies the option of up to 100W of DC power with the idea that, if anyone makes a display with the right inputs and enough efficiency - one could run not only control, audio, and video but also power over a single cable. Altinex isn't waiting for the display manufacturers. They not only send 150W (this is where the exceed the spec to the point that they're no longer HDBaseT compliant or interoperable), but they include an AC outlet right on top of the receiver.  This lets you mount a flat-panel anyplace you can get low voltage cable without having to hire an electrician. Groundbreaking? No. A highly nifty refinement of existing technology which fills a need? Absolutely.

This is a product I've seen before - the Perfect Path locking HDMI cable from Liberty. It has little shark-fins that grab onto the inside of the female connector to hold it in place, and is quite will-made with little need for strain relief. How well-made? Yes, that TV is actually hanging by the cable, with nothing at all else holding it up.

And to think that most HDMI cables fall out
if you look at them funny

There was also plenty of whimsy in booth design and presentation; I''ll close with my favorites. The literal carnival atmosphere at Vaddio, the Gator case gator, and, the fashion-statement of the show, #PexipPants.I was especially excited about Pexip, as there was lots of pre-show buzz about them to which they lived up. More on them and perhaps Vaddio next post. See you then!
I didn't get to play skeeball, but did treat myself to
some popcorn!

Me and the gator. It was squirmy for me!
Pexip Pants! I LOVE it. Also some brilliant tech.
We'll talk about them next post!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Infocomm 2013 - For What I'll Be Looking

This will be the last AV post before next week's Infocomm trade show, and a chance to look forward to what promises to be an interesting few days. Plans have been made, including social plans, booth-visits, and the always-important moment to listen to everyone's favorite professional AV rock band. I even found a ringer to take my place in the corporate 5K run I signed up for before realizing that it was the same week as Infocomm. If there's any interest I might live-blog a bit during the show, and will certainly send updates. Looking forward, I've seen a quite a few people post suggestions and previews - many of which are quite sensible. Following are my own thoughts about what I hope to get from the event. If our paths cross, feel free to grab me for a quick "hello".

Also, take a few moments to listen to what some others are saying about the upcoming event and the state of our industry. Christopher Neto had a great piece on what he sees as game changers at Infocomm 2013. I also noticed an intriguing article by David Danto (whom I've crossed paths with a time or two a couple jobs ago) on disruptions in the videoconference world. Am I in one hundred percent agreement with either of them? Not at all, but then again, I'm not usually in one-hundred percent agreement with myself, much less anyone else - no matter their experience in the industry. Below are some of my thoughts.

As I said in my earlier post on AV training, I see network integration as one of the big directions in which our industry is moving. I'm quite interested to see where various manufacturers take this, including the still-fledgling AVB standard and its older cousin Dante (and yes, they appear to be cousins, if not actual siblings).  Will one of these standards eventually be able to challenge HDBaseT as the dominant form of video transport, and if so what would that mean for the topology of AV networks and systems? Will centralized server-type DSPs like those from Biamp or QSC emerge as the dominant form-factor over standalone units like those from Symmetrix or Peavey? We might be at the cusp of a fundamental shift in how our industry operates. In fact, I'd argue that we're on the cusp of many such shifts.

The Other Kind of Networking
The great thing about Infocomm is that it seems that everyone is going to be there. Consultants, manufacturers, reps, contractors, and even end-users will all be in the same big tent learning about the same technology. In addition to the sheer pleasure of putting faces to all the names (or bodies to the headshots on various LinkedIn profiles) I've interactive with over the years, knowing people just makes working in this business easier. There are so many times when the solution to a problem lies not in knowing the technical answer, but in knowing whom to ask.
Don't get me wrong on this; if you make connections purely for the professional value you're not only doing it wrong but are quite possibly a sociopath (I should let my live-in clinical psychologist make that determination). If you listen to people and just take   moment to get to know them you'll have the pleasure of more connections and, as a side bonus,  more resources on which to call when you're stuck.

The Missing Lync
OK, Lync isn't quite missing - but it can be a challenging kind of technology to tie into large-scale integrated systems. It's easier than it's been before - thanks in part to products like Vaddio's EasyUSB line (if you're not aware of them, they're definitely a manufacturer to check out. They're also planning on unveiling some new products with a very high level of niftiness for those who work in the small meeting room/classroom kinds of spaces) - to tie them to small to mid-sized systems, but there still are advantages to appliance-based (as opposed to PC-based) conference systems; appliances are more easily controlled, more easily managed, and end up giving a more seamless user experience. I know at least two manufacturers working on Lync-compatible appliances, including Crestron's long-awaited RL. I'm not sure that I'm quite as high on this as Neto is, but it certainly has the possibility to become an important part of the unified communications ecosystem.

Software. The PC-Centered AV System
This is another part of our big paradigm change, and a new answer to a big question: what is at the heart of a commercial AV system? At one point not too long ago, it was a matrix switch and DVD/VHS decks, with increasing need for laptop interfaces. Now, with so many software solutions for conferencing, for collaboration, and for mobile device integration there's a definite move for the PC to move towards the center of a system, sometimes replacing numerous peripherals. The videoconference Codec? Software on your PC. Blu-ray or other media player? Built into the PC. Screen-scrape from your mobile device? A mobile app and - you got it - software on your PC. That annotative whiteboard? A touch-enabled monitor and a PC. Yes, one gives up some measure of capability and some measure of simplicity. I'd certainly not try to design a large, complicated system around a PC, but those small meeting room and classroom systems of which we've all seen scores? Many of those can easily become software-based solutions with little to no loss of functionality.

This ties in with what Danto said about disruption in videoconferencing; I think that the dedicated appliance will still be with us, but that there's more

Surprises (and why I'm OK with Extron not exhibiting)
There are certainly big, well-known companies worth visiting, especially for those who've not had a chance to see their new offerings in person. I'm looking forward to brief visits with AMX, Crestron, QSC, Vaddio, and others. That said, these are companies very much on my radar whom I follow reasonably well. I've seen Crestron's three-series stuff, seen Vaddio at the Sapphire Marketting Roadshow, and had AMX and QSC around for recent visits. This is why it doesn't bother me that much for Extron to not be exhibiting; I don't need a tradeshow to know what the big players are doing.

What I more want is a nice surprise; something I'd not thought of from someone I'd not thought to find it. In other words, if I knew what I was looking for, I'd not have to be there looking.

For anyone interested in meeting your favorite pixel-ink-stained wretch in person, I'll be arriving early Tuesday for some of Audinate's network seminars. I'll be on and off the floor most of the remaining days, with various social engagements including the WAVE reception on Wednesday evening (WAVE is one of those organizations which I feel deserve all of the support and attention we get) and the Drunk Unkles performance Thursday evening. I'll also try to post news and updates as I see things which delight, surprise, or intrigue me.

Final note for any of you writers or readers out there: there'll be more writing when I get back! Carrie K Sorensen is leading another blog-hop collaborative story. Read the first part here, and stay tuned for more.