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.


  1. Hi Leonard, just wanted to touch base with you and give you an update on our new product range for the Collab8 , including a sub $3000 version , to be in touch Cheers Mike , mike.gopal@wowvision.com

  2. Mike,

    This is a suboptimal way to reach me, but seeing more of the product range at Collab8 can be interesting. I urge all the professionals reading this to look into Collab8, Barco, Crestron, and any other players in this arena.