Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Pixel and Ink Stained Year in Review

IT's the end of the year as we know it. This year in review and its companion peek into my pixel and ink-stained crystal ball at the year coming up will be largely "pixel" posts in that I'll talk about commercial AV. Perhaps one or two literary mentions to round things out. And more on the Year-to-Come post later. This is a very quick highlight of just a few AV trends from the past year. There is, of course, more. There's always more. For now, in no particular reason are some thoughts that stuck in my mind from 2013. 

My look forward at 2014 will come as part of the SMW team on our ExpresShen's blog. You'll still see me here, but I'll also be spending some time there along with some of my very bright and talented colleagues, not only in the AV discipline but our data, security, medical planning, and acoustics disciplines as well. That should be an exciting part of the new year and something in which I am greatly looking forward to participating.

2013 was the year....

....that the HDBaseT "standard" hit a saturation point and stopped being interesting. 

Crestron, AMX, Extron, Kramer, Aurora, Purelink, Lightware, Muxlabs, and probably a half dozen others I'm not thinking of at the moment all have what is, for all intents and purposes, the same digital videl ecosystem: modular card-frame based switcher, smallish form-factor standalone transmitter/receiver units, 2-gang wall plate transmitters, etc. Some added an array of input and output formats (3G-SDI, VGA and other analog formats, etc), most have single- and multi-mode fiber options, and if you squint just a bit it's hard to tell which one you're looking at. I kinda flew through the "HDBaseT Pavillion" at Infocomm without too much catching my eye. 

This is part of the reason I'll not post on "switcher wars" anymore; so many of the decisions are so project-specific that it's almost impossible to compare various manufacturers in a vacuum. Do you need SDI outputs to feed a production switcher or capture appliance? Multi-format inputs for a variety of legacy devices? SDI inputs for broadcast cameras? A smaller form-factor and lower heat load because you're stuffing it into a credenza? Does it need to fit with some existing asset management infrastructure? Projects aren't one-size fits all, and we've gotten to the point at which we look at subtle details rather than "this one is good. That one is bad." 

....but some manufacturers have found ways to step out of the box

I'll list two that surprised me a bit. One is the Altinex Muse, technically not quite HDBaseT, but similar technology and interesting nonetheless. Their innovation (shown off in a pretty popular booth at Infocomm) is 150W of AC power right at the receiver. This means that you can plug in a smallish flatpanel with nothing but a single Cat5e or Cat6 cable and without an electrician. Highly groovy and a bit surprising.

Another one that caught my eye is Aurora Multimedia's L2 series of receivers. These have a tiny webserver and control processor built into them. This is terrific for very small, one- or two-input rooms with fairly simple control needs. It lets you run the space with a single-gang decora-style keypad *and* monitor it via your favorite building-management solution. I'd rather have a more robust control system for more complex spaces, but this is a thoughtful solution which certainly has its place.

....Dante took the lead in the digital transport battle

No. Not that Dante.
Audinate's Dante and the AVNu Alliance's AVB are the two available choices to replace the aging Cobranet protocol. 2012 saw Audinate introduce Ultimo, a smaller chipset capable of handling two inputs and two outputs. 2013 saw manufacturers such as Atterotech and Stewart Audio release an array of small form-factor amplifiers and breakout boxes, including wall-plates. A virtual sound card is available to bring multiple channels of audio into and out of a PC (for processing, recording, streaming, or any other purpose one can think of), digital mixing consoles have accepted Dante as one of several standards they support, an a variety of DSPs are now using Dante for audio connectivity.

The real surprise for the year  - and the reason I see Dante as taking the lead - is that Audinate announced that once AVB is ratified as a standard it would be possible for Dante-based hardware to become fully AVB compatible. The folk at Audinate tell me that this would be either/or; one could run the hardware as a Dante system using any layer three switch or as part of an AVB network using the added features in AVB-compliant switches. This adds, at the very least, a future-proofing security blanket.

...but not everybody gave up on Cobranet

A speaker with Cobranet
Amplifier built in!
I thought this would finally be the year we stop talking about Cobranet, but that seems to not be the case. Soundtube opened the year with the introduction of IP-addressable speakers using the venerable Cobranet protocol. Their stated reasons for sticking with this over Dante are that the Cobranet chip is small enough to fit into the speaker back-can along with an amplifer.  They also contend that, for many applications, the latency and channel counts available from Cobranet is more than sufficient. I have my usual level of skepticism, and am concerned about the extra layer of complexity conversion to Cobranet will add in systems which are primarily Dante or AVB. That said, there is a somewhat compelling point and it does seem an interesting solution for certain applications.

...we learned to think small

2013 saw quite a few collaborative solutions for small "huddle" type spaces, from Barco's smaller (and cheaper!) clickshare to Vaddio's Groupstation and wired pushbutton collaborative interfaces from FSR, Extron, and others. This fits not only with different ways in which people are working, but also with the growing prevalence of software-based communications tools as either a supplement to or sometimes a replacement for appliance-based enterprise videoconference systems. Many of us have some combination of Skype, Google Chat, or Apple Facetime either at home or on a personal device. Some of use  Microsoft Lync, Cisco's WebEx or similar on our desktop machines. We become familiar with these technologies, comfortable with them, and look for ways to expand them to use in room systems. Sometimes this sacrifices quality, but especially for small spaces can give a measure of functionality at a fraction of the price of hardwares solutions.

...The blackbirds roosted in the pomegranate tree

What? I'm sure you were expecting something on streaming (another post) or 4K (another other post!) or the like. Instead, I'll close with a literary note. Almost two-decades ago, American writer Mary Ellen Sanger spent six weeks in a Mexican prison. I met her years later at the home of New York-based author Talia Carner as part of a writers' critique group. This year, she finally published a book telling the stories of her time in prison and the women she met there. There are beautifully written, poetic tales. If you're looking for something thoughtful, interesting, and different to read this holiday season, feel free to pick up a copy in dead-tree or Kindle format. Enjoy!

That's the year past. Stay tuned for the year to come, nestled sometime between Christmas and New Years.

Happy Holidays!

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