Friday, February 28, 2014

On Language, Juggling, Lunchtime in the Park, AV, and Networks

Quite a few years ago I earned the CTS (Certified Technical Specialist) certification from Infocomm. 
Last year I began studying to take the ICND1 (Interconnected Network Devices) in pursuit of my first-ever Cisco certification. 
Last week I started learning to throw a juggling pattern called a 4,4,1.

What do these three seemingly disparate items have in common? At their core, they are all largely about language.
Bryant Park in Winter

We'll start with the end, at 4,4,1. It's a fairly simple trick with which I'm still trying to convince my hands to cooperate. Throw a ball straight up with the right hand, then straight up with the left hand, then zip the third ball straight across from right to left. Repeat in the other direction. Repeat in the first direction again. It looks pretty nifty, and can lead to other tricks.
Office Juggling Selfie!

The part I didn't get (aside from the accurate catching and throwing, which kept eluding me) was the name. Finally, I asked one of the more experienced of the Bryant Park Jugglers. For those of you who don't know, Bryant Park is a smallish park behind the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. It has a lawn in the summer, an ice-skating rink in the winter, a fountain, a carousel, a statue of Gertrude Stein and, of course, jugglers (and ping-pong, and even the occasional super-literate topless women).  The answer was simple: a "one" throw is that quick lateral pass, and a "2" is the ball held in hand for a beat. After that, the numbers sync up with the number of balls one would be juggling: a three is a lob from side to side as if it were part of a three ball cascade. A straight up and down toss caught by the same hand that threw it is a "four" because that's what you throw when juggling four balls. A double-height three is a five because the standard five-ball patter is like a three only higher. Etc.
Bryant Park in Summertime

Why is this exciting to me, and why is it important? For the same reason that the CTS was important, and the same reason that a basic understanding of routing and switching is important. I've described the most important part of the CTS as learning the language of AV; someone who passes might not know enough to install, test, commission, or design an AV system, but they would know enough to talk about it. Knowing the names of various connector types, what various signal formats are called, and other technical terms is the first step to being able to learn more. Before newcomers to the industry for example, can learn about various methods of EDID management and emulation they need to know what EDID is in the first place. To give instructions on wiring, testing, routing, and patching a video-edit system without the assumption that ones audience will understand the terms "SDI", "BNC", "Router", "Patch-panel", or "coax" is  an exercise in frustration; it would be like having to describe what a steering wheel, a tire, or a road is before giving someone directions to your house.

This goes a long way to explaining why I'm approaching network certifications. Not only are modern AV systems are increasingly dependent on data networks in order to function, but future AV systems might actually be components of a larger converged network. Systems being designed and installed today might use network-based protocols such as Dante or  AVB for audio transport, video streams encoded as H.264 or similar, and centralized IP-based control systems. From a system design perspective, different protocols and systems have differing network requirements as well as final AV requirements. This adds another step in evaluating varying technologies 

What was once a simple matter of needing a network port now becomes a more complicated discussion in which ports are needed on separate VLANs, in which a layer 3 switch may be required, in which certain devices need to communicate across networks, in which switches need to be configured with various services or protocols. Suddenly "give me a data port" isn't enough. 

This is different than mere jargon; the phrase "layer three switch" or "balanced audio" or "four-four-one" aren't simply fancy words: they stand for concepts that, absent the language for them, we might not even realize exist. It's important to be able to communicate network or AV requirements in a manner which is understandable and professional. It is vitally important to see these concepts in the first place and to internalize them to the point that they become part of how we think about our jobs and the world around us. For this we need to learn the language. 

I'll have more details on this later (including my impressions on some current technology on the market). For the nonce, I'll leave you to reflect on the importance of language.

And if you happen to be in my city, drop by the park around lunchtime. You might find me there, and we just might have a ball.

Not my good set of juggling balls

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Poem Will Be Like You

Some trifles. First, a few lines of blank verse:

He swore an oath to procreate the Constitution
but spilled too soon his words
on tomorrow's barren news print
None left for fertile posterity.

Those who follow me on social media might recognize the phrase "procreate the Constitution" as an errant auto-correct from somebody else in an ill-advised political discussion last week. The missed autocorrect was, in all honesty, the most interesting part of the discussion and the kind of something with which I might do more (and more ideas are fluttering about in my head), but wanted to share this trifle as one direction in which inspiration can go; it in a way dovetails with our earlier discussion here on inspiration, and leads to a modernism.

One  interesting strain of modern literature concerns itself with what some may call the disappearance of ego, if not the author entirely. Way back in my modern poetry posts I touched on odd literary experiments by writers such as John Cage or Bart Silliman - works in which appear to be discovered or excavated as much as they are created. I would argue that authorial intent absolutely does exist on some level -  the choice to follow a certain random path is, after all, a choice - but once that choice is made the author might hand the metaphorical reigns over to ... fate? The gods? quantum uncertainty? Call it what you may, but the reigns are released, leaving what may be a thing of beauty, may be garbled nonsense, or may be a beautiful thing of garbled nonsense.

Early twentieth-century poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara took this to an interesting extreme in his instructions on "How to Make a Dadaist Poem" (the below copied from here, where I got it from educator Al Filreis):

How to Make a Dadaist Poem
(method of Tristan Tzara)
To make a Dadaist poem:
  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
--Tristan Tzara

The most interesting claim to me isn't the last, that you are a writer, infinitely original but the penultimate step, "The poem will be like you". This is the sort of thing which - especialy in the deeply ironic and cynical present - is easy to shrug off as satire. I see a bit more than that in the Dadaist movement, and find some value in the breaking of barriers of technique, artifice, and even authorship. Does the poem resemble the person who chose a newspaper article to slice up and shuffle? The readers who see it through the filter of their own perceptions? OR is it mere nonsense. What I do know is that many find this kind of thing quite compelling, when the Tzara piece came up in Al Filreis's Modern and Contemporary Poetry class on Coursera (one which I highly recommend) scores of students took to the forums with their "Dadaist poems" and John Cage-style "Mesostics" (one of mine I included earlier in this blog).

Below is a not-quite-successful experiment of my own in this vein; I took the swype keyboard on my phone and drew shapes across the letters, letting the software autocorrect it into words. This takes the the errant autocorrect with which we started this discussion to its absurd conclusion - what would a sentence of ALL errant autocorrects look like? 

And yes, the three small oranges and tin of sardines are to be considered part of this work. I'll leave "why" as an exercise for the reader, but it touches on the ongoing themes of modernism and inspiration. If you need a further hint, the sentence I'm scribing in the video is "I am not a painter"

Rd set xxx ttc c.f. foggy Zach uhh in go sex ad ex's ers fifth HB hubbub on ho Klink knoll tv c

Irish haggis educator 
slugs skid schism 
icebox Evian avian Jarvis 
David racist Koenig garlic deux finch duff 
Assad Fuchs succumb hunting visualization
 Ashburn suburbia whitewash e-book sexual Odessa 
Westbrook stump archived compact 
vaginal January

SanDisk Serbian leak out 
stick hall Westfield catacombs prick search
 Saatchi announcing Saatchi servo insist stingy 
ssh bobbin combing/ in km in km tv cc cm 
lMcMahon mm vBulletin b.s.'m'm cub fangs 
scuffed xyz clean etc c hub b th v

Tv wry ext txt

Etc tug fact catch hubbub exec Gretchen hutch 
urged etc huff t-shirts tv t-shirts r rd c exact revved text
 Gibb dc earth ribbon textbooks dc dry exec Sgt drugs exert 
ex r Feb ten edgy f2f t tv ssh ribbon txt t-shirts Hughes Gucci
 txt bfn fig hub Inc highs had ugh th duh tv ssh raccoon high 
dc fact tax ssh Buffy by tag t.v. Essex vaccine t.v. 
I'm ilk read f2f uhh kohl circ tv
 chubby dazed junk Aziz xxx f2f Chubb hubbub

And that is that. Again, not quite successful, but read allowed there's a certain pleasure in some of the stanzas. I'll close with a thought: this could be polished and refined. TO do so would make it more readable, but blunt the element of randomness and return authorial ego to the process. Would that be a service or a disservice to the work?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Consumerization in Pro AV

The proliferation of consumer technology in profession AV has been a hot topic as of late both in the office and amongst my fellow AV bloggers. Over the past week we got commentary from Mike Brandes, Josh Srago, Mike Brandes again. It's also been a recurring topic on LinkedIn and Google+ AV professional groups.

Consumer products
sometimes look like fruit
There are some who fear that the increasing use of consumer-grade technology is hurting business, some who see the use of consumer goods as a way to reduce cost, and others who see users' increased familiarity with interactive AV technology to be an opportunity. I land largely in the last camp, but recognize value in several positions on this issue, depending on exactly which technology one is discussing.

Consumer Tech as Value-Add
In an entirely unrelated blog post on customer service, Mark Coxon related a story about a system which wouldn't perform correctly because the consumer TVs the client had purchased in lieu of commercial flatpanels couldn't handle the various  resolutions  output by users laptops. Five or so years ago this would have been a serious concern. Video switching and routing was largely based on simple transport, without scaling or any other type of signal processing or conversion. A commercial flatpanel would be able to handle whichever resolutions one gave it, have locking BNC connectors for the RGBHV, Y/V (S-video), component, and composite inputs. A comsumer flatpanel would not only handle fewer resolutions, but also have consumer oriented connectors which wouldn't always lock and would sometimes require adapters which add to signal attenuation. BNC connectors can be easily and quickly field-terminated, making it easy to pull cable through conduit and cut to length. HD15 connectors (the "VGA" connector) take at least fifteen minutes for a technician to solder, if you can find a technician who knows how to do it. In short, there were real advantages.

Today, things are different. Until 4K becomes the defacto standard (another change driven as much by the living room as the boardroom), most commercial AND consumer displays have a resolution of 1920x1080. Digital matrix switches cross-convert signals to HDMI and often scale to the native resolution of the display. Consumer or commercial, one gets the same non-locking HDMI connector which cannot be terminated in the field. If one adds the fact that the average viewer watches around  thirty hours of television per week, one finds that a high-quality consumer flatpanel is more than suitable for commercial use. Consumer displays increasingly have RS232 and IP controls, allowing as easy integration with a control system.

What does one lose? Perhaps a warranty, but some distributors are willing to provide that. 24x7 operation, but that's a requirement in relatively few situations. What does one gain? A far lower cost. For the cost of a professional display,  you can usually purchase about four consumer models. That means that one can purchasing  a consumer TV, throwing it away when it breaks, buy a new one, and still have spent half the cost of a professional model. 

Consumer Tech as a Dangerous Expectation
One of the scariest bits of tech in the pro AV world is the Apple TV. It's well-beloved by its users, but for various technical reasons (largely its device discovery protocol) is a terrible thing to put on a corporate network. The only thing worse than putting an Apple TV on your corporate network is putting two Apple TVs on the same enterprise network and trying to control which one users connect to. 

The challenge is that there's not really an "enterprise Apple TV" available at this point, and if there were it would still post challenges about levels of network access and security. These aren't insurmountable challenges, but at the very least require serious thought and attention. This is drifting towards another topic, but that's a reason I'm persuing Cisco certifications now that I've achieved my CTS-D. At the very least, a basic understanding of networks is required to navigate this kind of issue.

The other big pitfall we see is in touchpanels. Ten inch touchpanels from Crestron, AMX, and Extron have MSRPs ranging from $2400 to $5000 dollars. On the positive side, the dedicated touchpanels have wired connectivity (as opposed to wifi only), hard buttons, and some other nice features. On the negative side, most lack the graphical processing power of an iPad or similar and don't scroll as smoothly (the new AMX panels does very well here, but at the highest cost. I've not seen the very newest Crestron or Extron panels yet, but their current models still lag a bit in graphical performance), at a cost of between five and ten iPads. It's becoming increasingly challenging to sell the idea of a dedicated touchpanel as worth the effort when what the user sees isn't any better than consumer products at a fraction of the cost. As a user, it's a question worth asking. As a designer, it's also an option at the very least worth exploring. Does a professional touchpanel have enough increased utility to justify a doubling of cost? That's a very project-specific question, but I'll say that I don't consider the answer to always be an unequivocal "yes".

Consumer Tech as an Opportunity
The best thing about this - where is is an opportunity - is that the initial explanatory part of our job is largely done before we open the conversation. Gone are the days in which we need to explain the concept of a touch-screen operated control system; enough people control their home entertainment with Android or iOS devices that the concept is, at least, familiar. Likewise, personal use of Skype, Apple Facetime, Google Hangouts and the like needn't be a replacement for enterprise videoconference solutions; at the least it can be a conversation starter. At most... these types of solutions CAN fit into a larger ecosystem. Why not have larger specialty spaces with appliance-based Codecs, pan/tilt/zoom robotic cameras, DSPs, and installed mics alongside smaller "huddle" spaces with stationary cameras to support Lync or some other desktop solution? 

Our value add as professionals is not, in my estimation, steering clients away from consumer solutions and towards "professional" ones. It's a matter of helping them navigate a world in which the lines between consumer and professional gear are increasingly blurred. The target shouldn't be "commercial" or "consumer" but "appropriate".

Therein lies our challenge - and our opportunity. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Visit with Primeview (and others!)

Today marked the official grand opening of Primeview's New York showroom. Primeview, for those not familiar with them, are a manufacturer of commercial flatpanel displays, focusing on video-walls, digital signage, and interactive applications. For their demo space they partnered with several of the manufacturers with whom they work on projects: Haivision, Vista Systems, TVOne, Bouncepad, and Key Digital. Having their partners share the stage provides a measure of context for the technology by showing at least on example of what they think you can actually do with it.

The space itself was a tiny three-room postage-stamp kind of place on the eighth floor of a conveniently located Midtown office building. The small space has a clean, semi-industrial look with an open ceiling (all painted black) and clean white walls on which, of course, a ton of video monitors hang for our perusal. A few of my impressions as I walked through the space:
Haivision Demo and LCD wall

The first demo I saw was Haivision, which was streaming content to a 2x2 LCD wall. The nifty thing about this demo is that the same content (via Haivision's KulaByte transcoder, if my memory serves me correctly) was being streamed wirelessly to an iPad. You can't see it from the still photos, but the mobile content lagged by less than a half second. This is obviously not a solution for live annotation, but for quite a few other applications its performance is more than sufficient. Encoding is h.264; I didn't think to ask if H.265 is on the roadmap now that 4K content is becoming more common.
Spyder. Also bouncepad

Their larger wall was operated by a Vista Spyder and had, among other sources, a Christie Brio. I sadly didn't have time for the Brio demo, but there is one sitting on my office desk awaiting integration with our very own system. More on that, perhaps, in another few weeks. The one thing the Spyder demo did illustrate is the importance of high-quality content on large-format displays. One source was some PC video at a not-very high resolution interlaced format. On a smallish PC monitor or mobile device it would probably look terrific. On a 2x2 video wall made up of 55" flatpanels? Lets just say that large format, high resolution displays will show blemishes and artifacts at their very worst. There's an important lesson there about operating a wall and, as AV professionals, setting expectations.

All of the walls aside from the Sypder demo (the Haivision 2x2, the 1x3 portrait wall, the interactive 1x3 portrait) were run off of a TVOne Coriomaster video wall processor with HDBaseT output cards. HDBaseT receivers are a combination of Magenta Research and Primeview panels with integrated HDBaseT receivers. Two of these had "daisy-chain" capability with an HDBaseT output mirroring the HDBaseT input. This is a terrific solution for corridor signage, to give one example. Also nice for a demo room in which the same content is being mirrored on various displays. The Coriomaster is very flexible in being able to support portrait, landscape, and any orientation in between. It's not the same as a Spyder (lacking, amongst other things, the front-panel buttons, some advanced features and flexibility, and a certain reputation for reliability), but still an interesting product.
Demo of Anacore Collaborative
After I chatted with some of the other technology parthers, Chanan Averbuch of Primeview treated me to the grand tour. One thing I appreciate about Primeview is the level of enthusiasm their team has about the company and the technology. They're excited about plasma, excited about the quality and feature sets of their displays (4K. Integrated HDBaseT. Near-seamless bezel-free walls). He also took me through a nice demo of the Anacore collaborative software. It handles collaborative tasks (whiteboarding, annotation, etc) with a nice, slick interface which also allows very easy archiving and sharing of markups.

The final partner I met was Bouncepad - makers of nice custom-labelled iPad mounts. This is quickly becoming another crowded corner of the industry, but theirs did have a very nice, clean look. 

Aside from the aforementioned partner demos, some things stood out to me:
Still a work in progress. But nice gear!

1) The combination of landscape- and portrait-mounted plasmas. They looked very nice in any orientation.

2) Highlighting technology partners definitely makes it a different experience than a single-manufacturer room with displays would have given. At the risk of being buzz-wordy, this felt like a presentation of solutions as opposed to products. 

2) The Anacore collaborative software running on the 1x3 wall in the front room is interesting. This is another section of the market with quite a few players, but it's always interesting to see the strengths and weaknesses of a new solution. This kind of collaboration is certainly a wave of the future. 

3) A fairly wide variety of monitors are displayed, including plasmas and LCDs. Did you notice the color being a bit different in one panel on the Haivision demo? That wasn't my camera; the wall contains different LCD panels so you can compare the brighter version to the slightly less bright version with better color reproduction. 

The room itself is very slightly a work in progress; the rack cabling can stand re-dressing, and some nearby construction knocked some of their video walls out of true. Once it's readjusted just a bit, this will be a very interesting and nice demo area for us in the AV world here in New York.