Friday, June 27, 2014

Infocomm Wrap-up, Part the Fourth - Hits and Misses

On the theme of Evolution, not Revolution - TVOne
reprises their "windmill" demo. The four displays
in the center still spin.
A week past my return to Infocomm, I'm finally getting to write my  overall reflections on the show and what technology I saw there. For further perspectives, visit my esteemed colleague Alex Mayo who offered his own perspective. Alex is a bright man and a very talented designer with whom I'm quite fortunate to work. I especially agree with him on the growing role of enterprise-wide resource management and analysis as part of our projects. 

Before I start, I'd like to tip my hat to Draper, to Cory Moss, to George Tucker, and to everyone else who added their voice to the discussion of "booth babes" and the larger topic of sexism in the industry. This is a conversation that isn't over by a long-shot, and it's my sincere hope that we keep it up and see some changes next year. Now, on with the show!

Overall, Infocomm this year was fun and informative, but it wasn't a year that felt important in that it would change how we think about AV. Much of it felt evolutionary to me, as existing product lines were refined and expanded upon but few really new and daring changes came. Here are some hits and misses, along with my reflections.

Hit - Network-Centric AV
It's been quite some years since vendors such as SVSI started selling JPEG2000 encoded video as a transport and routing solution. It certainly is feeling to me that the time for this technology has finally come now that we have greater IT/AV convergence, proliferation of higher-bandwidth lower latency networks, and - perhaps most importantly - changes to workflow and overall expectations. SVSI has expanded their uncompressed video over network line to include 4K and has also expanded their control and video-wall processing offerings. ClearOne, Aurora Multimedia, Crestron, AMX, and others have all thrown their collective hats in the ring, with solutions including H.264, JPEG2000, and/or uncompressed video offerings. Crestron's introduction of an H.264 card (not an Infocomm introduction, but new for this year) is an elegant solution for hybrid designs in which in-room transport is handled by more traditional means.

The best part of this is the number of technologies being deployed. Uncompressed video is critical in latency-sensitive environments such as annotation. Compressed video solutions - most of which are configurable for different levels of quality and bandwidth - are excellent for campus-wide distribution, while uncompressed video is still a requirement for highly latency-sensitive control and annotation applications.

Miss - HDBaseT, Other Video Over Structured Cable
This wasn't a miss in that it's bad technology; I still use this kind of solution in nearly every AV system I design. What makes it a miss for me at the show is that the technology seems to have plateaued. Yes, we can now send 4K content over copper and that's a big plus. With relatively little content available, 4K is still a little bit of a niche technology. Does it remain something for which we need to prepare? Absolutely. Does 4K capability offer real utility in 90% of AV systems? Not really.
This is quite cool. It's a shame it's no longer all that

For a "near miss" see the demo by TVOne division Magenta Research of 1080p content over an entire spool of category cable. This is quite impressive, especially for those of us who've sometimes struggled with   marginal signal over long cable runs. The problem is that it seems like yesterday's technology; if I have an endpoint an entire cable-spool away from its source I'd far more likely use a network-based solution. The geek in me finds this really cool; the designer in me is not sure I'll ever use it.

Hit - Direct-view LED Displays
Some of the biggest buzz was over direct-view LED displays, especially Christie's Velvet with a 2mm pixel pitch and Silicon Core's Magnolia at 1.5mm. This is very, very impressive and lets viewers get very close to the display before the image appears to break up to a series of dots. Aside from obvious applications in outdoor displays, this technology has finally reached the point at which it's tempting for a boardroom or conference room application - especially if the alternative involves taking apart the side of a building to fly in a piece of rear-projection glass.

Miss - Complicated Hardware Control Appliances
The above-mentioned Mr. Mayo stated his lack of interest in proprietary touchpanels. His argument is that consumer-grade tablets - especially the fruit-flavored ones from Cuppertino - have as much if not more capability at a fraction of the cost. We'll soon reach the point  at which we can extend that to control processors. I got a peek at the new processors from AMX, and found them a bit time-warpy. They have a nice, low-profile 1RU controller with a ton of serial, IR, and relay ports on the back of it. This would be wonderful a few years ago, but today I see more and more IP-based control and less and less RS232. I'll say the same about new touchpanels from Crestron. Are they improving? Yes. Do they match the capability and cost of an iPad? Not at this point.

Hit - Web Control and Monitoring
I had a brief chat with departing Vaddio CEO Rob Sheeley who showed off an integrated webserver in Vaddio's new RoboShot line of pan/tilt/zoom robotic cameras.  This removes perhaps the last major use of RS232 from many projects. It also opens the possibility of adjusting camera settings via a remote interface rather than from the rack-mounted camera control unit. Very much a welcome change and improvement. That the camera itself has a slick, modern design doesn't hurt.

Hit - Wireless Collaboration/Video Streaming
Not only are these proliferating, they're getting better. On the simpler end we have the WePresend/Clickshare CSM/Airmedia family. There is also the software-only product from Mersive, which was already impressively responsive before a recent software upgrade. Rounding out the appliance side are the Wowvision/Kramer product and the AMX Enzo. Now that Enzo has added Miracast and Apple screen-mirroring support these are both viable solutions in this space. What makes them more appealing is that each has the ability to run secondary applications - Windows 7 programs in the case of Wowvision and what appears to be a Java-based system for AMX. This is what caught my interest when Enzo was first introduced last Infocomm, but as of that time the only app available was Dropbox. With the introduction of screen mirroring AND the promise of Lync/Skype integration by the end of the year, Enzo has gone from an expensive Dropbox machine to an intriguing solution for small collaborative soft-conferencing oriented spaces. I look forward to seeing more.

Soft hit - Dante
We've seen the 150th Dante licensee - Kramer Electronics, with a set of small (half-rack) amplifiers. ClearOne, after depending solely on its proprietary G-Link, not only is adding Dante to its Converge product line but is also now producing a 512x512 Dante-based DSP. Audinate itself launched Via, a nice expansion on the concept of the existing "Virtual Soundcard". Via recognizes all of the audio I/O capabilities of a computer (including both software options such as music players or soft Codecs AND hardware options including speakers, mics, and embedded audio on HDMI) and will allow them to be explicitly displayed as inputs or outputs on Dante Controller. Having direct access to applications as well as physical I/O is a very interesting change; I look forward to finding ways to take advantage of this new capability.

Miss ? AVB
When I mentioned AVB to one of my colleagues, he had one question for me: "Is it dead yet?" I don't think it quite is, but it is, at best, on life-support. Crown Audio (as well as the rest of the Harman family) supports AVB, as do a handful of other endpoint manufacturers. Biamp now has AEC available in an AVB-enabled expansion box, but that's about it for the exciting AVB news; it has nowhere near the robust ecosystem which has grown around Dante. In fact, I can't think of anything I could do at this point with AVB that I couldn't do more easily in a Dante system. Mark Coxon may see it as the great big promise for Harman; I'm not quite ready to stick a fork in it and declare it "done" but, at least as an audio-transport medium, I'm very, very close. 
Just imagine what could be here next year.

This was a nice show, but not a dazzling one; I walked away with, as usual, some interesting ideas and thoughts but nothing which radically changed my thinking on anything in the industry. The industry continues to move, yet at a slow pace. Most symbolic of that, perhaps, was the much-discussed Microsoft booth. Microsoft arrived to display.... nothing very much. Some charging stations, displays, and the promise of white space and what may fill it tomorrow.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Post Infocomm Wrap-up Part the Third - The issue of Booth Babes and A Call to Arms

My Infocomm wrap-up will be in FOUR parts this time. Next part will be about technology. Before we get into that, I have something important to say - something about this show which bothers me. Read on.

Some of you who follow me on Twitter might have seen my hashtag #AVHallOfShame. It's one I use for the cringe-worthy AV moments; sloppy wiring, soundbars in places from which sound can't possibly carry to viewers, badly-sized or badly-placed displays, etc. This week I tagged Purelink's booth at Infocomm booth with AVHallOfShame, but it wasn't for the quality of their workmanship. I didn't even get close enough to look. What was my issue? Take a look at this, from their marketing email:

Yes, someone at Purelink thought that young women in the tightest, skimpiest outfits they could get away with was an appropriate and reasonable way to bring attention to their booth. (I'm not, perhaps, being entirely fair in singling out Purelink. KeyDigital's model in a backless Tardis dress wasn't much better, not were any number of models in short, tight dresses representing literally scores of manufacturers. Crestron continues to hire scantily clad models as living wayfinding signs to get the masses from one part of their party to the next. There are many examples. Purelink just stood out as the most egregious).  For all of the women in the industry - an industry in which women still need to fight for acceptance - it sends a message. That they remain outsiders. That no matter how hard they work, no matter how many find themselves in increasingly important roles, they will always be uninvited guests at somebody else's party. They will be tolerated because the law says that we have to tolerate them, but this is not their space and they aren't to forget it. It tells women that they're in a space run by men, for men.

It sends a message to men too. A message that this is our space which we needn't worry too much about sharing. That boys will be boys, that any complaints could be shrugged off with a frat-boy smirk. It says that we're welcome to make bawdy jokes, to use "sexy" exploitive video as test media. It says that it's OK to ignore the sensibilities of those who are different.

It says that this is a boys' club and that we're free to treat it that way.

It's also, at the end of the day, a waste of my time and yours. I don't want to have to get my badge scanned by some hired-for-the-day model in a short dress and high heels who probably didn't even know that the manufacturer whose booth she is manning existed a week ago. If a woman greets me at a booth, I want it to be someone like Penny Silter of Draper, Kristen Recker of ListenTech, or someone else who's learned the product, lived the product, and believes in it. Someone who can tell me something I don't know and someone who is there for the same reason as I am - because we care about the AV industry and want to share our knowledge. Not because we look good in a dress (and take my word for it -- I look marvelous in one).

For certain definitions of

Towards the end of a day in which I grew increasingly annoyed by this issue I came to the Earthworks booth, only to be greeted by a woman in a skirt and uncomfortable-looking heels. Not wanting to do the "scan your badge-then let me find someone who even knows what this booth is about" dance again, I gave her the low-temperature scapula as I stalked into the booth looking for someone actually employed by Earthworks and not a modelling agency. The punchline, of course, is that there wasn't anyone else in the booth: the "model" I'd stalked past was, in fact, Megan Clifford, Earthworks' Director of Brand Marketing.  Oops.

We did get to chat about their new install mics and I, of course, offered an apology for being an AV oaf (should that be a new hashtag?). So much as I blame myself for jumping to conclusions, I also blame an industry which spent the previous day and a half delivering a message to me: the women in high heels are there for decoration. They aren't product experts but guns for hire, there to catch the eye of the straight males who make up the only part of the potential market about whom we seem to care.

When I tweeted this, Draper's twitter account responded with a sigh, and the question of "When will this end"? My answer - expanded from the 140 characters I was constrained to in the initial conversation - is that it will end when we decide to make it end. When those of us who are offended by it speak up and let everybody know that we're mad and let them know why. Let them know that, in the long term,  this is harmful to the women and men in our industry. That casual sexism should be just as shocking as casual racism would be. We're not there yet. We may not get there for a long time. Until we do, I call on you to stand with me, to speak up. If you don't, we'll stay where we are. 

This Infocomm I was too wrapped up in what Infocomm means to me to speak up at the time; I regret not saying this sooner, not saying this during the show. I'll close with a call to action, for all of you and for myself. To borrow the big-brotherish slogan from my city's own police department, if you see something, say something. Tweet it (others have used the hashtag #NotBuyingIt for similar issues. We can do the same). Blog it. Transmit it via compression waves generated from your larynx. Talk to your colleagues. Talk to the offenders. Be respectful, of course, but be strident. Be passionate. If you're a woman in the industry, stand up for yourself and the other women in our industry.  If you're a man, stand up for our sisters, let them know that they aren't alone and let the rest of us know that we won't stand for this behavior. 

When will this end? When we decide to end it.

Let's get to work.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Infocomm mini update - part the second

The second - and final - day of this year's Infocomm journey is behind me. More when I get home, but here are skew quick impressions:

Vaddio debuted their new line of Roboshot cameras. These have some nice features, including installer-adjustable lens stops to configure the same camera for wide angle or tight zoom shots. Better yet, these cameras have an on-board webserver, finally allowing IP control. The Vaddio team remains playful in a good way, this time dressing in Grateful Dead inspired custom TShirts, one of which I walked our I'd the booth with. Now all I need is a Cadillac.

Smart Tech introduced something different; the Smart Kapp capture board. It's a neat idea: a dry erase board which can, via a web app, capture your sketches and send them to a tablet or smart phone. It's a different way to bridge the digital and analog worlds. I seem to have won one in a Twitter contest by taking an AV selfie with it, so you'll possibly get more impressions of it from me later.

There was also some buzz about the gorgeous direct-view LED video walls, including one from Christie Digital with less than a 2mm pixel pitch. From about five feet back the individual dots just disappear (that is a subjective impression. perhaps I'll check the math on this one when I get home).  It's also a sort of technology which can deliver very high contrast. This could be a very promising solution.

Yesterday I mentioned AVB as a bit of a disappointment. Dante continues to grow into the dominant platform, becoming a defacto standard. There are great options for Dante inputs and outputs, including break-in boxes, amplifiers, wireless Mic systems. Stewart Audio had a nice line of small network-enabled amplifiers using Dante. They are joined by Kramer, the 150th Dante licensee. Kramer quietly debuted a product very similar to Stewart's which, as of this writing, I cannot find in their website. This is the kind of product that gives me ideas for creating distributed systems. It also lead to a great discussion with the Stewart team about both done upcoming products and the plusses and minuses of a potential PoE amp. This is a discussion which will continue.

There's more. What, I'd any big stories did I take away? What did I think of the standards circus? Why did I give the cold shoulder to the VP off marketing from Earthworks, and why was that Purelink's fault? Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Pixel-And-Ink-Stained miniupdate - Infocomm 2014

Some super-quick pixel-and-ink stained impressions from Day 1 of my Infocomm experience. Expect a longer update when I return to New York and have the time to digest the events of the show and figure out what the overall story is. For now, quick impressions:
Pat Brown remains smart. I had the pleasure of a two hour seminar with Pat Brown of SynAudCon on amplifier specifications, including the math that goes into sizing an amplifier, why better quality audio sounds quieter, and an introduction to the new Common Amplifier Format. Fun activity: ask various vendors if they have CAF data for their amps. You'll either get a "no", a blank stare, or a no followed by a blank stare.
Vidyo remains interesting. In an increasingly crowded  unified communications field, long-time player Vidyo remains relevant in their attempt to include - and showcase - as wide an array of platforms as possible. In their booth they have demonstrations with their own hardware, smartphones, a competitor's Codec (Lifesize) and a PC running Lync. They even had three employees call in from remote locations spending the entire day staring into a videoconference camera to give that multi-call experience.
AVB Remains Promising - but Frustrating
The AVNU alliance had the usual demonstrations of mostly audio products with a little video. It's still very nearly where it has been; a very promising technology needing more applications before it takes off.

Interesting moves from Biamp
Biamp finally released an AEC-enabled version of its Tesira extenders. This allows a much more reasonable build for a  centralized system, They also have a partnership with Lab Gruppen in which one of Lab Gruppen's new amplifiers now comes with what seems to be a mini-Tesira processor built in. This to me says that Lake Processing (member of the TC group along with Lab Gruppen) is not interested in moving to the vtc/install market.

Microsoft Really Is just Looking
Did you see the Microsoft booth? Lots of white space. It might be the biggest booth in the show AND have the smallest amount of product.

That really is the Microsoft booth

Women in AV Continue to be Relevant
Too many booths on the show floor are using women as decoration. Given that and the male-dominance, it's wonderful to see the Women in AV continue to work towards broader acceptance and access in the industry. The second annual mentoring award was given to Theresa Hahn of Verrex; it is well deserved ant the work she does on behalf of the industry continues to be relevant. Let's all work toward a time when this is no longer needed.
More to come! Watch me here, on Twitter ( @LeonardCSuskin ) or on the show floor for more.
End of day AV Selfie with the Drunk Unkles!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Infocomm 2014 - For What I'll be Looking (A Pixel-and-Ink Stained Look Ahead)

Infocomm time is almost here! I'll resume my tradition from last year and  share with you my thoughts on things for which to look on the show floor. Those of you following the discussion online should be aware that my esteemed colleague, AV wunderkind Alex Mayo has already weighed in on this from the cubicle next-door. He has much of it right, and perhaps missed an item or two which I'd have found interesting.

Things for which I'm not looking:
I'll start off taking a step backwards at what I'll not be looking for. If you're looking for me on the show floor, this is where to not find me (and if you're avoiding me, this is where to go):

HDBaseT. Yes, I still use HDBaseT in many, many designs and don't see it going away. It's just reached the point at which it is somewhat commodified and not all that interesting. Without thinking too hard, I'm sure most readers of this blog can think of a half dozen or more companies  with the same product line: modular matrix switcher, all-in-one presentation switcher, 2-gang wallplate transmitter, standalone transmitter, scaling receiver, etc. Nice technology, but the differences have become fine enough that there isn't all that much more to learn. It certainly isn't the future.

Big Manufacturers. I don't like to do "booth tours" with the big players in the industry: the Crestrons and AMXs and such. It's one reason that Extron's disappearance from Infocommland doesn't affect me all that much; I know what Crestron and AMX are up to. I know what QSC and most of the Harman family are up to. Between training classes, social events and the like I'll probably only have about 6 hours or so on the trade floor; I don't want to chew those up visiting things that I'll read a press release about the next day anyway.

So for What Will I Look?
That's the big question: what is the story this Infocomm? Last year part of what caught my attention was the UC pavillion with various hardware, software, and virtualized MCUs and bridging services. Last year also showed us the first Lync room systems, which represented a push for Microsoft to leverage their success in desktop conferencing  to larger spaces. What will we see this year? A few things.

AVB. "The breakout year for AVB" has been predicted every year for at least three years now. In the meantime, Dante has overtaken it as the defacto standard of audio transport over networks (and yes, I know that Dante isn't an open standard. Neither was Cobranet, but that had a very central place for a long time). That said, I've heard some rumblings about finally sending video over AVB, including rumors of some video products in varying stages of development. If we're to move towards a more "converged" world there will need to be some way to synchronize audio and video streams from different network devices. It is my hope that AVB's time synchronization protocol (IEEE 802.1AS) will achieve this. If so, AVB suddenly becomes very interesting. There's been at least one manufacturer teasing a video product, which may or may not see the show floor.

Dante: With AVB dragging its heels, Dante has emerged as the dominant technology for audio transport over networks. Audinate has announced that their 150th partner product will be unveiled at Infocomm AND that they have a new and "disruptive" (their word) software update. Is this a grab for attention, or is there something exciting there? Audinate's track record is such that I'll at least check.

4KUncompressed: Like it or not, have skepticism or not, 4K is coming. With the Valens HDBaseT chipset lacking the bandwidth to deliver 4K (or UHD) content at 60 frames per second with a 12-bit color depth the field is wide open. A few manufacturers have teased solutions and strategies, some of which may see the show floor. 

4K, Compressed: 4K content requires quite a bit of bandwidth, and that means some form of compression. Haivision unveiled an HEVC  (aka H.265) encoder at NAB; one other manufacturer has hinted that they might be looking at the open-source VP9 as an alternative. Which of these takes the biggest market share is an interesting 

Something Different
This falls under the "I'll know it when I see it" category. There's a temptation to take the new and treat it as an extension of the familiar. To think of an IP-based AV transcoder, for example, as an endpoint for a virtualized "matrix switch". To think of Dante and AVB as audio transport busses rather than routable protocols adding some freedom. As I said in the HDBaseT category, there are quite a few manufacturers - on the audio and video side - offering near-identical product lines. For an example of thinking differently, I'll look at one product not appearing at Infocomm: Extron's five-mic input Dante expansion box. This isn't a break-in box so much as a complete DSP with no analog outputs. Rather than send audio from a break-in box to a centrally located DSP for processing, Extron chose to apply filters, EQ, and even AEC locally in a little half-rack sized mini-processor box, then send the processed audio (plus dry) via Dante.  It's a fundamentally different approach and, along with Virtual Soundcard, can lead to some interesting design alternatives.

That's where my eyes will be on my whirlwind through the show floor. As I said, I'll also be taking some classes (more on those when I get back), and meeting some AV friends. Socially, you can expect to see me at the AVTweeps Tweetup and, of course, to see the Drunk Unkles at the Hardrock. Fun fact: With my current position at Shen, Milsom and Wilke I've now worked with two of the "Unkles" - Steve Emspak now, and Felix Robinson back in my AVI-SPL days. 

I'll close with some random snapshots from last Infocomm, in no particular order and for no particular reason. I look forward to seeing some of you, my readers, there. If you spot me, feel free to say hello!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Praise of Analog - a Visit with the Beyerdynamic Revoluto

Digital is fun. Digital is sexy. Digital is what gives us the tools to manipulate sound and video in ways which would have been impossible not too long ago. Today video switchers are digital. Audio mixing consoles are digital. Fancy speaker arrays and even mic arrays are digital. The world is so digital that it becomes easy to forget that the world is, at its core, analog and that, especially in the case of audio, the analog can be the most important. With this in mind, 

(aside - I am aware that the world might, in fact, not be analog. The hypothesis of quantization holds that increases in any entity - be it matter or energy - is by a multiple of discrete smallest increases, or quanta. This means that the universe is, as we measure things, digital - albeit with a very high sample rate and quite a few bits of precision. Some have taken this a step farther and hypothesized that all which we see is a digital simulation running on some form of computer in a parent universe. This has very little impact on audio processing, so we can all go back to pretending that we live in a real, analog universe with no antecedents. End of aside).

Microphones and Microphones
Last year we had a nice visit with the ClearOne Beamforming ceiling microphone. This remains an impressive piece of technology,  but one with the inherent limitation of a need to be paired with an associated digital processing device. It is a very nice device, but at a very high cost. Is there another way to create a microphone array? Would I even be asking the rhetorical question if there wasn't?

German microphone manufacturer Beyerdynamic thinks that there is. One of their flagship products - the Revoluto - consists of seventeen microphone elements on a curved circuit board with analog summing elements. Nothing else. No digital processing, no magic. Just analog signals added together to create a single mic-level output. Beyerdynamic appears quite proud of this project, and has been adding "Revoluto technology" to its line of delegate mics.

As there are really few better ways to engage my skepticism than to make up a word and then promise the made-up-word technology in other products, I was glad to get my hands on a Revoluto and play with it. No, this won't be a product review and I didn't perform rigorous, technical measurements on it (what was the fate of our demo Revoluto? See here, on ExpresSHENs).

What I can say about it is this: it gives very clear voice reproduction at a surprising distance, with pick-up dropping off sharply as sources move off-axis. This makes it an especially interesting choice for huddle spaces in noisy rooms, assuming the noise sources are off-axis from talkers.
Test setup. Revoluto sitting in the pen tray, ceiling mic
hanging from the ceiling.

Does it actually work? On one simple set of tests (detailed above), the mic array certainly seems to perform as Beyerdynamic claims that it does. I didn't test it rigorously or thoroughly enough for a formal review or product comparison, but in a quick and basic setup it did a far better job than an analog ceiling microphone of rejecting the noise from an adjacent equipment rack full of noisy AV gear.

Overall, it's an interesting product and a nice reminder that thoughtfully crafted analog devices still have a very important place in our digital world.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Again The Same River - on Fandom, Art and Neurodiversity with an old Webcomic Friend

I recently stumbled across a list of seventeen completed webcomics to binge-read from beginning to end. (A webcomic, for those unfamiliar to the term, is exactly what it sounds like: a comic book delivered digitally via the internet. The art form has an interesting history, including some writers who have taken full advantage of the unlimited digital canvass to experiment with form. See my earlier post on Order of the Stick for more on webcomics). At the very end of the list, I was quite surprised to see an old friend I'd neither read nor really thought about in well over a decade now: T Campbell's Fans (previously titled Faans). It started off as a black-and-white geek-culture celebrating print comic about a science fiction fan club getting mixed up in real-world SF adventures including battles with invading space aliens, vampires, "men-in-black" style  secret government agents, and others. It started off as great silly fun, picking up depth and complexity. While some geek-culture comics seem to have vanished (ie, the comic-book loving Three Geeks) and others have remained frozen in amber, repeating the same jokes over and over for years (I'm thinking specifically of Jolly Blackburn's Knights of the Dinner Table), Fans seems to have run through a complete story with some surprises, real character development, and a beginning, middle, and end.  Reading all those years of strips I'd missed was an interesting experience, and one which opens some interesting questions.

Fans are Slans
The above phrase, referencing A E van Vogt's 1946 novel Slan, was at one time a rallying cry for science fiction fans. The implication is clear to those who'd read the novel: fans are looked down upon despite being smarter,  more interconnected, and just better than regular "mundanes" (the fannish word for a non-fan). They saw themselves as the future of which everyone else is afraid. The early adventures of Campbell's characters reflect this attitude: the only ones prepared to protect the world against fantastic threats are those who've lived the fantastic in their imagination.

This attitude seems to have faded as science fiction and fantasy have become more mainstream and, to his credit, it's one with which Campbell seems to have become increasingly uncomfortable in his writing. As the comic wandered further from fan culture it thankfully dropped this attitude. We still end up with a quirky group of characters repeatedly saving the world from increasingly strange and high-stakes threats, but the emphasis on fandom fades significantly. This is a nice thing, and makes the series feel both more universal and less geek-snobbish. The final chapters involve a "next generation" in which most of the original fans have backed away from the saving-the-world business to settle in for some form of happy ending. 

And about those happy endings, there IS a touch of sentimentality at points, and I found the resolution of one love-triangle to be a bit wish-fulfillment-ish. Your mileage may vary, but it leads to another interesting positive. 

On Neurodiversity and Non-standard families
We end up with some  non-standard family arrangements (including a three-person marriage), and quite a few characters who would certainly be identified as either on the autism spectrum or otherwise mentally not normal. There is a bit of the autism-as-superpower trope with one character, but there are also cases in which different thought patterns - particularly cretaive, visual thinking - are more valuable than traditional analytical thinking. This makes a bit of the case for the neurodiversity movement - those who view what many of us see as mental impairments (particularly the autism spectrum) as differences to be celebrated rather than disabilities to be overcome. I have no idea as to whether or not this is intentional, but one art has an existence apart from the creator and one way to judge great art is by asking if it can be viewed more than one way, with more than one message. This is one of the messages I see in Fans. It's also a thought which I find interesting in the real world; while some people with autism or other conditions are truly unable to function in society, there's still plenty of room between what we consider "normal" and unable to function in society. It's something worth thinking about.

Various characters also end up happily single, in a three-way marriage and, perhaps most surpisingly in a traditional nuclear family. The people we care about all get happy endings, but they're all different happy endings - and not the ones a reader would envision on first meeting the characters. Most ring true though, as character grow to be something more. In a way it reminds me a bit of the aforementioned Order of the Stick in that we  start with archetypes who eventually grow into people. 

Worth Reading?
They say you can't cross the same river twice, as the river has changed and so have you. This is true, and the experience wasn't the same.Reading a completed webcomic is not the same as reading one as it's published; the anticipation between pages is a part of the experience which is hard to duplicate. On the positive side, there's none of the frustration in having to wait for the rest of the story; one can read at ones own pace.   Was this worth the time to read? I thought so, and not soley for the nostalgia value. Fans features exploration of different art styles, some real surprises, and a great deal of fun. Highly recommended for those into the webcomic form or playful sci-fi. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Acquisition Summer - Some thoughts on the latest goings-on in the world of commercial AV

Greetings, friends and followers! My apologies for the various obligations (professional and personal), side-projects, and secret adventures which have kept me away from these pages for the past week. After a weekend off the grid at an undisclosed location I'm refreshed and ready to dive into all of the news in AV-land on this, the last fortnight before Infocomm 2014. You can expect more book reviews, at least one technology piece (sneak peek: the first half of my working title is "in praise of analog: a visit with ...") , some more words on behalf of my team at SMW at ExpresSHENs (those reading this for the AV posts should really stop by there; in addition to my occasional words there are posts from some of the brilliant people with whom I'm luck enough to work), and, perhaps, a surprise or two. Then, a fortnight from now, I'll be off to Infocomm. First, the news.

Kramer buys half of WowVision
I'll start with what would have been a minor bombshell any other month: Kramer Electronics acquisition of one half of Wowvision. Kramer doesn't have quite the profile or perceived place in the industry as the "big three", but they're a very capable manufacturer with a diverse catalog of products, mostly in video switching and distribution but also with more than a toe-hold in the worlds of control and audio. With the purchase of Wowvision they are teasing the premier of two new products, to be launched at Infocomm.

This allows Kramer to neatly and quickly fill the wireless collaboration/BYOD hole in their product lineup. I've gotten my hands on a WowVision Collab8 to play with and evaluate. Thus far it presents itself as a fairly powerful device with quite a few options and capabilities, but with a handful of limitations and some awkwardness in its interface  that prevent it from being a great universal solution. This is fine: there are few universal solutions in the world. WowVision's product does fill a role for a certain kind of project, and I'm quite curious to see how Kramer wraps it up to make the technology their own and how the Kramer solution ends up working.

The other interesting thing here is that with their new products, Kramer will join Crestron as the only switching/routing/control company to offer a wireless collaboration solution. I don't know of anything in this arena forthcoming from Aurora Multimedia, Lightware, Purelink, Extron, AMX, or any of the other players in this arena. Depending on the level of polish and capability, this could be a significant differentiator for Kramer in the ability to offer a single-product solution. The Kramer booth isn't usually the hot-ticket at Infocomm, but perhaps this year it should be.

Harman buys AMX
Crown amplifier with Blu-link
This was the big bombshell last week. By now nearly everyone has opined on it, from Josh Srago to Tim Albright through scores of professionals on LinkedIn who took the time to sing praises or cast stones at the recently acquired AMX. What are my thoughts? I have a few. On the acquisition itself, I feel cautiously optimistic. Harman's brands operate largely independently and continue to not only produce solid hardware but also to develop new products (ie, Crown's Drivecore and various additions to the Soundweb London family). Given Harman's track record, I expect them to do their best to run the AMX brand while leveraging their existing marketing and distribution arms in an attempt to increase their market share. The latter is one of Harman's strengths; they've done an excellent job creating relationships within the industry and in marketting their other brands. I'm curious to see how their plans for AMX unfold. 

What I'm not expecting is a leap into high-end audio; Harman's audio brands will most likely remain their audio brands for those who need such things. Could I see blu-link as an option as an audio output for all-in-ones or matrix switchers? Possibly. That's all details.

What did I find most interesting about this? Someone else pointed out the comparison to the Nest acquisition by Google, in which a company with fewer products (OK, a company with only one product) was purchased for 10 times the value of AMX. If Google wanted control, wouldn't the latter have been a better buy? It obviously would, but that makes one thing very clear: large-scale commercial AV control systems are not an important item for anyone outside out corner of the industry. The chance to get into houses with a thermostat is worth more than the chance to get into boardrooms or high-end home theaters with a touchpanel. Why? Because everybody has a thermostat, while not everybody has a home theater. A connected thermostat learns about you; it learns about your overall activity cycle, it knows when you go on vacation, it knows when your house is empty. A dedicated AV control system knows when you're watching television, and that's about all. It means that, as big as the control companies may feel to us, they're smaller players in a larger world which includes all levels of consumer tech. 

These acquisitions, as big as they are (and the AMX one is huge) say as much about what the industry does and doesn't value as it does about the individual companies. 

That's my two cents on last week's events. Stay tuned for products, book reviews, and more as we lead into Infocomm!