Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hard and Soft Thoughts at the NEC Partners' Showcase

I've been away from AV writing this month while doing my annual Nightmare Fuel project, but a few weeks ago I was able to take a few minutes of my lunchbreak to attend the NEC Partners' Showcase. This is one of those neat little events at which one can meet up with friends in the industry and take a quick glance at some new products. I ended up involved in a technical discussion about an ongoing project, but not before having a chance to speak with a few vendors about different approaches to collaboration. Sadly, limited time didn't allow me nearly enough opportunity to explore NEC's display technology. This is sad because they have some interesting offerings and because video displays are suddenly becoming at least a bit interesting again. There may be more on displays next later, so stay tuned. For now, we'll talk a bit about collaboration.

Collaboration can be a bit of a buzzword, but I usually take it as mutual, often non-hierarchical interaction and content sharing. Yes, some collaborative systems allow one to define an administrator with greater rights, but the emphasis is usually on allowing multiple people to share content. This can, of course, be in-person or remote via conferencing platforms.

The Hard Of It
The Arrive Systems Display

Low-cost (relatively speaking) hardware appliances have been making some inroads as an alternative to purely software solutions. I discussed hardware and software a few months ago, and am still watching this aspect of the AV world evolve. While software solutions do have much to recommend them, there is an ease and consistency of use in a hardware-based installed system which is quite appealing. Brent Carter of Arrive Systems had a terrific demo of their "Edgeless Media"  hardware platform. Under the hood it's a PC (running some flavor of Linux, if I recall correctly) running their software as well as third party applications. Like AMX's Enzo, it's a bit of a "room in a box" solution allowing some measure of room control, soft-conferencing, and content sharing in a single device. They had a very practical setup with a USB pan/tilt/zoom camera, third-party tablet running their control app, and even an iPhone to show native Airplay screen-mirroring. Sadly, it does NOT natively support Windows network projector or Android Miracast. I'd not be so presumptuous as to call that a mistake, but it is of particular concern in what is increasingly a "BYOD" world. With so many people using their own devices there is a real need to support multiple platforms.  For education, they have lecture capture appliances and an overall system reasonably capable for distance learning applications. On a more personal note, it was a nice chance to meet  Mr. Carter in person after interacting in the Google+ AV Professionals Group. He was even good-natured about having lost an occasional post to group moderation.

Next-door to Arrive was Kramer Electronics, with demonstrations of their Via family. I've not seen Via in person yet, but HAVE been privy to a demonstration of the Collab8, which is essentially the same hardware with a different badge (for those who've either forgotten or weren't paying attention, Kramer bought fifty percent of Wowvision last summer). Like the Arrive device, the Via is a PC built into an appliance. Unlike the Linux-based Arrive system, the Via/Collab8 is a Windows7 platform, capable of running nearly any Windows application. The larger Via appliance also has what I believe to be a unique collaboration feature in which multiple users can work on a document simultaneously, controlling individual mouse-pointers on the shared display. It's a very nifty feature.

The Soft of It
There are increasing instances in which "soft" codecs such as Lync would be applied in a PC rather than an appliance, either installed or users' laptops. At present, there are relatively few products to integrate an install-quality pan/tilt/zoom camera with a PC; the Vaddio AV Bridge comes to mind, but with multiple video inputs, audio, and H.264 streaming it is a high-cost high-capability solution. I was interested to see two manufacturers jump on the USB bandwagon. Sound Control Technologies, makers of PTZ extension kits, are quietly adding USB outputs to their Cisco camera extension units. Why anyone would want USB connectivity AND a hardware Codec is a question left for the reader, but I could envisage a generic camera-to-USB extender providing both video extension and connectivity to a PC.

Another USB option. Yay!
Another nifty add was from Atterotech. For those who don't know them, they make a variety of digital audio break-in, break-out boxes. The newest announced addition, the unDUSB, is a 4-channel (2 in, 2 out) USB to Dante break-in/break-out box. This could be a great solution for soft-codec or other audio integration issues with user-supplied laptops. (yes, I also prefer Dante Virtual Soundcard or the soon-to-arrive Via for fixed installs; you can't tell a guest to install Virtual Soundcard and buy a $30 license for it just so he can use the system).

And yes, I know that the items I listed under "the soft of it" are hardware solutions; I find them interesting because they are hardware solutions specifically designed to facilitate the use of software-based AV solutions. It's the kind of thing of which, I suspect, we'll be seeing more. 

Is any of this groundbreaking? Not really. It more seems to be an outgrowth of what we already have. It's still always fun to take a quick glance at directions some manufacturers are taking things in the industry. 

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