Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Campus Technology: 6 AV Trends from InfoComm 2017

In my June 2017 article in Campus Technology Magazine I talk about my experiences at the 2017 InfoComm Show.

6 AV Trends from InfoComm 2017
By Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
InfoComm 2017 proved to be another record-setting show, with over 44,000 audiovisual and IT professionals converging in Orlando this June. Higher education AV technology managers and design/support staff made a very strong showing, with quite a few IT staff also attending to sort out these new AV support duties they've been tasked with. While there weren't any blockbuster product announcements, the overall feeling of the show was that of an industry that's healthy and growing.
Due to my background in higher ed AV design and support roles, I walked the show floor looking through the lens of a higher ed technology manager. I also spent some time visiting manufacturer's booths with Ryan Engels from Ithaca College, so I could experience the perspective of a forward-thinking higher ed technology manager. Most of his show experience was focused on developing his networked, centrally managed AV model, often diving deeper into how a manufacturer's piece of equipment will integrate with his existing campus enterprise network and how he will properly manage it after installation. I also taught a couple seminars that attracted higher ed AV professionals, and the Q&A sessions there proved to be useful in hearing where their focus is these days. My topics of ADA classroom design and construction project management garnered a lot of interest.

Following are six areas that got my attention on the show floor.
1) AV-over-IP
From the higher ed AV perspective, AV-over-IP was the most prevalent theme throughout the show, with major players like Crestron, Kramer and AMX (SVSi) showcasing their encoder/decoder offerings and quite a few midsize and smaller companies doing the same. The presence of the SDVoE (Software Defined Video Over Ethernet) Alliance shows that some manufacturers are serious about developing AV-over-IP hardware and methods with future standards and interoperability in mind. The debate of latency, bandwidth usage and video compression rages on, suggesting that this technology is still on an upward swing of development.
2) Laser Projectors
Laser offerings were king of the projector market this year. Epson's BrightLink series has proved to be a solid player in the ultra-short-throw interactive projector market, so the company's new 710Ui short-throw 4,000-lumen interactive laser projector will be a go-to model for many classroom designs in the near future. Flat-panel displays are surely replacing projectors in small to midsize classrooms and meeting spaces, but manufacturers continue to offer higher lumen laser projectors, making them a viable option for your larger lecture hall and theater spaces. I still stand by my opinion that classroom image sizes over 80 inches will usually fall into projection-based designs.
3) Audio
Typically a market that has been a bit stale for the past few years, audio brought some interesting products and trends to the table for 2017. Dante is still getting bigger and better with widespread adoption. Audio companies are going through the same digital transition that video switching went through when VGA connectors and HDMI connectors were still needed everywhere. DSPs are packed full of analog I/O connectors, Dante jacks, VoIP/POTS jacks, USB outputs, proprietary interconnect ports, logic connections and RS-232/IP control options. Pay attention to not only the DSP options you need right now, but the options you may need in the near future. A small upgrade cost now for a model with Dante or VoIP support will save you the money and headache of having to swap out the whole box in a year or two.
I also set out this show to investigate some cost-effective, feature-rich audio processing options for smaller classrooms and meeting spaces. Installing a full-blown 12x8 DSP in these spaces to handle a couple installed web conferencing microphones isn't a very cost-effective model. I find that many designers neglect the importance of proper microphone processing when installing web-based conferencing systems. A basic fixed USB camera may be enough to handle the video side of things, but poor audio will ruin a conferencing system. Ceiling, table and wireless mics are still needed in the midsize/larger rooms. I was looking for smaller boxes that would still provide basic DSP functions, AEC, Dante support, USB output and auto mixing. Shure, Audio-Technica, and Biamp all caught my eye with some viable options. Shure showcased its P300, which is a cost-effective DSP mainly built to provide processing for the company's Microflex Advance Dante ceiling and table mic array units. Audio-Technica introduced its ATDM-0604 Digital SmartMixer, which is an auto mixer with echo cancellation that seems like a cheaper alternative to a full-blown DSP. Biamp added to its popular TesiraForte line of DSPs with a smaller VT4 model, with is a 4x4 model with the same features we know from previous TesiraForte experience.

4) Video
For those involved in higher end video production in classrooms and campus event spaces, Vaddio introduced the AV Bridge Matrix Mix. This rack-mounted box offers production-quality video switching and routing, with a built-in AV Bridge USB 3.0 output for web conferencing/streaming integration. While there may be quite a few video production switchers on the market, I took notice of this box because of the potential for it to be installed in a large classroom to pull double duty as a production switcher operated by production staff, or in a more automated design operated by an instructor for basic classroom web conferencing, lecture capture or distance learning applications. This box can be controlled via a web interface, a separate and familiar production-style camera switcher/controller interface from Vaddio, or connected to a third-party control system for a standard classroom touchpanel scenario.
5) Digital Signage
Corporate and commercial AV seems to be booming right now with creative digital signage solutions. While this may not directly relate to the basic digital signage applications typically seen on higher ed campuses, it made me start longing for more creative digital signage to start making its way into our corner of the industry. Direct view, fine-pitch LED video wall panels were everywhere — and looked stunning. Manufacturers are also offering odd aspect ratio flat-panel displays made for applications like wayfinding and menu board signage. Pay attention to creative content creation and you'll have a very unique digital signage scenario on your campus.
6) Equipment and Cable Management
I'm always on the lookout for parts and pieces that can clean up my AV system designs and installations. It seems that everyone wants AV systems packed with features, but flexible furniture and room aesthetics requirements dictate that we need to find creative ways to hide our equipment without sacrificing serviceability. I took notice of three companies offering new creative solutions to equipment and cable management: Middle Atlantic, Chief and FSR. Middle Atlantic's Proximity Series offers some solutions to hiding equipment behind flat panel displays. The company's in-wall boxes behind displays offer a landing place for power/data connections as well as cable path, but they also contain a flexible mounting plate/bracket system for stashing all of those extenders, small boxes and media players. Middle Atlantic also was showing a flat plate that mounts to the wall behind a display on sliding rails, allowing small equipment to be secured to this plate and easily slide out from behind the display in servicing situations. Chief debuted its PAC527 in-wall box behind displays, expanding on the company's existing PAC line with an increased size and a flexible and configurable number of mounting brackets for small AV boxes. Hopefully we will see this flexible bracket mounting solution in a future redesign of Chief's PAC525 and 526 boxes. FSR is showing the PWB-320, which is a similar flat-panel display in-wall box at a reasonable price point. FSR also highlighted its PWB-HVBX in-wall box that mounts behind a flat panel display. A finished portion of the box is exposed below the display, and contains a couple cable retractors plus space for storage of small AV boxes, power/data and cable path. If you're installing small huddle space displays in a flexible furniture situation where you can't rely on a table always existing below the display, look to this box to clean up your cable management. If you need to mount a couple RUs of equipment under a conference table, both Middle Atlantic and FSR have some creative under-table and table-leg (pedestal) options.
I'll end this InfoComm 2017 wrap-up with a plea to the show's organizers: Please open the trade show floor for a fourth day, and possibly move more of the education opportunities to Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It's very hard to see all the booths in just three days, especially with education opportunities being offered on those same days. I know there are plenty of backend logistics that may make that hard, but I just never leave the show feeling like I saw all the booths I wanted to see, or attended all the classes/seminars that I hoped to. With another record-setting year of attendance, it seems like the time to expand the show.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Campus Technology: An Introduction to AV Over IP

In my March 2017 article in Campus Technology Magazine I talk about the basic concepts behind the AV-over-IP trend.

An Introduction to AV Over IP
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
If you've been paying attention to the audiovisual industry for the past couple of years, you've certainly noticed the AV over IP trend. While it may not yet be widespread in higher ed classrooms, it's definitely going to play a big part in the future of AV system design. There are lots of details to pay attention to when designing AV over IP-based systems, but I'll try to give you a big-picture view of the technology.
Existing Designs
These days, when dealing with high-definition resolutions and frame rates, AV system designers typically look to transport video, audio and control signals throughout their classrooms using twisted pair extenders. Many of the popular classroom AV products (like Crestron DigitalMedia and Extron DTP) are based on HDBaseT technology. These are point-to-point systems with transmitters at source devices and receivers at destination devices. Even when you place a switcher between those source and destination devices, you're essentially adding more mid-stream transmitters and receivers into your point-to-point environment. We see larger and larger matrix switchers coming from the manufacturers, but our switching design is still limited to the number of inputs and outputs on those switcher frames. Everyone knows the feeling of needing to add one more device to your AV system, but the switcher doesn't have any available inputs. While limited in some respects, these point-to-point systems offer a bandwidth-controlled environment, high resolutions and frame rates, and very low latency.

AV Over IP
The AV over IP model differs from existing classroom AV designs in that it's essentially a streaming infrastructure. We're all used to video and audio streaming over the network, but AV over IP technology is taking streaming to a different level. Instead of placing HDBaseT transmitters and receivers at all the devices in the room, the AV over IP model calls for an encoder at each source device and a decoder at each destination device. The encoders and decoders are all connected to standard Ethernet switches. As a result, we're no longer limited to a finite number of inputs and outputs, and theoretically we can connect as many encoders and decoders as our network design allows — with the ability to scale up at lower costs. Based on the network configuration, we're also no longer limited to AV signals being confined within the room. The decoders can be controlled to display any stream from any of the encoders.
AV and IT professionals pay attention to bandwidth restrictions, and the AV over IP trend is certainly in the thick of the bandwidth discussion. While it might sound like an easy solution, you can't just start throwing these high-end AV encoders and decoders on your network and expect flawless results. There are different classes of these encoders and decoders; for instance, SVSI (AMX) offers everything from low-bandwidth H.264 compression that's friendly to your enterprise networks, to higher bandwidth technology like JPEG2000 compression, and beyond. When comparing AV over IP technologies, pay attention to bandwidth requirements and explore the possibility that you'll need to establish a separate, dedicated AV network to keep your network services department happy.
As you start to investigate the various AV over IP technology that's being offered, there are quite a few features and limitations that you need to pay attention to. Different manufacturers have different resolution, frame rate and color compression capabilities. Some may boast that they can offer 4K60 4:4:4 video, but then you'll find out that they require a 10 Gb/sec switch, while others claim they can do it over a 1 Gb switch. Even if you're not yet heavy into 4K-resolution sources and display devices in your classrooms, you should certainly be planning the infrastructure to handle it in the future. Achieving 4:4:4 color sampling is the goal, but plenty of manufacturers are using 4:2:0 compression to save on bandwidth.
Latency is a big topic too in the AV over IP world. Encoding and decoding high resolutions and frame rates with limited compression can take some decent processing power, resulting in latency issues. It may not be a concern if you're talking about a simple one-way video and audio stream to an overflow room, but excessive latency is a big deal when talking about encoders and decoders that are in the same room.
Just like in your existing classroom AV systems, HDCP (high-bandwidth digital content protection) is a major consideration when comparing AV over IP devices. Settling on encoders and decoders that don't properly pass current HDCP signals means you're in for a massive headache as source devices continue to migrate to outputting HDCP signals.
Many of these encoders and decoders also offer power over Ethernet (PoE) capabilities, which is a nice feature compared to having to deal with those bulky wall-wart power supplies. Just pay attention to the PoE capabilities of the network switches you're using.
Since higher ed classroom AV designers love to incorporate control systems into their designs, pay attention to the control capabilities of the encoders and decoders that you choose. The majority of them integrate well with IP-based control systems from the major manufacturers like Crestron, Extron or AMX. Maybe even a cloud-based control solution like Utelogy will be a fitting option for your new AV over IP design.

The Future
A few key market indicators came out of the Integrated Systems Europe tradeshow last month that point to a strong future for AV over IP technology. The first major announcement was from Crestron, debuting its DigitalMedia NVX product line. Crestron is claiming that its NVX encoder/decoder can transport 4K60 4:4:4 signal (along with many other features) over standard 1 Gb/sec Ethernet cabling and switches. Crestron certainly isn't the first company to develop this AV over IP technology, but for a company that has made lots of money off its HDBaseT-based point-to-point DigitalMedia line, this is a big tip off that it's embracing AV over IP. Also during the ISE 2017 show, the HDBaseT Alliance announced that by June it will debut an extension to the HDBaseT standard that will allow for HDBaseT over IP.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Campus Technology: The Art of AV Equipment Rack Design

In my January 2017 article in Campus Technology Magazine I give some tips and tricks to AV equipment rack design and installation.

The Art of AV Equipment Rack Design
By Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
As I work on AV system design and installation projects at various college campuses, there's always one area that plagues everyone: poorly designed and installed equipment racks. It seems like a basic concept, but it can be a real pain point when done wrong. We've all opened up an equipment rack or lectern to see a rat's nest of cables inside. Like most aspects of installed AV systems, when it's done right most people don't notice it. But when it's done wrong, it's hard to miss.
Rack design/building can be a real art: There's a reason there used to be a rack building competition at the InfoComm Show. Paying attention to some basic rack design concepts early in the project's timeline can prevent a handful of issues you'll have to address in the future. Per my usual disclaimer, any specific products I mention are simply products I prefer to use, and I have no affiliation with those manufacturers.

Cable Management
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about proper rack building is cable management. Every field technician knows that disastrous AV equipment rack on campus that he's scared to open. Cables are everywhere inside, and it takes 15 minutes of tracing balls of cables to determine the system's signal flow. When your field tech is responding to a trouble call while a class is in session, that's valuable time wasted that could have been prevented with some simple cable management tactics.
Using some inexpensive rack components like horizontal lacing bars (on rear rack rails) and vertical lacing strips allows the rack installer to bundle and secure cables with Velcro strips. Plastic zip ties are best avoided since they pinch and compress the Category cables that are often used in modern AV systems, and Velcro strips are easier to remove and reinstall if you need to swap out a cable. If you're still using plastic zip ties, make sure they're trimmed flush, so the rack isn't full of little razor blades for the poor field tech who needs to service the rack. As cables are bundled, rack designers and installers need to be implementing InfoComm's best practices of signal separation in racks. Make sure to pay attention to concepts like sufficient service loop length and connector stress when bundling and dressing cables.

As AV-over-IP designs become more prevalent in modern AV systems, we're finding larger network switches being installed in AV equipment racks. Using these switches means that rack designers need to pay a bit more attention to cable management. Many network switches have front-facing ports, as opposed to the typical rear-facing ports/connectors on traditional AV equipment. AV rack designers need to include front-facing patch panels or something like Middle Atlantic's BR1 brush grommet panel to cleanly get cables out of the rack and into the network switch.
Equipment and Power Management
One aspect of poor rack building that I frequently see is a bunch of small pieces of equipment stuffed in the back of a rack. Just because they don't have rack ears on them doesn't mean they should just be free floating inside the rack. Incorporate a couple internal rack shelves to secure all of your small items like twisted pair transmitters/receivers, distribution amplifiers, scalers, converters, power supplies, etc.
Related to the cable management discussion above, properly dressing cables inside a rack will also help free up equipment access during those troubleshooting situations. Having clear access to the back of all pieces of equipment is key. That being said, don't go overboard with horizontal lacing bars, which can make it hard to reach inside the rack.
Power management is often overlooked by rack designers. A few power strips free floating inside the bottom of the rack can make for a messy install. There are quite a few UPS and horizontal/vertical power strip options that can be mounted to the rack to clean things up. Some power distribution solutions even have IP, serial or relay control options to remotely power cycle rack equipment. Specifying the proper number and type of these rack-mounted power distribution units will help you avoid fire code violations like daisy chaining power strips or using extension cords.
Anyone who has designed or built a rack can tell you that those power supply bricks can be a real pain in the rear. They take up room inside the rack and on your power strips, and if you don't devote a shelf or two to just power supplies, they can really get in the way. Sometimes you just have way too many power supplies to deal with in a rack. Those are situations where a DC power distribution box comes in handy. Installing a product like the Middle Atlantic PD-DC-125R or the TechLogix Networx TL-RKPS-01 allows you to eliminate the individual power supplies and feed typical DC voltages (5V, 12V, 18V and 24V) to your equipment. They're not cheap, but very handy for those packed racks.

Equipment Security
Every campus is subject to AV equipment theft. There's thousands of dollars of AV equipment sitting unattended in each classroom, and some small steps can prevent that equipment from "walking off." Using rack screws that require a security bit will slow down thieves who only have a Phillips head screwdriver with them. Equipment that doesn't have rack ears needs to be secured with at least clamping shelves to hold it down. Locking rack drawers can prevent wireless mics from disappearing, and locking rear rack doors keeps the general public out of your rack.
Rack security doesn't necessarily pertain just to theft. Perforated security covers, for example, will prevent general users from adjusting equipment settings on equipment with front-facing buttons and knobs. Fill all empty rack spaces with blank or vent panels so users aren't able to reach inside your rack and disconnect cables, store their belongings, power cycle equipment, etc.
Thermal Management
There's no denying that heat kills AV equipment. Cramming all of our AV equipment into a metal rack with front and rear doors can really be a bad thing, unless you take some time to focus on thermal management. Prolong the life of your equipment by paying attention to your equipment's heat output, active/passive rack venting and cooling options, airflow around the rack, and AV closet HVAC solutions. This is one of those areas where an experienced AV system designer is needed to specify all the correct rack components and infrastructure considerations early in the project's timeline. Proper rack thermal management could easily be a series of articles, but Middle Atlantic has written a nice white paper outlining many of these concepts.
ADA Standards
Lectern/teaching station design requires a strong understanding of ADA standards, but often equipment rack design doesn't take these ADA Standards into account. AV equipment racks are subject to ADA standards for reach ranges and ground/turning space, to make sure that all "operable parts" on the rack are accessible to wheelchair users. Rack-mounted AV equipment that is to be accessible to general users (not just for servicing) needs to be within the reach range of no more than 48 inches above the finished floor, and no less than 15 inches AFF. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design also dictate acceptable ground and turning space that needs to be adhered to when considering the location of AV equipment racks. (For more on accessibility standards, see my November 2015 article, "Decoding ADA Standards for Classroom AV.")