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InfoComm 2010: The Accidental Streaming Show

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For those of us who attend trade shows on an annual basis, it's hard not to compare one year's show to previous ones. Each year has its own appeal, from the locations to the sideshows (parties) to the newly minted technologies.

Attend the same event for several years, though, and you'll get a sense of whether the show is growing, dying, or stuck in limbo.

In the case of InfoComm, a show for systems integrators who install technology in auditoriums, classrooms, corporate boardrooms, and the like, the show is not only growing, but also morphing into a mini-NAB show, a far cry from the days when InfoComm was known mainly for its projector shootouts.

Some of the show's growth has been organic, but a large portion of it has been the results of multiple shows merging their attendees together. A sister show, EduComm, focuses on the higher-education market; NSCA focuses on audio and audio delivery; and 3DComm focuses on . . .  you get the picture.

The show has also expanded in its significance when it comes to streaming technologies converging with the systems integration industry.

Four areas highlight this convergence: audio distribution, digital signage, rich lecture / media capture and telepresence.

We'll cover the last two in more detail tomorrow, since there are a number of announcements pertinent to streaming servers and rich media recording. For this article, though, let's look at the show's impact on streaming for audio distribution and digital signage.

Digital Signage
This year's InfoComm brought a number of announcements, with many focused on incremental increases in storage and better user interfaces for setting up playlists on individual player units, hardware boxes attached to a flat panel, or projectors for local play-out of centralized content.

On the upper end of the digital signage market are the command-and-control display solutions, many for mission-critical corporate or military applications. These types of devices, often filling an entire wall, are being put to extensive use in Houston during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, allowing those on shore to view progress (or lack thereof) in capping the oil spill.

In the command-and-control solutions, low latency and very high quality are equally important. Most low-latency H.264 or MPEG-2 based encoder-decoder pairs are heavily taxed to deliver both very high-quality graphics and very low latencies. While this is changing, with the advent of more robust H.264 encoding, solutions with proprietary streaming codecs are filling the gap.

One example is Extron's streaming solutions, rebranded from Electrosonic after Extron purchased Electrosonic's Products Division. The products aren't your typical streaming encoders, nor do they use typical streaming codecs: Electrosonic in 2009 introduced its ES7100 encoder/decoder with a PURE3 compression codec that is somewhat more akin to a digital cinema solution than to a browser-based viewing of video.

With this type of high-resolution, low-latency compression comes a need for bandwidths of 6 to 150 megabits per second. The company also claims a "secret sauce" that hardens the products against network errors without the need for Forward Error Correction (FEC) that is used in satellite and wireless distribution to guarantee delivery of enough bits to recreate the whole image.

Audio Distribution
Two areas of audio distribution are seeing significant growth in streaming technologies.

The first is paging applications. One of the leaders in this space is Valcom, based in Roanoke, Virginia. The company has many years of experience in paging solutions for education, government and healthcare verticals, including paging systems for many airports.

A few years ago, Valcom began exploring the idea that every speaker and microphone in an office environment should be able to act as part of the paging system. As such, they created interconnects between SIP-based Voice over IP and PBX phone systems, allowing an emergency audio page to be broadcast to dedicated paging speakers as well as to the phone sitting on an employee's desktop.

"We use standards-based codecs and industry-standard components," said Valcom president John "Jack" Mason during a demonstration of the company's IP paging products at InfoComm. "In the paging industry, the industry-standard for IP-based paging is the Singlewire InformaCast protocol. We use this protocol, which also supports Power over Ethernet (PoE) for our IP speakers with features such as built-in clocks and talkback capability as well as for paging gateways to tie into phone systems."

"Valcom worked closely with us in the development of their speaker firmware to ensure compliance with our InformaCast protocols," said Ken Bywaters, executive VP of product development at Singlewire, in a January press release. "Schools, government agencies, healthcare facilities, and any organization deployed with Valcom paging can now easily extend notification to new endpoints and systems on their IP network."

The second area of audio distribution benefiting from a growing focus on audio streaming is that of professional live audio production workflows. The biggest advances here are in the areas of digital snakes-units used to deliver multiple channels of audio in a single bundle of cables-and distribution amplification (DA) solutions.

Snakes are primarily used in the entertainment and worship markets, with the need to send 32 or more balanced audio signals from the stage to the mixing console. One end of the snake sits on stage, in the form of a large box, into which all the microphones and instruments are connected, and then the aggregated cable bundle snakes across the floor to the sound booth.

The problem with analog snakes has always been bulk, with the size of aggregated cable approaching 3 inches in diameter in some instances. Not only does this create a tripping hazard, but it also makes the cables themselves prone to damage and crosstalk interference.

Digital snakes have similar box on stage, but digitize all audio with low-latency uncompress audio encoders, sending up to 64 channels of 24-bit/96 kHz audio via a single Cat5 cable. A second Cat5 cable acts as a redundant failover option: If one cable breaks, the second cable takes over within two word clock cycles (several milliseconds) to continue the sound transmission uninterrupted to the human ear. Cable replacement is a minimal cost, and the trip hazard is greatly reduced.

Beyond the digital snake point-to-point solutions, though, this type of audio distribution is taking the place of distribution amplifiers (DA) and matrix units that are used to route analog audio from one location to many.

Think of a matrix as a giant switchboard or patch panel, but with DA capabilities. The beauty of encoding and packetizing audio over Ethernet, though, is the elimination of what could be a 12-20 rack unit piece of gear. Ethernet distribution eliminates the matrix altogether, as Ethernet can efficiently route packets to one or many decoder locations. 

The solution also eliminates wasted ports on matrix units, which came in either 8 or 16 I/O card configurations. If one needs to set up a matrix to accommodate 17 inputs and 33 outputs, the matrix hardware requirement would be 32 inputs and 48 outputs. The remaining 15 inputs and 15 outputs in our example remain unused. Ethernet, by contrast, could have 256 devices in any configuration on each subnet: 1x255, 2x254, 237x19 - all these combinations are possible within Ethernet delivery.

InfoComm continues through Friday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

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