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Technology Showcase: IP Control for AV

Mar 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles

The integration of AV and IT has expanded troubleshooting and control options.


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Judging from the volume of recent print on the subject, the topic of Internet Protocol (IP) control for audiovisual systems is one of the hottest things going right now. The prospect of using existing corporate and university computer networks to integrate and control audiovisual presentation systems bears both substantial promise and a few dangerous pitfalls.

AMX NetLinx NI-4000

COSTS AND BENEFITS

First, let's have a look at the caveats. Bring up the subject of using an existing computer network for AV with a computer network manager or IT director, and the first thing such people want to know is whether the proposal includes transmission of actual audio and video data — or simply occasional bursts of control pulses to turn things on and off remotely. Distribution of multimedia files along Ethernet computer networks is always a much harder idea to sell to IT managers.

Ethernet, with its collision detection access method, was never intended to handle sustained, bandwidth-intensive multimedia conveyance. When forced into this role, it performs rather poorly. But Ethernet handles short, bursty AV control signals as well as it does the common office applications. Volumes have already been written about audio and video transmission, compression, and formatting, so in this work, I will specifically examine the aspect of IP device control for multi-room AV presentation systems.

For IT managers with an increasing presence of AV systems in their organizations, another burning question is who will be responsible to oversee the AV systems control. Will this pull people away from their traditional IT roles and force computer network engineers to learn about presentation equipment, or will the AV people be expanding their roles to include computer network considerations such as IP addressing and submasks? It usually turns out to be a little of both. Of course, in most environments the IT and AV technicians have started working side by side to deliver plant-wide AV control, each learning something of the other's job.

Crestron RoomView software

Many employers are providing their AV workers with Network+ certification courses and other educational opportunities that bolster their knowledge of the network control conveyance. For some of the IP-delivered AV control systems currently offered, a rather complex proprietary programming language is involved. In order to squeeze every possible feature out of such AV control systems, it has been necessary to send AV techs to rather expensive proprietary programming classes provided by the system vendors. Some of these systems still use proprietary transmission protocols, while others have taken a software-only approach compatible with a range of third-party hardware devices.

On the plus side, the benefits of a properly programmed and maintained IP/AV system are myriad. Response time to trouble-shooting calls is sliced to the bone, with technicians responding from the office instead of grabbing a couple of remotes and running out the door. Problems such as burnout of projector lamps can be prevented, rather than addressed as they occur (while the class members sit and twiddle their thumbs). Technicians can survey conditions from the office and end time-consuming room-by-room walkarounds to check for equipment left running. Some IP-based systems even extend control over window shades and room lighting. In a large facility, this can mean closing shades and turning off lights on a time schedule, leading to significant energy savings.

For years, organizations have been willing to spend substantial sums on high-tech equipment that could be demonstrated to those paying for it and shown off during tours — while user training has languished, if budgeted at all. This means lots of trouble calls, the majority of which are precipitated by user errors. Properly installed IP control really earns its keep in such environments. So, for IP control of multi-room AV presentation environments, let's see what's out there.

Aurora Multimedia WACI +

THE MARKET

These IP control systems represent a number of different approaches in the quest for dependable and customizable IP control of AV systems. Among the devices they can operate, projectors have led the trend toward direct network connection and control. Soon, however, other types of devices will be added to the growing list of directly networkable AV equipment. How you read this trend will have an impact on your own choice of an IP control system for AV.

The traditional industry leaders in this field have been Crestron, Extron, and AMX. Each offers a wide range of solutions in the realm of AV systems control. For IP-controlled, multi-room presentation systems, Crestron uses its MP2E hardware units, part of the company's MediaManager line of products. In a large facility, each room has its own MP2E, which is given an IP address and programmed with Crestron's SystemBuilder programming application. This walks the setup technician through a series of menus in a simple GUI, while it writes the programming code on the back end. Sources are assigned, equipment IDs are chosen, and graphical screen buttons and icons are selected.

The MP2E includes a 4×2 video crosspoint switcher for composite signals, and it can be configured as a 2×1 S-Video switcher. Audio is handled through a 7×1 audio switcher for stereo sources. Crestron's Digital Media Tools (DMT) application serves to configure all initial level and EQ settings for the various sound sources. The MP2E features two COM ports, four I/R serial ports, four I/O Versiports, and four isolated relays. Of course, it can be operated locally with a wide selection of Crestron touchpanels and Crestnet peripherals. An optional receiver can also enable the MP2E to function with many universal IR remotes. The trend toward including onboard web servers is reflected in the MP2E design, rounding out an extremely versatile unit.

Crestron offers its RoomView application as the software component of the system. RoomView provides a full range of features for monitoring, control, and scheduling. Projector lamp life, system status, anti-theft warnings, user help calls, and remote operation represent some of RoomView's capabilities, all of which appear on a very simple and easy-to-use graphical display. These system features are configured with Crestron's SIMPL programming language. Timed events can even be extended to light control and window shade operation, for potential energy savings in large facilities.

Extron has harnessed the power of IP network control for AV in its IP Link technology, which uses the advantage of distributed processing to limit any additional burden on network traffic that IP control for AV might present. The hardware modules contain onboard web servers in which processing speed is paramount. Customized web pages and control routines are stored locally in 1.25MB of flash memory. IP Link also supports the IEEE 802.3af Power Over Ethernet (POE) protocol, in order to afford more freedom of location for the interfaces by providing electric power through the data cable. Among the specific interfaces available on the product are serial ports, Flex I/O, and infrared control. The concept of distributed processing also affords greater reliability by spreading the processing load and limiting possible points of system failure.

The software control portion of the system is represented by Extron's GlobalViewer application. This web-based application for control and configuration is provided free with the purchase of any of Extron's IP Link-enabled products. The operator interface is very user-friendly and affords configuration and control from anywhere via a computer, PDA, or even a web-enabled cell phone. Projectors, cameras, VHS/DVD players, and projection screens are among the devices the system can control. As with the Crestron system and others, email notification of various system anomalies is programmable. The 2.0 version affords global or room views, custom button labels, group scheduling, and port-to-port automation. The GlobalViewer Configurator allows web page authoring for each interface, combined event scripts, and remote control options. Also, statistics on system use can be tallied and analyzed for future re-configuration to match evolving needs.

AMX has a variety of control devices, graphical operator panels, and IP control systems for any size plant or any number of classrooms. The NXI NetLinx Integrated Network Controller can manage RS-232, RS-422 and RS-425, relay, IR/serial, and input/output devices. The firmware is configured through the NetLinx Studio software application, using the proprietary NetLinx programming language. The specific hardware controller solution is selected by the choice of master or hub cards within the NetLinx cardframe.

Cue Design Director software

Recently, AMX has made available a wider selection of hardware interfaces to suit specific needs through the introduction of the NI Series of interface products. These include the NI-700, with seven control ports plus Ethernet and AXLink connectivity for single-room applications; the NI-2000, with up to 15 control ports, Ethernet, AXLink, and ICSNet connectivity; the NI-3000, with up to 31 control ports for multi-room applications; and the NI-4000 interface, for the most complex control situations. The NI-4000 offers expandable functions with additional control cards. These hardware interfaces may be operated locally through a wide range of AMX touchpanels. The Modero line includes panels up to 17in. diagonal, with wired or wireless operation.

Among the Resource Management Suite of control software applications from AMX, MeetingManager 2.0 is the latest way to manage, monitor, and schedule multi-room AV assets. Working with a variety of database programs including SQL, MeetingManager can configure and display AV assets by device name, manufacturer, or model, and all administrative features are password-protected. Scheduling and email notification are included, and through the selection of AMX interfaces, climate and lighting control can be programmed for plant-wide energy savings. Usage statistics and help desk notes are also featured. The new NetLinx Duet Architecture expands the NetLinx capability along the trend toward open network functionality by interfacing the proprietary NetLinx control programming with Java in a dual-interpreter environment that supports either or both types of programming.

It's a WACI world for Aurora Multimedia. In terms of IP-controlled AV systems, this means Web Access Control Interface, and it's available in + and Jr. versions. The WACI Jr. is a simple RS-232 controller, while the WACI + offers relays, I/O, A/D, and infrared, as well as RS-232. Like AMX, Aurora Multimedia has followed the open-programming trend by equipping its WACI interface with a web server that is programmable through standard languages such as Flash, HTML, ASP, DHTML, Visual Basic, and Java. The programming interface is created using Aurora's Flash-based YIPI (“your IP interface”), which is fashioned after a drawing program. The interface learns IR codes from existing IR device remotes, and it is controllable via the Web from a laptop, Tablet PC, or any web-enabled device. Features also include email notification of various conditions, including projector lamp status and disconnect alerts. The hardware comes in an amazingly tiny case that is smaller than 5.5in. high, 4.5in. wide, and less than an inch deep. Fast signal conversion is afforded by the 32-bit processing power, and total memory is 48MB with a web memory of 16MB.

Bitlogix Software, formerly QuickLogix International, offers a software solution for IP control of AV systems: NetControl 1.5 Advanced. The product uses third-party hardware devices and is compatible with interfaces such as Eiki NPC-1, Extron IP Link, and Sharp AN-LS1. Compatibility extends to the more recent hardware products from Boxlight, Canon, Christie, Dukane, Philips, Mitsubishi, Proxima, Sanyo, and Toshiba. NetControl is equipped with a database-driven control manager, event manager, status report manager, and an anti-theft control feature.

Joining the trend toward open connectivity and control, Bitlogix has designed this product to operate through TCP/IP on existing network infrastructure. Email notification goes out either to office email accounts or to a digital cellular phone. This notifies the user of any network interruption. As with many of the other products, anti-theft notification is also included. Event scheduling and status reports and stats are very flexible and simple to customize. For special events, manual control may be undertaken either on command or on a preset time schedule.

Bitlogix NetControl Starter 1.2 software is designed primarily for control of Eiki network-controllable projectors. It includes various status notifications. This can be very handy in a plant equipped with a large number of Eiki projectors that normally use manual switching of multiple sources into one projector input. One of the most common trouble calls in such environments involves the projector inadvertently being switched to the wrong input. Response time to such calls can be slashed with this low-cost solution, which enables remote projector source switching. Status reports include input mode, power status, and lamp time.

Cue Control Systems offers a huge range of control devices for AV systems, including touchpanels, keypads, control units, power sources, and network interface equipment such as the rack-mountable eCue module. This provides an IP control interface for network operation of the Cue system in areas such as setup, control, and remote diagnostics. In addition to having its own IP address on the network, eCue can also provide control connectivity via modem. The unit features an onboard web server, password access, custom-designed user interface layouts, and setup programmability through Cue Design Director configuration software. System connections with other Cue Control Systems units are made by RS-485 using “CueWire” and an RJ-45. ECue is available in a stainless steel chassis for network connection. Data storage is to a 64MB compact flash upgradeable memory. Control programming is accomplished with the Cue Design Director application, which enables control interface customization.

While a wide range of wired and wireless control schemes are available, the IP-controlled system includes the Admin-Cue and Admin-Cue-S. These interface the network via the eCue unit. The Admin-Cue units include IR, serial, analog, digital, and switching outputs and serial, analog, and digital inputs. Local control of these modules is accomplished via a vast array of available control panels with a variety of decorative finishes.

ProCon Technology markets a variety of AV control devices, including a wide selection of control panels. The 8450-01 IP-to-RS-232 Control Unit has three RS-232 ports, one IR port, one RS-232 loop-through, two independent timers, and eight RS-232 controllable alarms. These units allow continuous room-by-room monitoring and may be identified by either static IP addressing or DHCP.

The software component in this case is the ProCon Site Manager application, which, like other such products, runs on PC architecture. It provides auto-recognition of all installed 8450-01 units, ProCon control panels, and switchers. Two-way monitoring and control of all ProCon control panels is also possible. Operators can note current projector status and lamp life. Remote source switching is also included, a very useful feature for plants with rooms that rely on manual switching of projector sources with a hand-held remote. Usage stats and disconnection alarms round out the features found in the ProCon 8450-01 and Site Manager system.

Simtrol bills itself as a company that specializes in device control and monitoring. For IP control of AV systems, its OnGoer application enables the device-control portion of the mission, while OnGuard serves as its monitoring product. OnGoer may be installed on any PC platform running Windows 2000 or Windows XP. It's designed to be compatible with many third-party display cards, touchpanels, and other hardware interface devices. The company publishes on its reseller website a list of vendors whose equipment has been tested for compatibility. Simtrol's approach highlights cross-platform solutions and uses programming tools such as Microsoft's Visual Basic with a software application called OnLooker. This opens system programming to a large, worldwide base of programmers and allows seamless integration with many Microsoft applications.

Alternatively, the OnGoer Builder application is used to guide the user through a three-step system design and programming process. The company provides three-day, onsite training classes on its use. Network command and control signaling uses a protocol known as GoTalk over TCP/IP and a utility application called Technician for remote diagnostics and administration. The system contains a library of device control files for many existing AV tools. Simultaneously, the OnGuard monitoring application can give visual, audible, and email notification of system alarms, while supporting a helpdesk subsystem with two-way chat. System stats and timed-event programming are also available on the Simtrol OnGoer system.


For More Information

AMX
www.amx.com

Aurora Multimedia
www.auroramultimedia.com

Bitlogix Software
www.bitlogix.com

Crestron
www.crestron.com

Cue Control Systems
www.cueusa.com

Extron
www.extron.com

ProCon Technology
www.procon.co.uk

Simtrol
www.simtrol.com



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