Technology Showcase: AV Room Control Systems
May 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles
Interface customization a critical feature for control.
As in all good stories, there is in every AV room control system a beginning, middle, and end. To all but the installer and the AV tech who get the trouble calls, the control system consists of nothing more than a few panel buttons or maybe a handheld remote, and it either works or it's broken. As is usually the case with such gear, the central and most essential component is hidden away in a locked rack, and once installed and programmed, it just anonymously does its thing.
One of the primary comparative assets in such a system is in its beginning — the user interface customization. At the other end of the chain, the range of AV device control protocols — and how well they are suited to the devices at hand — will also determine the degree of success. In between these processes, the quality of the hardware installation and the environment in which it lives will also figure prominently in how well the AV control system works.
The system's user interface is therefore critical, and because the great majority of AV system trouble calls turn out to be user error, the quality of consideration that goes into this aspect of the system can pay daily dividends, or serve as a constant curse in terms of ongoing performance. After all, there is no use putting a space age, multi-page touchpanel with oodles of manual options into a system that will be operated daily by a variety of people, some of whom may have serious button and switch phobias.
In smaller environments, such as corporate boardrooms that tend to see only occasional use and normally by the same participants, a more advanced and visually impressive user interface may be perfect, while a panel with a few hardware buttons running set event sequences might be needed for a university campus where dozens of classrooms are in daily use by a host of different faculty members. These facts have driven a market trend toward customization in user interface hardware.
The end of the system consists of the AV devices and the protocols used to control them. If all the AV equipment takes only infrared (IR) commands, what is the point of a processor that is heavy on RS-232 and RS-485 ports? If timed events are planned, the use of only IR control with only a generic power command can be self-defeating. This is particularly true with data projectors. If they are already off, they will turn on at the timed command event instead of turning off, so the timed command puts more — rather than fewer — hours on the lamp.
Operators who use their own IR remotes can also throw off such control schemes. With discrete on and off commands available on RS-232 and RS-485 controls, any slip-ups with timed power events are avoided. There are also no stick-on emitter buds to come loose or get knocked off, but there are AV devices, such as consumer DVD players, that have only IR remote control.
Between the user inputs and control outputs, the processing unit ideally toils silently along without much attention, but its environment can affect the system's success as much as any other element. Aesthetic concerns often override good installation practice, and processors are crammed into closets and credenzas not intended for heat-generating electronic gear. Adequate ventilation, proper spacing above power amplifiers, and security are axioms that are unfortunately easy to compromise in the rush to finish an installation on time and on budget.
RANGE OF CHOICES
With the right match of controls and users, operation protocols and devices, and the proper installation technique, the AV system can achieve its full potential for users and the techs who keep it running. Once those needs have been assessed, it's time to have a look at what the current market offers.
For the maximum in customization and expandability, the MultiTasker from Altinex presents a choice of basic enclosures with a range of front-panel models and a rear bay to accommodate four to 20 slot-mounted interface modules to suit the client's current and future needs. The MultiTasker even offers a no-button panel — the MT102-142 with RS-232 control — to operate with existing third-party controllers. At the heavier end, the 36-button MT102-201 provides a 20-slot card cage. Interface cards include video and audio switchers, distribution amps, AC controllers, twisted-pair converters, transmitters, fiber-optic input/output, and keyboard and mouse controllers.
Once the hardware is selected and assembled, the configuration is performed with the MTSetup Windows software application, which only needs to be downloaded and run — without installation — on the PC. The price on the MultiTasker will vary considerably with individual configuration.
A traditional leader in the AV control market, AMX has in its extensive product line the NI-2100 NetLinx Integrated Controller for single-room AV systems. The unit features four IR ports, a 4-channel digital binary I/O port, four SPST relay ports, three RS-232/422/485 ports on DB-9 male connectors, AXLink connector, a DB-9 data port for computer programming and diagnostics, along with an RJ-45 Ethernet port. The NI-2100 also offers a 32-bit microprocessor and 64MB onboard RAM, Duet compatibility, and Dynamic Device Discovery.
The front panel has a green link/activity LED that signals the proper Ethernet connection and blinks to indicate activity. A status light shows that the unit is programmed and communicating, while red output and yellow input LEDs show command signals being sent and received. The NI-2100 is available for less than $1,500.
Billed as the world's most powerful non-proprietary IP control system, the WACI NX+ from Aurora Multimedia was released in an improved version in November 2006 with an OLED front-panel display, double the memory of the previous version, and a major firmware upgrade. The new version supports conditional actions, Telnet activation, Ethernet or UDP event triggers, and other options.
WACI is a web server that links Ethernet with control for AV devices by RS-232/422/485, Telnet, relays, or I/Os. An IR learner is included, and the unit is expandable with additional WACI NX units or expansion modules. It includes two 10/100T LAN ports with auto MDX and auto polarity, four IR/serial one-way RS-232 ports, one IR input, four DSP ports, four relays, two two-way RS-232/422/485 ports, a 2.1Gb card slot, a USP port, and a CompactFlash Type II port. The WACI NX+ sells for less than $1,200.
Bitlogix markets the Sena LS100 single-port serial device server as a cost-effective unit for IP-linked AV control. Configurable by Telnet or serial console port with password protection, the LS100 allows a local computer or networked controller to send commands to AV devices via Ethernet for RS-232 control at a serial data transfer rate up to 115Kb. The unit is configured and administered with the free LS100 Microsoft Windows-based management software. The chassis has ports for 10BaseT Ethernet, 7.5V to 15VDC power, RS-232 device control port, and LED indicators for power, ready, serial TX/RX, link, and activity. At an MSRP of $99, the LS100 is an economical way to get into Ethernet-linked AV device control.
Calypso Control Systems has built the ION-LT AV device controller on open architecture simplicity and reliability. Using an onboard event database with triggers and action sequences in the form of serial strings, IR triggers, network commands, and clock-based functions, the ION-LT can react to exterior events, act on numbered commands, and hyperlinks or desktop icons using only the unit's IP address and the number of the command sequence. No certification training is required for programming and configuration. The internal database can store 128 events and 512 actions in a tiny hardware case less than 6in. long. The ION-LT represents another low-cost $395 way of breaking into or expanding IP-linked AV control.
Designed for theater automation, the ACT from Christie Digital Systems can run one or a chain of such venues through custom user programming with a web browser-based configuration interface. On the front panel are eight programmable “hot buttons” for local control through RS-232, RS-422, USB, and Ethernet. These capabilities are also expandable on a nine-pin D-sub port. The rear panel holds a versatile array of control interface points including serial in/out, GPIO, 16 opto-isolated, bidirectional inputs, and 14 SPST relays. Through predefined scripts, the unit can communicate with third-party control devices and perform automated routines.
Crestron offers a solution to the need for maximum equipment in a minimal space with its MPS-200 Multimedia Presentation System. This 2RU device houses control system, multimedia switcher, audio processor, and amplifier, and in doing so, eliminates all of the interconnection and mounting problems with those components. Through Ethernet, RS-232 or IR control, four video inputs of various types, and four RGB computer sources can be switched into the matching inputs of the room display device, while a separate source, preview display is delivered to a local touchpanel.
Using easy front-panel controls, eight stereo sound inputs may be routed to three audio outputs with separate level, bass, treble, and mute. The unit also integrates a 40W amplifier pushing through 8, 70V, or 100V speaker systems. The MPS-200 can be found for around $2,600.
Cue markets the ipCUE-alpha for AV control in both home and commercial markets, but its capabilities are not lightweight. Two bidirectional RS-232 ports are accompanied by four serial ports configurable as RS-232, RS-422, and RS-485; eight GPIO; eight IR ports that can control up to 24 IR devices; and two 24V relays. The unit contains its own internal realtime clock, and the front panel presents LED indicators for viewing activity on the various ports. Setup and diagnostics are handled through the onboard web server via 10/100MPS LAN on either wired or wireless touchpanel interface. Hardware button panels may also be used for device control. The MSRP is $1,450.
The ConVA media control system from Dukane is a software product that provides a unified control application for AV devices using various control protocols. Available in Administrator and Presenter editions, the software adds operation of motorized screens and room lighting through the use of Dukane's ConVA protocol converters. These hardware items come in three sizes with graduated capability. The base unit can provide Ethernet-linked AV control in a single room with RS-232 port on a nine-pin Sub-D and three independent IR outputs or sensor inputs. The unit accepts reporting codes from projectors for centralized monitoring of usage hours, equipment faults, maintenance messages, and alerts.
Extron's new MLC 104 IP Plus AAP is the company's answer to the need for a simple, small-room AV control system with panel space for VCR/DVD/CD transport controls that it can learn from their IR remotes when used with the optional IRCM IR control module. The unit can be IP linked, configured with Extron's Global Configurator, and administered with GlobalViewer.
The MLC 104 IP AAP fits into a four-gang wall and podium mounting plate. Serial control drivers are downloaded from Extron's substantial database and installed via Ethernet or local serial connection. The unit may be connected to Extron's MediaLink switchers for expanded control of RGB, video, and audio sources. Three digital I/O ports, bidirectional RS-232, IR port, and activity timer are among the product's many features.
The RN-8200 Room Navigator from FSR presents a variety of AV switching and control options in multiple video formats. Four RGBHV sources may be switched to one output while an 8×1 composite video switcher and 81× S-Video switcher complete the video options. Stereo audio may be switched to accompany any of the video signals. Device control options include four serial ports, four I/O ports, and four dry contact closures.
IR codes may be learned from device remotes using the front-panel mounted sensor. The unit may be controlled via RS-232 from wall plates, or on Ethernet using an internal web server. The front panel also features room control, source select, audio muting, and volume controls.
Introduced at NSCA this year by Kramer Electronics, the RC-8IR 8×15 universal media/room controller represents the inaugural entry in the company's new line of media/room controllers.
Featuring Ethernet-based communication and programming, the RC-8IR presents eight backlit buttons, each of which can issue 15 commands through four IR emitters, one RJ-45 Ethernet port, two relay contact closures, two bidirectional RS-232 ports on terminal blocks, and one bidirectional RS-485 on a terminal block. The unit includes IR learning, unauthorized user lockout, and with a Java-based GUI, can use Ethernet connectivity for remote programming of functions or macros and for room control of projectors, screens, lighting, and other AV resources.
According to Linguatronics, the Labstar UNI-COM AV control system can eliminate the pile of remotes that grows with every equipment addition, and it will combine the functions of AV switcher, IR remotes, environment controller, and stereo amplifier. The unit can input seven analog AV sources on RCA connectors, two computer sources on HD-15 ports, and a microphone and seven stereo audio sources on RCAs.
The UNI-COM provides two VGA computer and three composite video outputs. The integrated power amplifier pumps 50W into 8Ω, and includes bass and treble controls. With screen control and lighting control ports, projection screens and four lighting zones may be controlled. The unit can be controlled through the Genesis interface, standalone software, or hardware keypad.
The MT-444-CM ControlMate CM from MediaTech can operate four relay-controlled devices, up to four RS-232 interfaces, and four IR devices, along with providing an IR learner port on the front panel with 60 internal nonvolatile command storage locations. Front-panel LEDs also indicate activity and operational status.
The MT-444-CM-S includes an RS-232 host control interface and the MT-444-CM-SL adds an Ethernet RJ-45 for network controller connection and an internal web server. Control scenarios include mixed, multiple command sequences, programmable delays, toggling command functions, and time-elapsed auto-execute functions such as auto-shutdown. Expansion capabilities include software-assignable unit addresses.
Capable of a much wider role than the name might imply, the PAN6400 video distribution center from NetStreams not only switches and distributes up to four HDTV (1080i) sources to as many as six locations, it also distributes four composite, four S-Video, or four component sources to Panorama video ports up to 1,000ft. away on Cat-5. Using its IR inputs and outputs, the unit can also control the sources and displays, and it can interface by RS-232 with other control systems.
The PAN6400 can also integrate with the NetStreams Musica or DigiLinX IP-based multi-room audio and control systems. Up to 100 PAN6400s can be cascaded for distribution and control of much larger systems. For easy local confirmation of source selection, there is also a monitor output. The faceplate includes source/display selection LEDs and the IR window for wireless unit control.
Among the many AV control devices and system components from ProCon Technology, the 8450-02 and 8460-02 control units provide bidirectional monitoring, along with control and management of serial-controlled devices on an Ethernet network interface using the ProCon Site Manager software. Pre-built local control GUI selections are available for either remote or local computer control with timed events and monitoring of lamp time and other system parameters.
With the Site Manager license included with the hardware product, multiple 8450-02 units may be accessed with building and room views. Activity and link status indicators are included, and the unit can interface easily with the ProCon hardware control button panels. Setup is simple with auto-detect and both static and DHCP Ethernet addressing.
Designed to afford the ultimate in operational simplicity for classrooms, conference rooms, language labs, and other applications, the Pro-One AV controller from Sun-Tech provides 7-channel AV selector inputs on RCA connectors, 3-channel AV selector outputs, one microphone input, two VGA inputs, 2-channel VGA outputs with VGA splitter, an IR remote control learner, and an integrated 50W amplifier with 8 speaker terminals. Front-panel controls include mic volume, master volume, and treble and bass controls. Operation can be handled through either a desktop control panel or a computer interface.
The rackmountable Mini-Monopro II from Vity is designed for mid-size to smaller venues with control capability including six IR ports, two RS-232 connects on DB-9 female connectors, six relay contacts on Phoenix blocks, one X-10 port with RJ-11 connector inputs for four feedback sources on Phoenix blocks, and two infrared RC5 controls with an IR learner built-in. Up to 16 of the units are expandable through RS-485 loop-through ports. The processor can be controlled by computer on the Cat-5 port with Vity Fastoch programming software, or by RS-485 with a touchpanel. The Mini-Monopro II has an MSRP of $845.
For More Information
Calypso Control Systems
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