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AV In The Digital Age

Information technology is becoming more mainstream in the AV world. Are you ready for the changes?

WE'VE HEARD for years that “digital is here,” and “streaming media is the wave of the future,” and all those clichés. Many of us remember the big Streaming Media section at the NAB show in the late 1990s, and all those short-lived magazines that sprung up to cover this evolving market.

The problem with all of these missteps and false starts was that there simply wasn't enough bandwidth available at the time to take advantage of any of these pie-in-the-sky products and services. Streaming video wasn't going to cut it when the average person only had a 33 kb/s dial-up modem for accessing e-mail.

Around the turn of the century, we started to see courses in AV/IT convergence at InfoComm and other trade shows. The courses were — and continue to be — well attended, in some cases drawing the largest crowds of any InfoComm course offerings.

The technology is finally catching up to the theory. Not only do a large number of U.S. households and businesses have access to broadband service, but also a new wave of digital media distribution and playback devices and services are gaining widespread adoption, particularly among the Gen-X and Echo Boomer segments of the population.

You'd have to be living in a cave if you still haven't heard about YouTube, or tried playing a video from its Web site. How about iPods and the iTunes download site? Have you tried out a SlingBox yet? Does Verizon or AT&T offer IPTV in your neighborhood? Got your eye on one of those new tapeless/discless HDV camcorders? Checked out a Blu-ray or HD DVD player lately?

All of these products and trends are forces reshaping the way we acquire, store, and play back media and will have a direct impact on the conference rooms, classrooms, and home theaters of the future. And most of them have been enabled by the widespread growth of broadband connections and the migration to pure digital interfaces.

As an industry, we are laggards when it comes to digital technology. In parallel markets to ours, such as broadcasting, satellite communications, cable TV and the new IPTV services from Verizon and AT&T, the digital video, audio, and data infrastructure uses a combination of Cat-5 LAN cables and fiber optics — no composite video, 15-pin VGA cables, or XLR audio bundles.

In the old, familiar analog world, we designed rooms based on signal formats: RGBHV video, Cat-5 cable, plenum wire for stereo audio, 9-pin RS232 plugs and jacks. But that all changes with digital, where one connector can carry everything, whether it's a BNC plug on a piece of co-ax, or the aforementioned Cat-5 LAN, or a single-mode fiber hook-up, or no cable at all, just WiMax high-speed wireless.

Now, the best approach to facilities design is application and media-intensive, not hardware-intensive. The first step is asking how a customer wants to use a facility, and what types of media he or she will want to access, play back, store, and forward. The hardware isn't nearly as important as convenience and (ready for this?) portability, the two leading factors driving the digital media marketplace.

We are entering an age where we can access and play any media files pretty much anywhere we want, any time we want. Repeated studies have shown that time shifting is a big driver of cable and satellite system installations and upgrades. Apple's iTunes is doing record business selling songs at 99 cents a pop. NBC and ABC have downloadable TV shows on their Web sites and, of course, there's YouTube, which logs millions of visitors a month.

“What does any of this have to do with my business?” you may ask. The answer is simple: everything. The biggest mistake we can make is to view all of these technological developments only from our perspectives as seasoned pro AV industry veterans, who grew up during the transition from black-and-white to color TV, saw the first video-cassette players introduced, and were wowed by a 30+ pound portable LCD projector with 500 lumens of brightness, way back in the early 1990s.

Instead, we need to look at the future of media distribution — and our industry — through the eyes of the generation behind us, who have enthusiastically embraced these new digital technologies without hesitation, and who will expect them to be part of any future AV installation projects when this generation becomes the executives, heads of IT departments, and homeowners of tomorrow.

Indeed, this generation is characterized largely by their agnostic technology beliefs when it comes to getting video and audio from a particular piece of equipment or through a particular wired connection. To them, movies, TV shows, music files, text messages, and photos move seamlessly from cell phone and iPod to laptops and desktops.

And why not? It's all digital media, and when everything is digital, all that really matters are the available bandwidth, the compression systems, and transmission protocols. Alphabet soup such as RGBHV, XLR, UTP, and RS232 goes out the window, to be replaced by HTML, TCP/IP, SNMP, SMTP, MP3, MPEG, and JPEG.

What happens if someone walks into your brand-new conference facility and wants to load up a Powerpoint presentation from a handheld device, such as the hot new Blackjack? What if a field office for a corporation prepares a video and posts it on a Web site, to be streamed at a meeting thousands of miles away? What if employees at a remote location want to participate in a meeting by viewing the proceedings and graphics on their cell phones?

You've read about it in Pro AV magazine, but have you seen a demo of teleprescence yet? This is a high-definition, surround-sound teleconferencing system that provides the nearest thing to being there, according to its promoters. Cisco is already implementing it nationwide over high-speed, constant bit rate digital networks.

If you need more proof, consider the trend of combining digital audio and video signals into one display interface, a la HDMI and the new DisplayPort digital PC standard. Both systems can process more than 10 Gb/s of video, audio, and control data (yep, that good old RS232 stuff), which simplifies cable runs considerably. And both can handle high-resolution displays, too.

For that matter, why even go wired? New formats such as WiHD and WiMax promise bit rates exceeding 400 Mb/s while operating in the 5 to 6 GHz frequency spectrum. While the maximum bit rate may be difficult to attain, even one-tenth of that (40 Mb/s) is more than enough to stream MPEG2 Main Level, Main Profile HD video, plus multiple channels of audio, data, and control signals.

These are just some of the things you'll have to deal with in the AV world, as more of these products become mainstream. Will you be up to the challenge? Or will companies with a better command of digital signal theory, Internet protocol, and server technology beat you to the punch?

FEEDBACK

To comment on this article, email the Pro AV editorial staff at proav@hanleywood.com.

Pete Putman is a contributing editor for Pro AV and president of ROAM Consulting, Doylestown, Pa. Especially well known for the product testing and development services he provides to manufacturers of projectors, monitors, integrated TVs, and display interfaces, he has also authored hundreds of technical articles, reviews, and columns for industry trade and consumer magazines over the last two decades. You can reach him at pete@hdtvexpert.com.

 


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