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Future Shock: Digital Consumes InfoComm Show

Missed the National Association of Broadcasters' annual show in April? No worries, InfoComm is looking a lot like it, with a fresh influx of digital video solutions.

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Credit: Chris Whitney

It started in the late 1990s as a ripple in the water. “IT is coming!” cried the industry pundits. “AV is on the endangered species list. Computer guys will be taking over our business before we know it!” Before long, we were seeing demos of Ethernet-connected projectors, mixers, and switchers at trade shows. InfoComm started offering

classes about the AV/IT convergence that consistently drew large numbers of attendees. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in 1999 had an entire section of one hall devoted to streaming media. And several publishing companies jumped on the bandwagon with “streaming video” and “AV/IT” magazines.

Ten years later, those ever-popular AV/IT classes have been condensed into a single sentence: “The convergence is here, so deal with it!” The original streaming media concept came and went; a victim of insufficient bandwidth and too much hype, while none of those “media convergence” magazines lasted more than a couple years.

Still, that original ripple has become a tsunami, thanks to widespread availability of fast broadband connections, increased CPU processing power, and the availability of low-cost video and audio codecs. There is no question that the AV industry is setting its sails to go digital, although for some dealers and integrators, the move feels more like being swept away in a flood.

If you’re one of those people I just described or you still harbor any skepticism about digital AV, a trip to this year’s NAB Show would have convinced you beyond a doubt. There were so many companies selling digital video/audio encoders, IP-based signal switchers, and various “goesinta/goesoutta” boxes with SDI, HD-SDI, and even 3G HD-SDI interfaces that I stopped counting after the first day.

Need more proof? How about Extron, the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, buying the hardware division of Electrosonic and adding its first-ever digital video codecs to the Extron product line? Read the Extron press release about its VN-Matrix video encoders, and this line should jump out at you: “You can start small and add additional encoders and decoders later to turn your IP network into a virtual routing matrix switcher that is practically limitless in size.”

Now, did what Extron describe mean anything to you, or are you sitting there scratching your head in bewilderment?

I’m not going to expound further on the advantages of digital video and software-based signal switching—I’ve beaten that rug enough times in past columns. What I will do is talk about the product trends I saw at the NAB Show and what you’re likely to spot at InfoComm 2010.

Handy Guide to Video at InfoCOMM

First, expect to see many new players you’ve never heard of exhibiting their digital media wares in Las Vegas. Ever spend any time in the Evertz booth? Harris Corporation? Ross Video? Doremi Labs? Utah Scientific? They’re all NAB Show stalwarts and will be in attendance at InfoComm. And each company is well versed in digital media know-how, with full lines of switching and distribution products.

Ever walk by the booths of HaiVision? Adtec? VBrick Systems? Stop in and check out what they’re peddling in Las Vegas. All three companies have a full slate of MPEG and IP video and audio coding products. And Tandberg? You may know that networking behemoth Cisco Systems bought the company’s teleconferencing products business, but it still operates it under the Tandberg name. And the company, with its own set of IP-based digital solutions, has always been a friend to the AV channel.

Next, look for more movement to pure digital signal distribution over Cat-5/6 cables and optical fiber. Yes, we’ve seen fiber products before from the likes of Communications Specialties and Extron. But when Magenta Research, a stalwart in signal conversion and transmission over UTP, jumps on the fiber bandwagon, you know it’s a real trend.

How about broadcast digital formats like HD-SDI? Is there any application for them in our market? To quote one former governor of Alaska, “You betcha.” Walk into the Kramer and Sierra Video booths and ask to see their new 3G HD-SDI routing switchers. You’ll find similar offerings from the Big Gray Father in Anaheim, Calif., plus the aforementioned Harris, Evertz, Ross Video, and others.

As you move about the show floor, you may notice large flat-screen video monitors that look suspiciously like consumer models you can pick up at Best Buy. The only difference will be the ubiquitous RS-232 connections and jacks that tilt towards DVI and BNC. (But they’ll still have the equally ubiquitous HDMI ports.)

Speaking of HDMI (a dirty word to many AV integrators), are you aware there’s an updated HDMI standard (1.4) as of June 2009? And that 1.4 allows for audio return paths, plus an Ethernet connection if so desired? There will be a plethora of HDMI 1.4 interfaces at the show—switchers, distribution amplifiers, signal format converters—but it will be interesting to see how many of them support the even newer HDMI 1.4a 3D video frame transport standards that were released in March. Ask your vendors.

As for 3D itself, you can count on more than a few 3D demos by display manufacturers at the show. Approach them thoughtfully. There’s definitely a place for 3D in our market, although exactly where is still being determined. But that won’t stop projector and monitor manufacturers from trying to wow you. Expect DLP projector manufacturers to take the lead, with some 3LCD models also displaying 3D capabilities. You will see at least one demo of passive stereoscopic viewing (i.e., using the cheaper glasses) on LCD monitors from Hyundai and possibly LG.

Do you have an iPod Touch or new-fangled iPad? Look for umpteen million industry-specific apps for both products, including everything from 802.11n wireless remote controls to media players and teleconferencing hook-ups. Why bother to develop a proprietary touchscreen control interface when someone’s already written one for Apple’s App Store?

Lastly, expect to see more companies in smaller booths at InfoComm—even the big boys. Today’s economics don’t support the costs of large trade show booths anymore. Two Japanese powerhouses have consolidated their pro AV and broadcast equipment sales force in the past few years, and one of them has also been experimenting with virtual trade shows (a trend to watch, by the way, provided the presentation improves significantly).

InfoComm 2010 will be a very interesting show. And don’t forget to download the show planner app before you cruise the aisles.

2008 InfoComm Educator of the Year Pete Putman is a Pro AV contributing editor and president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa.

 


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