Adaptability is the Key to Survival

November 12, 2006

It was philosopher Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Spencer, a passionate advocate of the ideas of Charles Darwin, believed that struggle forced individuals to improve themselves as well as weeding out the few totally unfit to survive. While it’s fairly safe to assume that Mr. Spencer did not have the AV industry in mind whilst formulating his theories, they have, nonetheless, an eerily prophetic ring of truth about them in today’s business environment.   

In the natural world, changes in the environment place pressures on those creatures reliant upon it for survival. Being the biggest or strongest does not necessarily guarantee success in any struggle for survival – just ask any Tyrannosaurus Rex. Instead, fortune tends to favour those able to adapt sufficiently quickly to avoid extinction. So it is with business: For many years, the corporate installation market was a reasonably well-ordered and stable environment: Lighting, audio and video companies each had their place within a well defined hierarchy of manufacturers, distributors and dealers. That this established order is changing, is now beyond dispute. For those able to adapt to the new environment,  these changes have presented a great deal of opportunity. Others, not quite so quick to move with the times, have been less fortunate: “Everything evolves”, says John Midgley of Beyerdynamic GB. “The company that stands still runs a real risk of being left behind”. John continues:” It’s sometimes a little frightening to think of where we might have to go in the future, but the company which doesn’t evolve to meet the needs of its markets and customers will inevitably end up with the dinosaurs.”

There have certainly been some notable extinctions in recent times which graphically illustrate the harsh reality of survival in today’s install markets. Understanding the forces driving change within the industry is more crucial than ever for those keen to avoid a dodo-esque epitaph. Some industry  commentators have pointed to the AV systems installation business evolving as a two tier industry consisting of multi-discipline systems integrators and smaller “bang and hang” installers. But this belies a far more complex situation, involving many different players, each pursuing their own survival agenda against the backdrop of a changing business environment. 

On the large scale, macro-economic pressures have had an industry-wide impact. The last couple of years have been particularly tough for many business sectors which has led to sluggish performance in the traditionally rich hunting grounds of the corporate installation market, as well as slowing development in potential new markets such as education and retail.  When times get hard, major installations and refurbishments are one of the first casualties of corporate belt-tightening. But while previously postponed projects are showing signs of springing back into life, many are being closely re-examined in the light of continuing economic uncertainties. In today’s hard-nosed economic climate, any capital expenditure has to be more clearly justifiable in terms of return on investment rather than merely achieving the “wow” factor. Lavish, big-budget AV projects undoubtedly still exist, but in general, customers are demanding more bang for their buck.

Nevertheless, greater reliance on data visualisation and multimedia in the business world continues to be a powerful driving force in the corporate market. Technologies like videoconferencing and collaborative working are gaining popularity due to demonstrable savings of time and money they offer business customers. Today’s systems often need to integrate with existing presentation and network facilities, deliver greater flexibility and greater demonstrable benefit.  Whereas on face value, this would seem to be a positive trend for the audio-visual installer,  satisfying this demand places far greater demands on the skills and knowledge of the installer. Put simply, there’s often a lot more involved than Lumens and Decibels.  Alan Moore of Audeo Limited comments “There is no such thing as a generalist technology supplier anymore. All technologies are getting more specialised and therefore the depth of knowledge required, as opposed to the breadth, is much greater”. For examples, one has only to consider the high degree of network integration now built-in to contemporary room control systems and presentation devices. Alan continues, ”The appropriate expertise is a prerequisite for being able to properly specify and install these kind of products”.

The influence of the information technology sector on the presentation systems industry has been profound and far reaching. In many applications, there is now no clear delineation between the two. The inevitable result has been a vast increase in the number and type of manufacturers producing presentation products, but more importantly, a fundamental change in the way these products are developed, marketed and distributed.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the displays industry.

For many years, technologies like DMD, plasma and LCD microdisplays were the jealously guarded preserve of a handful of manufacturers serving a largely homogenous pro-AV market. Manufacturing volumes of specialist high-end products were then, and remain to this day, comparatively low and so prices remain relatively high. Competition based mainly on performance means that development costs are a significant overhead for manufacturers; a cost which must be recovered through a higher profit margin. Distributors are also able to recover their overheads via their profit margin where no alternative to the established distribution channel exists. Where supply and demand are balanced, then the whole system reaches equilibrium.

But the arrival of the big IT-biased corporations into the presentation arena has upset this finely balanced system. The new arrivals have bought with them their own marketing philosophy which operates in quite a different way to the traditional structure of the AV industry. Widespread proliferation of display technologies like LCD, plasma and DMD, combined with much larger manufacturing capacity, has enabled these companies to commoditise some display products in much the same way as they have already done with PC’s, monitors, printers and scanners, to name but a few examples. A high rate of production means that the overhead recovery per unit can be reduced, but only if sufficient sales volumes can be achieved. The Law of Demand states that as prices drop, so market demand increases. Growing demand, thereby increasing sales volume to the necessary level, means dropping prices. Not just at the factory gates, but throughout the supply chain. While the IT channels have evolved to work in this way, some distributors in the established AV channel geared to low volume/high margin operation, were not. The word “were” is significant: Faced with savage competition on price which eroded profit margins on individual unit sales to practically nothing, and with little else to offer in terms of added value, a good number have simply been priced out of the game.

But the impact of increased competition has also exerted a more subtle effect on the industry. For manufacturers, gaining market share is now increasingly dependant on adding value to products rather than achieving big leaps forward in performance. With projectors, for example, more esoteric refinements like improved lamp life, lower fan noise, network and wireless operation all help to differentiate one product from another. But this presents a problem for manufacturers: Adding features that customers don’t need in their particular application increases costs unnecessarily which creates commercial disadvantage. The lesson learned from the IT sector’s long experience of volume markets, is to segment the market and address each sector individually. Products aimed at specific markets – the home user, budget-conscious businessman or high-end professional – can be specced and priced as appropriate to demand. More importantly, the channels to market can be different in each case. The profoundly important lesson, for both manufacturers and distributors alike, is that market specialisation is not only still possible, it is vital.

Consequently, there has been significant change by the larger manufacturers from product-focused to market-oriented divisions. The hallmark of this re-organisation is in the way that these divisions now encompass a range of products which have direct applications in specific markets. For example, Sony’s retail division provides video servers as well as certain models of plasma and projection products; Barco’s digital signage products, including variants of their LED event screens, are handled by their media division. Although the core product technologies might remain common across a range of divisions, individual models are becoming more specialised by the inclusion of added value features. The role of the specialised distributor has therefore become more, rather than less important to manufacturers because of the expertise required to support specialised products in the market, and is quite separate from the concept of “box-shifting” .

While commoditised, user-friendly plug-and-play technologies are well suited to bulk distribution, a lot of the products required to satisfy the increasingly benefit-conscious customer, are not. Alan Moore from videoconferencing specialists Audeo relates a cautionary tale of the results of manufacturers choosing an inappropriate method of distribution: “A few years ago, a particular manufacturer decided to change their distribution from multi-tier to single tier,  thereby levelling the playing field between distributors and resellers. By allowing virtually anyone to get access to the product, a price war developed between value-added distributors and bulk distributors. The value added distributors become uncompetitive on price because resellers were only interested in box-shifting. The result was that the product became effectively unsupported in the market, where it quickly gained a reputation with customers as being unreliable and difficult to use – not because it was a bad product, but merely because resellers and end-users lacked the expertise and resources to install and set it up properly. The manufacturer suffered a big loss of market share as a direct consequence and has since switched back to a multi-level, value-added distribution model”. 

Successful distributors in today’s installation markets share a belief in the importance of acquiring the correct mix of products and expertise appropriate to their specific markets. John Midgley of Beyerdynamic GB says, “Distribution companies, if they are to survive, must focus on providing solutions, a breadth of products and technical support to help their customers”. Beyerdynamic distribute Beyer audio products in the UK, but now also Cue touchpanel controllers and a whole range of associated products which, as John puts it, “Have a natural synergy with our markets”. But it’s not just breadth of product range that’s important. The right skill base is essential too: “In the past good sales skills were the key, but now our skill set is much more technically led with a strong project management bias. As the market becomes more competitive, it’s become necessary for us to employ specialists to be able to offer a complete solution”.

AC Lighting are another well known distributor now also offering a wider range of services. Richard Bewley of AC Lighting says their project division, AC Projects, was formed “to answer the demand for end-to-end solutions. We felt it was appropriate to have a specific division capable of offering a service which includes audio and AV as well as lighting”.  As with Beyerdynamic, it is the in-house expertise which adds the all-important value aspect: Peter Keiderling of AC Projects explains,” We are very much in touch with all the latest products, so we are able to offer our expertise to consultants and designers who know what they want to achieve but might benefit from our help in finding the best solution”. Peter identifies the adding of this kind of value as “Very important. All the major players offer similar pricing, but it’s going that extra mile that makes the difference”.

So with distributors now getting more involved with installations, does that create potential for a conflict of interest with existing customers? “We are mindful of the projects that we get involved with so as not to end up competing with our customers”, says Peter Keiderling. “Projects remain a small part of our turnover compared to sales and distribution. We remain very active in supporting our sales customers by offering services like our extensive product training programme.”  Richard Bewley prefers to see AC’s projects division as offering an additional service to existing customers  which enables them to compete more effectively in their respective markets; working with them rather than competing. Alan Moore says Audeo are quite happy to support resellers as well as end-users. “If we are working with an AV company, we will provide the telecoms and IT expertise for them. If our customer is an IT company, we provide the AV and telecoms expertise, and so on”. Audeo’s in-house expertise is in effect a tradable product in its own right, independent of revenue streams from equipment sales. Alan continues, “We are an accredited Cisco partner, even though we don’t sell Cisco equipment. Why? Because it means it gives us the credibility to talk directly to IT personnel and for them to recognise that we know what we are doing”.

But what of the installers themselves…is the “bang-and-hang” installer doomed to fall victim to the process of natural selection? Not necessarily. In this complex web of interdependencies, there are still opportunities for smaller operators to thrive provided they understand their markets. A major AV distributor recently commented that one of their best customers has, virtually single-handedly, built a £ million-plus turnover business selling and installing projectors into the education sector, armed with little more than a mobile phone! The keys to success? High quality salesmanship, a keen understanding of the market’s requirements and extremely low overheads. For others, the answer lies in either acquiring the skill set to be able to deal effectively with technologies like networks, or  forming strong alliances with others with the necessary expertise. If nature teaches us anything, it’s that it’s not necessarily the biggest that wins in the long term.

If Charles Darwin were alive today, he would probably concur that while the multi-product/multi-disciplined, value-added distributor model appears to offer a good survival strategy in a highly competitive market, evolution is a continual process. He might also point out that the most significant factors for long term success are adaptability, willingness to evolve and a keen environmental awareness.

Consequently, I bet he wouldn’t be just selling projectors for a living.

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In The Loop – The Rise of Structured Cabling

November 9, 2006

You can tell an awful lot about any technology by simply looking to see how it plugs in. It is often the physical interconnection between formerly disparate technologies which provides the clearest illustration of the extent to which they have become unified. Take a look around the back of your PC, and you’ll see what I mean: Sound card inputs and outputs, perhaps a video output from the built-in DVD player, network connections and, more often than not, a telephone socket. The functions of entertainment device, communication centre and workstation now happy co-exist together on the PC desktop. But is it really the PC which has become unified, or the infrastructure behind it? The AV-IT convergence issue is essentially a debate over which technology will eventually dominate the underlying infrastructure. Have AV and IT reached an uneasy truce, or is a totally unified infrastructure inevitable?

Technology convergence is not a new issue: The unification of data communications and telecommunications was no less traumatic in its day than today’s convergence of AV-IT. In the early years of LAN, data and voice communication operated via completely different transmission systems. Up until the early ‘80’s coaxial cable was the preferred LAN medium, while voice communication was predominantly based on traditional unshielded telephone cable, known today as Cat1. Cat1 derived from the earliest days of telephony and while it could be used for modem data communication, it was inadequate for use with the emerging LAN technologies. But this physical limitation there was also another, more subtle reason behind the segregation of technologies: The computer industry and the telecommunications industries were two very separate entities at the time, as John Laban, Technical Director of network specialists Annor Ltd. recalls. “A key reason why the datacommunications department wanted their cabling separate from the telecommunications department was job preservation. Each department saw the other as a threat if an integrated voice and data structured wiring solution was implemented”…..sound familiar?.

But by the mid 1980’s, things were beginning to change: The ready availability of cheap, unshielded twisted pair (UTP) capable of handling higher data rates meant that for reasons of economy and ease of handling ,  UTP was fast supplanting coaxial as the medium of choice for data communications.  With the advent of Cat3 cable, UTP became capable of supporting 10 Mbit/sec Ethernet and 4 Mbit/sec token ring networks and so became the standard wiring spec for both data and voice. Datacommunications and telecommunications had in effect become unified by a single infrastructure technology. UTP continued to evolve as a comparatively cheap and effective signal transport until, by the early 1990’s Cat5 had become virtually ubiquitous in voice and data applications. The first commercial building cabling standard to define the structured cabling concept was released in 1991 under auspices of the Telecommunications Industry Association/ Electronic Industries Association (TIA/EIA). The original TIA/EIA 568 standard  forms the basis of the latest international standard, ISO/IEC 11801.  As well as defining in detail the media and topology of the structured cabling system, one of the primary aims of TIA/EIA 568 was to develop a uniform wiring scheme which supported multi-vendor products and environments.  In effect, this meant that it was now possible to plan and install communications wiring in buildings without any prior knowledge of the products that would eventually use it.  Although not originally conceived with AVL in mind, it is this application-independent aspect which holds the greatest significance for AVL installers. 

TIA/EIA 568 and its international derivative ISO/IEC 11801 provide strict performance criteria which any structured wiring scheme must adhere to – criteria which are well understood by building contractors like CCI Ltd who specialise in structured cabling systems. “More end users are coming around to the idea of flood-wiring Cat5 because it’s cheaper in the long-term”, says CCI’s Ian Blackman. Economies of scale make it cost effective to use a single specialist contractor like CCI, to install everything.  “Labour is by far the biggest element in the cost”, agrees Ian.  “In a new build, you might be paying €55 – €85 per outlet. This rises to something like four times that for a retro-fit.” Low unit cost and long-term savings makes the case for flood-wiring an economic no-brainer for new build’s and major refurbishments, but are AVL manufacturers being forced into adopting UTP by budget conscious architects and designers? Not always. In fact, in some cases, quite the reverse is true:

“We’ve seen a steady deterioration in the quality of video over co-ax”, declares John Stephenson, managing director of Studio Systems Ltd. “Broadband distribution over coaxial requires modulation and demodulation which degrades quality. Our aim is to re-introduce quality, and Cat5 is the ideal medium for that”. John was one of the first people to became involved with developing high quality video distribution over UTP whilst working as a senior design engineer at the BBC.  After leaving the BBC, John formed Studio Systems to develop commercial UTP video applications. “We’ve been involved with Cat5  for over ten years now”, says John. “Initially we worked in banks and dealer rooms, but applications are now much more widespread, and include training facilities and even supermarkets.” John is a strong advocate of the advantages of video distribution over twisted pair: “The beauty of Cat5 is that it’s all there: With builders and architects now routinely flood wiring,  you have the ability to patch signals anywhere you want without having to re-wire – plus, of course, the advantage of higher quality”.  The idea of high quality analogue signal distribution over twisted pair is not new: The BBC first used twisted pair during their coverage of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. But the quality of video over UTP has advanced to the point where it is now a serious contender to coaxial: “Signal quality is getting better and better all the time”, confirms Paul de Graca of Extron. “We ran a test recently between coaxial and UTP,  running a 1280 x 1024 signal over 150m; you couldn’t tell the difference between the two”. So does this mean that Cat5 offers a truly universal AVL – IT infrastructure in the same way that Cat3 unified data and telecoms? Not quite: Because as Paul points out, for the moment at least, video  “can be distributed over Cat5, but it’s still an analogue signal”.

“And at the end of the day, Cat5 was designed for IT systems, not video”, continues Paul. “You have crosstalk  and the nature of twisted pair means the R,G and B conductors are different lengths so that you sometimes end up with image convergence problems.” Some Extron equipment has trim pots to compensate for this delay, but Extron recommends using media-grade Cat5 as a solution. “Our skew-free cable means that the signal paths are the same length. The only problem”, concedes Paul, “Is that you can’t use it for IT”. This illustrates the point that although the concept of a pre-installed universal cabling structure is an attractive one, often the reality falls some way short of the mark.

There is also a problem in bridging the knowledge gap: Cabling contractors might have the specialised skills to design and wire structured cabling systems, but they will generally employ materials and solutions designed to satisfy the requirements of the IT specification. “I heard of an example recently”, says Paul de Graca, “Of a cabling contractor using Cat5 to provide a video connection in a hospital. In theory, not a problem but the cable run passes over two x-ray departments, so by the time the video signal reaches the other end, it’s got noise on it. An AVL specialist would have run coaxial as a matter of course”. Barry Revels of Canford Audio relates a similar story: “We had a customer recently who was so horrified at the quality of the cable that the building contractor had run in, that they insisted that everything be ripped out and re-wired. Amongst our traditional customer base, there is a feeling that building contractors definitely need educating in the requirements of audio”.  From the AVL side of the fence, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the terminology and technology surrounding twisted pair. Paul de Graca comments, “Cat5 is not a fixed wiring standard….it’s evolving. We already have Cat5e, Cat6 and Cat7 is on the way.  We’ve had customers asking ‘will your Cat5 transceivers work over Cat6” when in reality Cat6 is just another UTP cable. We’ve changed all our advertising to refer to ‘twisted pair’ rather than Cat5 to help avoid this confusion. We now talk about video/audio over UTP in our Extron school to give our people a better understanding of the subject. If they want to use it properly, they need to get educated”. 

But while video transmission over UTP remains analogue-based, audio has no such limitations. Lower bandwidth requirement allows audio signals to be transported in the digital domain – the format for which UTP was originally intended – and has allowed the use of audio networks to become firmly established.  Barry Revels of Canford Audio comments, “There has been a big increase in the use of twisted pair in audio installations: That increase has been exponential over the last two years”.  Barry agrees that products like BSS Soundweb are having a big impact on the install market, and it’s not hard to see why. Multiple channels of digital audio, and in some cases control signals too, can share a single low-cost Cat5 cable delivering self-evident advantages in terms of the cost and the ease of cabling large-scale installations like stadiums or passenger terminals. Not to mention the inherent flexibility of a structured network approach and its ability to easily adapt to different applications and configurations. The audio system installed in London’s Millennium Dome, for example, utilised around 4000 channels of audio and would have been all but impossible to achieve using conventional analogue equipment. But using BSS’s Soundweb system,  signals could be routed to and from any part of the Dome – all easily managed from a central control PC. Soundweb is just one example of a new generation of audio systems designed to utilise the network infrastructure. The Soundweb network uses its own transmission protocols and is capable of bi-directional transfer of 8 channels of 48kHz digital audio over Cat5. Klotz Digital’s Vadis system is another example of an audio distribution system based on a structured wiring infrastructure. Klotz Digital supplied and installed their Vadis system into the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, linking all the technical areas in the two different buildings of the theatre complex. The audio matrix handles 120 microphone feeds coming from the stage, several rehearsal areas and a recording studio together with stage directions and all the tie-lines for radio and television broadcast. DSP functions like paramentric EQ and mixing consoles are all integrated into the Klotz solution.

And yet, advanced though systems like Soundweb and Vadis are, they still do not represent the true union of AVL and IT infrastructure.  The reason is that both systems still require a dedicated network infrastructure, separate from any other transports which may be needed like Ethernet networks, for example.  But systems are now available that breach this last remaining physical barrier to true integration. CobraNet from Peak Audio is an audio network solution utilising Ethernet as it’s transport medium, allowing digital audio to share the same network as data.  Ethernet works by splitting data into discrete chunks which are routed to specific destinations via repeater hubs or intelligent switches. The key to CobraNet is its ability to route time-critical data packets like real-time audio through the network ahead of lower priority network traffic. While putting all one’s eggs in one basket might not be appropriate in every case, adopting the Ethernet medium brings some significant advantages, aside from saving money on cables and cabling costs. The industry providing cost-effective Ethernet-related hardware such as switches, hubs, WiFi radio links etc., is vast and well developed. Ethernet’s “star” wiring configuration increases system reliability and flexibility. And not least is the fact that much of the management of facilities and hardware, via AMX or Crestron for example, already takes place over Ethernet.  Ethernet also allows for the creation of “Virtual” networks or VLAN’s which allow segregation of services over the same physical connection. 

And it’s not just the noise-boys that can now leverage the power of Ethernet. Artistic License produce a range of products which allow DMX512 data to be sent over Ethernet networks using a proprietary protocal called Art-Net. “Art-Net has been around for sometime now”, says Artistic License’s Simon Hobday,  “And is supported by a good number of other manufacturers through the Art-Net Alliance organisation”. So who’s buying it? “Art-Net is used a lot in building installations as a permanent fixture”, says Simon, meaning that cabling can run and certified prior to the lighting contractor commencing work. Existing Ethernet cabling can be used for retrofit or even temporary lighting projects.  “Lighting control over wireless Ethernet is also really useful at big trade shows and the like”, continues Simon, “We’ve used it ourselves in this way to great effect. Many of the big lighting desks now have a straight Ethernet connection built in.”

Further indicative of the growing acceptance of UTP cable within the pro light and sound market that Neutrik now manufacture ruggedised RJ-45 connectors specifically for the events industry. Charlie Cook of Neutrik says that “The UK  AVL industry asked us for a pro-version of the RJ-45.  Our response is the Ethercon range.” Ethercon incorporates an RJ-45 into an XLR shell. “UTP is becoming much more widespread. Ethercon is now being used by audio and lighting manufacturers”, says Charlie, “But also by broadcasters for outside broadcast work”. Paul de Graca of Extron points out. “10 meters of Cat5 costs about the same as 3 meters of cheap coaxial. I’ve even heard of cases in the U.S. where rental companies are using Cat5 on shows and just tossing it away afterwards – it’s cheaper than transporting drums of expensive co-ax”!

It is tempting to believe that development of structured cabling schemes reached a plateau with Cat5. Certainly Cat5 was once considered future-proof. But inevitably the trend within digital networks – the real driving force – is toward higher bandwidth systems. The emergence of gigabit Ethernet calls for a higher specification network infrastructure. While some Cat5 installations will support gigabit Ethernet, the recommendation now is for Cat5e cable, which at 200MHz, is rated at twice the transmission capability of Cat5. Now, even higher specification cables are emerging. Cat6 (ISO Class E) is designed to support 200MHz and above, while the Cat7 (ISO Class F) standard will be rated at up to 600MHz.  Again it’s crucial to remember that these systems are not designed to carry analogue signals. Problems like crosstalk and interference could cause some unexpected headaches for AVL installers attempting to pass analogue signals over these systems.  Nevertheless as John Stephenson says, “There’s still a lot of life left for analogue (video) over copper. I’ve yet to see really good and affordable IP video sources, although I’m sure that it will happen.” Until such time that high-quality video over data networks becomes a practical reality, the familiar video head-end infrastructure looks to be fairly safe. “I haven’t seen a rack yet that is exclusively twisted pair” comments Paul de Graca, “And I don’t really see that happening right away”. Extron launched an 8 x 8 twisted pair matrix switch for specialist applications last year, but despite “positive” response from the industry, Paul concedes that “I’ve yet to hear a consultant saying ‘we need a twisted pair matrix’”. But network speeds are increasing year on year. Just this month, Fujitsu announced the development of a 12 port, 10 gigabit per second Ethernet switch on a single chip. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the last technical barrier to true unification is breached.

But remember those warring datacomms and telecomms managers from yesteryear? Those same prejudices still exist today and are perhaps the biggest barrier to a truly unified infrastructure. “Formerly it was only IT people who understood Cat5, and they were pretty unwilling to allow others to use their network”, says John Stephenson.  Paul de Graca concurs: “It’s been hard to sell the concept to the IT world. They have to be confident that we, the AV guys, are not going to disturb their system”. But Ian Blackman of CCI has observed that the last five years has seen a gradual migration of responsibility for data, voice, security, and more recently AV infrastructure, toward a central Facilities Manager.  Perhaps if  AV and IT cannot choose to play together nicely, the Facilities Manager will settle the internecine squabble for them in the same way that IT solved the data / telecomms debate

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Someone To Watch Over Me

November 9, 2006

Just because you’re not paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not watching you – or so the saying goes. It’s a fact these days that there are very few human activities that aren’t being monitored in one form or another. From car parks to traffic flow; telecomms networks, utilities to financial markets, the acquisition and centralised management of large volumes of data is commonplace and becoming more so with each passing year. Paranoiacs and Orwellian conspiracy theorists might be having sleepless nights, but companies supplying the technical expertise behind command and control applications are doing increasing levels of business thanks to ‘Big Brother’.

Nevertheless, the reversal of fortunes in the communications sector has caused a shift in focus, thinks David Griffiths of Christie Digital: “Last year was a tough year for everyone. I think we all got hit by the slowdown in telecomms,  but manufacturers are searching hard for new markets”. And it seems, there are no shortage of opportunities. “We’ve seen growth in Europe, and in the UK transport market specifically”, says Synelec’s Steve Murphy. Synelec provided 12 cubes for London’s much publicised  Congestion Charging scheme. Early indications are that the scheme has been successful, which will almost certainly lead to similar schemes being trialled elsewhere. Synelec are currently engaged on a new traffic control project in Manchester, with more set to follow.

Along with transport, community safety schemes are showing strong growth. According to Steve Murphy,  the UK market now accounts for an astonishing 45% share of the world CCTV system market, with more new schemes being added all the time. “South Shields council’s CCTV surveillance system now accounts for something like 800 convictions a year. They are looking to expand this scheme with the opening of a new monitoring centre this year”, confirms Steve. UK government commitments on crime and transport, coupled with the imposition of tight fiscal restraints, means that technology-based solutions are being looked at with renewed interest by local authorities.

Applications and initiatives that would previously have been unfeasibly expensive are becoming not just viable, but actually the most cost effective overall solution. Like all urban authorities, Manchester City Council are required to balance public demands for improved services with cost. But in Manchester’s case, hosting last year’s Commonwealth Games placed additional demands on resources. Manchester’s response was the formation of a joint venture with National Car Parks Ltd, called NML, to enable the creation of an all new control centre.  “The goal of NML”, says project manager Neil Robson, “Was to create joined-up operation of Manchester’s city centre, traffic flow, parking and community safety.” In what Lord Falconer described as “The way forward for city centre management”, police, the local authority and NCP operate side by side within a state-of-the-art, purpose built command and control centre. “There were already a number of monitoring systems installed around the city, but the aim was to get rid of the traditional site-based CCTV and VCR’s and bring it all together under one roof”. The pooling of resources in this way has. enabled significant increases in operational efficiency while delivering a better public service. “We now have one of the most sophisticated control rooms in Europe”, continues Neil, “The careful selection of our partners was critical in achieving that”. NML appointed systems integrator Synectics (UK) as their lead contractor. Synectics in turn appointed Barco as their display solution provider. “What clinched it for us was the flexibility and scaleability of Barco’s Hydra system”, says Neil. With a projected lifespan of twenty years, upward compatibility is an important consideration. “We will want to add more channels as we go along. With Hydra, we can do that easily by simply adding more cards.” The whole system will eventually migrate from its current analogue to a digital video distribution network. Once again, this is accomplished by a simple card swap.

The centrepiece of NML’s control room is a virtual monitor array consisting of six Barco Atlas 84” displays. The left hand side of the display wall is used by Greater Manchester Police and local authorities to monitor and control the city centre, while the right hand side deals with monitoring the 19 car parks currently linked to the system. Driving the displays are six Barco Hydra controllers allowing operators to monitor any of the 412 cameras installed around the city centre. Footage from these cameras is stored digitally and can be recalled instantly. The NML control centre currently has over 60 Terrabytes of information stored on the system! Each operator’s workstation consists of three LCD panels running Flash-based GUI’s developed by Synectics in conjunction with Barco. For CCTV operations, Barco’s iSurveillance solution allows operators to monitor images, in a variety of display formats. Car park operator consoles have a virtual map which allows the operator to drill down from a map of the city, to an individual car park and then to different levels within that car park. Synectics’ interface also allows operators to control barriers remotely, monitor equipment status or manage the driver information systems situated on major routes around the city. 

Naturally, such sophistication doesn’t come cheap: “Involving companies like Barco and IBM seemed extravagant and expensive at the time but it was the only realistic option: A local CCTV company would not have been able to cope with a project of this size”. On face value, the cost of high-end displays and control systems might indeed seem expensive compared to a CRT solution. But, not so according to Neil. “All things considered, we’ve actually achieved considerable savings when cost of ownership is  factored in. When Barco and Synectics produced a detailed cost analysis of CRT verses projection, the projection solution was considerably cheaper over the long term”. The greater efficiency of projection cubes meant less maintenance, lower power consumption and significant economies in the air-conditioning requirements. Slimmer profiles meant less impact on floor space and less weight reduced floor loading, which in turn enabled savings in structural costs.”

In command and control, the integrated approach is essential: Jamie Farmer of Electrosonic: “Rather than just saying we’ll just put in a few displays and wire them up, there is a high service expectation within the command and control business. The service element is hugely important and an integral part of our ethos.” So is knowledge rather than tangible hardware actually the real product?  “Absolutely”, says Jamie. “We rely on our expertise to ensure that we interpret a client’s needs accurately and provide support from consultation right through to delivery.” Mike Kings echoes these sentiments:  “Yes of course we supply hardware into a project, but it’s the expertise and long term support that’s really critical. It’s that expertise that determines how we display the required information and therefore how successfully we can create useable software/hardware environments to support a customer’s activities. We see ourselves as a true systems integrator and solutions provider. That really is at the heart of what we do”.

Command and control projects are mission critical, technology-heavy applications requiring a great deal of expertise; not just in display technologies but a wide variety of data management and network disciplines. The different philosophies adopted by technology suppliers makes direct comparisons between them difficult. Unlike a projector shoot-out, for example, there’s much more involved than just lining up one manufacturer’s box against another and checking the price tag. Manufacturers are spread across an entire spectrum of opinion about whether display control systems should be based on hardware, software or a hybrid of the two.

Electrosonic pioneered much of the technology seen today in command and control, such as the videowall concept using projection cubes – a legacy that lives on with their Vector controller. But despite such an enviable pedigree, Vector has not penetrated the European command and control market as successfully as Electrosonic would have liked, mainly because command and control is now much more network rather than video-oriented. The cost of Vector’s very high quality video performance is not seen as justifiable in many situations. In response, Electrosonic are about to release a new system designed to compete directly with similar offerings from European rivals Barco and Synelec. But, despite the fact that price is clearly an issue in the market, Electrosonic have stuck to developing a proprietary hardware products in preference to hybrid or software-based systems.  “For a while, we were headed in the network direction, but I think we’re heading back the other way now”, comments Jamie. But why the change of heart? “It really is to guarantee the robustness of the system” explains Jamie. “With software based systems, you’re putting an awful lot of faith in that little processor which is also running everything else. Serious bottlenecks or security risks can be caused by trying to handle a lot of analogue video over the network, for example. A single analogue video input increases load on the computer’s PCI bus tremendously”.

System robustness is also high on Synelec’s list of priorities. “Customers want to have total confidence that in times of crisis, the system will deliver the information they need, where they need it”. Synelec employ a combination of hardware and network control  in their display controllers to produce what Steve Murphy terms a “Distributed Solution”. He elaborates: “We operate a full dual-redundancy approach which means key applications can be displayed via a network or an RGB route in response to external events”. In Synelec systems, the processing is shared across several elements of the system.  “Our RGB processing is done on-board each cube, so if a critical part of the network goes down, the displayed information can be automatically moved elsewhere to a pre-determined part of the display. It’s this decision-making ability and resilience that customers really want.” And they should know: Since 1986, over 95% of Synelec’s turnover has been derived from control room projects such as BT’s National Network Management Centre in Oswestry. “BT spent a long time looking at the available products in the marketplace before reaching their decision, which was based more on reliability and technology rather than cost. Of particular importance to BT was having no critical point of failure”. Steve points out that single tier solutions “do not offer much system resilience because they represent a single point of failure. A server-based solution, even though it might employ multiple network or RGB paths, still represents a single point of failure.”

Paul Nobel of Imtech, however, is not dissuaded: “I have the highest respect for all companies still making this technology, but I don’t feel it’s the future”. The future for Paul is command and control display applications which are entirely software based, running on freely available off-the-shelf servers. Imtech used to manufacture hardware videowall controllers until Paul had what he describes as “a revelation”. “I realised how absurd it is for relatively small companies to be making hardware. Developing and supporting hardware products is very, very tough.” Imtech’s Activu system is entirely software based, using the existing client LAN/WAN infrastructure to distribute signals. In the USA, Imtech are in the final stages of commissioning an Activu-based system for the New Jersey Transport Authority, which at 255’ long and between 5’ and 10’ high, is believed to be the largest command and control display ever built.  “Our clients love Activu because it delivers network power that they didn’t think was possible”. Imtech claim to have experienced “no problems “ with reliability and to be able to “meet or exceed expectations for operational performance”. Imtech also make a strong case that their software solution approach offers major advantages in terms of future proofing, cost effectiveness and customer support. Activu’s development cycle is continuous and Imtech provide updates as part of its support programme. As for the hardware, Paul says, “The components are all off-the-shelf and sold world-wide on a massively huge scale. We, and our customers, benefit from those economies of scale. Furthermore, these are companies which offer 365, 24/7 response anywhere in the world. Not us, not Barco… not any of us could match that”.

 

“What we have created at Imtech is a concept-driven operation”, says Paul. “We want to de-mystify the hardware so that we can point to one of our products and say ‘it’s just a computer’ or ‘it’s just a cube’. I think that’s where it’s going, in just the same way that all projectors now essentially look the same. It’s the quality of the company behind the product: Customers want to see a company that stands behind its technology”. It’s this establishment of credibility in terms of expertise rather than just hardware that’s vitally important. Visucomm’s Magician system is an example of a hybrid solution combining both standard and proprietary hardware with specialist software. Recent projects for Visucomm have included a system for the US Army in the UK and a complete refurbishment of the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Authority’s control room for the Glasgow underground using 67” Clarity RP displays.

There are of course many different options when it comes to the choice of display. And once again, there is more than one opinion on which technology will replace CRT as the de rigeur display technology. While Mike Kings exposes the benefits of Clarity’s single chip LCD cube,  David Griffiths of Christie claims “Everyone now seems to be acknowledging  DLP as the preferred display technology in command and control”. According to Christie,  the accuracy of colour rendition distinguishes DLP from LCD as the technology of choice. “Colour reproduction becomes incredibly important in command and control applications”, says David Griffiths. “It’s essential that colours are reproduced accurately because much of the information you are displaying is colour coded and you are expecting operators to act based on the information they see.” Brant continues, “We recently completed a control room installation for Italian Railways in Pisa. Yellow and orange are both used in the display, and it’s obviously hugely important that operators can clearly distinguish between them”. For the Pisa project, Christie worked with Dutch company Ansaldo Signal NV Group, specialists in railway signalling with an impressive 13% of  the world market. Christie’s display is comprised of twenty six DLV1280DX projection engines, rear projecting onto DNP high contrast screens. The choice of rear projection over the use of projection cubes was significant, as David Griffiths explains: “Customers have less money to spend but require more display ‘real estate’. We regularly get asked for screens of 100” diagonal or beyond. The advantage of rear projection is that you can achieve bigger sizes using less projection equipment”.

Analysing and understanding the scope of a project in its entirety is arguably more critical in command and control than most other display applications. “You have to have a far greater understanding of how it all works together – there’s a lot more involved”, says David Griffiths. “It’s not just about hardware, and it’s not just about software: The emphasis is on providing solutions.” Do Christie ever see a time when control room technology becomes commoditised with plug-and-play network boxes and displays? “Different customers require different things. It’s not so much price oriented as driven by the ability to provide the service. That can’t be commoditised”. David continues, “Providing solutions is very different from saying to a customer ‘how many boxes do you want’? Brant Eckett adds: “Solutions rarely come off the shelf”. Despite the hotly contested opinions amongst the command and control community, there’s few that would argue with that.

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Integration Superhighway

November 8, 2006

Today’s stadium development has to be so much more than just a grandstand and a pitch: An average stadium these days might incorporate conference or meeting room facilities, executive enclosures, retail outlets and all manner of public amenities. The challenge for designers is to provide built-in adaptability and flexibility to cater for all these different needs, both now and for a long way into the future. The design of building infrastructure too has had to evolve to meet the demands of the modern era.  Stadium security, public safety and facilities management systems have all become exceedingly complex. Add to this the management needs of commercial enterprise within the building via Electronic Point Of Sale systems (EPOS), the management of meeting room facilities and a myriad of other communication and business functions and it’s not hard to see that the whole business of distributing and managing services over an area as wide as a modern stadium development has become a very complex affair indeed.

But over and above the actual business of managing the facilities, meeting or exceeding the expectations of visitors is of course, crucial. The days of garbled announcements emanating from hissing, poorly positioned speakers and low-resolution, clumsy scoreboards are long gone. Today’s audiences demand a much higher quality, media rich experience. Zoned audio, advertising promotions, even the latest generation of digital signage and scoreboards all require audio-visual content; Information from statistics servers, crowd announcements, and even data from remote sites needs to be routed and managed. And it’s not just the physical visitors that need to be supported in this way. A striking vision of the level of sophistication now being employed in the management and distribution of media and data is the world famous Wimbledon tennis Championships.

While some 470,000 visitors attended the 2002  tournament,  the Wimbledon website received over 2.6 billion unique visits from 165 different countries during the two week competition. As well as statistical information, visitors could download a real-time scoreboard for their computers which was linked directly to the scoreboard at Wimbledon. At one point during the 2002 finals, 168,811 such scoreboards were in simultaneous operation. This year, visitors to the club were even able to receive live match updates on their hand-held wireless devices via a Wi-Fi LAN installed for the purpose.  The entire network behind all these services is provided by IBM, whose involvement covers just about every aspect of data acquisition, management and delivery. IBM employs specially-trained tennis experts for its data entry teams, who record every service, point scored and winning or losing shot made using notebooks and PDAs. Data is collected and forwarded into a central database for immediate distribution to a number of key services both within the Grounds and around the world including the Wimbledon Information System (WIS), the Championship Information Services (CIS), the Official Web site http://www.wimbledon.org, SMS services, and large match information displays located around the Grounds.

Companies like IBM have long understood the importance of a resilient and flexible network infrastructure. It is the network infrastructure that is perhaps the most crucial factor determining the adaptability of any data system in the long term. Whilst hardware can be replaced or upgraded in response to changing demand or technological advancement, the cabling network which connects it all is usually a much more permanent affair. It is no longer good enough to build for today because, these days, tomorrow inevitably arrives much sooner than anticipated.  Dedicated distribution technologies for each separate system do not allow the kind of flexibility required: Integrated solutions need integrated services.

At the dawn of the information age, data and voice communication operated via completely different transmission systems. Disparate transmission media means different types of hardware, cabling and infrastructure, added complexity and expense. Until comparatively recently, audio, video and building management signals were treated in the same way. But just as in the IT world, a universal distribution medium is fast becoming the norm for both data and AV content.

Cheap, unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cable capable of handling Ethernet data rates has been available since the late 1980’s. For reasons of economy and ease of handling , UTP has become the medium of choice for data communications, the “Cat5” standard UTP becoming virtually ubiquitous in local area voice and data applications. Together with the use of fibre-optic for longer-haul connections between floors or different buildings, these systems are generally referred to as structured cabling schemes.   

The first commercial building cabling standard to define the structured cabling concept was released in 1991 under auspices of the Telecommunications Industry Association/ Electronic Industries Association (TIA/EIA). The original TIA/EIA 568 standard  forms the basis of the latest international standard, ISO/IEC 11801.  As well as defining in detail the media and topology of the structured cabling system, one of the primary aims of TIA/EIA 568 was to develop a uniform wiring scheme which supported multi-vendor products and environments. This proved to be a far-reaching development because this meant that it was now possible to plan and pre-install communications wiring in buildings without any prior knowledge of the products that would eventually use it – a cabling system which was  useable by any network device and therefore very flexible.

Today, the TIA/EIA 568 and its international derivative ISO/IEC 11801 provide strict performance criteria which any structured wiring scheme must adhere to. These standards are well understood by building contractors – companies like CCI Ltd  – who specialise in structured cabling systems. Economies of scale make it cost effective to use a single specialist contractor like CCI, to install everything instead of several specialist contractors, and the comparative cheapness of the cabling means that “flood-wiring” – installing cabling throughout an area even if there is no specific requirement at that point in time –  has become accepted practice. “More end users are coming around to the idea of flood-wiring because it’s much cheaper in the long-term”, says CCI’s Ian Blackman..  “Labour is by far the biggest element in the cost”, says Ian.  “In a new build, you might be paying €55 – €85 per outlet. This rises to something like four times that for a retro-fit.” Clearly, the more systems than can utilise this common structured scheme, the better.

In recent years there has been a quiet revolution going on in the audio-visual world, no less far reaching in its implications than the convergence of datacomms and telecomms was in the ‘80’s.  That revolution is the growing usage of standard data networks to manage audio-visual systems. Much of the AV equipment in use today – projectors, touch panels, room controllers – is now IP addressable meaning that control of these assets occurs over the same network infrastructure as the in-house computer network.  For applications like a stadium, where equipment can be spread over a wide area, this brings obvious advantages as an operator sitting at a terminal in a central control room can now interrogate and control any piece of equipment on the system. This seemingly simple concept has had a huge impact on the AV world as audio-visual assets are increasingly seen as falling within the realm of Information Technology. Even at a hardware level, AV equipment is increasingly incorporating networking technologies.  For example, there are now video projectors with built-in file servers that are as much computer as they are projector. The next step – employing structured cabling systems to route AV content –  seems logical and inevitable. But delivering truly high quality audio-visual content over a standard structured cabling system still has its technical limitations.

Cat5 wiring systems were designed for digital signals and so some technical problems exist in using it to distribute analogue. But its modest bandwidth requirement allows audio signals to be transported in the digital domain – the format for which UTP was originally intended – and has allowed the use of audio networks to become firmly established.  Barry Revels of Canford Audio comments, “There has been a big increase in the use of twisted pair (UTP) in audio installations: That increase has been exponential over the last two years”.  Barry agrees that products like BSS Soundweb are having a big impact on the install market, and it’s not hard to see why. Multiple channels of digital audio, and in some cases control signals too, can share a single low-cost Cat5 cable delivering self-evident advantages in terms of the cost and the ease of cabling large-scale installations like stadiums or passenger terminals. Not to mention the inherent flexibility of a structured network approach and its ability to easily adapt to different applications and configurations. The audio system installed in London’s Millennium Dome, for example, utilised around 4000 channels of audio and would have been all but impossible to achieve using conventional analogue equipment. But using BSS’s Soundweb system,  signals could be routed to and from any part of the Dome – all easily managed from a central control PC. Soundweb is just one example of a new generation of audio systems designed to utilise the network infrastructure. The Soundweb network uses its own transmission protocols and is capable of bi-directional transfer of 8 channels of 48kHz digital audio over Cat5.

And yet, advanced though systems like Soundweb and Vadis are, they still do not represent the true union of AV and IT infrastructure.  The reason is that both systems still require a dedicated network infrastructure, separate from any other transports which may be needed like Ethernet networks, for example. But systems are now available that breach this last remaining physical barrier to true integration. CobraNet from Peak Audio is an audio network solution utilising Ethernet as it’s transport medium, allowing digital audio to share the same network as data.  Ethernet works by splitting data into discrete chunks which are routed to specific destinations via repeater hubs or intelligent switches. The key to CobraNet is its ability to route time-critical data packets like real-time audio through the network ahead of lower priority network traffic. While it might not be appropriate in every case, adopting the Ethernet medium brings some significant advantages, aside from saving money on cables and cabling costs. The industry providing cost-effective Ethernet-related hardware such as switches, hubs, WiFi radio links etc., is vast and well developed. Ethernet’s “star” wiring configuration increases system reliability and flexibility. Ethernet also allows for the creation of “Virtual” networks or VLAN’s which allow segregation of services over the same physical connection.

CobraNet was the system installed in VfL Wolfsburg’s Volkwagen Arena at the end of 2002, one of only two football stadia built in Germany for decades. The €53m project utilises nearly 100 Kling-Freitag speaker enclosures distributed around the stadium to achieve the recommended sound level of 105dB at all seats in the arena, with a tolerance of just +/- 3dB. The audio system is driven by Crown amplifiers fitted with network cards and individually controlled over the Ethernet network using Crown’s own TCP-IQ software, operating via standard HP Procurve series network switchers.

But while audio distribution over structured cabling is becoming widely accepted as the preferred solution, the distribution of visual content in this way has more technical limitations. The reason is that a digital video signal requires a much higher rate of data transfer – rates that are not generally possible over conventional cabling systems. But, while digital video over the network maybe yet to materialise, even here the structured cable concept is being employed to good effect.

“We’ve seen a steady deterioration in the quality of video over co-ax”, declares John Stephenson, managing director of Studio Systems Ltd. “UHF distribution over coaxial requires modulation and demodulation which degrades quality. Our aim is to re-introduce quality, and Cat5 is the ideal medium for that”. John was one of the first people to became involved with developing high quality video distribution over UTP whilst working as a senior design engineer at the BBC.  After leaving the BBC, John formed Studio Systems to develop commercial UTP video applications. “We’ve been involved with UTP  for over ten years now”, says John. “Initially we worked in banks and dealer rooms, but applications are now much more widespread, and include training facilities and even supermarkets.” John is a strong advocate of the advantages of video distribution over twisted pair: “The beauty of Cat5 is that it’s all there: With builders and architects now routinely flood wiring,  you have the ability to patch signals anywhere you want without having to re-wire – plus, of course, the advantage of higher quality”.  The idea of high quality analogue signal distribution over twisted pair is not new. But the quality of video over UTP has advanced to the point where it is now a serious contender to coaxial: “Signal quality is getting better and better all the time”, confirms Paul de Graca of Extron. “We ran a test recently between coaxial and UTP,  running a 1280 x 1024 signal over 150m; you couldn’t tell the difference between the two”. So does this mean that Cat5 offers a truly universal AV – IT infrastructure? Not quite: Because as Paul points out, for the moment at least, video  “can be distributed over Cat5, but it’s still an analogue signal”.

“And at the end of the day, Cat5 was designed for IT systems, not video”, continues Paul, citing various quality problems which can occur. Special media-grade cable is available, but this is expensive and doesn’t work well with data applications. This illustrates the point that although the concept of a pre-installed universal cabling structure is an attractive one, the current reality falls a little way short of the mark. But inevitably the trend within digital networks – the real driving force – is toward higher bandwidth systems. The emergence of gigabit Ethernet calls for a higher specification network infrastructure. While some Cat5 installations will support gigabit Ethernet, the recommendation now is for Cat5e cable, which at 200MHz, is rated at twice the transmission capability of Cat5. Now, even higher specification cables are emerging. Cat6 (ISO Class E) is designed to support 200MHz and above, while the Cat7 (ISO Class F) standard will be rated at up to 600MHz.  Again it’s crucial to remember that these systems are not designed to carry analogue signals. Problems like crosstalk and interference could cause some unexpected headaches for AV installers attempting to pass analogue signals over these systems.  Nevertheless as John Stephenson says, “There’s still a lot of life left for analogue (video) over copper. I’ve yet to see really good and affordable IP video sources, although I’m sure that it will happen.” But network speeds are increasing year on year. Just this month, Fujitsu announced the development of a 12 port, 10 gigabit per second Ethernet switch on a single chip. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the last technical barrier to true unification is breached.

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