Published in May 2004

PC BoBs Take Control
By Neal Weinstock

Now they’re conquering playout network controls.

      That’s BoB as in “breakout box.” And BoB as in: It came out of post production and now it’s conquering playout network controls.
     The BoB began as a variant of the PC add-on card. You could either add functionality within the PC box or outside it. The BoB form factor was especially useful in one of two circumstances: when what you wanted to add on was bigger than would fit on a card or two, or when simplicity was key and users could not be expected to want to install a card. And the BoB form factor had another benefit, too: It looked and felt like the kind of dedicated device that PCs seemed to be replacing. A BoB is something that an old-fashioned device person could get comfortable with.
    By the 1990s, the relative benefit of a BoB vs. a card increased because the BoB could have a faster path to the computer’s central processor. As 100Mbps Ethernet, then FireWire (at 400 and now 800Mbps), then USB 2.0 (480Mbps) and Gigabit Ethernet came along, applications on a BoB might access the CPU faster than if they came in on the PCI bus used in expansion slots for cards. (Speeds vary, but the PCI bus typically runs at 132Mbps.)

One Overriding Purpose
     In particular, BoBs served one overriding purpose: They allowed people who wanted to use a PC for some AV application to link AV standard wiring to the PC. Count the connections and measure the space available on the edge of a computer card: S/PDIF, AES/EBU or analog audio; SDI, S-video, DV over FireWire, or any of a half-dozen other video formats over analog BNC connectors. These can add up to too many connectors to fit on a card.
     Also, as noted, you really don’t want to bring a big, fast AV signal into a card that then connects to processing at 132Mbps. If brought into a card, all the processing of AV data ought to be done on the card, or on multiple bridged cards; the multi-card set itself then can become a pretty big package, limiting the number of PCs it all can fit within. That’s why companies that produce such packages either qualify few PCs or want to sell you the whole integrated package in a PC themselves.
     It’s not really about taking more of the customer’s money (well, not only that); it’s about making sure the whole thing works. But put all the works in a BoB and many more PCs can be used to host the application.
     In other words, without a BoB, you couldn’t have convenient nonlinear video editing (NLE) or digital audio workstations (DAWs) on inexpensive PCs. A BoB was strictly a post-production thing in video and a desktop mixer thing for post or live concerts in audio.
     Thus, in video, BoBs also came to be where an outboard processor is located, so an incoming format can be “digitized” (even if it is already in a different digital format) to a compressed format suitable for offline editing or graphics work. In audio, the BoB became a stage box and an A/D converter, bringing material into—in the most successful example—Digidesign’s format for mixing, layering and editing.

Onkyo's TX-NR901P is a "professional audio/video receiver" or DAVR that links PCs to large-scale home media systems or small-scale commercial installations.

Consumer World
     In the consumer world, the market for top-quality “A” or “V” out of a PC was too small for the computer makers to attend to. So companies such as Creative Labs and Matrox made lots of money selling sound cards and graphics cards. The economics were, in fact, weird and depressing to the many engineers designing Macs and successive versions of Windows who had cut their teeth in the 1970s designing audio gear.
     For a few dollars in higher-quality chips, for instance, every buyer of a PC could get top-quality audio instead of just those relative few who spent $200 extra on a fancy sound card. But that few dollars extra per unit might lose millions in sales to competitors.
     Then along came the internet music phenomenon and, suddenly, in 2001, consumer BoBs sprang up. Now they were DARs (“digital audio receivers”) and DAVRs (“digital audio/video receivers”). And they were about playout rather than ingest. Many companies put easy-to-use “tuners” in the BoB to choose internet radio stations, and included good-quality audio preamplification and perhaps also power amplification for output to surround speakers. Hewlett Packard, among others, makes a DAVR with software that displays music choices and internet video formats (Windows Media, Quicktime, Real) on a linked TV.

Looks Similar
     Diagram these DAR/DAVR solutions, and the system looks roughly analogous to professional AV distribution systems: There’s a PC on one side, a bunch of display devices and loudspeakers and amplifiers on the other and, in the middle, a control system and a matrix switcher, maybe some demodulators for cable and satellite TV and radio signals, and increasing amounts of gear to transcode internet AV formats and computer outputs and multiple kinds of video into some common formats for large-screen display.
     All of that stuff in the middle, we all know, is most of where IT meets AV, and where older technologies are being replaced by boxes that bring it all together and allow users to control their options from a connected PC. Essentially, this core of our business is turning into a big BoB: a transcoding, show-controlling, video-correcting, channel-switching BoB.

AV Industry’s Point of View
     Well, that’s to see it from the point of view of the PC. From the point of view of the AV installation industry, products such as Focus Enhancements’ CenterStage (on the small side) up to Electrosonic’s Director (on the large side) build as many of the functions described as their makers think fit their market niches into boxes that allow software control of all or most functions from a Crestron or AMX controller, or from an outboard PC.
     But for a younger generation of customers that has grown up with PCs and has no ingrained love of boxes full of analog electronics, boxes such as Director and CenterStage are all about allowing the PC to do the work of all that older stuff…with the addition of just one box: a BoB.
Does the BoB replace multiple boxes of analog electronics and thus make things simpler for the installer and user? Sure. But technology competition in the new BoB era is getting hairier in a few messy ways.

PCs Are Getting More Powerful
     For one, PCs are inexorably getting much more powerful, and PC makers are focusing their efforts on multimedia applications to give people reasons to buy these otherwise overpowered beasts. PC makers no longer are content to offer lousy audio and video performance; they don’t expect any more that enterprise buyers want only to build spreadsheets and won’t pay a few extra bucks for good AV performance, and they’re no longer willing to forego the hundreds of millions of dollars the AV card suppliers pull in each year.
     High-quality AV is being built into Intel’s motherboards and into Windows in multiple ways: DVD play and recording, HDTV decoders and monitors, Windows Media (and competitors’) “tuning” for internet radio, Dolby surround audio, device control for varied electronics on a network… these are all common now. The PC makers were very conscious of the success of the DAR, and have made that success brief by incorporating most of what a DAR or DAVR does in the PC.

Legacy Remains
     But the legacy of the DAR remains. And the consumer BoB that has grown out of it is incorporating many of the IOs and the media processing of the post-production BoB, as well as Crestron/AMX-style device control, to go after what most of the now-conjoined PC and consumer electronics industries see as the sweet spot of their business: the home network. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the more the PC can do, the more additional networking and processing functions must be assimilated by a BoB; otherwise, nobody would need a BoB.
But PC vendors tend to like BoBs, even if, in the long-term, they tend to swallow up many of their functions. BoBs keep the PC at the center of users’ electronic experiences, as opposed to standalone devices that may actually compete with PCs. In other words, BoBs replicate and replace traditional standalone devices with the help of a PC.

It’s Happening in AV, Too
     Of course, the same thing is happening in the installed AV world. PC makers are happy to support BoB makers in an onslaught against traditional standalone suppliers. So BoBs coming out of a pro audio or video heritage, from companies such as M-Audio and Matrox, are allowing a PC to play out to and control vast FireWire audio networks (M-Audio) or large numbers of informational displays (Matrox).
     Ever-more-capable PCs and BoBs are driving a lot of commercial installation customers into using ever-more-capable, plug-and-play, home or small-scale networking gear instead of equipment requiring industrial-strength systems integration. Intel’s and Microsoft’s embracing of new networking technologies, including FireWire, Gb Ethernet and USB 2.0, have been pushed forward for years by the presentations of BoB makers that have said, essentially, “Give us that faster IO, this network driver or software control, and we can deliver these apps to the PC.”
And once that driver gets written, and the IO gets to be standard on many if not all PCs, then even if it was Matrox that actually wrote the driver for Microsoft (which has happened), an Evertz or Miranda Technologies or Focus Enhancements may take advantage of it to compete with Matrox at its own multi-display-system game…and incidentally make the old show-control systems look more and more obsolete.

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