Published in October 2006

It's in the Cards
By Neal Weinstock

Your world won't ever be the same.

The market leader probably is Matrox's Axio product family.

    Let’s be grateful to desktop video production, because it’s giving AV presentation systems a gift. But let’s be wary, because this is a complicated and challenging gift.
The vast numbers of semi-pro video editors now using inexpensive editing systems from Apple Computer, Adobe Systems, Avid Technology, Sony and others have created a market for hardware that presentations can use, too. That hardware likely is to be the biggest challenge to your professional craft that you’ve ever seen. It is about the rise of the desktop commercial AV presentation system. Your world will not ever be the same.

Fascinating Economics
    To look at the issue from the perspective of the card manufacturer, “The economics of this are fascinating,” stated Blackmagic Design’s Simon Hollingworth, in charge of worldwide product marketing. “You buy the chips in volumes that nobody ever sold them in before, and those volumes are made possible as much by your competitors as by you, and then it’s a race to sell the cards for less than anybody ever has to more people than have ever bought them.”
    Hollingworth spoke particularly about Blackmagic Design and fellow Australian arch-rival AJA Video, which share founders and history. Both are chasing Matrox and Avid and other card suppliers with a multitude of HD, multiformat and other top-quality video cards. As they do so, costs for HD video originating from a PC are falling to the floor. Similarly, audio cards (or cards built into a breakout box, or BoB) from Avid’s M-Audio division, Presonus, Alesis and now many others, are doing the same for multichannel audio. And with that decline in cost comes the opportunity to use PCs to replace servers and switchers, and run audio and video from the card or BoB over some combination of Ethernet, USB, FireWire, SPDIF, AES/EBU and/or analog AV to various devices throughout the presentation network.
    And doesn’t all this work really well with the tendency of many customers lately to ask for networks they can play their iPods into? You bet. What happened to low-end boardroom systems some years ago now moves up to high-end boardroom systems; what happened to conference rooms now happens to theaters. What happened to publishing with desktop publishing, to recording studios with “project studios,” and AV post-production with desktop video, now happens to AV presentation.

Card/BoB-Centered Network
    What’s different about the card- or BoB-centered network? It’s server-based AV, but at aggressively lower cost and with some issues in terms of what might be called “creative isolation.”
    “You want the server to be isolated from other uses people may have for a PC,” explained Be Media chief engineer Thomas Martino. “It doesn’t matter if the server is based on a Windows PC then or a closed Linux box; if you treat it as a closed box, it will be highly reliable.”
    This is the classic view of how to manage server-based video. Isolate the server from casual users, and you can minimize server downtime and system administrator attention. We all want to create systems that are reliable and simple to manage.
    But end users are expecting more and more to assemble their shows on PCs and iPods, using some combination of PowerPoint (or Apple’s PowerPoint clone, Keynote), Windows Media (or QuickTime), various Adobe programs, iTunes, etc. They want to send their creation over a LAN to the presentation locus, or carry it there on an iPod or a USB memory stick. Then they probably want to run a test play-out and edit the presentation a bit as they see and hear the way it looks and/or sounds in the room where it will play.
    The desire to do all this, and the process of doing it, is highly reminiscent of the way everybody behaves when they bring their Powerpoints or other presentations into a conference room. We all expect to plug our laptops or USB memories into whatever is on site, and somehow make it work. There is no reason to suppose that users will not routinely do the same in more complex AV systems.
    This does not necessarily imply playing the whole presentation out of a single PC. But, after all, why not do so? The PC can be a house mixing board, video switcher and AV router combined, if you have enough processing power for multiple streams at high quality and enough I/Os (and the video server can be software and another card on the PC). These are exactly what the new generation of sub-$1000 audio and video cards supply. Yes, sub $1000. Given that PC prices also continue to decline, system price alone is a major impetus for change.

Why Not?
    Actually, Martino nailed the single very good reason not to play everything out of a PC. But users who bring in presentations can’t be accommodated in such an isolationist view of the system. Even allowing for connection of a separate PC (say, the guest presenter’s laptop) to the presentation server (as opposed merely to a monitor input, as in today’s typical conference room) would effectively destroy the server’s isolation. The connected PC could allow introduction of unwelcome AV programs (bootleg video, pornography, slanderous material, etc.) or viruses or, less spectacularly but more likely, merely screw up some important program as a user installs some other program that conflicts with a driver. So, while the closed system takes fewer chances, it doesn’t allow those increasing numbers of creative presenters to do what they want to do.
    In other words—if the history of the computer business teaches us anything at all—completely isolated systems always will be used in some situations, but increasingly will be outnumbered by PC-based systems. These will get screwed up by their users. And system administrators, integrators and consultants will be required to fix them.
    So the business model of the systems integrator or consultant inevitably changes. We go from an insistence on providing expensive systems that are difficult to tamper with to providing (we hope at least somewhat expensive) design services for inexpensive systems that inevitably will be tampered with, but that we profit from when we fix them up every month or two. It’s the next step in the progression we all know we’re on from resellers to service companies.

Blackmagic's Design's Multibridge Extreme.

Let’s Get Serious
    Let’s get serious: How many streams of video and audio, at what quality for each, do we really need? In a typical installation for a theater or a church, that would be one stream of video and five or more audio streams (including each component of a surround signal as a stream), not counting material for other rooms outside the hall. In a concept restaurant or signage environment in a shopping mall or retail store, current practice is from one to eight streams of video and fewer than 40 streams of audio.
    All of that can be provisioned from a single PC, a card from Matrox or Blackmagic or AJA, maybe an M-Audio box (if you’re at the upper numbers of audio streams mentioned above), a big hard drive and server software from Kasenna or any number of other companies (Martino’s company, Be Media, for example, has its own proprietary server software). Cabling, mezzanine routing, displays and speakers all would be roughly the same price as with more traditional signal origination. Price of card/BoB origination: about $3000. Price of a stand-alone server and switcher: at least $10,000.

    Now, a savings of more than $7000, built into a total equipment price that gets inflated to at least $25,000 and maybe several times more, once all the displays are bought, is not humongous. But, using the more traditional system, you’d still have users begging for a PC on site that can give them all the presentation flexibility they want, and that links to the server and thus brings it almost—not quite, but almost—all the potential foul-ups in the card/BoB-based system.
    What is, then, most seriously needed is an understanding of how to prevent users from screwing things up by doing what comes naturally. Partly, that will be a matter of taking the same low-cost components built into the cards now available, and using them in a system architecture really meant for the needs of AV presentation.
    There are signs that Grass Valley and Chyron, among others, are onto this need. Chyron’s Chy-TV is a BoB that links via USB from a PC and feeds traditional video I/Os, and allows users to insert traditional Chyron-like graphics over a video feed. Like the set-top that the box seems to be based on, the box runs Linux and thus can’t get screwed up by all the stuff users want to feed into it.
    On the PC that feeds it, users can assemble their show using whatever software they want—as long as it can then be played into PowerPoint—and then feed it into Chyron’s adaptation of PowerPoint and out to the display. This isn’t going to be all that efficient for multiple streams, especially for lots of audio, and for remote administration, but these also seem within reach for future generations of this architecture. And the design does nicely isolate AV from “user innovation” while allowing it to happen on the attached PC.
    Other ways to isolate damage to the system while allowing user creativity on the local PC: Driver conflicts and viruses are not big problems on a Mac or Linux PC; Linux may not run other software your users want, and the Mac may be too unfamiliar to some. Strict sys-admin controls on what gets loaded on the PC, combined with strong anti-virus/anti-spyware action. And maybe some more innovative architecture in the Chy-TV vein, but with all the I/Os and power of a Blackmagic card and probably multistream servers built onto the card. We can surely expect to see lots more innovation at each successive trade show.

Neal Weinstock edits Sound & Communications' IT/AV Report, and is president of Weinstock Media Analysis, a market research firm in professional audio and video since 1993. He helped found BridgeCo, a Swiss maker of audio networking semiconductors.

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