Converging audio-visual systems into your Internet Protocol network can pay dividends for network users and managers.
by Keith Kazmer, Black Box Network Services
As digital communication needs spread to business, public areas, and educational institutions, organizations require better ways to distribute 21st-century content. Through modern technology advancements, an audio-visual (AV) over IP solution is an easy way to provide audiences with engaging content.
AV over IP presents several key advantages compared to non-networked point-to-point or point-to-multi-point solutions, including full HD capabilities with near-zero latency and the ability to introduce dynamically changing content. Modern AV-over-IP appliances enable easy management of multi-point installations that can be controlled via browser.
Of course if you mention carrying large amounts of images or video files over your local area network (LAN) infrastructure, the folks in IT are certainly going to raise some concerns. As always, they are worried about network bandwidth and its effect on other business processes. Will pushing through videos mean email correspondence or system processes grind to a halt? Modern AV-over-IP systems can typically travel over existing LAN infrastructures, preventing another round of opening walls and running new cable.
New appliance products for managing and distributing AV over IP function as plug-and-play devices that can be controlled by Web browsers. The appliances can distribute video or recorded content and also display live TV. These new devices are designed to provide a simple way to manage and distribute video and image-rich content. With an appliance publisher, you can create and design content, and then play that content into an AV-over-IP transmitter that packetizes the information and sends it out. A receiver unit in another location takes the info, de-packetizes it and then feeds it right into the display.
Compression: Not a bad word
With the help of the latest technologies, "compression" does not have to be a bad word that implies image scaling and unacceptable quality. To tackle the bandwidth problem, AV needs to be compressed to a manageable size so it can be shared over typical LAN lines. Appliances using the latest compression algorithms can reduce signals to reasonable levels. Uncompressed video signals require 3 Gbits/sec, a size which simply cannot be handled by existing networks. Compression to a fraction of this size allows full HD quality video to be distributed to multiple points.
With the newest HDMI, DVI or SPI transmission standards, the signals are cleaner than old analog signals, rendering them easier to compress efficiently. With a compression algorithm such as the H.264 standard, the bandwidth needed for 1080p quality transmissions can be brought down to 10-20 Mbits/sec, less than 1 percent of the original signal. The newest products can compress the signal significantly without a noticeable loss in quality. For a signage type of environment, many solution providers use temporal compression where the appliance looks at successive frames and only transmits information of the imagery in the frame that changes. A classic example is a talking news anchorperson; the signal might only transmit the center part of their face, leaving the background and torso static. Such compression tactics allow the end user to experience clean video while also improving efficiencies through reduced bandwidth requirements and latency.
In business, education, and entertainment, content is increasingly demanded in "real time." People don't wait for the morning paper for sports scores; stock trades aren't completed over the phone. Real-time communication is the core benefit of a low-latency AV-over-IP appliance. In a retail setting, customers can be presented sales information or merchandise suggestions that can change at any desired interval. Multiple levels of controls can be managed by a single administrator point, allowing certain individuals access to some content displays, but not others.
AV-over-IP appliances allow users to combine multiple types of content, including video with scrolling text, photos, Flash, and Web content. Signage displays in retail settings can present merchandise in full AVI, QuickTime, or MPEG video formats, while also showing text descriptions and Web site content for online purchasing. In the smartphone era, consumers expect immediate information through dynamically displayed content. Digital signage can incorporate multimedia that mirrors a smartphone or tablet by presenting fresh content that holds the customer's attention.
Hospitals are increasingly using AV over IP to distribute content to educate both visitors and staff. Lobbies and waiting rooms increasingly use video screens to relay information about visiting hours, staff directories, and hospital maps. From a training standpoint, AV over IP allows the top executive of the hospital to quickly send out messaging to staff members regarding new initiatives or the latest hiring announcements.
Implementation of AV over IP does not typically require new cabling installation, as firms can often use existing LAN infrastructure. Duplicate wiring very often exists next to the current setup that carries the business's Internet bandwidth loads. Using this redundant wiring can provide enhanced range and allow businesses to send over very large compressed video and image signals without any worry about interruption of other business processes.
When used in digital signage, AV over IP allows an upfront investment in equipment to be quickly recouped after calculation of the costs of producing printed signage. Internal staff or a third-party vendor are no longer required to physically move and change signage, as content can be dynamically altered remotely.
The switching technology needed for quality AV over IP offers opportunities for companies to save on related infrastructure spending. With traditional AV switches costing tens of thousands of dollars, the AV-over-IP solution can be performed using simple Ethernet switches, requiring only a few hundred dollars of investment. Advanced AV appliances are exponentially scalable, and can manage large numbers of multi-point displays requiring only a one-time investment.
High bandwidth, low latency
While AV-over-IP appliances do a superb job of managing bandwidth requirements through compression, if a business is running multiple streams for Ethernet communications, there may be slowdowns. Many vendors will recommend a dedicated network for video distribution, especially in corporate settings that use email and perhaps business intelligence suites or other bandwidth-intensive solutions. In a setting such as a stadium or large retail space, with far fewer offices and PCs, there is often less of a need for a strictly dedicated line.
Sports stadiums are embracing AV over IP for its ability to send clear HD signals in near real time. Modern stadiums are large, and often require thousands of screens throughout the arena which can be used to provide event broadcasts as well as dining information or promotions for upcoming events. With previous non-networked systems, spectators who were purchasing refreshments would hear sounds from the live game, but would encounter up to a five second delay before viewing the corresponding play. This latency caused a sense of disconnection for patrons who expect immediacy and might be discouraged from leaving their seats—a decision the stadium owners definitely want to see. With higher-end AV-over-IP systems, the delay of a live broadcast can be cut down to two or three frames, an amount that is completely unnoticeable to the human eye.
Flexible and scalable engagement
With static displays, content easily blends into the background and risks becoming part of the scenery. Through AV over IP, display areas can now show dynamic content that can command attention and more clearly communicate messages. An AV-over IP-appliance can bring multiple information sources to a display. Media-rich presentations with full video can be presented along with live RSS feeds to provide rich interactive content.
The multi-point attributes of AV over IP are showcased in a school system setting that wants to provide signage content to the various individual schools. A central content administrator might design customized signage for each school. This administrator might give ad-hoc access to the food-service manager at each school who would have permissions to change the daily menu. Perhaps an administrative staff member at each school controls the daily calendar, allowing easy updating of school-specific events. Date and time stamps and school logos can be included on the screens in set locations. Dynamically generated scrolling tickers can give students updated information on academic highlights and team-sports scores. Regardless of the growth of schools or displays, an advanced appliance can flexibly manage the content without any interruptions in service.
Making it happen
For robust AV over IP, it's vital to choose a solution provider and appliance that can manage content in multiple formats. Low latency is vital for content that needs to be as close to real-time as possible. The best solutions are easily integrated with existing systems and won't pull too many IT resources away from other critical projects.
When choosing a solution provider, businesses or institutions need to make sure the people they are relying on can actually set up a complete multi-point system. While one company might set up corporate projectors with nicely wired speakers, they might not have the expertise to install a network with the requisite switches and hubs. Choosing a vendor that can offer an end-to-end system ensures an integrated solution that offers cost savings while providing the best low-latency AV signal using minimal bandwidth.
Keith Kazmer is global product manager with Black Box Network Services (www.blackbox.com).
InfoComm economic-snapshot survey shows optimism in AV
In January 2011 InfoComm (www.icia.org), an association that promotes the audio-visual (AV) industry and provides programs that educate AV professionals, conducted its seventh International Economic Snapshot Survey. As InfoComm explains, "This periodic survey examines the overall ‘economic health' of the AV industry and brings into focus the issues, factors and trends affecting business performance on an international scale."
The January 2011 version collected information from 728 AV providers and 194 AV end-user organizations worldwide. InfoComm produced an executive summary and detailed tables of the survey results.
InfoComm uses two metrics, the InfoComm Performance Index (IPI) and the InfoComm Demand Index (IDI) in its elaboration on the survey results. Each metric uses a 1-100 scale. The IPI examines company performance over the previous six-month period, and the IDI is measured among AV users gauging their spending on AV products and services.
In its executive summary, InfoComm notes, "IPI data from the seven surveys since September 2008 highlight an industry in recovery. The IPI fell from September 2008 to October 2009, reaching a low point of 57.1. Since then, every survey has shown an improvement, or at least a stabilization, in the IPI."
Stability is also the theme of the most recent IDI metric. "The January 2011 scores slightly surpass the forecast made by the October 2010 respondents," InfoComm says. "IDI scores are strongest among those in the corporate/business sector, especially with regard to the next six months. These respondents report a past six-month IDI of 65.6 and expect it to increase to 68.2 by mid-year."
The full report can be downloaded from InfoComm's Web site, www.icia.org. -Ed.