by Brad Gallagher
In addition to being an audio and video design consultant, I’m a technology geek. It should go without saying that InfoComm is a big deal for me and something that I look forward to. It’s not just the gear. In fact, it’s mostly not about the gear. It’s about the conversations with people developing and working with the hardware (and increasingly the software and support).
These conversations are enormously interesting to me. I’ve grown much more interested in applications and trends than how thing plug together. A decade ago, it was mostly about just getting the technology to work. Everyone was in much more of a presentation mindset and you were doing pretty good if you could just get a clean image and intelligible sound.
Today, every manufacturer seems to be pitching that they have some “unique” way of resolving these issues. Yet, when you get down to it, there are more similarities than differences. Why? Dirty little secret that’s not so secret – Because virtually everyone is using the same hardware. For example, in UTP video transmission, manufacturers have their choice of HDBaseT chipsets, from Valens, Valens, or Valens.
This doesn’t mean that there is no differentiation between manufacturers. It just means that the differentiation is increasingly defined by software, quality of support, and extra features. To a large degree, the quality of these three components is determined by how well the manufacturer understands its end-users. This statement is increasingly true for integrators and consultants, as well.
Take Crestron as one example. Recognizing the increasing oversight of the CTO/CIO in a primary stakeholder in buying decisions for several of their key market verticals, they have chosen to frame their product offering in a way that is immediately familiar to this group. They offer to increase your warranty, decrease your cost, and add other assorted perks if you buy an end to end Crestron solution. Not a bad deal. Where do I sign?
Essentially, they are saying “buy everything from us and we’ll be a sole source that guarantees interoperability, reduces points of contact, and provides ‘one throat to choke’”. They want to be the Cisco of AV, which is a conversation that resonates with the IT suite. They are wisely framing the conversation in the lingua franca of their market. Crestron has arguably done more than any other manufacturer to push the limits of high quality video transmission in the AV space. They’re in a unique position to pitch this USP and other manufacturers ignore it at their peril.
The shift from hardware to software and support isn’t limited to the manufacturer’s sphere. Look at Waveguide Consulting, as an example. CEO Scott Walker has spoken at length about the need for the AV industry to move towards a more service oriented business. More importantly, he has literally put his money where his mouth is, re-inventing a consulting business model, based on the actual business needs of his key market segments.
All of the points above are at the crux of this article, but if you’ve already read this far, I suppose it’s time for some payoff on the title of the article. While walking the floor, several manufacturers were displaying new video transmission and routing products that will soon be shipping. All offered low cost transmission of 4k/60Hz/4:4:4 content. Since they all utilized the same chipset, I decided to seek out the chipset manufacturer, who was also present on the show floor.
The AptoVision booth provided the answers I was seeking. After an in-depth conversation, their Hardware Designer and Product Manager had to run to another meeting. I spent the remainder of the time chatting with the CEO and Co-founder Kamran Ahmed. All three gentlemen were extremely helpful in outlining the technology in a way that was refreshingly free from marketing hype.
At its core, AptoVision is utilizing off the shelf 10Gb fiber and UTP components to distribute uncompressed video with zero frame latency. This is truly game changing for several reasons, which we will see momentarily. To put this in context, I’ve borrowed a few graphics from the company’s website, which do an excellent job of explaining the compromises that are currently available in the marketplace. First, here is a quick graphic, which summarizes the implementation of the Blue River NT chipset in a typical application.
The graphic below represents a typical network based AV solution for compressed video over a switched network. This solution is relatively inexpensive, but does not deliver on the requirements for many installations, in terms of resolution, quality (compressed), frame rate, latency, genlocking, etc. The most common example would be a commodity priced H.264 installation.
The next system type delivers high quality and all of the requirements for professional application. High quality video with no frame latency and no artifacts. For application where quality is the most important consideration, these systems are the mainstay of the AV industry. The problem is that they are proprietary and thus relatively expensive to manufacture.
The third type of implementation attempts to lower the component cost of the equipment by implementing Off-The-Shelf networking components, dramatically lowering the price point.
The disadvantage to the implementation above is that it lacks many of the qualities that are essential to AV and broadcast installations, such as zero frame latency, and genlock capability. The reason for this is that nearly all of these components are built for asynchronous data transfer (because that’s how networks operate). Using these components to transmit video requires frame-buffering and re-clocking at the receiving end.
Let me try to state this in a slightly different way. Using standard networking components in the construction of AV equipment is extremely desirable. Why? Because manufacturers build 100x as much of the stuff for the IT industry, so not only is it less expensive, but it is relies upon manufacturing standards that deliver much higher reliability for less money. But there have been several problems.
We are coming from a 1Gb world, which was not even sufficient to transport 1080P video. For the first time in the history of video and networking, networking bandwidth is higher than the mainstream video bandwidth (10G when 1080p/4K(30) require 3.2 and 6.4G respectively). We have reached a tipping point where networking bandwidth is higher than video bandwidth even looking into the future.
Consider where we are headed. 25Gb, 40Gb and 100Gb networking equipment exists already and by the time future video standards become popular (e.g. 8K), such equipment will be mainstream. Gone are the days where AV companies will spend 10s of millions of dollars (think Crestron’s investment in DigitalMedia) to make custom AV matrix switches capable of handling the required video bandwidth when higher performance, more scalable, more reliable and less expensive equipment is available off the shelf from companies like Cisco and Netgear investing billions of dollars in R&D to solve the same problems.
The problem is that we are trying to leverage stuff that is built for an asynchronous world of data into an audio-visual world, which requires analog (synchronous) signals. AptoVision’s primary IP to get around this conflict is called Adaptive Clock Re-synchronization (ACR). The value proposition of this technology is stated below:
This technology allows the use of the standard 10Gb networking components, in place of expensive proprietary AV routing hardware to achieve 4k/30Hz/4:4:4 video. This has been possible for years using fiber, but required expensive CWDM optics. With AptoVision’s latest technology, even 4K/60Hz/4:4:4 video is possible over a single cable. This is truly a landmark achievement. Most people in the AV industry are probably familiar with some variation of the diagram below:
The problem is that low-cost networking optics only allow a single channel, which brings us back to the obstacle of the frame buffer requirement. The diagram below is nothing unique in itself. What is unique is that AptoVision is accomplishing synchronous transmission on cost effective hardware.
Below is one implementation of the Blue River chipset by ZeeVee. Notice the Utility 1Gb Ethernet port. This is part of the Blue River design that reserves a full 1Gb of bandwidth on the fiber for data. This is an important design criteria. More and more projects are requiring a Unified Communications network. This requirement is designed right into the product.
As opposed to this implementation, Aurora Multimedia includes a number of bells and whistles in their implementation, including an option for Dante. The Apto Vision chipset leaves audio implementation to the manufacturer. The upside is that manufacturers will be able to implement any flavor of IP audio transport, such as the emerging AES67 standard. Networked audio will prevent a kludge of receivers at the headend to transition audio onto the DSP platform.
While both of the manufacturers above are obvious partners for this technology, one of the more surprising adopters is DVI Gear. Here is a company that is the epitome of the huge, proprietary AV routers that we mentioned earlier. This is a cornerstone of their business. Yet, they are one of the first companies to market pursuing this technology. This tells me two things. The first is that the company is serious about delivering on the best available technology. The second is that this technology is coming like a runaway train.
What does this mean for us as manufacturers, consultants, and systems integrators? It just takes us back to the points that I made in the opening of this article. Hardware is increasingly becoming a commodity component. Software, solutions, and knowledge are where our industry is headed. You don’t need a crystal ball to start connecting the dots. You can just look to the consumer and IT industries. This is where the free market will take the AV industry.
If the above statement isn’t entirely clear, let me phrase it a different way. We are all competing to bring more value to our clients. In business, the phrase “value” has been used so often, it’s almost devoid of meaning, but one thing that always brings increased value is to provide the better solution at a lower price. This is the baseline. If you don’t meet this bar, you simply won’t keep up.
The easiest and fastest way to get to that lower cost is scale. Just as Ford lowered the price of the automobile and Walmart gave us cheap socks, creating a lot of something makes it less expensive. For this reason, the AV industry is inevitably driven by the consumer and IT industries who create exponentially more product than us, due to the sheer size of their market.
Let’s back up a second. I mentioned earlier that the Blue River technology is based on using standard 10Gb network equipment. This may seem like expensive stuff, but that’s only because you’re looking at networking costs for your data needs and not comparing to the cost of proprietary AV equipment (because previously no solution was available to use standard networking equipment).
If you take a look around, you’ll see that the price of this gear is dropping like a rock. It must. If you listen to Gartner and others, you see the huge movement of big data that is coming down the pike is driving the need for huge data networks. Prices for 10Gb equipment continue to decline and should be about 60% of the current cost by 2016. Put simply, they already build a lot of this stuff, and as prices fall and demand builds, they will be building WAY more.
Obviously building more create better economies of scale, but there is another advantage. Reliability. The manufacturing standards that are implemented for professional networking equipment (Telco Standards) are simply more robust than most of the AV world. They have to be. Unlike AV systems, they are not closed systems and must interoperate worldwide without fail. This is not to say that there aren’t AV manufacturers building equipment for mission critical environments. It just costs them significantly more to accomplish this level of reliability because we are in two different worlds of manufacturing volume and standardization.
So where does this leave us? If everyone is using the same technology, how do we differentiate ourselves? There are a lot of answers to this question, but the one that immediately comes to my mind is “solutions, rather than gear”. Do what Scott Walker did. Ask your market what they need. Then give it to them.
This can be an enormous opportunity for systems integrators. I see many manufacturers who are starting to get smart about developing product with a better ear to specific markets. They would love to have access to the client relationships that most integrators enjoy.
Go to your clients. Ask them what they need. Bring this information to a manufacturer with whom you have a good relationship. Help them develop a product. Solve a problem for your clients. This builds a relationship and above average margins. Make sure that solution involves programming, engineering, and service, so that you are bringing a SOLUTION.
A promise you that manufacturers will be looking for more insight than ever into customer’s needs and pain points. Why? Because this technology will open the playing field and require companies to complete on a software and solution playing field.
Let me break this down one step further. Until now, development of the AV switch has been the most expensive part of the AV distribution system. Crestron spent a huge amount of money and justly earned their place at the top of the hill. Everyone else is using the same HDBaseT Valens chipset. That chipset does not support the use of standard networking equipment (despite the “BaseT” in its name).
By removing this development barrier, the AV manufacturing is about to lower a major barrier to entry. This will allow much smaller companies to compete on the same playing field and will put the focus on the software and solutions side that I mentioned just a moment ago.
Go forth and innovate. Develop relationships. Create solutions. The alternative is to continue trying to exist on increasingly tight margins by responding blindly to RFPs. Progressively, these will be written by users with an incomplete understanding of their needs and answered by respondents with no relationship, who can only compete on the number of corners they are able to cut. Move over Circuit City. Amazon is coming to town. We need to be ready to adapt to the impending evolution of our industry. It’s coming whether you like it or not.
Do you want to be ready for what is coming next in the AV industry? Do you want to know how to be more relevant to your clients, partners, and end-users? Go to our blog right now and sign up for email updates, follow me @bradgallagherav, or connect with me here on LinkedIn.
Brad Gallagher is an Audio/Video Design Consultant, who has worked with some of the largest Churches in the Country. He loves leading experienced teams on large projects and working with mid-sized Churches to do amazing things on a budget. Sign up for his blog for great Worship Technology Tips.