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Convergence: Now, Never or Not Yet?

When digital emerges as the standard format for distribution of audio and video, we could be looking at a shakeout of seismic proportions within the a/v industry.

By Chris Doering January 6, 2008

Convergence. We’re talking about voice (telephone), data (local area networks and the Internet), audio (full bandwidth music at varying levels of compression) and video (full motion video at various frame rates and levels of compression) converging on the same cable trough (if not the same cable) and/or wireless (IR for line of sight, Bluetooth for RF networking) transmission system.

We’re talking about one technical crew, composed of several specialists, with a manager whose background is from one of those specialties, having responsibility for operating all of these aspects of an organization’s internal communications network. With so many companies attaining global reach, internal to the organization will, in many cases, mean external to the building (satellite links and other forms of leased broadband channels).

What makes this concept possible, of course, is that once everything is 1s and 0s, you can (theoretically, at least) distribute and manage it using a single infrastructure. The a/v industry has lagged in the transition from analog to digital, for many reasons we’re not going to discuss here. But when digital emerges as the standard format for distribution of audio and video, we could be looking at a shakeout of seismic proportions within the a/v industry. Small contractors may no longer be able to cover enough technology bases.

The investment in training will be incredible, from upgrading wiring and cabling skills so that new residential construction can be “smart homes,” to designing and integrating high capacity, multi-function networks for existing and new office facilities, to upgrading the audiovisual experience in retail environments, to bridging multiple standards for compression, data formats, transmission protocols, etc. etc. etc. These and other factors are likely to consolidate the installation/systems integration distribution channel, and when that happens the manufacturing base has to follow suit.

On the product design level, expect to see more and more of the functions that used to be separated into individual rack mount units, interfaced through RCA, 1/4” phone or XLR connectors, turning into software modules executed by CPUs that are simultaneously performing similar tasks on other bit streams.

This is not to say that there are not and will not continue to be competing standards and products in the marketplace. Human nature, and especially engineering nature, being what it is, there will always be several mousetraps vying for the championship. But those engineers will probably not be working by themselves in garages the way many of the audio pioneers did. More likely they’ll belong to teams, and the battles that today are fought between, say IT and “corporate communications” will be moved into product definition conferences.

If the base layer of convergence is gazillions of microscopic on/off switches, the top layer is the board chairman’s touch screen, which in the convergence future would be able to dim the lights, manipulate a spreadsheet, link to another conference room around the world, or display the playoffs in full surround. Delivering that kind of functionality requires so much behind-the-scenes coordination that only a large organization can hope to provide it. It’s unlikely that the present industry model of small innovative organizations connected by loosely defined standards will be able to handle the technical and financial challenges of convergence.

With that in mind, I walked the InfoComm floor asking all and sundry the Question of the Day – Convergence: Now, or Never? The responses fell into three categories, which I’m summarizing below. You’ll have to decide on your own answer. But whatever your job function, if you’re part of this industry, you need to ask this question. The odds are that convergence will change nearly everything about the way you make your living. The question is, when?

Now:

  • AutoPatch networks and matrixes analog audio & video signals, with a 400m run over Cat6 cable. Extron’s analog 128 x 128 matrix switcher can be controlled via the Internet. TASCAM brought new cassette decks to the Sands (OK, so one had 3 CD platters too).
  • InfoComm had to add a second session to the “Preparing for IP Videoconferencing” training InLine is adding digital audio ports to its new switchers. But hardware switchers for connecting multiple computers to one projector are still selling. White Instruments’ customers have requested SMAART LIVE control, ignored CobraNet.
  • Crestron and AMX carry audio, video & control over proprietary networks. Both offer IT-standard IP (Internet Protocol) admininistration, firewall security, both use Motorola’s ColdFire processor.
  • Tandberg’s satellite codecs include audio/video and data gozintas and gozouttas.
  • NSCA’s InfoComm 2001 booth headlines CONVERGENCE. Chuck Wilson is serving on the Construction Specifications Institute’s Division 17 (Technology & Communications) committee.
  • Live Sound! International’s Anthony McLean editorializes “The convergence of audio, video, lighting and special effects is the hottest sector of the performance and presentation industries.”
  • New InFocus projectors using Texas Instruments’ DLP engine include Ethernet ports for status updates.
  • Biamp Systems’ Audia and Symetrix’ SymNet Audio Matrix will offer distributed audio processing and Ethernet connectivity: projected ship dates for both are Fall 2001.

Not Yet:

  • Extron’s analog 128 x 128 matrix switcher can be controlled via the Internet.
  • InLine is adding digital audio ports to its new switchers. But hardware switchers for connecting multiple computers to one projector are still selling.

Never:

  • TASCAM brought new cassette decks to the Sands (OK, so one had 3 CD platters too).
  • White Instruments’ customers have requested SMAART LIVE control, ignored CobraNet.

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