By Mitesh Patel and Thomas Noack
As AV industry needs continue to evolve, so, too, do the ways these needs are met. Innovative resources meet these challenges with new technology, which continues to extend beyond what today seems groundbreaking.
Years ago, no one ever imagined the tremendous impact computer technology would have on our lives. In fact, 45 years ago, IBM introduced the personal computer, the IBM 650, which then popularized the concept of “open shop programming,” according to Arnold Reinhold of Cambridge, MA. Most computers at the time were designed for government agencies, but the 650 was quite affordable and easy to use, becoming the first computer to make a profit for its manufacturer. Clumsy, and now quite antiquated, the 650 would certainly be left in the dust compared to current trends, which include modular, expandable, and card-based products that satisfy the needs of cost, space, maintenance, and repair or upgrade.
The most comprehensive AV products in today’s market are modular AV systems, which may be designed as small basic systems with the option to evolve into larger systems as business requirements escalate. A modular design is generally not different from the design of a system with standalone products. Common components in modular and standalone systems include audio, video, and data input and output; power control systems options; and cables to connect components. An important factor in modular systems is that they can either be preconfigured when ordered or configured in the field, compared to standalone AV systems, which are installed and programmed only on-site. Finally, modular designs can also be rack-, wall-, or furniture-mounted, adding to the aesthetics of the blueprint sketch, saving 50 percent and more on equipment and 50 percent on space needed for modular AV systems compared to traditional, standalone designs.
Benefits of a Modular System
A modular system has numerous benefits that include production efficiency at the manufacturer, as assembly and testing procedures are consistent. The noted savings in components and labor has been increased up to 40 percent, and a superior quality control program ensures much easier compliance and better storage and inventory control. The scheduling, sales and technology support, and repair and upgrade times are all diminished with modular systems.
Space reduction is an important facet of a modular system - in a rack-mounted system, the average space reduction is 50 percent and more, with additional cost savings in shipping and handling, up to 50 percent less installation time due to factory preconfiguration, and up to 60 percent less maintenance. Single cards can be swapped on-site, and there is no need to return the entire unit.
In a modular system, wiring is interconnected in system components, power cords are managed, and outlet requirements are minimized, resulting in increased reliability. In addition, power consumption is controlled through a central or common power supply; a redundant power supply could be easily added to a modular system. The length and number of control connections and cables are minimized with a modular system, increasing the overall signal quality. Modular systems allow the user a high level of flexibility in signal type selection as initial specifications may be modified and a broadcast video signal component may be exchanged for a computer video component.
The expandability of a modular system begins with specifying additional inputs and outputs, control options, signal conversion, and encoding. Other components may include touch screens, button panels, remote control, and control software. Depending on the AV system, there are a variety of different protocols to communicate with, configure, and control components within the system. Most modular systems have a common instruction and communication set of commands among the system components, unlike with standalone systems that require an outside control system to interpret the different commands and feedbacks and interpret them to send and receive information from other system components.
The quality and reliability of a modular system have developed through consistent testing at both the component level and the system level, with necessary adjustments made. As a system is repaired, a uniform upgrade is provided by common troubleshooting techniques and tools in place. Common field replacements and upgrades can be made rather than having the entire system being sent back for repair; common monitoring ensures failure prevention.
The initial investment in a modular enclosure assures cost-efficiency as there are multiple savings due to utilizing shared components, including the power supply, control module, and enclosure. The volume of manufacturing common components provides better discounts for customers, and the added incentive of buying only what is necessary reduces costs as well.
Technologically, the infrastructure of a modular system is built for future expansion as innovative designs are introduced and replaced or exchanged easily. While keeping the existing card cages (enclosures) in place, new components such as video-to-twisted-pair signal encoding, video-to-fiber, and video-over-IP encoding may be easily deployed and minimum rewiring will be required. Analog audio cards may be replaced by newer technologies such as digital audio or other new audio signal innovations. Control components can be LAN, WAN, or wireless. Upgrades to software or firmware can be performed in the field, remotely via the Internet, or at a service center. Integration has traveled into the worlds of IT and the consumer electronics industry with innovative phones, iPods, pocket PCs, and more.
Components of a Modular System
Among the components of a modular system are distribution amplifiers, switchers, matrix switchers, scalers, signal converters, control processors, and analog audio devices. Each modular AV system can be customized based on the needs of the user.
Distribution amplifiers (DAs) are used to connect a single source to multiple displays, equalize the signal over different cable length, and, if available, provide isolation from ground loops (GLI). DAs may amplify and distribute VGA - UXGA, RGBHV, RGBS, RGsB, and DVI signals, as well as analog audio (stereo/mono/balanced/unbalanced). Outputs can be buffered, amplified, processed, and equalized with audio follow/breakaway, equalization, GLI, and gating.
Switchers are used to connect a selected source from multiple destinations to a single destination, or vice versa, and equalize a signal for an output cable run while also maintaining the properties of each input on the output. Control is via RS232, contact closure, front panel buttons. Special features with switchers include auto-switching, rotating at variable intervals, audio-follow and breakaway, vertical interval switching, sync delay, and volume control.
A matrix switcher is a complex modular system that connects a selected source from multiple sources to single or multiple destinations while equalizing the output signal. Signal types for video include broadcast, VGA (RGBHV), RGBS, and RGsB; for audio it includes stereo and mono, both balanced and unbalanced. Special features of the matrix switcher include auto-switching, rotating at variable intervals, audio-follow, and breakaway.
Another component of modular AV systems is a format converter (scaler, up/down converter), which includes signal type conversions for input and output, such as video, composite, S-video, component, SDI, VGA (RGBHV), RGBS and RGsB, DVI, and HDMI. Control can range from RS232 and RS485, front panel buttons, and TCP/IP. Image control varies from resolution, position, size, color, contrast, hue, sharpness, equalization, color level, pixel clock adjustment, and format 4:3 versus 16:9. Special features may also include the number of bits for conversion, vertical interval switching versus seamless switching, audio-follow, picture-in-picture, and breakaway.
Twisted pair cards include transmitters, receivers, distribution amplifiers, switchers, and matrix switchers. The signal may be video, composite, S-video, component, SDI, VGA (RGBHV), RGBS and RGsB, DVI, HDMI, or audio. Cables could be unshielded twisted pair (UTP), skew-free/no-skew, single mode or multimode, or existing CAT5, CAT5E, and CAT6 cables. Twisted pair cable uses an innovative, patented, signal processing technology developed by a variety of different manufacturers that allows transmitting and receiving fully equalized computer video signals, stereo audio signals, and control signals over long distances. The maximum distance at full UGXA resolution may be as far as 1,000 feet between devices and may reach up to 1,500 feet. Performance markers for signal converters include resolution versus distance, equalization for attenuation, skew, ability to attach multiple components, and the number of twisted pair cables needed; signals processed are video, audio, and RS232.
Selecting control is another important part of a modular AV system - you may choose either a processor or a user interface, and the signal types range from RS232, RS422, RS485, IR, relay, I/O ports, LAN-computer network, TCP/IP, power, audio volume, and an accessory link. Inputs are based on the number and whether they are the main, auxiliary, or reference; connector types could be DB-9, RG-45, or terminal block, while the cable can be twisted pair, standard, and propriety. User interfaces can be buttons, an LCD with touch screen capabilities, dial knobs, web-server-, or PC-based GUI utilities. High performance value is proven by the ease of use, portability versus secure data transmission, distance from control, ability to easily upgrade, reliability, better usage before charging, and the small amount of time needed to program and update (when necessary).
Analog audio components vary, from amplifiers, mixers, and equalizers to distribution amplifiers and matrix switchers. Signal types range from analog versus digital, stereo, and mono, both balanced or unbalanced. Input and output numbers could be for main, preview, reference, or MIC versus Line levels utilizing connector types such as terminal block/captive screw, RCA, XLR, ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¼-inch or 3.5mm mini. Cables could be shielded pair, standard, or low-loss. Control is over RS232/RS485, front panel buttons/knobs, and TCP/IP (Web server). Performance markers include output volume control, input gain presets, frequency response, noise reduction, phantom power availability, and impedance.
Programmer benefits include a common protocol within any specific system, saving time and money. Easy integration with peripherals is beneficial as optional cards can be programmed readily, allowing an almost endless number of options to any signal management system. Within some modular systems, libraries have been designed and programmed in conjunction with equipment manufacturers, both in the United States and Europe.
Training individuals on any one module includes a basic and common language shared by all modular system cards and sometimes standalone products, allowing users to quickly learn the features of other AV component modules, saving time and expense. Because the modules are programmed so similarly to one another, or have compatible components, the actual completion time of building a specific system is cut down greatly. Testing and troubleshooting time is reduced, too, as the same test patterns can be utilized efficiently, allowing the programmer to foresee any possible problem areas and lessening possible surprises.
Multiple signal options afford the system designer and engineer an almost endless array of signal possibilities.
Flexibility in the number of inputs and outputs creates opportunities for businesses that are small but growing and/or undergoing change. Asymmetrical matrix switchers are important as they allow the system designer to create exactly what a business may require at any given time, but keep open the option to add input and output channels at a future date.
Multiple options for connectors and cables are important aspects that tie in with mounting options. Depending on the system being designed and the space allocations, these could be rack-, wall-, or furniture-mounted. The actual mounting options are an important facet as many installations have minimal space requirements. There are sometimes limited choices where furniture-mounted systems are required to maintain the solid structure of a room within buildings and walls, while keeping cables untangled. Compatibility within components is especially important because there are numerous configurations that achieve different goals specific to any business; these elements complement each other and can be interchanged easily as AV business needs develop.
Reliability in modular AV systems continues to improve as the industry creates and tests more components. Each potential new product is an enlargement of an earlier model, or a completely new design component that the industry has demanded. As the reliability of the products and systems grows, the reliability of the company proves itself.
Upgrade capability opens the door to advanced performance by incorporating new and more innovative designs as they are developed with little cost to the end-user.
A modular system proves itself in many ways, including the commonality and compatibility of components. For many businesses, this ability to move within the same framework is an important option, costing less for the training and retraining of employees, as well as for the modular system itself. Because the unit can be preconfigured according to specific company needs, there is more than 50 percent reduction in installation time, a well as savings accrued in the modular AV system itself as customers only order and pay for the components needed. An asymmetrical matrix switcher answers all these needs in a compact, powerful unit.
Reliability is important in all phases of AV projects, and with modular units there are fewer different components that all rely on one another. Extensive testing of all products brings results that are fail-safe and with that, the integrity of a company itself comes into play. Downtime is minimal - yet another result of improved reliability.
Having the ability to upgrade a current AV system is savings multiplied - not only can the upgrade be made simply and on-site with additional control cards, the need to buy complete, newer, basic components is over. As one newer card replaces a former model, the system is upgraded to the current industry standard.
In some cases, a solution may hold up to 200 cards, in up to 10 4-U high rack-mountable enclosures. In a modular AV system, when cards are interchanged, there is automatic recognition and system reset, resulting in instant feedback to the user. Control is from one point, whereas in standalone systems with multiple components, there can be as many as 200 different control points.
There is no tool in the audiovisual industry that is more innovative and cost-effective than a modular, flexible, and expandable system - this is a win-win situation for the manufacturer and the system integrator. Having a system that costs an integrator only what is needed, as well as the ability to expand the system as needs dictate, is financially sound. Compatibility with other products provides easy integration with additional peripherals and provides a completely finished and polished product.
The continued growth in the audiovisual industry provides a stable profit margin, but this can only be maintained if the integrity in the industry continues to raise the bar for users’ expectations. The future of upgrades continues to expand at an impressible rate; as innovations are unveiled steadily by resourceful engineers working around the clock, modular audiovisual systems will continue to be the most beneficial answer to customer requests.
Mitesh Patel is director of Technical Services at Altinex. He joined the company in 1998 as a system engineer; he was promoted to manager of Technical Support in 2001. In 2005 his responsibilities were expanded in his new capacity as director of Technical Services. Thomas Noack is marketing manager at Altinex. He has been in charge of all marketing activities at the company since 2003. He has more than 15 years of marketing experience in a variety of different industries, including software and Internet, as well as film and broadcast.