The rise of virtual product control

classroom with virtual control processor

Steve Montgomery looks at control processor technology as it keeps up with a proliferation of devices and end points, while taking advantage of rapid developments in digitisation and advances in IP network capability.

The rapid development of computing power, network connectivity, bandwidth and a desire to remotely virtually every electronic product in the modern world, has led to radical changes in the way that users interface with, and manage the devices that affect them.  Installations throughout every sector of the residential, commercial and industrial sectors are affected, from homes and offices, houses of worship right up to the largest and most complex industrial control room or situation command centre.

One of the main advances in video processing technology over the past few years has been the ability to manipulate and display ever-greater amounts of data at higher resolutions. The core element, the beating heart, of an AV system is the control processor and it is this device, in particular, that has evolved most dramatically.  “Processor evolution recently has culminated in several massive advances in performance,” says David Griffiths, director, market development, systems solutions for Christie. “Firstly speed; more data can flow through the backplane, so greater amounts of data go through a computer at faster rates. We can manipulate images more, and at higher resolutions, than previously possible. Enhanced performance through digitisation: analogue formats are being replaced by digital, which is now the standard form of data transfer. IP networks are increasingly being used to carry encoded, packetized video and audio. Both allow us to handle more and varied types of content.  We also have effective distributed control systems that can combine and manage separate system as a single entity.”

The primary role of the control processor is to route and present information. “Users want complete control of the push or pull of data within a system, and the freedom of choice to display any source, anywhere,” he says. “It is very often about having the same information at the same time in multiple locations. Response teams in the main command centre may watch an incident whilst the same information will be available in Gold Command rooms, allowing senior offices to make instant, informed, strategic decisions. The processor has to be capable of managing and responding to requests to enable this.”

Extron IPCP Pro 555Joe de Silva, director of product marketing at Extron believes in a similar philosophy: “There is a far greater domain of remotely-located control and processing devices these days that are required to act in unison to deliver performance and flexibility in every application. Quite often an organisation will operate multiple systems in dispersed locations, but each is expected to interlink with the others to achieve a single, wider, system that can be configured instantly to meet an immediate requirement. Whether that is in a corporate HQ with divisible rooms, multi-control room command centre or flexible learning facility in a university or any other high-profile environment, the need is to deliver devices that can achieve this, and more.”

Displays that processors feed data to are also changing rapidly, both in structure and style.  “Across the industry individual display elements are gaining in resolution, from HD to 4K and beyond, bezels are becoming smaller and new technologies are emerging. This is affecting the way that users configure and use their displays,” points out Graham Cooke, research analyst at Futuresource Consulting. Control processors must be able to accommodate a wide range of formats. “Control room layout varies widely around the world: in Europe rooms have low ceilings, in the far-east they are often wider and higher and can accommodate larger displays. Ultra-slim bezel LCDs are becoming more common as an alternative to rear-projection cubes to save space and users are more accepting of images that spread across displays, as the bezels are not so much of an obstruction as they once were.”

The days when a series of discrete devices was individually responsible for managing separate, and usually isolated, sections of a system are gone.  Today’s systems regularly employ distributed control to handle content and data over a wide area network. These offer much greater functionality and access as well as better integration and user access. The AV control processor of old has evolved into a more capable and expansive device able to manage a far greater range of functions than ever before; including HVAC, lighting, security and access control. And this has had an effect on both equipment manufacturers and system integrators in the AV industry. 

“Today’s controllers are not limited to handling just AV devices, it is common to interface with lights, shades, screens, HVAC, and building management systems through building gateway devices using protocol translators via BACnet, KNX, and others,” points out Harman product manager, Doug Hall. “IT professionals want to see their AV IT ecosystem as a comprehensive whole. They don’t want to jump back and forth between building systems and AV systems. The need for controllers to integrate with products that provide flexible connection ports for visiting (BYOD) devices; as well as audio video streaming that utilises standards like H.264 and JPEG2000, is increasing. It is critical that the controller be central to all systems. IP control is actually making this easier as the physical devices tend to be spread out and web-service APIs are becoming readily available. We have responded to the network administrators’ expectations of secure and easily-managed network devices.  IT professionals don’t have the time, patience, or policy flexibility to create VLANS for every device that is not compliant so we have focused our efforts on providing the most network capable systems possible.”

“Faster processing speeds and more memory have enabled control processors to expand integration and automation capabilities, but perhaps most notably, processors now offer increased support for Ethernet/IP-based control and communication.”

“Faster processing speeds and more memory have enabled control processors to expand integration and automation capabilities, but perhaps most notably, processors now offer increased support for Ethernet/IP-based control and communication,” points out Brett Stokke, director of communications at RTI. “Ethernet/IP-based control offers many advantages such as cloud-based access and interaction with devices and control from virtually anywhere in the world via apps on mobile devices. It also provides easier control system expansion through IP-based add-on modules and multi-processor systems.”

This need for extended control, processing capability and adaptability across the complete spectrum of control devices could have presented insurmountable barriers to its implementation.  In many cases the tasks of specifying and implementing the control surfaces and applications for multi-device, multi-location, multi-user user interfaces that would operate over networks and through the cloud using standard programming techniques could have made all but the most prestigious systems uneconomic. The industry has responded with solutions. Griffiths: “The Pandoras Box Widget Designer enables integrators to develop systems to control multiple devices.  It is about simplicity, ease of programming and cost effectiveness and is extremely popular with customers as an immensely powerful tool for interconnecting, automating, scheduling and controlling numerous different system components reliably and effectively.

“Its multipage web server can be used as the control interface from remote locations by different users and each can have different sets of inputs. It performs a dual role: serving as the interface between pieces of software or hardware and as the GUI for the operator.  It is an Object Orientated software program that does not require any coding and that can be designed to intercommunicate using many different protocols (TCP, UDP, DMX, Artnet, Midi, SMPTE, serial, C) or translate and interpret between protocols.  For example a contact closure could be programmed to send a TCP command to a Christie Spyder video processor to recall a preset and also to a Pandoras Box media server to start an effect or content stream.  Applications range from broadcast studio lighting and content control, to live stage events, to boardroom AV control, to stadium content delivery and so on.”

A recent installation by Ajartec at London’s Heathrow Airport employed 40 Christie Spyder processor nodes handling over 130 sources and made them available in real time to 6 enormous videowalls and 10 large display screens.  Joe Duchescherer provides an insight: “The requirement was to consolidate 27 separate control rooms into one single Airport Operations Centre (APOC) to increase the overall efficiency of the operation in an environment that is running at close to its maximum level of capability. By making all the information available to all the airport’s stakeholders simultaneously, it means they can work collaboratively. Instead of islands of potentially conflicting decision-making, there’s one over-arching process that balances the business priorities and strategies of all airport stakeholders. APOC keeps the airport flowing by matching resources and facilities to changes in demand or schedule. It does the job in real time, and the process is completely transparent.”

“The vast range of devices that are expected to be integrated into a single system these days means that there is also a wide range of protocols and standards that need to be accommodated, with simultaneous data flow between them, and they must co-exist in a totally secure environment, often over widely distributed networks,” says deSilva. “This has the potential to create a massive headache for the integrator trying to create a control interface that offers versatility and ability whilst still being user-friendly and adaptable. Extron addressed this issue with Global Configurator: a configuration software package that is particularly suited to multi-control processor environments. It enables full access to all RS-232, IR, relay, flex I/O and switched power ports on any control processor in a linked environment giving access to operators on their local device and can be integrated with third party facility management tools. Users can define advanced AV control system functionality and resource management processes from an easy-to–use graphical user interface. The key element is that the control system is configured, rather than programmed, which means that it can be more simply modified and expanded and can be managed at a local level by users without continual reference to the integrator.”

As AV becomes prevalent in every commercial installation and environment, the control processor takes on a heightened level of importance, acting as the base controller and platform for the whole of complex, multi-disciplinary systems. Systems and support tools are available and under continuous development that positions AV systems at the epicentre of the solution.