Congress systems converge

The days of a stand-alone congress system in the installation market are numbered, if not already gone. InAVate looks at the ways in which integrators can build them into the wider AV system and examines the challenges that remain before full integration is possible.

One of the first areas in which congress systems were integrated with other devices was video cameras, as Auditel’s Ziad Loufti recalls: “We worked on integration with cameras for the first time as a one off project in Kuwait in 1986. There were eight broadcast cameras and a controller in the hall. We basically had to invent the method of interfacing our conference system with the camera controller.” However, things have evolved somewhat over the last twenty-odd years, as Braehler’s MD Gerhard Bauer remarks: “It’s very simple with the CCTV systems to use codes for pre-set positioning. Whilst it’s a little bit more complex with the more professional, studio type cameras because we have to pre-record all the positions before hand, with software packages its still pretty straight forward. We have software for either situation.”
All the high-end congress system manufacturers offer a degree of “speaker” tracking with their solutions, a club now joined by TOA with the advent of their TS800 and 900 series products. The company’s product manager Ian Bridgewater explained: “Our new infrared wireless systems offer simple tracking of who’s speaking to a dome camera. The system controller can happily talk to any standard PTZ camera via positional codes.”
The same is true of Sennheiser’s latest conference product, the SDC8200. It’s central control unit, the SDC 8200 CU communicates with any RS-232 capable camera controller to focus on a speaker or to zoom out once the floor is clear.
Whilst it is fairly simple to PTZ or dome cameras using the control code methods, these are not of a significantly high resolution. Adequate for the security purposes, for which they were designed, but not really for full head shots on large screen. Two further choices are therefore available to the integrator. The first is to use a camera mount from someone like Crestron, to hold a higher resolution camera. These mounts are controllable in the same was as a PTZ type, but give one a greater choice of camera features. The second option is to go for a full professional camera, harder to control but offering much better picture quality.

Another staple of the congress room is the recording of proceedings. This has come along way since the days of cassettes and stenography. Chinese manufacturer Taiden offers a fully digital conference system based around its proprietary MCA-STREAM technology – a 64-channel protocol offering what the company claims as near-CD quality. Up to 32 of these channels can be recorded via Taiden’s HCS4120 recorder in MP3 format along with attached meta-data about who is speaking, the subject of the conference, and time / date information. The unit doubles up as a video recorder, with video files being automatically associated with the recorded audio stream. The video feed can be monitored locally on a display or remotely via IP connection.
Braehler’s Bauer remarks: “We have both digital and analogue recording solutions available for our twin product lines, it’s standard stuff.” But recording isn’t just a case of the audio and the video. It’s important to many clients, particularly public bodies, to be able to record accurately who voted for what, who was in attendance and who was not and to retrieve it simply.
At a more fundemental level, TOA along with virtually every other congress system manufacturer offer a straight analogue output for recording proceedings.

However, these twin-linked features of camera control and video/audio recordings are just the first step along a greater road to complete integration. Another key piece of functionality in the congress system’s tool kit is voting, and by extension presentation of voting results. Many manufacturers provide software of varying degrees of sophistication, also fitting VGA connectors to their central units so that results can be displayed on a congress room’s display system.
Bosch’s Product Marketing Manager Ruud Michels described its offering: “We have a pretty powerful software package called Video Display, which behaves a lot like PowerPoint. From there you can make custom presentation solutions, with logos, fonts and layouts all fully customisable. This can of course then be output via standard VGA for display on screens.”
Fabio Capello is RCF’s product specialist for its ever growing Forum family of products, he commented on his company’s solution: “We can present the data in anyway we choose with our software and the standard VGA output means that the integrator can do with it what he likes.”
Braehler’s approach is to provide its central control unit with a two-headed graphics card. This means that one can provide the chairman or technician with a monitor feed, whilst the second head delivers content to the main AV system.
Televic offers a similar solution according to Kristoff Henry, the company’s Export Manager: “Via our central control unit all of the data is available to any third party system, including voting results.” This touches on another part of the equation, which is the delivery of this voting data to other locations or systems. Ruud Michels takes up the theme: “You can output data such as the people present or voting results as an Excel file or CSV data file to wherever you need it over an IP network.”

Mention integrated system and many will automatically thing of media control systems such as those offered by AMX, Crestron, Cue and so forth. These are just as relevant in the congress world as they are in presentation suites and boardrooms. Their ability to communicate with and control almost any device over open protocols makes them invaluable tools to the conference integrator allowing discussion systems to be paired relatively seamlessly with cameras, lighting or media sources making it much easier for technicians to manage the room. They also throw open the possibility of custom user interfaces for conference functions.

The traditional method of integrating these systems has been a serial connection and almost all of the congress system manufacturers provide RS-232 or RS-485 ports on the control units for this purpose. The functionality the control systems have access to can vary from simple microphone on/off commands to complex control of volume and system settings.
Beyerdynamic’s Ulrich Gierl is Product Manager for congress systems. “In 80% of cases I would say that we do not sell stand-alone products. We are integrating in the conference environment. For this reason it’s really important to interface with the media control products. The method of integration has evolved. At the start it was via RS-232 to which we added IPX, and then the final step has been the addition of TCP/IP connectivity to our products. This is especially important for our wireless products and also the larger systems.”
Taiden’s Marketing Manager Isabelle Chen said: “Our product can integrate with an AV system through many kinds of ports such as RS-232, RS-485 and TCP/IP.” She even suggests that to make it easier to integrate the company’s products with other systems they will be developing audio and video switching matrixes.

A key factor in deciding how easy it is to integrate congress systems with others is the protocols manufacturers use. The majority chooses very open systems and issues them freely to integrators. Others prefer to keep them locked up preferring to charge the integrator to use them. One man with enormous experience in this field is Dave Snipp, CEO of Stardraw: “No one manufacturer can provide the whole solution but a hardware manufacturer is not going to spend the money to write software which will allow his products to work with competitive or even complimentary hardware. All we need to work with them is that their protocol is open, documented and supported.” Stardraw has just concluded discussions with Bosch regarding the control protocol of its Praesidio voice alarm system and anticipate this will be extended to the DCN Next Generation system in the future.
According to DIS’s CEO Finn Halken: “The future of connectivity is IP, that’s where we have seen things going. It leads us to a higher and higher level of integration, not just with the AV world, but also with the IT world. The areas of communication, AV and IT, are melting together, and IP is the way of doing it.”

Other areas of current interest are the digital audio protocols. Bosch already uses CobraNet as the backbone for linking several discussion systems together. But ultimately most of the high-end systems can be connected to such networks via the appropriate interface. DIS’s Halken envisages being able to apply DSP to individual microphones. Fibre Optics are also making inroads for room linking applications.

No one disagrees that IP connectivity is the way forward. RCF, Bosch and Creator all concur. Even Braehler who have for some time felt themselves to be lacking in the connectivity department intend to add IP options to their next generation of products, replacing the current MIDI solution.

Nowhere is this melting together more evident than in DIS’s latest offering to the conference space. Announced at InfoComm, the software based solution integrates recorded conference proceedings into a dynamic archive. From a web interface it is possible to search the archive by a number of fields, retrieve AV footage of a discussion, a particular speech or a voting session and see exactly who did what. This fusion of web streaming technology and AV equipment is surely the future of the conference market.

Bosch’s Ruud Michels concludes: “It’s now possible to fully stream the proceedings, sound , video and other data via the internet. This allows councils to show to citizen on their web pages what is going on, or for corporate clients to have the executives watch remotely.”

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