InfoComm delivers on technology development

Chris Fitzsimmons reports on the highlights of a solid showing from InfoComm 2012 in Las Vegas.

I’ll begin this report by saying that InfoComm 2012 was much better than I expected. Despite my outward optimism before hand, I was genuinely convinced that the daddy of AV shows would be over-shadowed by its younger and dare-I-say sexier offspring in Europe.

Where ISE was busier, louder and endowed with a sense of very well organised chaos, InfoComm delivered just as much technological innovation in a less frantic and easier to navigate atmosphere.

Is that a polite way of saying that the show felt slightly quiet? Yes, I suppose it is, but that should in no way be interpreted as a bad thing. For a visitor, not queuing to see who you need to see for 10-15 minutes is a good thing. Not having to elbow your way past busy booths to reach that one you want to get to is also a good thing.

For the record, InfoComm International claims that the show greeted 4% more attendees than last year, for a total of 34,268. They were able to see over 933 exhibiting companies occupying 487,000 square feet (45,243 square metres) of exhibition and event space. ISE 2012 claimed 40,869 attendees, 825 exhibitors and 30,673 square metres of net exhibition space.

Whatever you might think of the accuracy of those numbers, the thing to take from them is that InfoComm delivers fewer people to more space, and more exhibitors. That means less queuing and more booths to see! To be clear, no exhibitor that I spoke to had a single negative word to say about the show or how busy it was.

It was a very good show and I was left with the impression of a US market that is bullish and well on the road to recovery from some seriously tough times a few years ago.

One of the reasons it was so good was the amount of new and interesting things on view in those slightly less crowded, and easier to navigate halls.

While I’m at it, yes I think the Las Vegas convention centre is a better place to hold an exhibition than the Amsterdam RAI. And no, not because its warmer, and near a bewildering array of places to spend altogether too much money.

Two halls are better than 12. Whichever way you cut it, it is easier to find people. It’s a bit like comparing an American city’s system of blocks and streets with the maze that is a European capital. Characterful yes, easy to find your away around? No.

In broad terms the technology themes for this year’s show were as follows: Buy stocks in manufacturers of Cat5 cable, if you haven’t already – HDBaseT was huge. 3D has finally been relegated from necessary product feature to a technology application, where it belongs. Unified communications is coming for you. We’ve been talking about this for a while, but there was a serious presence at InfoComm of video communications, collaboration and presence companies and technologies, much bigger than I’ve seen yet at a dedicated AV event.

Starting with what I believe to be the main story of InfoComm, HDBaseT was the stand out technology. Before the show I predicted it would be significant, but even I wasn’t prepared for just how ubiquitous it turned out to be.

To recap, just about every company at the show which provides video distribution solutions had HDBaseT product. Crestron, Kramer, Gefen, AMX, Atlona, Cypress, Hall Research and Emcore all had it on show. Not all of them are using its full potential yet, including things like PoE and Gigabit Ethernet on the same cable, but that will change.

Much of that isn’t news, but what was news were display devices with HDBaseT onboard. Panasonic launched an entire range of projectors compatible with HDBaseT. The products feature a RJ-45 connector, which is compatible with a variety of 3rd party HDBaseT-based systems such as AMX DVX and DGX switchers, Crestron’s DM 8G+ and Extron XTP. You can also connect your sources to it via a Panasonic’s digital interface box, the ET-YFB100, creating a single cable input to the projector.

The company’s new solid state / laser hybrid projectors (PT-RZ370 and PT-RZ-470) and PT-VW431D LCD models are both compatible.

The hybrid source projectors are also pretty exciting news earning them a pick of the show mention from me. Whilst Panasonic are not first to market with the technology, they are certainly first with professional grade features. When the products start landing around the turn of the year, the PT-RZ models will be at over 3000 lumens, with 1080 and WXGA resolution and onboard edge-blending. Expect brighter models to follow later in 2013.

projectiondesign also had a version of its F82 platform on show on the HDBaseT booth incorporating the technology.

Digital signal distribution in general also had a pretty good show. Crestron’s DigitalMedia and AMX’s Enova solutions are now mature products, with both companies introducing new features to their solid platforms.

Whilst on the subject of AMX and Crestron, both are demonstrating continued keenness to break out of straight forward AV signal management and control and get into the fabric of buildings via BIM. Integrators: pay attention, both of them are also actively seeking partner companies to help them hit the facilities management and intelligent building spaces. I had conversations with representatives of both firms, who believe that AV systems integrators are well placed to be those partners. However, if they aren’t forthcoming from within the AV community then they will look outside.

The absence of Extron also allowed a bit more air for some of the smaller players in the market to breath. The Nortek technology group, which includes TV One, Gefen and Magenta, fill the gap left by Extron’s booth and made all the right noises about tighter integration between the three brands, in terms of technology sharing. Gefen demonstrated a 32x32 modular HDBaseT matrix for its Pro range, whilst Magenta majored on additions to both MultiView. Most notable amongst these were DVI / VGA format conversion tools allowing users to run hybrid digital and analogue systems to maintain compatibility with existing infrastructure.

Atlona’s team used its usual infectious enthusiasm to pitch what it says is an extremely low-cost DVI matrix. As the high end continues to drive innovation and development, the smaller companies are able to deliver some really clever, cost effective solutions for digital signals.

An interesting announcement came from Peavey, which has added video solutions to its MediaMatrix range. It is now offering VSC-101 10 input presentation switchers, with optional HDBaseT outputs, and the VSC-51 (a five input model).

As I already mentioned, unified communications also put on a strong showing at InfoComm. There has always been a bit of an imbalance between what Polycom, Lifesize et al do at InfoComm compared to ISE. The explanation might be that the market is more linked with AV in the US, whilst in Europe UC appears to be moving more in IT circles.

Aside from a new corporate identity, Polycom was making much of its new video content management solution, which allows users to manage content from capture to delivery on demand or via live streams. It has some really clever UI features which are available across all platforms, both mobile and desktop, as they are now coded in HTML5.

Vidyo teamed up with Barco, the companies unveiling a technology demonstration of the first 4K immersive video conferencing and collaboration system. The integrated solution offers flexibility, multi-modal content display capabilities, with multi-point HD video communications. The system enables flexible layouts on a single screen and displays up to 16 high quality streams totalling 8 mega pixels – including ultra-high resolution data sharing up to 3 megapixels.

Barco of course also showed of its Clickshare product to the US market for the first time. Having got some hands on time with that as well, I can say that it is as simple as it looks.

Another one of my top picks from the show is Jupiter’s new Canvas solution. Canvas is a collaborative, distributed display system for command and control applications, allowing different users to view control surfaces from a variety of connected devices running the Canvas client. The system allows varying levels of access to different users, and doesn’t transmit streams to users that don’t have rights to view them. Each user is able to arrange video sources as they wish on their own display, and can collaborate with other users by annotating the live video feeds with a variety of brush tools.

No stranger to collaborative tools is Smart Technologies, but the company has taken things a step further this year with the announcement of Freestorm, the third of my picks from InfoComm 2012. Some of you with long memories may remember Thunder from Polyvision, which essentially allowed teams in remote sites to collaborate on the same content using interactive whiteboard systems and a lot of expensive proprietary hardware and software. Smart has taken this concept and made it sane, and affordable.

You can participate in a meeting from any connected location using an iOS device, or desktop computer, as well as from the meeting room. Any participant can contribute to the discussion, and using the Bridgit software tools allows the addition of remote video contribution via web cams, and Meeting Pro gives some neat content sharing and capture options.

Digital technology is also high on the agenda of the audio fraternity at the moment, and at InfoComm there was a palpable hotting-up of the war of words between the Dante and AVB camps. Now, many would have you believe that such camps needn’t exist, and that one is simply a route to the other. Indeed Audinate’s marketing material at the moment makes much of Dante as a “seamless upgrade path” to AVB. This is something that the AVB camp vehemently denies, pointing out, accurately, that you can’t upgrade a system to AVB if it doesn’t have AVB switching hardware in it.

Their problem is that the same argument can be turned around. You can’t build an AVB system without AVB compliant network hardware, which is still conspicuous by its lack of widespread availability.

As if echoing this, BSS moved to “broaden network interoperability” of Soundweb London by Dante enabled processors to its line via the BLU-806 and BLU-326 units.

Despite this, the AVNu Alliance did put on an impressive display with its AVB theatre, making use of Sennheiser’s proof of concept AVB connected gooseneck microphone, combined with an AVID desk and equipment from elsewhere in the alliance.

Was InfoComm 2012 the billed “coming out party” for AVB? No, I don’t think so, but it certainly represented a few more steps forward. The arrival later this year of network switch certification, and 2013 roll out of AVNu certification for pro audio devices should be the key tipping points.

My other main take away from InfoComm, apart from any specific items, was that the software we have to work with is finally beginning to grow up. For the longest time, the software interfaces that integrators have had to use to work with the extremely powerful hardware that’s available have been poor.  The usability message though is finally starting to sink in. Great examples come from Harman with its HiQnet Band Manager, and from Biamp with the software that has been developed to back its Tesira solution. Both Smart Technologies and Jupiter impressed me with the software that accompanies their new offerings also.

Stardraw continues to innovate with Design 7, having now added a Plan View module to the suite, it exploits Design 7's DWG compatibility to facilitate collaboration with architects, consultants and other AutoCAD users who prefer or require drawing submissions in DWG format.

Another interesting trend was the arrival of projection mapping in the mainstream. For a long time it has been a somewhat out-there application of projectors, only carried out by specialist agencies working to big budgets. However, at InfoComm it was all over the place. Christie and Coolux had miniature examples on their booths, and D3 was present demonstrating the software tools that made the recent Diamond Jubilee spectacular possible.

Before we end, I need to mark my predictions. My first prediction centred around the number of international attendees. As of time of writing those figures are not yet available, so I’ll get back to you on that. Second, digital transmission – I’m going to mark myself a tick on that. Third up was laser projection. I don’t think I can give myself full marks for that, as no one was directly talking about it on the floor, although Panasonic did announce a hybrid LED / Laser projector, half marks. Fourth, HDBaseT was indeed everywhere and finally, no Andrew Edwards wasn’t spotted. So I make that two-and-a-half out of five, with one point yet undecided.

Finally, the big one, is it a must attend show? I think so. It might well be expensive and a long trip, but whilst plenty of new products might still be launched at ISE, technology trends continue to be set at InfoComm. If you want to spot those early, then you have to be there.

Next year, InfoComm returns to Orlando, Florida from June 12-14 2013

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