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The Agile Control Room Published:2017-10-18

This article kicks off a new bi-weekly newsletter, where we will explore the changing technologies, products, designs, and uses of the AV “control room”. As AV is moving from traditional iron and copper to Ethernet copper, fibre, and the cloud, the control room is changing too. Over the course of this series, we will introduce the concept of the agile control room and then individually cover pertinent topics with specific focus. 

It can seem as if the word “agile” is being attached to nearly every application in the world of AV. While it is tempting to simply pass that off as a marketing buzzword, the truth is that true agility in applications has been happening and will become the new normal. In some applications, it is probably no longer necessary to attach the word because the non-agile version is already a thing of the past. In the case of video control rooms, that may not be the case just yet, but the time is approaching. Agility has been made possible by technology such as AV over IP, AVB/TSN, and the rapid increase of capability in mobile devices. But now that agility is an option, the needs of the end users and control operators ought to be driving the technology. 

The first step in agility for control rooms is getting outside the four walls that would typically be the center of control. IP infrastructure means that large copper matrix switching is no longer necessary. The demand for one big control room is no longer driven by the need to centralize expensive hardware and cabling. With IP based AV infrastructure utilizing CATx cabling and Ethernet switches for routing and distribution, smaller control rooms can be built throughout a building. The control rooms can have custom-tailored purposes, can have some overlap, or even provide redundancy. 

Ethernet technology also means that control rooms can reach outside the building itself. Control rooms can manage AV streams across campuses with copper and fibre, and even off the campus with WAN’s. The limits are quickly evaporating as RGB Spectrum’s Zio Networked AV system boasts, “A room, a building, a campus, a city, or the world – LANs, WANs, even satellite links – Zio is up to the challenge.”

With the actual hardware on IP, and the streams themselves on IP, the next building block of agility is mobility. Laptops, tablets, and smart phones now become portable control rooms. This is where the needs of the users begin to transcend technology that at first provided a more institutionally affordable approach and the way control rooms are used sees real evolution. Remote access to video streams the ability to route those streams means that stakeholders and decision makers can have live access and make real-time decisions.

But the agile control room also brings new challenges.

Once packetized for IP transport, audio and video are just data. But they are data that must be synchronous in order to work as a stream. IP data is not necessarily synchronous. This means that manufacturers of AV over IP hardware must make provisions for this, or the IP technology infrastructure must be able to identify the AV data and provide for its synchronization. Manufacturers such as AMX (through their purchase of SVSi) and ZeeVee make provision in their hardware to handle the synchronization. Alternatively, the IEEE standard AVB/TSN puts this in the hands of the switches so that the AV hardware doesn’t need to all come from the same manufacturer. 

Another challenge that arises with agility is security. Traditional control rooms meant that the streams were moving point-to-point on dedicated copper, physically located inside a facility. Cyber security was not a relevant concern. With AV streams not only leaving the building, but traveling over IP, securing both the control and the content itself becomes a key element to a successful system. Ideally, as the agile control system is being implemented on the institution’s network infrastructure, it adheres to the security standards and policies of the network. But this also requires both the equipment manufacturers and the integrators to understand cyber security and the policies of the end customer.

Latency and image quality are of utmost importance in mission critical applications. Traditional copper meant that this was typically not a factor, but high image quality means high resolution and color space. In terms of IP that means more data and therefore larger bandwidth streams. Very large bandwidth networks help but data compression may very well be necessary. Compression can be effective but can also introduce artifacts which can potentially imped quality. Latency also becomes a factor. Packetizing, distributing, and de-packetizing the streams are not instantaneous processes, they add latency. Compressing and decompressing signals adds latency. Further processing such as tiling or scaling also adds latency. But good implementation and quality technologies can minimize this. While there is no possible IP based approach that can result in zero latency, many can provide latency that is less than a frame (16ms for 4K60) in a LAN network. 

In this bi-weekly newsletter we will explore these and other topics pertinent to AV over IP in a rapidly evolving technological landscape.