Published in February 2006

Rocket Science Gets a Boost
By Dawn Allcot

AV brings concepts and projects to life in a Johnson Space Center multi-use conference room.

     Human beings are visual creatures. We learn and understand concepts best when we see ideas brought to life in front of us in living color, with crystal-clear sound bites to match. No one understands this better than audiovisual integrators, of course. The sky’s the limit related to what can be done using state-of-the-art AV technologies, from distance learning to multimedia advertising in retail centers—even rocket science can be enhanced through the use of AV!
For instance, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently converted a basic and somewhat out-of-date conference room in Johnson Space Center in Houston TX into a multi-use facility capable of large-scale presentations, teleconferencing and more.

Multi-Use Facility
     The conference room, used primarily by the Concept Exploration Laboratories (CEL), part of the Habitability and Environmental Factors Division of NASA, for a variety of projects, is also employed by other branches of the organization. “The Johnson Space Center was constructed during the Apollo era, and the architects and designers did not dream of the capabilities we are adding to the space today,” said retired Colonel Tom Duncavage, who was heavily involved in the installation project as NASA’s director of Advanced Projects.
     The new system uses two Altinex MultiTasker AV systems, each built with three 4RU-high enclosures and operated via an AMX controller, to transmit sound and video from five different labs to one main conference hall across Cat5 cable. Not only does it allow a larger audience to be involved in any given project at one time, it adds multimedia presentation and teleconferencing capabilities to a 45-year-old conference room. Most importantly, according to Duncavage, it adds “a very powerful visual tool” that helps integrate concepts and helps professionals in various disciplines throughout NASA to communicate with each other more clearly.
     “Visual tools are understandable, even to those who are not technical,” he said. “For instance, if you take someone from accounting, and you show him exactly what you are doing, on screen, he finally understands it. We understand what we can see and hear.”
     The visual capabilities also help the engineers see the big picture (so to speak) in a project. Duncavage explained: “The entire idea of project development is changing. The ideas of development, logistics and project management are all integrated. You can’t just build a rocket, space vehicle, rover or tank. If someone makes a change in the programming of a vehicle, for instance, that will affect finances, timing, everything. With the computer modeling programs, we can see how those changes will affect other aspects of the project in real time, right on the screen in front of us.”
     Generals in the Armed Forces, for instance, use similar software programming in similar rooms to conduct real-time combat simulations and also to command troops.


A view from the console that is adjacent to the rack and touchscreen.

Explaining Significance
     Often, it’s a matter of convincing those who hold the purse strings of the benefits of audiovisual technology before moving forward on a project. “One of the challenges to this project,” said Rodney De Soto, a sub-contractor in NASA’s Habitability and Human Factors Division, part of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate, “was explaining to everyone outside the labs what we were doing, and the significance that this project would have on the work we do.”
     One of the challenges in the planning stages of the project was determining the needs of each of the labs, before the engineers in those labs had a clear grasp of exactly what the technology could accomplish. “We were asking them what they needed the technology to do, when they weren’t familiar with the technology, had never seen it in use,” De Soto said. “The key was to educate the labs as far as what the systems were capable of. Ultimately, we wanted to bring what was going on in the labs into the conference room.”
     The installation took slightly longer than 18 months to complete, with modular furniture being rolled in just prior to press time. Duncavage said that the overall hardware budget came in slightly less than $250,000. About 25% of the computer equipment was taken from the previous conference room and re-used for the project in order to help keep the budget down. “The system is designed to be upgraded,” Duncavage said. “Every year to 18 months, we update the computers as technology changes.” The system is PC-based, with computers operating on Windows or Linux platforms.


A view of the conference room from rear right entrance.

‘Working Together, Separately’

     CCS Presentation Systems-Texas Region, with its corporate office in Houston TX, worked extensively on the project as the major AV dealer. CCS personnel also programmed the AMX controller and tweaked the system after it was installed. “I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was such an intense project,” said Fran Sodolak, CCS corporate account manager in the corporate, government and education sectors. Sodolak credited Todd Petrie of CCS with the programming of the AMX system.
     NASA had worked with CCS on a number of other projects, including the presentation systems in the CEL room, which uses many of the same components as the conference room. The engineers at NASA laid out the design for the room, but called on CCS to help put it all together.
Brea CA-based Altinex, Inc., an ISO-9001 certified manufacturer of AV signal management solutions, was also heavily involved in the design and installation process. At the beginning of the project, the system, which uses two Altinex 24x32 MultiTasker twist- ed-pair matrix switchers, was hailed as the largest ever to be employed by Altinex. De Soto said he recalls being on the phone with the Altinex designers four hours at a time, five days a week, for two or three months.
The conference room installation, along with the CEL room, was also one of the first large matrix switcher projects to use low-skewed, twisted-pair Cat5 cabling rather than standard VGA or computer cabling with line drivers or amplifiers. “Today, it’s more common, but 18 months ago when the project started, it was one of the first to do so,” Sodolak said. This made finding some of the correct equipment for the project a challenge. “Here at CCS, we like projects that present a unique challenge, because we can learn more that way,” Sodolak added.
     NASA completed the installation in-house, with subcontractors working on bid to complete various tasks. According to De Soto, this did make the project a bit complicated, but everything was completed within budget and in a timely fashion by simply “taking it one step at a time.” He said, “We dealt with everything in a linear fashion. First, we assessed our needs for this multimedia, multi-functional room. We looked at the technology we would need to achieve our goals. Then we picked out the hardware necessary, and worked with CCS to get the hardware. Rarely did we have everybody in one room at the same time, but everyone played their role and, in the end, it all came together.”


A rear view of the equipment rack in the conference room.

Four Purposes
     The new conference room at JSC was designed for four major uses: meetings, multimedia presentations, teleconferencing and collaborative development engineering.
When the project began, the main goals were outlined in a PowerPoint presentation. First on the list was to convert the main conference room of the Habitability and Human Factors Division into a presentation room for five separate laboratories, including the Concept Exploration Laboratory (CEL), which was the department that spearheaded the project. Each lab would be connected to the main presentation room and be able to show video output from a variety of sources, including live camera feeds, DVDs, VHS tapes and computers, to large audiences in the presentation room. Finally, it was necessary to enhance the conference room AV equipment so it would be fit for the task.
     The system had to have remote control, from each laboratory, of what was being sent to the matrix. The system had to be able to display any source video on any display unit. In some cases, the video signal would have to travel distances up to 350 feet, with no loss of quality. Additionally, users in the conference room needed the ability to remotely control the computers in the labs. For security reasons, users in the lab or in the conference room had to be able to turn off the transmission source with the flip of a switch. Most importantly, the system had to be easy for everyone to use, regardless of the level of technical knowledge. Upgradeability of the system was another consideration, because the organization’s technology needs change over the years.

Largest Matrix Switcher
     At the heart of the system are two Altinex matrix switchers, each comprised of three MultiTasker enclosures that measure four rack-units high. De Soto noted that Altinex spent three months constructing the system. One matrix switcher is located in the conference room, with another in the CEL. Each unit comes with an integrated scaler, scan reducer, twisted-pair transmitter and receiver cards.
     The CEL unit includes three scalers and a scan converter to convert RGBHV to NTSC, while the conference room system has five scalers to scale up the video input sources at that location.
In addition, each lab, including the CEL, includes an SR 1401XL stand- alone video scaler, which converts all video signals to RGBHV at the source. An additional, standalone 2x2 matrix gives the user the capability of turning off the video feed at the source from the conference room or the lab, for security reasons.
     CCS’ Sodolak, who worked closely with Altinex to help NASA select the equipment, noted that careful research was done before selecting the MultiTasker, a modular, card-based, freely configurable AV system. “NASA wanted to make sure it was using the best products available, and ex- pandability was a key consideration for them,” Sodolak said.
     With its modular design, the MultiTasker lets the end-user expand the system easily by adding more inputs and outputs simply by adding cards to the system. This particular system was configured for 24 video inputs by 32 video outputs in each unit.
     The system integrates DA1930CT video and audio to Cat5 transmitters and DA1931CT Cat5 to video and audio receivers, which support VGA, component video, S-video, component video and stereo audio signals.
     Duncavage cited the compactness of the design as a benefit: All of the Altinex components, except for the SR 1401XL scalers (which are located in the individual labs), fit inside the MultiTasker chassis. According to the manufacturer, the MultiTasker system can be configured to take up half the space of a traditional AV system designed to complete the same tasks.


A front view of the equipment rack in the conference room.

Control
     Controlling the matrix switcher in both the CEL and the conference room are AMX control systems. The system in the CEL is composed of an NI-3000 NetLinx integrated controller, MVP-8400 Modero Viewpoint wireless touchpanel, MVP-TDS Modero tabletop tilt docking station and an NXA-WAP200G wireless access point. The conference room uses the same control system model, with a 15-inch Modero color active-matrix wall-mount touchpanel.
     Before this system was selected, CCS brought in sample touchscreens to show the client, to ensure that the interface would be easy for the users to learn. Duncavage noted that NASA was happy with both the interface and the feature sets. The real selling point on the AMX system was the programming language. Although CCS completed the initial programming, chan- ges to the system would be done in-house, by De Soto and his team. “The AMX programming language is very similar to C++, and our engineers are just more comfortable writing that type code. It boiled down to the programming language,” Duncavage stated.
     CCS and De Soto worked with the end-users in the CEL and also in the other labs that would be using the presentation room to program the menus on the controller. “We had to define what has to be controlled, to pick and choose what functions were actually required off of the remote. Our main requirements were control of the video matrix, as well as the multimedia devices, including the DVD players, et cetera.”

Sightlines, Other Challenges
     If this system were installed as part of a new construction, it would still be an extensive project. Putting the AV systems and matrix switcher into a building that was constructed in 1961 made the project even more complex. “Modifying a very old building presented a multitude of challenges,” Duncavage said.
     One obstacle to working in an existing building was the challenge of converting a conference room into a presentation area. “The room was not designed to be a viewing room,” Duncavage said. “It’s a meeting room.” There were poles in the line of sight from seating areas to the three Draper 81"x108" wrap-around Clarion screens, including a large column, which happened to be a support beam, in the front, left quadrant of the room. This wall obscured viewing from a portion of the room. “We had a choice of working around it, or taking it out and have the ceiling cave in,” De Soto noted, laughing.
     With the help of 3D computer design software, similar to what NASA uses in a number of aerospace-related projects, the designers were able to work around the limited sightlines created by the column. “In front of the pole are double doors that allow you to enter and exit the conference room. We put the control console and the equipment rack on that side of the column, which allowed us to minimize seats that would have obstructed vision. That dead space was occupied by the equipment, instead,” De Soto explained.
     The Draper screens were mounted via Chief RPA024 mounts. Projection equipment was composed of three Epson EMP7800NL 3500 lumen XGA projectors with middle throw lenses.
NASA opted to purchase mobile furniture: seven 5'x2' tables on caster wheels. This adds to the multi-purpose functionality of the room, allowing users to reconfigure the seating easily, based on their needs. The room can be organized as a standard conference room, with all the tables in a rectangular configuration in the center, or in a giant U-shape, which facilitates discussion while allowing all 60 seats a clear view of the presentation screens. Any other number of configurations are possible, as well, based on the user’s unique needs. With 10 JBL Control24C ceiling-mounted speakers installed in the drop ceiling, there are few spots in the room, which seats 60 people comfortably, where visitors cannot see or hear clearly. A Sony STR-DE995/B seven-channel receiver provides surround sound for the conference room, bringing presentations to life.
     Currently the room is not equipped for teleconferencing; microphones and a teleconferencing system are slated to be added later this year. “It’s a work in progress,” De Soto said.
     Another side effect of working in an older building was that the installers did not have the infrastructure in place to run Cat5 cabling. Fortunately, the space between the tiles and the roof in the drop ceiling offered enough room to run the extensive cabling needed for the project.
The computers in the conference room and in the five labs were linked across fiberoptic cabling. The Linux-based computers allowed very simple remote control through standard network cabling, but the Windows-based systems required multiple DA1934KM and DA1935KM distribution amplifiers from Altinex to transmit serial data via fiberoptic cable.


(Left) A technical drawing of the video switch in the conference room. (Right) A technical drawing of the video switch in the CEL.

Concept Exploration Lab
     The conference room’s audiovisual and presentation systems were patterned after the existing presentation equipment in the Concept Exploration Lab. “Prior to this project, the CEL did have presentation capabilities,” De Soto explained. “When we first began this project, we needed to update the video switcher in the CEL, and we took the opportunity to upgrade it and modeled the systems in the conference room after the CEL.”
     The CEL room’s display system consists of Proxima 9250+ projectors and LG 18-inch TFT displays, as well as ViewSonic VP201B 20-inch TFT displays. A Sony five-disc CD/DVD changer and a JVC HR-S991U hi-res super VHS/VHS VCR, along with the PCs, provide source material for each individual CEL or for the main conference room. CCS once again provided the hardware for the systems in the CEL.
     The Concept Exploration Lab within the SF/Habitability and Human Factors Division at Johnson Space Center studies the human and environmental factors relating to spacecrafts and habitats. The work includes the study of air and water quality, toxicology, and microbiology and radiation health.
     Although the conference room falls under the HEFD (Habitability and Environmental Factors Division), it is shared by other divisions of NASA. Within the HEFD, the Human Interface labs and the Anthropomorphic Labs are all making use of the new technology. But NASA is also using the newly completed conference room for projects related to lunar exploration work, real-time analysis of the space shuttle and various military projects and is, so far, pleased with the results. “The visual tools it provides are key. It’s been very powerful,” Duncavage said.

   
 


CCS Presentation Systems

  
  CCS Presentation Systems, with 21 offices across the US from San Diego to Colorado, Florida to Maine, is one of the largest suppliers of computer, video projection and audiovisual systems to corporate and educational markets, and also works with government and non-profit business sectors, as well as within the restaurant, hotel and entertainment industries. The Houston office client list includes Rice University, the US Coast Guard, Nabors Industries, EOG Resources, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Unocal, British Petroleum, Texas A&M University and University of Texas. The corporate office for CCS-Texas Region, which worked on this project, is in Houston, with additional offices in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.
     The Houston office has worked with NASA/Johnson Space Center in the past, which is what prompted NASA’s Rodney De Soto to call CCS during the design stage of the new conference room to be used by the Concept Exploration Labs. “It was exciting to see the room come together,” said CCS corporate account manager Fran Sodolak.
     CCS also consulted on and supplied the audiovisual systems for the CEL room in Johnson Space Center, and has provided AV equipment for a number of NASA projects. CCS also works frequently with NASA’s contract engineers, including Raytheon, Tessada and Indyne, to offer specifications, demos and pricing on AV equipment for jobs those companies subcontract within Johnson Space Center.
     “CCS provides the liaison between the engineers and the manufacturers,” Sodolak explained. “We help them pull together pricing for the budgets, provide demos as needed, and give them the support and customer service needed for these projects between NASA, CCS and the manufacturers.”
     Although Johnson Space Center has been standing since 1961, CCS has only been around since 1990. In that time, the company has grown from a single sales rep to a large company that still believes in personalized service for each of its clients. For more information, go to www.ccspro jects.com.

 

 

Equipment
3 Altinex MT102-192 19 Slots MultiTasker, no buttons, RS232 PO RS232 cable, slot covers
4 Altinex MT107-104 universal video matrix engine; MHz 2 slots, no connectors
7 Altinex MT107-101 16x16 video switch module used w/MT107-100 (internal)
12 Altinex *MT107-203 8 in., Cat5, single channel, 1 slot
3 Altinex MT107-303 8 out, Cat5, single channel, 1 slot
5 Altinex MT106-103 scaler card video/S-video/YPbPr to scaled 1 slot; PC bypass input
5 Altinex MT103-122 VGA/S-video+3.5mm audio to Cat5 conversion 1 slot; 15-pin HD+term. block/3.5mm to RJ45
24 Altinex DA1930CT VGA+audio to Cat5 transmitter
7 Altinex DA1931CT Cat5 to VGA+audio receiver
20 Altinex MS6312VM 12", 15-pin HD male to male patch cable
3 Altinex NSTK/CUST 18" (1) RJ45 plug to (3) RJ45 plug
2 Altinex MT107-204 fiber keyboard/mouse input card (1 slot)
2 Altinex MT107-304 fiber keyboard/mouse output card (1 slot)
13 Altinex DA1934KM keyboard/mouse receiver to fiber/Cat5/BNC
13 Altinex DA1935KM keyboard/mouse transmitter to fiber/Cat5/BNC
9 Altinex SR1401XL scaler 3 in, c-vid, S-video, component, RGBHV/H IR/RS232 control,
external power
9 Altinex MX2100AV 2 in 1 out VGA-UXGA+audio switcher w/loc
40 Altinex NSTK/CUST 24" (1) RJ45 plug to (3) RJ45 Plug
Altinex UTP video cable Cat 5/6 plenum
1 AMX NI-3000 NetLinx integrated controller
1 AMX MVP-8400 8.4" Modero Viewpoint wireless touchpanel
1 AMX MVP-TDS AMX Modero tabletop/tilt docking station
1 AMX NXA-WAP200G 802.11G wireless access point
3 Chief RPA024 mounts for Epson EMP7800
3 Chief CMA012018 12"-18" adjustable extension columns
3 Draper QCLARION/WA Wraparound Clarion-M1300 surface, 81"Hx108"W overall area
3 Epson EMP7800NL 3500 lumen XGA projectors
9 Extron 4x2 S-video w/audio mini matrix switcher w/captive screw connectors
1 Interlink VP4300 wireless remote
10 JBL CONTROL24C no transformer ceiling-mounted speakers
1 JVC HR-S9911U hi-res super-VHS/VHS VCR
1 Sony STR-DE995/B 7-channel home theater receiver
1 Sony DVP-NC665P/B 5-disc DVD/CD changer
2 Videotek DM154 demodulators w/RS232
3 ViewSonic VP201b 20" TFT displays

CEL
3 Altinex MT102-192 19 Slots MultiTasker, no buttons, RS232 PO R232 cable, slot covers
3 Altinex MT107-104 universal video matrix engine; MHz 2 slots, no connectors
12 Altinex MT107-101 16x16 video switch module used with MT107-100 (internal)
9 Altinex MT107-203 8 in., Cat5, single channel, 1 slot
12 Altinex MT107-303 8 out, Cat5, single channel, 1 slot
3 Altinex MT106-103 scaler card video/S-video/YPbPr to scaled 1 slot; PC bypass input
3 Altinex MT103-122 VGA/S-video+3.5mm audio to Cat5 conversion 1 slot; 15-pin HD+term. block/3.5mm to RJ45
3 Altinex RC5215MT 2 FT RS232 loop cable for MultiTasker cont 9 PINDB M-M female pigtails
21 Altinex DA1930CT VGA+audio to Cat5 transmitters
29 Altinex DA1931CT Cat5 to VGA +audio receivers
20 Altinex MS6312VM 12", 15-pin HD male to male patch cables
3 Altinex NSTK/CUST 18" (1) RJ45 plugs to (3) RJ45 plug
1 Altinex MT103-123 Cat5 to VGA/video/S-video+audio converter 1 slot; RJ45;15-pin
HD/RC
1 Altinex MT106-100 video scan reducer card
1 AMX NI-3000 NetLinx integrated controller
1 AMX NXD-CA15 15" Modero color active-matrix touchpanel (wall-mount)
1 JVC HR-S9911U hi-res super-VHS/VHS VCR
1 Kaiser Electro-Optics Sim Eye XL100A 1024x768 2-panel CRT
12 LG Flatron L1800P 18" TFT displays
2 Proxima 9250+ projectors
1 Sony STR-DE995/B 7-channel home theater receiver
1 Sony DVP-NC665P/B 5-disc DVD/CD changer
8 ViewSonic VP201b 20" TFT displays
2 Virtual Research V8 640x480 2-panel LCDs

 


 
   


Dawn Allcot is a freelance writer specializing in the audiovisual and health and fitness industries.

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