in May 2004
PC BoBs Take
By Neal Weinstock
Now they’re conquering playout network controls.
BoB as in “breakout box.” And BoB as in: It
came out of post production and now it’s conquering
playout network controls.
The BoB began as a variant
of the PC add-on card. You could either add functionality
within the PC box or outside it. The BoB form factor was
especially useful in one of two circumstances: when what
you wanted to add on was bigger than would fit on a card
or two, or when simplicity was key and users could not be
expected to want to install a card. And the BoB form factor
had another benefit, too: It looked and felt like the kind
of dedicated device that PCs seemed to be replacing. A BoB
is something that an old-fashioned device person could get
By the 1990s, the relative benefit
of a BoB vs. a card increased because the BoB could have
a faster path to the computer’s central processor.
As 100Mbps Ethernet, then FireWire (at 400 and now 800Mbps),
then USB 2.0 (480Mbps) and Gigabit Ethernet came along,
applications on a BoB might access the CPU faster than if
they came in on the PCI bus used in expansion slots for
cards. (Speeds vary, but the PCI bus typically runs at 132Mbps.)
One Overriding Purpose
In particular, BoBs
served one overriding purpose: They allowed people who wanted
to use a PC for some AV application to link AV standard
wiring to the PC. Count the connections and measure the
space available on the edge of a computer card: S/PDIF,
AES/EBU or analog audio; SDI, S-video, DV over FireWire,
or any of a half-dozen other video formats over analog BNC
connectors. These can add up to too many connectors to fit
on a card.
Also, as noted, you really
don’t want to bring a big, fast AV signal into a card
that then connects to processing at 132Mbps. If brought
into a card, all the processing of AV data ought to be done
on the card, or on multiple bridged cards; the multi-card
set itself then can become a pretty big package, limiting
the number of PCs it all can fit within. That’s why
companies that produce such packages either qualify few
PCs or want to sell you the whole integrated package in
a PC themselves.
It’s not really about
taking more of the customer’s money (well, not only
that); it’s about making sure the whole thing works.
But put all the works in a BoB and many more PCs can be
used to host the application.
In other words, without a
BoB, you couldn’t have convenient nonlinear video
editing (NLE) or digital audio workstations (DAWs) on inexpensive
PCs. A BoB was strictly a post-production thing in video
and a desktop mixer thing for post or live concerts in audio.
Thus, in video, BoBs also
came to be where an outboard processor is located, so an
incoming format can be “digitized” (even if
it is already in a different digital format) to a compressed
format suitable for offline editing or graphics work. In
audio, the BoB became a stage box and an A/D converter,
bringing material into—in the most successful example—Digidesign’s
format for mixing, layering and editing.
|Onkyo's TX-NR901P is a "professional
audio/video receiver" or DAVR that links PCs to
large-scale home media systems or small-scale commercial
In the consumer world, the
market for top-quality “A” or “V”
out of a PC was too small for the computer makers to attend
to. So companies such as Creative Labs and Matrox made lots
of money selling sound cards and graphics cards. The economics
were, in fact, weird and depressing to the many engineers
designing Macs and successive versions of Windows who had
cut their teeth in the 1970s designing audio gear.
For a few dollars in higher-quality
chips, for instance, every buyer of a PC could get top-quality
audio instead of just those relative few who spent $200
extra on a fancy sound card. But that few dollars extra
per unit might lose millions in sales to competitors.
Then along came the internet
music phenomenon and, suddenly, in 2001, consumer BoBs sprang
up. Now they were DARs (“digital audio receivers”)
and DAVRs (“digital audio/video receivers”).
And they were about playout rather than ingest. Many companies
put easy-to-use “tuners” in the BoB to choose
internet radio stations, and included good-quality audio
preamplification and perhaps also power amplification for
output to surround speakers. Hewlett Packard, among others,
makes a DAVR with software that displays music choices and
internet video formats (Windows Media, Quicktime, Real)
on a linked TV.
Diagram these DAR/DAVR solutions,
and the system looks roughly analogous to professional AV
distribution systems: There’s a PC on one side, a
bunch of display devices and loudspeakers and amplifiers
on the other and, in the middle, a control system and a
matrix switcher, maybe some demodulators for cable and satellite
TV and radio signals, and increasing amounts of gear to
transcode internet AV formats and computer outputs and multiple
kinds of video into some common formats for large-screen
All of that stuff in the middle,
we all know, is most of where IT meets AV, and where older
technologies are being replaced by boxes that bring it all
together and allow users to control their options from a
connected PC. Essentially, this core of our business is
turning into a big BoB: a transcoding, show-controlling,
video-correcting, channel-switching BoB.
Industry’s Point of View
Well, that’s to see
it from the point of view of the PC. From the point of view
of the AV installation industry, products such as Focus
Enhancements’ CenterStage (on the small side) up to
Electrosonic’s Director (on the large side) build
as many of the functions described as their makers think
fit their market niches into boxes that allow software control
of all or most functions from a Crestron or AMX controller,
or from an outboard PC.
But for a younger generation
of customers that has grown up with PCs and has no ingrained
love of boxes full of analog electronics, boxes such as
Director and CenterStage are all about allowing the PC to
do the work of all that older stuff…with the addition
of just one box: a BoB.
Does the BoB replace multiple boxes of analog electronics
and thus make things simpler for the installer and user?
Sure. But technology competition in the new BoB era is getting
hairier in a few messy ways.
PCs Are Getting More Powerful
For one, PCs are inexorably
getting much more powerful, and PC makers are focusing their
efforts on multimedia applications to give people reasons
to buy these otherwise overpowered beasts. PC makers no
longer are content to offer lousy audio and video performance;
they don’t expect any more that enterprise buyers
want only to build spreadsheets and won’t pay a few
extra bucks for good AV performance, and they’re no
longer willing to forego the hundreds of millions of dollars
the AV card suppliers pull in each year.
High-quality AV is being built
into Intel’s motherboards and into Windows in multiple
ways: DVD play and recording, HDTV decoders and monitors,
Windows Media (and competitors’) “tuning”
for internet radio, Dolby surround audio, device control
for varied electronics on a network… these are all
common now. The PC makers were very conscious of the success
of the DAR, and have made that success brief by incorporating
most of what a DAR or DAVR does in the PC.
But the legacy of the DAR
remains. And the consumer BoB that has grown out of it is
incorporating many of the IOs and the media processing of
the post-production BoB, as well as Crestron/AMX-style device
control, to go after what most of the now-conjoined PC and
consumer electronics industries see as the sweet spot of
their business: the home network. From the manufacturer’s
point of view, the more the PC can do, the more additional
networking and processing functions must be assimilated
by a BoB; otherwise, nobody would need a BoB.
But PC vendors tend to like BoBs, even if, in the long-term,
they tend to swallow up many of their functions. BoBs keep
the PC at the center of users’ electronic experiences,
as opposed to standalone devices that may actually compete
with PCs. In other words, BoBs replicate and replace traditional
standalone devices with the help of a PC.
It’s Happening in AV, Too
Of course, the same thing
is happening in the installed AV world. PC makers are happy
to support BoB makers in an onslaught against traditional
standalone suppliers. So BoBs coming out of a pro audio
or video heritage, from companies such as M-Audio and Matrox,
are allowing a PC to play out to and control vast FireWire
audio networks (M-Audio) or large numbers of informational
Ever-more-capable PCs and
BoBs are driving a lot of commercial installation customers
into using ever-more-capable, plug-and-play, home or small-scale
networking gear instead of equipment requiring industrial-strength
systems integration. Intel’s and Microsoft’s
embracing of new networking technologies, including FireWire,
Gb Ethernet and USB 2.0, have been pushed forward for years
by the presentations of BoB makers that have said, essentially,
“Give us that faster IO, this network driver or software
control, and we can deliver these apps to the PC.”
And once that driver gets written, and the IO gets to be
standard on many if not all PCs, then even if it was Matrox
that actually wrote the driver for Microsoft (which has
happened), an Evertz or Miranda Technologies or Focus Enhancements
may take advantage of it to compete with Matrox at its own
multi-display-system game…and incidentally make the
old show-control systems look more and more obsolete.