IT/AV, News

Seeing Is Believing

Omar Prashad, Systems Integration General Manager of Advanced, the Toronto-based AV systems integrator, was having a meta moment. Sitting at a high-top table in a Jack Astor’s restaurant (think Applebee’s with back bacon and Molson) in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, he realized that not only had Advanced installed the 3×3 LCD videowall that loomed over the restaurant’s main bar, but at that moment the screen was showing the new HD videowall that Advanced recently created as the backdrop for sports network TSN’s wrap-up show. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he said, simultaneously marveling at the serendipity of the moment while also gauging the resolution of the image.

Something like that was also happening on a larger scale for the company, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2015. Systems integrators build AV infrastructure for a living for their clients; it’s their raison d’être. But what about when it comes to building their own infrastructure, when their “house” becomes the show home? It’s like when an architect builds his or her own house: It has to meet personal needs but it’s also built with the implicit understanding that it will be scrutinized differently. It will be a statement about how the builder thinks all houses should be designed.

Premier Mounts

Executive Briefing Center
Last month, Advanced put the finishing touches on its new home base, a 25,000-square-foot facility in Mississauga industrial park. Inside, there’s space for sales and marketing, engineering and design, of course, but the space is also intended to act as a narrative showroom that presents AV options contextually to clients. At once, it’s a rethink of how AV technology is presented to customers and an application of the same kind of immersiveness that clients want integrators to bring to their projects.

“The point here is to show clients the technology in a working context, instead of talking about it in the abstract,” said Prashad, walking through the series of sequential demonstration spaces known collectively as the Executive Briefing Center, that are designed to be not so much good-better-best, but to be points on a continuum in which integrated systems are shown at work in realistic environments.

The tour starts with Focus (the rooms are whimsically yet purposefully named), a small presentation room fitted with a SMART Technologies 885ix2 interactive short-throw projector whiteboard, an Extron MLC 55 wall-mounted MediaLink push-button controller and an Extron TeamWork 601 preconfigured collaboration system.

“It’s not entry level; rather, it’s basic,” explained David Weatherhead, Co-President of Advanced. “It’s the kind of room that a large corporation might want to replicate dozens of times.”

Next door, in Brainstorm, a SMART Technologies 8070i 70-inch interactive flatpanel display is paired with an Extron TLP Pro 720M seven-inch wall-mounted control touchpanel and an Extron flat-field speaker. The flatpanel’s contrast seems to be a step up over the projected image of the previous room, but Prashad then steps back into theFocus room, closes the blinds and turns off the overhead light, which makes the projected image appear brighter and sharper. Both rooms can be looked at from the hallway through windows positioned so the equipment in each can be seen from a single vantage point. “It was designed so you can be in the rooms or see in the rooms and shift that perspective as you need to,” said Prashad.

Innovation is a corner conference room with lots of natural light and a Polycom/Crestron CX8000 Lync room system that includes a Crestron UC codec, Polycom CX5100 360° panoramic video camera with audio capture, a 10-inch tabletop touchscreen for control, an NEC V801 80-inch display with an NEC TSI touch overlay and a Crestron QM-RMC control processor. Here, the conversation gets deeper.

“What really makes this all work is that it’s intended to let the client see his or her own content on any of these systems, in any room, at any time,” said Prashad. “That’s the game changer: They’re seeing their own content and seeing which systems and in which types of environments it looks best.” Weatherhead agreed, adding, “You might look at your content on one type of screen, an HD plasma, for instance, and it looks stunning. But when you walk around and look at the same content on the same screen from an angle on the side, it looks less so. But from that same angle it may look great on an LED videowall. That’s the key: You’re looking at familiar content so you can focus on what you’re seeing it through.”

In this regard, Prashad said that they’ve taken a leaf out of the residential AV integrator’s playbook, creating realistic working environments and then blasting the equivalent of familiar home-theater perennial demo favorite Master And Commander through the speakers. “You rarely see this kind of demonstration on the commercial side,” he said, “but it’s the best way to tell the story.”

The narrative continues in Collaboration, a large room with three distinct system environments. On one end is a SMART Lync 8084i-G4 room system with an 84-inch interactive HD camera and dual tabletop microphones, an 11.6-inch tabletop control touchpanel/administrative console and wall-mounted CSR 500 speakers. At the other end is a Polycom HDX 7000 system with an Eagle Eye camera, and two NEC 46-inch LCD monitors. In the center, dominating the rectangular room, is a Delta WX21i-HD 137-inch diagonal, dual-projection, edge-blended fully interactive display. This 11½-foot-long behemoth that, theoretically, can be extended continuously with additional displays and short-throw projectors, is supported with Mersive Solstice collaboration software and a Crestron CP2E processor controlled with a TPMC-8L 8.4-inch wall-mounted touchpanel.

It’s here that the conversation turns to how the technology platforms and how products that equip each room were chosen. The collection, worth an estimated $1 million, is a combination of acquisitions and “donations,” in Weatherhead’s words, from an array of partner companies, including Polycom, Crestron, Extron, NEC, Prysm, Anacore, Delta, Middle Atlantic, BrightSign and others. These, Weatherhead said, share Advanced’s foundational notion: It’s not a competitive environment but a collaborative one, where Crestron and Extron products are not only shown together but integrated into the same overall system. It’s an atmosphere that he said will be familiar to those in IT, where that domain’s mainstay switches and terminals have less brand intensity than AV’s speakers and screens.

“You might think having a SMART touchscreen and an NEC touchscreen in the same space would be a detriment to the brands, but here it’s really just the opposite,” said Prashad. “The goal is to drive customers and put the technology in the right light. And it does that.”

Installation Like, And Unlike, Most Others
The Collaboration room is also where the integration aspect of the facility emerges. The long, rectangular conference table is supported by two TechPeds, a technology pedestal built by Middle Atlantic, which also constructed the table itself. The TechPed conceals the Delta WX’s electronics rack, as well as the PC running the Mersive Solstice software, porting into an Extron Cable Cubby 200 with HDMI and VGA connectivity. Some cabling is run in a conduit cored under the floor; some is run beneath a metal cover, showing clients both options for wiring. The entire facility is wrapped with multimode fiber, with plenty of dark fiber ready for future additions to the space. “The displays and the other systems might change, but damned if we’ll have to go fishing for fiber again,” Prashad proclaimed.

That cabling, though, showed that this new facility, for all of its other ambitions, is no different from any other AV integration project. The cabling, like the rest of the project, was handled by Advanced’s own installers and engineers, and the occasional glitches occurred. For instance, one part of a room’s specifications called for shielded twisted-pair cabling, but unshielded wire accidentally went in, a mistake that was rectified quickly but involved pulling out the installed wire. They replaced it with Provo Cat6 shielded 24Ga (2240416-21Y). In another instance, it was noticed that the drywall contractor had not placed the correct support backing behind a wall that was to hold a large display. The wall was rebuilt.

In fact, the new facility was entered into Advanced’s project scheduling software as though it were an outside project, and the company’s Co-President, Mark Mulford, was assigned to play the role of the client. He was to be informed if personnel had to be reassigned to another project on a day they were expected to work on the new facility (and he could stay in character and fume about it to the project manager to heighten the authenticity of the exercise). Any change orders had to be signed off on by all concerned parties.

In all, Advanced Vice President Mark McPherson reported that there were nine major revisions to the project over four months of construction. “We treated ourselves like the customer,” he stated. “We logged in and checked off the same milestones as we would on any project. If anything, it deepened a sense of empathy for clients in general.”

Like any good show, Advanced’s new facility saved the biggest for last. The end of the main corridor opens onto the Digital Signage Room, a 24-foot-high, L-shaped room that looks like an indoor Times Square. Aimed inward from three sides are the Executive Briefing Center’s largest displays: a Prysm Laser Phosphor Display (LPD) videowall in 4×3 array comprised of 12 Prysm TD1 tiles; an NEC 4×4 46-inch videowall made up of 16 NEC X464UN LED/LCD panels; a Delta rear-projection cube in a 2×2 array measuring 67 inches diagonal, with SXGA resolution; an NEC 1×3 55-inch videowall made up of three NEC X554UN LED/LCD panels configured in portrait mode and capable of displaying 3K content; an Orion 1×4 42-inch videowall with four Orion OPM-4260 seamless plasma panels; two NanoLumens displays: a 112-inch NanoFlex using 6mm flexible LED displays and a 114-inch Nano-Slim with 5mm LEDs; a Sharp 90-inch LED/LCD display in portrait mode; and a Panasonic 103-inch plasma display. These are fed by a combination of a Green Hippo Aviary Par4keet 4K+ video processor and six BrightSign XD230 media players.

The room is large enough to hang a line array sound system in, which they did in October, demonstrating to a client how a steerable line array could help mitigate sidewall reflections, of which this room has quite a few. The parallel, highly reflective surfaces were left that way purposely, said Prashad, for exactly that reason. “It reproduces what a lot of clients have to deal with when it comes to sound in their spaces.”

The final stop on the tour is a combination warehouse space and engineering area, the latter where systems can be prebuilt and tested before installation. At the moment, it was also home to a Leyard 1.6mm, 110-inch diagonal LED display with breathtaking resolution. It’s there on an experimental basis, a super-HD technology product waiting for the content to catch up. It’s that idea that partially drives the Executive Briefing Center concept: that AV technology changes so quickly and sometimes so radically that it can no longer be adequately evaluated by end users without sufficient context.

In fact, the Center itself will undergo annual reviews to see what new technology products, systems and platforms it will need to stay current and even a bit ahead of a fast-changing game. And, as if to acknowledge the role that IT systems will play in that future, Prashad said, only partly in jest, that, when it comes to software, “We’ll be reviewing that on a daily basis.”

Dan Daley has covered the confluence of technology, business and culture for almost 30 years. He has also been a successful composer and recording studio owner, and authored the book, Unwritten Rules: Inside the Business of Country Music.

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