The Shape of (Some) Things to Come - TvTechnology

The Shape of (Some) Things to Come

Having now made all my excuses and safely covered myself against any future accusations of lack of foresight, there are some trends for changes in our business that are worth noting.
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I have always been exceedingly reluctant to make any kind of prediction about the directions of change in the technological world in which we are so deeply immersed. I am even more cautious when it comes to putting anything in print, where it may lurk unnoticed for decades, just waiting for an opportunity to embarrass me. I am acutely aware of the case of Thomas Watson, President of IBM, who predicted (in 1943) that the world might need as many as five computers. I am also acutely aware that technology has not developed in a linear fashion, and that there was nothing in 1943 to suggest that a valve and relay-powered, gymnasium-sized computer would soon be small enough to fit in a shirt pocket and cost less than one week's average wages.

The transistor and its offspring, the integrated circuit, were discontinuities in the smooth development of thermionic valve technology and simply not predictable in 1943. Similarly, whatever will be the next technological discontinuity/breakthrough is just as obscure to us today, although it will profoundly change the world we live in.

Having now made all my excuses and safely covered myself against any future accusations of lack of foresight, there are some trends for changes in our business that are worth noting. These are worth examining because they will have an effect on what we do and how we do it over the next couple of years.

LIGHTING IT

It would be hard to overlook the rapid convergence of television with Information Technology. The video signal that once ran down coax cables between the equipment racks and the record, edit, replay and production systems is now a digital datastream. Videotape systems, once found only in television facilities, may soon be found only in viewers' lounge rooms or home theaters as huge arrays of hard disk drives, in the guise of media servers, become the repositories of our production output. Even that last bastion of videotape, image acquisition through the ENG/EFP camera, is now acquiring a hard disk recorder on its back, instead of a (digital) videotape transport.

In the lighting world we are seeing this convergence in the way lighting control systems are developing. Not only are the current generations of consoles being built on top of standard computer operating systems, but the consoles themselves have become one of the nodes in a control network, running over standard Ethernet. Of course, each console manufacturer has used a different approach to carrying the DMX512 and other data over Ethernet, thus ensuring that the purchaser is locked into buying all their network components from the console supplier.

The current "Tower of Babel" situation is similar to the one that arose when the first analog multiplexed consoles and dimmers arrived on the market. At that time, each console would only talk to dimmers from the same manufacturer. It was only after the USITT (U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology) brought a group of engineers together to discuss standards that we eventually got DMX512 as a standard for the next generation of (Digitally MultipleXed) consoles.

ESTA, the Entertainment Services and Technology Association, as an accredited agent for the American Nation Standards Institute (ANSI) has been trying to remedy this situation through its Control Protocols Working Group (CPWG). For the last several years a group of industry engineers has been working on a standard known as the Advanced Control Network, which is intended to address a range of standards for things that can be done across a control network. The first draft of the proposed ACN standard has only recently completed its first exposure to public comment and is now on its way through the revision process, before being put out for comment again.

In other words, although there is a standard in development that covers DMX512 being transported over an Ethernet network, it is only a glimmer of a standard, as seen from far off. On the other hand, there are DMX-over-Ethernet protocols, including those from Artistic Licence and Enttec, that have been made public by their developers. U.K.-based Artistic Licence has been actively promoting its Art-Net, and has now signed up some 34 companies to use its protocol. When you consider that the list includes ADB, Avab Transtechnik (recently purchased by ETC), Avolites, Compulite, Electronics Diversified, Flying Pig, High End Systems, Horizon, IES, Jands Electronics, MA Lighting, Martin Professional and Robe Show Lighting, a bigger picture begins to emerge.

Many of the world's major makers of moving lights, control consoles and network interfaces are now in a position to produce compatible products. In this world the potential exists for a Flying Pig, MA, ADB, Horizon, Martin, Compulite, Jands, or AVAB console to talk directly, via Ethernet, to High End, Martin and Robe moving lights, or Compulite, EDI, AVAB, Jands, IES or Avolites dimmers. Using network interfaces from Artistic Licence, Cameleon, Compulite, Doug Fleenor Design, ELC Lighting, Enttec, Flying Pig, Goddard Design, Mediamation or SandNet, the consoles can address standard DMX-controlled dimmers, in addition to a host of other peripherals. This, of course, includes Doug Fleenor's DMX etch-a-sketch that was demonstrated at the recent LDI show in Orlando. Art-Net is happening right now; it should be considered for any studio design and upgrades and as a tool for use on those large-scale outside broadcast productions. This is especially so, as once your DMX data is in Ethernet format, it is mind-numbingly simple to move the data about wirelessly, with everyday, office-grade WiFi wireless Ethernet links.

REMOTE DEVICES

The busy folks on the ESTA Control Protocols Working Group have also recently released for comment, the first draft of a DMX512 add-on protocol that is destined to see wide acceptance and application as soon as it is through the standards review process. Remote Device Management is a bi-directional protocol that works over a standard DMX512 cable to identify, configure and monitor the devices (dimmers, robotic fixtures, smoke machines, data splitters and routers, color scrollers, etc.) that are connected to the network. RDM can replace all the existing proprietary dimmer monitoring and management systems. It will allow the lighting console to discover how many of which kind of robotic fixtures and dimmers are on the network, and then allocate their control channels. It can also query them on which features they have fitted and make the appropriate changes to console parameters. Once a production is underway, RDM can be used to monitor equipment health and operational status.

In preparation for RDM, many consoles and quite a few recent luminaires and dimmers have had bidirectional data communications included, but as the RDM protocol is still being developed, this equipment will require firmware upgrades once RDM is nailed down. As our current standard, the DMX512 (1990) protocol is unidirectional (console to devices), and there are parts of many DMX512 networks that will require upgrading before RDM can be used.

The overwhelming majority of DMX splitters, buffers, opto-isolaters, routers and switch matrices are unidirectional, with no provision for data flow back to the console. Your upgrade, purchase and maintenance plans should involve consideration of RDM and how it can be incorporated into your current and future operations. Most equipment manufacturers are currently working on RDM upgrades and replacements for their DMX512 products.

LED DOWN THE PATH

The LED is a technology that has been nearly ready for so many years now that I have lost count. In their present incarnation, LEDs can at least produce a reasonable range of colors, but their intensity and longevity is still nothing like what we need to make them even vaguely commercially viable as a practical light source. Despite the fact that everyone is frantically producing their own variation of the LED theme, the next year will see them getting brighter and eventually more robust, but in reality they will remain a decorative device for a while longer.

Lastly, I want to raise the vexing matter of confused identity for the lighting fraternity. Some luminaire designers have gotten it into their heads that the ideal moving light is actually a video projector that pans, tilts and zooms. This video projector/luminaire must, of course, be able to project gobos, which are, after all, the poor man's image projector, so why not make the gobos move, morph, rotate, etc. And if you're going to do all that video manipulation, why not include a library of standard film clips, analogous to a gobo wheel. And if you've gone that far, you might as well just feed real-time video into the device and offer a whole range of digital video effects. The real trick though is that because this is "lighting," we will make the device controllable via DMX512, and hence drive it via a lighting console.

I'm not complaining about this new role as video effects designer. Heaven knows how many times I've been caught out in studio control rooms and post-production suites, trying out every visual effect that the facility had available. However, I suspect that the next couple of years is going to see some heated demarcation discussions as to who is driving what, who gets the credit, and exactly how does the credit read.