Extron Institute for Emerging Technology


My partner Tim and I just came back from last month's class on Emerging Technology from the Extron Institute in Anaheim, CA.  The class was divided up into six categories taught over three days:
  • ·      Streaming Technologies
  • ·      Configurable Control
  • ·      Digital Systems
  • ·      Fiber Optic Design
  • ·      Multi-Image Processing
  • ·      Power Amps & Pro DSP

I learned a lot of new information, got up to speed on how things have changed over recent months, and was able to get refreshed on some topics that I had gotten rusty on.

Streaming

If there’s any topic dear to the hearts of Tim and I, it’s streaming media technology.  We were not disappointed during Wednesday’s discussion.  The course instructor gave a succinct overview of historical and current streaming tech also taking time to explain the ins and outs of some of the engineering behind it.  Significant time was spent on comparisons between the ubiquitous H.264 and Extron’s proprietary codec called Pure3.  The Pure3 codec is intended for use in mission-critical application environments where lossless image re-creation and minimal buffering and latency are required.  The side-by-side comparison of Pure3 and H.264 was very interesting.

Pure3 provides a 4:4:4 color space allowing the highest quality imaging to be streamed.  H.264 has a limit of 4:2:0.  Pure3 utilizes Discrete Wavelet Transform (DWT) compression while H.264 uses Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT).  DWT looks at 32x32 pixel blocks and allows for a more efficient compression over DCT.  Pure3 also uses a technique called Error Concealment to compensate for lost packets.  This causes discreet portions of the image to be temporarily shifted out of place.  Packet loss with other error correction generally results in macro blocking.  Satellite television subscribers see this kind of artifacting frequently during heavy rainstorms.  The final difference between Pure3 and H.264 is that Pure3 does not utilize GOPs.  Each frame is individually processed much like a still image compression like JPEG.  This results in higher quality streams and lower bandwidth usage when still frames or images with static backgrounds are present.

HDCP

High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection.  You may not know the term, but you probably have it in your home.  HDCP is the tech that attempts to prevent things like Blu-Ray disks from being copied.  HDCP utilizes a set number of “keys.”  Whenever HDCP-compliant devices are connected, the devices communicate the presence of these keys among each other to determine if and how the content will be displayed.  There was some discussion of the so-called HDCP “master key” that was leaked out several months ago.  Just last month, several researchers in Germany were able to use that master key to easily bypass HDCP using less than $300 worth of electronics.  This anti-piracy technology has its place, but it is causing headaches for AV professionals.  Allow me to elaborate.

Since each device has a set maximum number of keys allowed (no more than 127), HDCP-compliant devices are limited to that many devices that they can interface with.  Also the number of keys that a given device may have is not always spelled out.  If a project requires more keys than a device can send, the additional displays will be stuck showing a green screen with no content.  Since large-scale installations, such as universities, hospitals, and airports, can often have more than 127 displays, this limits the types of devices that may be used in those situations.  The newer Ultra-Violet encryption technology was not discussed in the course, but it presents an even more foreboding and Draconian future for AV professionals if it takes hold on the market.

Any Extron Institute class presents a fire hose of information, but this three-day class was paced well and peppered with some enlightening discussions among the attendees.  There were some sharp men in that room that really knew their stuff and weren’t afraid to take the instructors to task if they thought they were off on something.  However, I don’t recall him being proved wrong on any major point.  As always, we were treated and fed like royalty, even getting a tour of their main office building and manufacturing process.  Extron is one of an elite group of electronics manufacturers that still makes most of their products in America.  They have an automated facility in Anaheim that solders the boards while assembly personnel put together larger components and prepare packaging for shipments.  Clearly this hasn’t hurt the company as they are building an additional six-story headquarters building in Anaheim for their new West US headquarters.  Their US East HQ is constructing a nearly identical building in Raleigh to house their operations as well.  My hat is tipped to Extron for helping to keep more jobs on US soil when they’re needed more than ever and for having the quality customer care to invite us out for their world-class training.
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