After three years of development, Atlona finally unveiled its latest big product this year: the OmniStream. The manufacturer’s first IP-based AV distribution line of networked AV products, OmniStream is designed for integrating and distributing 4K/UHD video, audio and RS-232 control over Gigabit Ethernet networks employing off-the-shelf network switches.
Comprised of five products, the OmniStream line offers what the manufacturer is calling several ‘industry-first features’, including high density, dual-channel encoding and decoding, redundant AV networks and streams, encrypted content distribution, network error resilience, broadcast quality 4K video compression with low latency and the ability to convey 4K video and Dante audio simultaneously over the same network.
CIE recently travelled to Atlona’s first International Headquarters near Zurich, Switzerland, to learn first hand about the manufacturer’s new product from Atlona’s senior sales engineer AVoIP, Reto Spoerri.
1.What Is AV over IP?
It’s everywhere! You can find AV over IP at home: YouTube streaming from your computer, Apple TV, Netflix – this is AV over IP. Video conferencing; no matter if it’s a hardware device or a soft codec like Skype – this is all AV over IP.
You will find IP networks in every enterprise nowadays, that’s not new. The intention that they started many years back was to transfer data. At that time we still had dedicated telephone systems, but now if you have a new building you won’t design a wired telephone cable anymore – everything is already on the IP network – it’s a standard already.
On the audio side there is Dante, so when they started to send audio over the network, many people hesitated, saying the network won’t be reliable, the audio will not be in synch, the quality will be bad, etc.
“Atlona is not a manufacturer of big matrixes, so the virtual matrix over IP is our answer for large systems. AV over IP for us is the future”
But they put the right protocols in place, so that it succeeded. It’s been available for many years, and can be used for live events and concerts, but also fixed installations like universities and enterprises. Imagine large auditoriums: someone is on the stage, giving a speech on the main podium using a microphone – this would use the Dante standard.
The next step following that will be video; for now we still have devices with different video connectors like HDMI, display port, or even analogue. Some devices don’t have these ports anymore – like mobile phones or tablets – but they also want to send out their screens to share their data for collaboration, so everything will go on the network – we are very much convinced about that.
What’s The Benefit Of AV Over IP?
It’s the scalability – if you want to buy an AV system right now with existing technology like HDMI or HDBaseT – you would have to invest in a big matrix switcher, and these can be fridge-sized! Also, depending on the number of inputs and outputs, the cost can be very high.
If you have a symmetrical number of inputs and outputs and those numbers happen to be high, such as if one of the numbers is higher than 64 – the next biggest step is a 128×128 matrix – that’s already a really big machine, and will cost at least six digits.
In AV over IP, the backbone is the network – so you only need inputs and outputs; so already the big chassis has disappeared; now the network becomes the backbone. So what you have to invest in is encoders and decoders as your input and output nodes.
In projects today, you might design everything and it all works fine, then after a few months the customer changes their mind and wants to have more displays or more laptop connections – with AV over IP this is very easy. You just buy more decoders and encoders.
If your network is becoming full, there is no bandwidth anymore – you just add more switches to it and pull another fibre if necessary. You will not have to throw away any of your investment – the system is scalable and dynamically it can grow.
“We have the lowest latency from all the compressed products. We provide visually lossless video quality, and we are the only one offering a dual-channel design”
Then there is the distance – with a HDMI cable we can easily connect a laptop to a display that is on a wall. So maybe 10m is okay – if you’re lucky 15m – but with the coming standards such as HDR, more bits have to travel through this cable so cable distance is very much limited.
With IP technology it is quite easy to span really big networks in enterprises on campus from building to building, or even from city to city, all round the world. I’m not saying that all the AV over IP technologies can provide these services – the OmniStream is not designed to send the signal all over the world, but the technology for the AV over IP as such, can do it.
What About HDBaseT?
HDBaseT requires Cat 6 or Cat 7 cable, and that was not available or known everywhere, so at the beginning of HDBaseT this was quite a learning curve.
We don’t say HDBaseT is dead all of a sudden; there are still situations where HDBaseT makes sense. If your number of inputs and outputs is fixed in a small room and you know you will never have more than four sources and never more than four displays, there is not much need to go AV over IP. You just buy a small matrix and that’s it. If you go 16×16, your HDBaseT might still be more cost effective, but you will still have limits with cable distances. It goes up to 100m (except if you use fibre) and there it stops.
That’s where the AV over IP comes into play. This is easy to extend; just bring another switch and there goes your signal.
How Easy Is It To Transition From IT To AV over IP?
In university IT departments, some guys are given the responsibility of AV, which is sometimes a struggle because the AV world is so different to the IT world. An even more confusing; sometimes we use the same cable and the same connector, but it’s a completely different protocol.
We are going to make that easier for these kinds of people. The OmniStream has a network connector and it will work on a network, and also when people look inside of the product – everything is IP language.
We are completely following the standard and we don’t do anything proprietary on those units – IT people will know how to handle and maintain this, and this will make it much easier for end-users. Now they won’t have to call the AV specialist – which might be an external company – which drives up costs and they have to wait longer.
For an auditorium, Atlona OmniStream can send the signal within the auditorium (if it’s large enough to justify). We can also stream signals from room to room – imagine you have a professor giving a lecture; the students come in, perhaps they have more than anticipated – so all of a sudden they have to create an overflow room. With the press of a button they can send the signal that they have in the room to any other room on the campus.
“Our goal is to replace the matrix with a virtual matrix, with the idea being that there are no drawbacks and nothing suffers because of this”
What About Codecs And Latency?
OmniStream is matrix system. At the moment, our goal is to replace the matrix with a virtual matrix, with the idea being that there are no drawbacks and nothing suffers because of this. You don’t degrade the image quality and you don’t add any latency.
The available codecs today are h.26x, h.264 and now h.265 – which is a better version of h.264, invented specially in view of UHD. Mainly broadcast companies needed a more efficient codec to transport the higher amount of pixels through the same cables.
Sometimes you see bad examples where there is too much compression, but it’s not a fault of the codec – it’s a matter of how you set your parameter depending on the available bandwidth. This comes at the price of latency: you compress more, and the latency goes up.
For some applications this is no problem at all; if you’re watching a TV channel, this is not critical – if you see it two or three seconds later than your neighbour, it’s no drama. But if you’re working in a live environment, like a CEO on an auditorium stage giving a speech with a camera – you see his own image behind him, which is delayed. This is annoying for those watching and is confusing to the presenter. OmniStream offers this experience in real time, in sync.
Then there is JPEG 2000 – this doesn’t compress as much as h.264/h.265 but offers a better latency. Products that you find today use around 50 milliseconds to 100. Sometimes depending on the kind of installation you have to encode several times, so the camera has a long cable to the video control room where they use AV over IP, then in the control room everything has to be decoded for the video mixer.
That leads us to the conclusion that we should use VC-2; it’s not something you find in a lot of products yet in the market – it was developed by the BBC for the London Olympics 2012 and is now standardized as SMPTE 2042 . They wanted just one network to set up, and when you have a camera you just plug it into the network anywhere and it will stream the signal to the master control room.
Instead of the traditional way that has a wire point-to-point from the camera to the SDI router, from this to the control room – there’s always a limit of the number of cables that you can get to one point. The VC-2 is a very fast codec in terms of latency but it’s also very lightweight in terms of processing power needed for encoding and decoding. However it comes at the price of high bandwidth – we set the parameters for this code that a UHD signal will just fit into a 1gb port on a network switch.
For uncompressed products, – it’s a different approach – it works very well if you have a smaller system based around one network switch, and it doesn’t work very well if the signal goes into a medium to big sized network. If you require many signals, you will have a bandwidth issue. These products require a 10gb switch and they don’t scale very well.
What About Redundancy?
Atlona likes to solve problems before they arise. AV systems today are not redundant – by the design they can only carry one signal per cable, so you will not have the budget to spend on a second matrix in case the first fails. In AV over IP it is much simpler.
If something breaks, OmniStream’s redundant IP path comes into play – the switching happens automatically on the decoder in seconds. It detects that there is no stream and finds it the other port.
Why Should Someone Invest In OmniStream?
We have the lowest latency from all the compressed products – the uncompressed are faster. The difference on bandwidth is very big – we are using 1gb, they are using 10. We provide visually lossless video quality. We are the only one offering a dual-channel design, which gives us options in terms of redundancy. We have two network connections on the box: one can die completely, but the other can provide power to the whole until and can also take the signals from the encoders. Plus, the dual-channel design results in a smaller form factor.
We don’t require a special switch manufacturer – although I’m not saying it works on all of the switches – but it does on most.
We are also the first to use Forward Error Correction according to SMPTE 2022 within an AV streaming product. The HDMI signal is split into packets that fit onto the IP packets, so before the encoder sends it out, it is calculating additional FEC packets. Based on lines and columns, you can define how many packets it has to create depending on the quality of your network.
“We don’t say HDBaseT is dead all of a sudden; there are still situations where HDBaseT makes sense”
If someone is doing a presentation, they can send a stream over the network that they don’t want anyone else to see aside from the intended recipient. Here, the person can activate the encryption key (we follow AES 128 – that’s the highest standard available). The government and military use this.
VC-2 encoding in OmniStream is free from artefacts. The motion is fluid at all frame rates. We are waiting for 10-bit content at the moment – the next firmware update will be able to do this, and then we will be able to have much more colour shades.
Looking at what OmniStream can do – it’s designed to be the virtual matrix, so as with the previous technology with HDBaseT, you have the device with HDMI inputs and outputs, and in-between there was the matrix. Now, the matrix goes into the network; that’s why we call it the virtual matrix, but the functionality is the same.
What Do Installers Often Ask About OmniStream?
They are always asking how to control it. On a physical switch, you have buttons, for instance: ‘I want to see this source on this screen’. On the virtual matrix, you have the network. But what is that? It’s virtual. So we need an API. The API is the application programming interface that you can connect your touchpanel to, and you can list your sources and the destination. This is a software command going to our system, and the decoder will know it has to show this source, so it asks the network to deliver the stream. The underlying protocols are JSON, Telnet or RS232.
The destination of the command goes to the decoder; we don’t have a central control unit. For the end user it might be a problem if this particular unit fails. This represents a single point of failure, so this is why we decided not to use this concept, but instead we just have an API to every box – if you do something on the touchpanel, it has to go to that box.
Atlona is not a manufacturer of big matrixes, so the virtual matrix over IP is our answer for large systems. AV over IP for us is the future, and we are still targeting a relatively small niche with the AV over IP virtual matrix.
Three years ago, we knew AV over IP was the way forward. The telephone has dissolved into IP, the audio is on IP, and now video. For now, we don’t see a single codec doing better than anything else. But time will tell – maybe one day we will have a codec that is very low latency and also very low bandwidth; the outlook is promising.
OmniStream costs 1300.- EUR MSRP per endpoint and comes with 10-year warranty, plus the online educational portal, Atlona academy is also included.