Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 1 — Pandemic Speeds Evolution
Literally at-home workflows boost move to IP, wireless, cloud platforms
A year ago, the broadcast-sports business watched as wireless and IP-based intercoms — the former moving to new parts of the post–FCC-auction RF spectrum, the latter leveraging audio’s migration to networked infrastructure — continued to make steady inroads into a production infrastructure that increasingly implemented REMI and at-home techniques. A year later, thanks to COVID, being literally “at home” to run a remote production has gone from novelty to norm, pulling intercoms with it.
“REMI got REMI-ed” is how Rick Seegull, manager, system consulting, Riedel Communications, expresses it. IP-based and, more recently, app-based intercom solutions have moved from interim, temporary solutions to established elements in suddenly disrupted workflows at broadcast networks. “Even as that has pulled back a bit since last year, as more people can be in the production center together now,” he says, “many of them are still working remotely, even from home. And that’ll be the case for a while to come, so our remote offerings are based on keeping the workflow identical, whether in the control room or at home/remote.”
Solutions To Meet REMI Needs
Intercom-system developers are responding with a variety of solutions.
Riedel’s existing Connect-IP AoIP interface is an example. The company’s VCP-1312 allows use of a smartphone or tablet as a full intercom element in combination with any of Riedel’s Artist digital-matrix intercom systems. The Virtual Control Panels provide the same signalization as regular Artist control panels: the 12 keys available on two layers can be configured like any other panel key via Artist Director control and configuration software.
The VCP is available for iOS and Android mobile platforms, a route that has become well-traveled for intercoms in general since the onset of the pandemic. That does have intrinsic limitations, though not necessarily of the technical sort.
“A [smart]phone will always be a phone first and an app second,” Seegull explains. “If a call comes in while it’s being used as an app, it can disrupt a production, at least as a distraction or even interfere with it by changing the screen.”
To avoid that, Riedel is promoting its recently introduced RSP-1216HL SmartPanel, an all-new 1RU model in the company’s 1200 Series of intelligent intercom and control panels for real-time video, audio, data, and communications networks. RSP-1216HL is a compact version of the app-based RSP-1232HL SmartPanel user interface, both of which can be configured for remote/at-home use either over VoIP or AES67/syntonous mode, depending on available bandwidth. And a new frame — the Artist 1024, with up to 1,024 ports in a 2RU space — was added to Riedel’s Artist ecosystem to address IP workflows and high port density.
IP is at the heart of both solutions, and it’s the path to intercom’s future, Seegull says, citing advances in IP workflows around SMPTE 2110-30 and -31.
The pandemic has revealed a deeper need for wireless communications between production personnel, whether working from home or onsite, according to Gary Rosen, VP, global sales, Pliant Technologies, which markets the CoachCom and MicroCom series of wireless intercom systems.
“There were fewer productions earlier in the year and more people working remotely with less onsite technical staff, which increased the need for reliable, high-quality, easy-to-use intercom,” he says, adding that it also increased the need for communications in general. “Before, you might have been able to [talk directly] to a nearby colleague; now, suddenly, you had to stay distanced, even in the same room.”
The pandemic may have accelerated the need for intercoms, but Moore’s Law has remained inexorably in effect, as it had for decades before. For instance, the XR and M versions of Pliant’s 900-MHz MicroCom, a full-duplex wireless intercom system, can accommodate from five to 10 users at between $400 and $800 per user and are aimed at the burgeoning secondary-professional, college, and high school sports-production markets, says Rosen.
The same cost dynamic has helped effectuate Pliant’s newest product, the CB2, a scaled-down version of its flagship CrewCom platform: it offers many of the same features for up to 12 users but at a lower price point for midrange applications.
“CB2 was part of our product plan from the inception of CrewCom,” says Rosen. “With the CB2, we’re now able to offer a scaled-down version of CrewCom at a more affordable price. That puts it in reach of more budget-conscious users that need the quality of CrewCom but have more modest needs.”
He notes that Pliant isn’t looking at smartphone connectivity for intercoms. That comes with significant restrictions, such as added latency and degraded RF performance in loud environments, he says, adding that there is a dearth of demand for that type of solution among his customers, who have also shared concern about the use of personal-device endpoints for intercoms.
“Our customers like the fact that we have a closed-end, managed system,” he says.
He sees more flexibility for wireless in the 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz ranges, combined with CrewCom’s conference-type networking system, which he contends provides more flexibility than conventional matrixes or partylines but offers connectivity to both.
“The 2.4 GHz [range] can be engineered to be very robust [in] most environments,” he says. “Unlike analog RF, you can actually share spectrum [reliably] even with a good amount of other wireless 2.4 GHz signals active in the area.”
An Evolving Product Category
In some cases, the evolution of a particular product platform illustrates the evolution of intercoms as a sector. Telos’s IP-based Infinity system emphasizes its non-matrixed nature, which, along with its IP foundation that can use any standard internet browser, gives it considerable scalability, says Telos VP, Business Development, Martin Dyster. The impetus for that scalability has been the growth of REMI-type production. The Infinity Link software extension introduced in 2019 has enabled Infinity systems to be deployed in remote locations, embedded via the open-source Opus codec, over either public internet or private LAN/WAN infrastructure, and to use any media-ready network architecture.
COVID prompted another iteration of that: Infinity’s new Link Lite VoIP mode for beltpacks and panels enables connectivity of full-scale remote productions using the speech-optimized Opus codec, bringing local and remote production centers together over IP.
“Essentially,” Dyster contends, “Link Lite can bring a conventional broadcast center and someone working from home onto the same operational level. It runs on the Opus codec on an Infinity IP comms device but with the native AES67 elements turned off: you basically plug the beltpack or panel into your home router, and you’re connected with your colleagues everywhere.”
He emphasizes that Link Lite is intended to be license-free and interfaceable with a variety of other manufacturers’ intercom hardware elements, via a dedicated VoIP/AES67 hardware interface.
It suggests that intercoms’ evolution is far from done. For instance, Unity Intercom, a full-duplex intercom system that connects over Wi-Fi or cellular and offers a cloud-based solution that replaces local servers. In business barely six years, the upstart from Norman, OK, has found favor with ESPN — an early adopter — and other major broadcast-sports networks and has been deployed at events including the World Cup, Super Bowl, and Summer and Winter Olympics. The company saw significant growth in 2016 and 2017 across a number of user verticals internationally, including broadcast sports and esports, says Unity Intercom spokesperson Michael Marston.
“Even though we were growing quickly in popularity as a far less expensive option for comms,” he says, “we really exploded during early 2020 when we saw our growth up 300% or more. Companies scrambled for remote comm solutions in March and April as the entire country shut down, and our email and phone lines were flooded day and night. We’re inexpensive compared to big traditional comms options, we can run on phones and tablets from anywhere, and Unity is simple and easy to use.”
Future intercoms have a range of option paths to follow, from the conventional to the networked to the IP-based and into the cloud, and several companies are following more than one simultaneously. As to what the future of intercoms might ultimately look like, Telos’s Dyster just smiles and says cryptically, “Watch this space.”
Click here for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 2 — An Increasingly Competitive Market