AirPlay, AirMedia, or Something Else? Parsing Wireless Presentation Systems


Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: AV Equipment; Conferencing; Networked AV Systems

Date: September 2013

By Brad Grimes, InfoComm International®

Earlier this summer, Google came out with a gadget called Chromecast, which plugs into the HDMI port of a flat-panel HDTV and allows users to control the TV wirelessly from a mobile device and send video content to the screen. The mainstream media rejoiced. It was another technological step toward accommodating the explosion of smartphones, tablets, and other devices using Wi-Fi.

How Chromecast works aside (it pulls content from the cloud, needs USB power, and rides your crowded 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network), its announcement brought to mind Apple’s AirPlay technology, and articles comparing the two started popping up. As many AV professionals know, AirPlay and Apple TV are among the latest consumer technologies on users’ wish lists, whether for classrooms, conference rooms, or other presentation settings. With so many teachers, executives, and others carrying around iPads and iPhones, it was just a matter of time before they began requesting a capability they already enjoyed at home, namely the ability to wirelessly stream content from their devices to the screens at work.

It was happening at Boston University. Giuseppe Vento, who works in the AV engineering department, says that faculty at several of B.U.’s schools, including its School of Management, were pressing for a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) solution to presenting in the classroom.

“They walk in with an iPad or Android device and that’s what they want to use,” he says. In fact, Vento says, the School of Management recently met faculty requests and installed 17 Apple TV devices in classrooms to support wireless presentations. “In the last couple years, we’ve started to use a lot of Apple products here at B.U.,” he says. “Faculty and students massively are moving from PC to Apple laptops and devices.”

So the solution fits, right? But can it scale? Can it support multiple presenters and devices? Can it be managed centrally?

Pro vs. Consumer

Enter the pro-AV industry. Like many of you, Vento and his manager attended InfoComm 2013 in Orlando. (Vento says the AV engineering group recently became part of B.U.’s Information Services & Technology department and that for the first time, a director from IS&T also journeyed to the InfoComm show.) There, among all the other new technology, the B.U. staff experienced a variety of new wireless presentation systems — solutions that “can do professionally what the Apple consumer devices can do,” Vento says.

Similarly motivated by BYOD initiatives, manufacturers such as Barco, Christie, Crestron, and others have introduced products that allow presenters to send content to screens from a variety of devices, without patching into a console in a conference table or lectern. Their solutions differ, but they all begin to address the same set of user requirements.

“Wireless presentation becomes interesting when it’s clear end users no longer want to touch a wire or even a dongle,” says Justin Kennington, product manager for Crestron’s wireless presentation solution AirMedia. “They also want to present from their mobile devices.”

Kennington says Crestron started exploring a solution more than two years ago. “What’s missing from something like Chromecast or AirPlay, though, is scale,” he says. “How do you deal with systems like this at a pro scale? When a network of devices gets bigger than just a few, how do you manage them? How do you discover them on a network?”

Vento and B.U. are among the first to start figuring it out. As a result of its pilgrimage to InfoComm, the school has acquired its first AirMedia system and is currently putting it through its paces. Vento says so far it works as advertised, but be forewarned (and this goes for many networked AV systems), he says the biggest challenge may be getting permission from his IT counterparts to put the AirMedia systems on the networks that operate in classrooms.

“Their first answer was, ‘You’re crazy, we’re not going to let you access our network,’” he says. Vento expects the fact that it’s a commercial-grade product and that B.U. uses other Crestron technology (and the fact that someone from IS&T saw AirMedia at InfoComm) to ease concerns.

DeVry University has already deployed AirMedia in four classrooms on campuses across the country—two videoconferencing rooms and two active-learning rooms, as the school calls them. Steve Endres, senior academic technology specialist, says the move isn’t just a response to BYOD opportunities; it’s also part of a larger facility-planning initiative.

“With vendors phasing out VGA, none of the other formats—DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort—has established itself as the next-generation connection, and to support all of those you need more cables and adapters,” Endres says. Rather than dealing with physical connections, wireless systems can offer tech managers a cleaner solution.

“At the same time,” Endres says, “BYOD has the potential to be transformational in terms of what takes place in the classroom. A lot of times, students are asked to turn these devices off when they come through the classroom door. We’ve been trying to figure out how the devices can become tools for collaboration. And in order to do that, you need to be able to share from your device.”

DeVry’s wireless presentation rooms went live for the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. Endres’ department held training sessions to get faculty up-to-speed. When BYOD users enter the classroom, there’s a customized welcome screen on the display that walks them through a four-step process: Connect to the wireless LAN, connect to the AirMedia device in the room, download the run-time software (if they’re using a laptop—mobile devices require downloading a free app), and begin sharing content.

In larger deployments, say Kennington, a four-digit access code comes in handy to ensure the presenter sends content to the proper AirMedia gateway — not the one in the next room or down the hall.

“This kind of solution is ready for the enterprise. It supports most devices and handles the switching so you can have multiple users connected at any time and switch among presenters,” Endres says.  “A lot of wireless solutions out there are really consumer-oriented.” AirMedia supports 32 connections and can display up to four sources simultaneously. Other wireless presentation systems are similarly designed to handle multiple users.

Christie’s Brio is based on a decidedly pro product — the company’s Phoenix distributed control room processor. “We decided there was an easy way to take that technology and provide other applications, especially as people were getting over their fear of wireless and questions over whether they should play content from their personal devices,” says Chris Merrill, product line manager for Christie’s Vista Systems group.

Merrill says that in designing Brio, Christie found that users were leery of altering their devices in any way. “We tried to use existing technologies, like [Windows] Network Projector and AirPlay, so that people can use programs that are already on their devices.” Merrill says Christie Brio will also support Miracast for Android devices.

Perform a Needs Analysis

Certainly, BYOD may spur users to request wireless solutions in the classroom or conference room, but tech managers and AV integrators should perform a detailed needs analysis to determine more completely why users think they want a wireless presentation solution, what they plan to do with it, and whether it is, indeed, a good fit.

If you ask Dominic Audet, co-founding partner and chief innovation officer at Moment Factory, a multimedia arts and entertainment studio based in Montreal, why his company pursued a wireless presentation solution, his answer is straightforward and practical—and no mention of BYOD.

“We had constant cable clutter in our meeting rooms,” Audet says. Moreover, the control system that Moment Factory used to manage inputs among presenters didn’t always work properly. “We just wanted to ease screen sharing during brainstorming sessions and presentations,” he says.

Audet’s company adopted Barco’s ClickShare wireless presentation solution. It’s also Wi-Fi-based but configured differently. ClickShare doesn’t utilize a mobile device’s own 802.11 connectivity. With ClickShare, users plug in a USB device (called a ClickShare button), which then pairs via its own Wi-Fi with an in-room base station. Click a button on the Button and start sharing. Users run the ClickShare software either from the USB device or as a service from their mobile device.

“The feedback we got was that organizations didn’t want visitors on their wireless network in order to share presentations wirelessly,” says Hanne Page, Barco’s product manager for collaboration. “And visitors didn’t want to download software.”

Barco’s ClickShare more closely resembles an AV solution than an IT solution because it’s room-based. The Wi-Fi connectivity is limited to connections between Buttons and the base unit, which connects to the display via DVI-I. A single unit can support up to 64 ClickShare Buttons and display four sources at once. Page says this, too, was by design.

“There are still AV people and IT people, depending on the company,” she says. “For some, getting an AV product on an IT network can still be a hurdle. That’s why we made the ClickShare receiver its own wireless access point and gave the ClickShare Button its own wireless module.” The user’s laptop can still be connected to the corporate or guest wireless LAN per IT policy, but the wireless presentation system is not. Moreover, this wireless-separation configuration allows ClickShare to use 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands. “By making a product that can also work in the 5GHz channel, we get better reliability and less interference,” Page says.

The fact that ClickShare, by design, requires USB ports on mobile devices means it may be best suited for organizations that employ mostly laptops. It might not be considered a pure BYOD platform, although Barco has released ClickShare Link, an add-on device that begins to make the connection with an Apple iPad. There is also a ClickShare App that Apple users can download for sending static content to ClickShare systems. (An Android app is also in development.)

Audet doesn’t mind. He says Moment Factory knew its users and its mobile workforce and so far hasn’t needed any iPad connectivity. Which goes to show, AV professionals cannot assume any particular motivation for wanting a wireless presentation system. They must conduct a full needs analysis before recommending a solution.

Streaming Video

One of the key questions you need to ask in a needs analysis of wireless presentation systems is, “What type of content do users really want to present?” Often lost in the talk of BYOD, AirPlay, and presentation-sharing is that there’s a difference between streaming media and presentations.

Pro systems can transmit video wirelessly as part of a presentation, but most don’t necessarily stream it. They “scrape” the screen as it appears on the mobile device, encode it, and then transmit it to the receiver—over and over again. This screen scraping allows the mobile presenter to see the same content on his or her screen that’s on the room’s display.

Crestron specs AirMedia to provide at least 15 frames per second (fps) -- up to 30 fps depending on the network environment. Kennington says the company isn’t really positioning it as a video solution, but as an Ethernet-connected, manageable member of the DigitalMedia family, it’s a logical extension of many existing AV systems. Barco says ClickShare can reach 30 fps, in part because of the frequency agility and the fact that it doesn’t ride the organizational WLAN. Christie’s upcoming Brio also promises 30 fps, plus it will be able to support white board applications and can connect over a wide-area network for long-distance collaboration between Brio nodes.

Still, AV professionals need to determine how much video the system must support and at what performance level. Will users be playing YouTube clips in a window as part of a presentation, or will they be playing 30-minute 1080p programs at full screen?

Peter Putman, CTS®, president of ROAM Consulting and InfoComm Educator of the Year in 2008, worries about solutions that load up 802.11 Wi-Fi connections with more and more media. For one thing, the 2.4GHz frequency band commonly used for Wi-Fi is crowded. For another, solutions that use TCP/IP over 802.11 are using networking technology that can’t ensure the optimal delivery of data packets for achieving smooth, streaming video.

“Unless you’re also using something like Real-Time Protocol, where you’re saying there’s a specific packet order and it has to be respected, you’re introducing latency,” Putman says. The needs assessment will give an idea of how much latency users will tolerate (i.e., how good the video has to be). Teaching at InfoComm 2013, Putman jury-rigged a Nook tablet with a Kramer KW-11 wireless transceiver kit to stream video using Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI) technology (Putman is a technology consultant to Kramer Electronics). WDHI uses the 5GHz band for HD video.

For his part, Audet says Moment Factory has been pleased with the fluidity of video over ClickShare, and B.U.’s Vento says he’s been able to view 720p video over AirMedia without any problems.

But neither is designed to be used the way Apple TV/AirPlay or Google Chromecast are designed to be used — and thus the possible disconnect between users and tech managers or AV integrators. Those technologies are great, but they have limitations.

“There’s starting to be a sense of frustration in the AV and IT worlds over the limitations of consumer solutions,” says Page. “They have executives and C-level people coming in with their iPads and they need to explain to them why they can’t do exactly what they want to do. Some are still choosing Apple TV, but it’s a consumer device and a black box for IT. They can’t secure it or put certificates on the box — it’s a difficult situation.”