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Looking Back at 20 Years in the AV Industry

Andrew C. Edwards, President

Addressing the Need

Projecting graphic images from desktop computers onto large screens became an industry desire and Extron's primary reason for existence. The impact of projecting computer video was, and continues to be, enormous. This new ability to share computer information with a large audience in one or more rooms created a ground swell that impacted specific industries, such as education and live entertainment. In a few years, corporate industries began installing professional presentation facilities; among the many projects are boardrooms, conference rooms, auditoriums, classrooms, and electronic training facilities. Interest in computer graphics projection eventually extended into the realm of command and control centers as well as video post production studios and broadcast facilities. Contemporary applications like videoconferencing and personal home theater continue to fuel the need. Both then and now, Extron has and continues to fill this need daily by creating products that make computer-video to large-screen display interfacing a reality.

During 20 short years, Extron developed a focus on engineering products that enhance your ability to integrate and install projection systems in the market. And, without YOU, the dealers and consultants of the AV industry, our maintenance of that product development focus would not have been possible. From the RGB 100 series computer interface to the latest IP Tools™ Ethernet Control Interfaces, Extron works interactively with YOU to develop the essential and ground-breaking products that meet the needs of you and your customers. Together, all of us moved the industry forward.

The First Products

The RGB 100 series of interfaces converted IBM's non-standard CGA graphics card TTL signal to an analog video format compatible with existing projectors and large direct-view monitors. Extron's RGB 100 enabled a full 16-color presentation, including gray and brown, on a large screen television or monitor display. This new interface technology enhanced image readability via the Horizontal Sync Delay feature. Horizontal sync delay allows image shifting, or centering, which accounts for the non-standard sync timing that exists throughout the computer graphics industry. The "looped output," which allows simultaneous operation of the computer's local monitor, provided a key advantage. Although now retired, the RGB 100 interface fundamental features and benefits are a mainstay of our current interface products. Today, many additional interface features solve unique problems presented by non-standard computer video.

Soon after Extron established signal interface compatibility, users asked for the ability to switch multiple sources to one display. Further, our customers desired equipment which distributed signals to more than one display. In those early days, most available switcher products were limited to standard definition, or television, video format. By 1986, we launched our first switcher and distribution amplifier, which marked our initial foray into signal distribution products. The SW 2A analog switcher, with only two inputs and one output, provided high resolution analog RGB and sync to video monitors and projection systems having analog level RGB inputs. That same year, the ADA 3 Analog Distribution Amplifier debuted. The modest ADA 3 distributed analog level RGB and sync signals without undue signal loading or impedance problems. With 50 MHz video bandwidth, the ADA 3 featured one RGB and sync input and three isolated RGB and sync outputs.

Extron and IBM

The year 1987 marked the launch of a breakthrough product, the RGB 109. It was the first VGA interface on the market. IBM selected Extron's RGB 109, developed under a mutual non-disclosure agreement, for use with its new PS/2 and PS/1 computers, which scanned at 31.5 KHz. IBM needed the RGB 109 immediately to support rollout of those new products worldwide. Timely delivery ensured that the IBM sales teams and our dealers obtained this new interface to support product sales. This new interface provided wide analog bandwidth and simultaneous local monitor viewing. Since the IBM PS/2 VGA supported many different image resolutions, the RGB 109 supported and tracked the autoswitching modes of the system while maintaining correct horizontal and vertical picture positioning. Separate red, green, blue, and composite sync outputs facilitated display via large screen projectors or monitors. Many of the picture enhancement features of the original RGB 109 are still found today in the current RGB 109xi.

The RGB products remain the first of our system "glue" products to support large-screen imaging. By 1988, development began on the RGB 202, the first high-end universal interface designed to operate with nearly all computers and graphics cards. Later, the RGB 202xi became our first interface to include audio capabilities, and the RGB 300 introduced the first interface product having RS-232 remote control. Throughout the years, several other interface models, whether dedicated or universal type interfaces, evolved with a myriad of features including peaking, video test signal generation, boost and level control, horizontal and vertical image centering, and architectural configuration capabilities. Each Extron model introduction furthers interfacing to a new level in step with the growth of computer imaging capabilities.

As the IBM PC progressed in capability, several VGA graphics formats became commonplace in the AV industry. Our customers wanted a simple, portable solution that would allow for signal distribution to more than one display. In 1988, we delivered the industry's first low-cost computer video distribution amplifier: the Extron P/2 DA2. As an analog device, the P/2 DA2 buffered computer graphics signals for use with early, overhead-style LCD panels having direct VGA inputs. The user could display an image via two separate outputs: the monitor and the primary display. With Extron's VGA extension cables, the P/2 DA2 outputs could be extended up to 150 feet.

As the concept of interfacing became more common, we realized that our dealers and consultants needed an entirely different kind of product aid: an instructional guide to interfacing. It could be said that we grew up together in this industry. Before you, our customer, could select an interface, it was paramount that you and your customers understand why their installations required that type of product. Internally, we soon realized the importance of ongoing education. As our groups developed new products, implementation into the marketplace mandated education on those products. This was, and still is, our motivation and inspiration: to educate customers and help them make informed design and purchasing decisions. This early insight led to the Handbook of Computer Interfacing, the industry's first technical textbook, launched at the 1989 InfoComm in Dallas, TX.

The System 8/10 switcher debuted in 1991. While not the first multi-format switcher from Extron (the Model 8/10 switcher launched at InfoComm in 1987 provided routing for various RGBS formats or NTSC), the System 8 was the industry's first switcher to include universal projector control via bidirectional communication. Projector control eliminated any memory issues when switching between high and low resolution sources. The System 8/10 quickly became a staple in the industry. With Extron's array of internal projector control routines, these System Switchers were configurable to nearly any data projector. More than a decade later, the System 8 Plus and its sibling, the System 10 Plus, are still popular products in large-scale installations.

Impacting the AV Industry

By 1992, an entirely new product was introduced for the sole purpose of facilitating projector set-up before the computer arrives. Assisting field engineers and bench technicians, the VTG 50 and VTG 100 became the industry's first portable, high bandwidth video test generators. Previously, project installations were hampered since there was no convenient method for projector set up and display without a signal source present — laptops were not in common use. Using a video test generator, field engineers and technicians can reproduce an SGI line rate, for example, match it to the SGI computer, and align, set up, and test the projector before the hardware is onsite. Up to 85 scan formats are included with current models for reproduction with the most popular PC and computer system video signals.

The following year, two other significant products launched: the Emotia scan converter and the first wide bandwidth matrix switcher, the Matrix 200. Customer demand for better quality scan converters prompted the development of the Emotia real-time digital VGA and Macintosh scan converter. This product supported video recording of VGA PC and Macintosh computer imagery as well as its display on LCD video projectors and standard televisions. The Matrix 200, providing a standard-breaking 250 MHz video bandwidth, offered the highest RGB video performance at that time — other matrix switchers were limited to 100 MHz when high resolution workstations required more bandwidth. The Matrix 200 shipped in three sizes, 4x4, 8x4, and 8x8, and could be expanded externally up to 32x32.

The CrossPoint Series of wideband matrix switchers launched a new era in switching in 1996. These economical models were the first fixed I/O configuration matrix that provided out-of-box use — no complex configuration required. The first models offered a minimum of 16 memory presets and switched S-video and composite video for easy use with any large screen projector and monitor. The CrossPoint matrix switchers are still used in master control suites for power and telecomm companies, training centers, military rooms, and schools.

Although, in the mid-'90s, high resolution projectors and displays were common, many video sources still used only half the resolution of the projector. To obtain better quality images that matched the projector's output, Extron introduced its first scaler, the Andora, in 1997. The Andora scaled VGA or video up to a standard VGA or Super VGA rate for display. Its applications included large-screen projection, desktop multimedia, and LCD panels.

More Bandwidth Requires Higher Performance Products

As the number and variety of computer signal sources increased, so did requests for more products supporting large-scale integrations with multiple locations. In addition, room system design projects jumped to new heights. Our development teams continued to improve the flexibility and variety of features in our products. And, more product categories emerged to meet the expanding needs of AV dealers and consultants.

Some of these improvements became reality in 1998, when more landmark products were introduced: the Matrix 6400, System 5cr Switcher, and the VSC Series of video scan converters.

The Matrix 6400 is a continuation of the matrix line, and offers customizable and modular switching of RGBHV, RGBS, RGsB, component, S-video, and composite video, and two-channel stereo audio. But its capacity sets it apart from other models: the Matrix 6400 routes signals from 64 sources to 64 destinations, at the same time. Large applications become second nature, due to the large LCD window on the front panel, which greatly simplifies set up and operation by allowing settings and operational functions to be easily viewed and altered. And, using a feature called "rooming", each Matrix 6400 switcher can be programmed to group multiple outputs to specific "rooms", allowing them to have their own presets. This enables a new line of flexibility and control in routing signals.

Products for Small Environments

The System 5cr, introduced in 1998, provided an economical solution for input switching, room control and audio control in small AV installations, such as classrooms, conference rooms, work environments, and boardrooms that use LCD, DLP, or plasma display devices. By providing projector control, room control, and universal compatibility with display devices as well as audio capabilities, the System 5cr performs functions that would normally require up to four different products. It features the same capabilities as the System 8 and System 10 switchers (including bidirectional communication with the projector), but on a reduced scale for smaller installations.

As videoconferencing grew in demand, our engineering team developed video scan converters to convert computer-video signals into a signal compatible with video conference codecs. The VSC 50, introduced in 1998, converted computer images as high as 832 x 624. The VSC 50 featured VGA/SVGA and Mac input/loop-through connectors and composite and S-video (NTSC/PAL) outputs. Either Mac or VGA connectors could be used as an input or a local monitor output. Now retired, these and many other features are included within our current line of high resolution scan converters.

Improving Aesthetics

With the boom in corporate and other high profile installations in the late 1990s, the need for technology to be discreetly hidden and customized became clear. Architectural Adapter Plates (AAPs) — part of our Architectural Series — provide pass-through connections and control modules. By blending into the environment, AAPs offer connectivity to a wealth of professional AV equipment while maintaining a streamlined, professional appearance in boardrooms, training facilities, and command and control centers. Today, there are hundreds of Extron AAPs available, in a variety of connector and control combinations.

The year 2001 marked the introduction of another architectural product, the Hideaway Surface Access series. Along with the AAPs' inconspicuous access to AV controls, the HSA series also provides access to computer-video interfaces. The HSA product design supports easy mounting into virtually any table to hide cables, connectors, and power cords. The availability of all architectural products allows AV professionals to incorporate AV systems during new building design, while providing aesthetic options to their customers.

That year also marked the growth of twisted pair technologies. Twisted pair technology had been around since the 1970s, when twisted pair transmitters and receivers were introduced into the AV industry to save time and money in long distance cable runs. They were used primarily for point-to-point transmission of signals from one source to one destination.

As twisted pair technology gained acceptance in the video world, we developed more high-end products to handle the challenge of sending RGBHV and digital stereo audio signals over UTP, or Category 5, cable. These transmitters and receivers, such as the Extron TP T and TP R Series, offer point-to-point transmission of high resolution video over distances up to 1,000 feet and included image enhancement features. It became a perfect combination: twisted pair technology and interfacing.

New Control Options

When our technical staff became involved in an installation at a private high school, we discovered control options for classroom elements were limited. No product existed that could easily control all the elements in a small classroom: projector, computer display, VCR, and DVD player — or at least be easy enough for a teacher or student to operate it. Our solution to this need is the Extron MediaLink System. This family of easy-to-use and inexpensive products integrates and controls AV equipment in any small, one-projector classroom, boardroom, or auditorium. The MLC 206 MediaLink Controller acts as an extended remote control panel, and mounts on a wall, podium, or lectern. The MLS 306 and MLS 506 MediaLink Series Switchers consist of five different models that may be used in conjunction with the MLC 206, or as standalone switchers. This series proves especially useful for schools. Teachers and administrators continually hail its ease of use and low cost.

The Extron VersaTools® line brought new flexibility to small-scale installations. These compact, economical AV switchers and distribution amplifiers are designed for every day use in environments such as boardrooms, training facilities, home theaters, and rental and staging environments. Flexible mounting options are available due to its durable, quarter rack width enclosure. The VersaTools line marked an entry into a less specialized market in 2002.

In early 2003, we announced the IPL T S2 Ethernet Control Interface, the first comprehensive network-enabling product made specifically for the AV industry. It merges the capabilities of AV with information technology, providing the ability to remotely control, monitor, and troubleshoot AV products via Ethernet. Its included IP Link® technology, developed by Extron, includes a Web server that permits continuous communication with the product, and alerts a technician to product failure and other pre-programmed operating alerts. This sophisticated capability opens new doors in system management: Equipment downtime is reduced, and maintenance costs are budgeted and decreased through preventive service. Ultimately, it allows our AV professionals to build smarter systems.

The IPL T S2 is already having a great impact on large institutions, in which the monitoring of equipment was previously limited to the number of staff technicians and their ability to travel across sprawling facilities to check, update, and repair AV equipment — and respond to distress calls due to equipment failure or theft. It also provides additional benefits such as the ability to monitor equipment use, schedule rooms, labs, and other facilities based on availability, type of equipment, and instructor or presenter needs.

The Next 20 Years

The full impact of IP Link technology will become more evident as we release new products designed to enable communication with more types of products — even those not typically assigned to the AV industry — to be controlled and monitored. The monitoring and control of rooms, systems, and displays will continue to influence our development of new products.

In the AV industry, change in technology occurs at a moderate pace. The next greatest challenge is the complete integration of AV products tied to the network — the convergence of AV and IT — suggesting a need for new technologies to exist with the old.

The Extron Team will continue to meet the needs of AV professionals by ever expanding our product flexibility, features, and categories. From the first computer-video interface to Ethernet control interfaces, we have continuously introduced products that meet the needs of the AV industry. In the years to come, we promise YOU, our dealers and consultants, that Extron will continue its lead in new, innovative products that help make your designs and installations successful.

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