The Audio/Visual Edge is Modular

May 19, 2020 Dan Demers, congatec USA

Headend systems are used in various edge-computing markets for receiving, processing and distributing A/V content in stadiums and arenas, the hospitality sector, or senior living environments. The latter market in particular is booming right now and can be used to explain platform modularity needs.

Consider the following setting:

A senior living community that already has – of course – a cable TV network to deliver standard content plus some add-on comforts such as door intercom services.

With Covid-19 and social distancing, millions of senior residents worldwide are isolated. Nobody is allowed to visit them because the facilities are locked down. Even the engaging and fun in-house activities such as musical performances, art and painting lessons, talk rounds, and religious services have been suspended to protect the residents. Being that isolated is distressing and scary.

To mitigate these challenging circumstances, facility operators are searching for new headend A/V solutions as on-premise equipment. They want to add local information channels to their systems to instantly update residents with all relevant facts – because information at the endpoint is what is needed in crisis. Quite a few senior living communities are also looking to add delivery of daily community content right to the community members’ rooms. Using, for example, a simple IP camera fixed in some secure, quarantined area of the community, residents can be served health and wellness talks from local doctors and other regular activities straight to their televisions without ever having to risk "outside interaction." When no live activities are occurring, the private TV channel can resume normal activity.

In cases where a portion of a senior facility is quarantined, other parts of the community may continue to host speakers and events. By using a camera to record and/or live-stream already planned events, the residents that are physically able to attend, can attend, while residents in the restricted areas can enjoy the program on their TVs. Such a solution can easily be deployed, utilizing in-house private cable TV channels and appropriate headend systems.

Variety and Diversion at the Flick of a Dial

Extending residential A/V service offerings helps residents avoid boredom by finding diversion at the flick of a dial.

To offer this diversion, you first and foremost need an A/V content provider who supplies dedicated content. But the ability to flexibly add pre-recorded video files locally, or to add video wrapper content with local information feeds, makes a headend system perfect for shaping pointed content. Being further able to add any sources such as digital signage players, HDMI capture devices, RF modulators for TV channel insertions, RF amplifiers, DVD players, TV monitors, and personal computers, finally, opens up ultimate infotainment options.

But not all possible sources, processing capabilities, and distribution channels are of interest for all residential operators. Remember that headend systems are not only used in senior living but also in hospitals, prisons, stadiums, arenas, and even directly in broadcast/cable TV industries.

Figure 1. A/V solutions need to flexibly deliver content from various sources. 

This variety makes it easy to understand why modularity is key for headend solutions. To provide this flexibility, most of the traditional digital video distribution systems on the market therefore combine a collection of devices, each connected via a rat’s nest of wires.

One can easily imagine how complex and error prone such installations are.

Ease of Use and High Reliability

West Pond Technologies, a Massachusetts-based cable and IPTV network technology company,  opposes such a piecemeal approach and instead combines all these components into a single, software-driven, smart digital HD video headend using a highly professional and flexible modular design.

Figure 2. The standard features of the FlexStream MX-400 smart headend system for receiving, transcoding, muxing and distributing AV content are designed for RF and IP-TV. Various option modules can be integrated into the compact 1U device which supports 5 module bays and multiple international TV standards.

The FlexStream MX-400 smart headend system’s modularity includes various I/O modules for different content delivery and content distribution channels and international TV standards, as well as a scalable processing core using computer-on-module technology to tailor the performance for transcoding and muxing tasks. Even the front panel GUI is modular, utilizing the video decode capabilities of a Raspberry Pi compute module to be able to flexibly present full motion video and configuration information and tailor the one-for-all platform to the customer’s specific needs.

Figure 3. One of the many different configurations of the MX-400.

Due to this single-system, software-driven approach, the MX-400 is an easy-to-use, highly error resilient device for maximum service availability. Tightly coupled to the cloud, it is also remotely serviceable by West Pond to ensure best in class services.

Figure 4. The modular front panel GUI utilizes a Raspberry Pi compute module to flexibly present full motion video as well as configuration information.

 

FlexDM Management Interface

The FlexStream MX-400 also comes with the FlexDM management interface hosted on a central cloud. It is used to manage one or multiple devices via an easy-to-use dashboard for desktop-, tablet-, or smartphone-based interaction. It supports organization and gate access to the device based on user privileges.

Its two most popular features are the transcoding function, which transcodes A/V files into TV-compatible streams that can be used on a playlist to create a TV channel, and remote device access. The latter gives customers a portal to the device’s web UI through which they can do anything they might want to do with the actual device.

Sidebar 1. The remote management interface can be accessed via desktop, tablet, or smartphone. The two most popular features are the transcoding function, which transcodes A/V files into TV-compatible streams that can be used on a playlist to create a TV channel, and remote device access.

COMs Inside

The devices’ central transcoding and muxing processor is a COM Express Mini Computer-on-Module from congatec. This Intel processor-based, credit card-sized module can easily be swapped to enable the best price/performance ratio for the required feature set. And with customers constantly looking for more features, West Pond is always aiming to have the latest generation of processors embedded in its systems.

Figure 5. To be able to tailor the performance of the headend system to the specific requirements of the various setups, West Pond utilizes Intel based COM Express mini Computer-on-Modules from congatec.

Embedded in today’s latest variants of the FlexStream MX-400 smart headend system is the credit card-sized conga-MA5 COM Express Mini module, which offers flexible processor performance on the basis of the latest Intel Atom, Celeron, and Pentium processors (code name Apollo Lake). It is available with power-saving Intel Atom E3930, E3940, and E3950 processors over the extended temperature range of -40° C to +85° C, or comes fitted with more powerful low-power dual-core Intel Celeron N3350 and quad-core Intel® Pentium® N4200 processors. 

With up to 8 GB dual channel DDR3L RAM, the modules offer best-in-class memory performance and significant bandwidth advantages compared to competing modules with only single-channel memory. They also feature high-performance Intel Gen9 graphics, which provides up to 18 execution units to support up to two independent displays via single-channel LVDS/eDP, and the digital display interface for DP 1.2 or HDMI 1.4b. Audio signals are carried via HDA.

These are the major functional reasons why West Pond relies on modular processing core designs based on Computer-on-Modules. But for Steve Hastings, President/CEO at West Pond Technologies, the strategic reason is even more important:

“Our clients choose West Pond as a partner to help them provide a best-in-class in-house A/V solution. West Pond has chosen congatec as its partner for the same reasons," he said.

"We want to stay focused on the module support and software functionality of our systems and don’t want to touch the complex processing core and its standard BSPs. This is much better left in the hands of the embedded computing experts at congatec, and the partnership will give West Pond’s products a competitive edge by enabling us to integrate newer and faster processors into our hardware with minimal in-house effort.”

Dan Demers is Director of Sales & Marketing at congatec USA

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