So many things can go wrong with a projector. Connections drop off, video inputs change and bulbs burn out. These inevitable failures are compounded because they never happen at a convenient time. There is no such time for a projector. Due to the high cost of bulbs and their limited life span, projector use often is limited to “projector-worthy” events such as a class lecture or an important client presentation. As a result, projector problems happen only at the worst possible times.
Enter the network. Place that same projector on a network, and its condition is now visible to a network manager. By employing a projector management utility, the projectors many system-status functions can be monitored. Error messages, lamp life and input connections for every projector on the network can be watched whether in use or not. If something goes wrong with any projector, an alert is sent to the application and, if needed, to an IT administrators in-box or pager.
“If youre an organization and youre managing 50 to 100 projectors simultaneously, youre latching on to [networked projectors] fairly quickly because it really simplifies your life,” said Gary Kayye, chief visionary of Kayye Consulting Inc., a market analysis company for the professional audiovisual industry based in Chapel Hill, N.C. Prime candidates are large organizations that have a sizable installed base of projectors, such as universities and corporate campuses.
These institutions often have buildings that are miles apart. With a multiplicity of spaces, it becomes humanly impossible to efficiently manage all the projectors without putting them on a network. Determining whether your organization needs a projector network becomes a question of what your support staff can physically handle. “When you get to [the point of] more rooms than people, you have to deal with distributed intelligence,” said Scott Walker, principal for Waveguide Consulting Inc., of Atlanta. As an independent design consultant, Walker said he networks all of his AV and projector installations for asset management.
Even with a limited IT staff, it takes only one person at a central location to monitor all the projectors, which appear as nodes on the network. This connection to the central location also acts as a support line for the person whos running the projector. No longer must the presenter understand the inner workings of the projector. With a projector management and control utility, all projector functions can be seen and manipulated remotely by an IT administrator.
“Anything that you can do with the remote control in your hand, actually standing at the projector and running through the menu functions, an IT support person can do from their desktop,” said Anne Sunseri, education marketing and sales manager for InFocus Corp., of Wilsonville, Ore., which has an application called ProjectorNet for monitoring and controlling all its networked projectors.
“What you get is a sense of security that, Gee, if something goes wrong, I have the ability to contact our IT person, and theyll be able to help me,” said Sunseri.
Security extends beyond having an IT support system. It includes protection against theft. Since every projector connection—power, network and VGA cable—can be monitored, an unplanned disconnection of these cables at a certain time indicates a projector is probably being stolen. If these cables are disconnected, the projector management program can immediately send out an alert via e-mail, phone, voice mail or pager or even sound an alarm, Sunseri said.
The University of Minnesota in St. Paul uses MeetingManager from AMX Corp., of Richardson, Texas, to monitor and control more than 300 projectors. If a VGA cable is disconnected during off-hours, an alert is sent to the local police department, and the department responds to the projectors location immediately.
For additional security, the university enables password protection on select Sony Corp. projectors, such as the PX35 and PX40. In a networked environment, passwords are automatically sent to the projector via the network control system. But as soon as the projector is disconnected from power, the password can no longer be supplied and therefore the projector wont turn on until its reconnected to the network and the administrator resets the password.
Such technology is now available to most IT departments. “Theres still a real lack of awareness in the customer base with regards to the real benefits of networking, particularly managing your projector assets,” said Jennifer Jaffe, product manager of wireless and solutions for InFocus.
The reason you may not know about networked projectors is because nobodys talking about them. “I dont think that its bad PR; I think its no PR. Projector manufacturers dont really know how to market the functionality,” said Kayye. While attending last years InfoComm, the trade show for the audiovisual industry, Kayye said most companies were not demonstrating networkability. Projector manufacturers see networkability only as a feature; they dont see it as a primary function of the projector.
InFocus admits it hasnt been doing a good job of educating its customer base on the subject of asset management, and it plans to make a concerted effort to improve this year. Unfortunately, the effort doesnt seem to be working. With more than a month of lead time, InFocus and many other projector manufacturers were simply incapable of supplying eWEEK with customers to talk to about the subject of networked projectors.
Volume is Key Factor
Acceptance of networked projectors among manufacturers has increased as many more have become networkable. For customers, the determining factor to network is volume. And that volume is becoming possible as more and more projector manufacturers are selling units below $1,000. Its become the magic price point for all, with Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc. being one of the latest entrants with its SE1U unit.
The next noticeable change in the industry is the dramatic improvements in networked projector software control. It used to be that networked projector management meant you could only reactively turn a single projector on and off and see how many lamp hours were left. Newer control systems let you proactively manage multiple projectors over a network. For example, you can save power by setting the control system to shut down all the units automatically at midnight.
Lastly, content delivery has become more sophisticated. Projectors have built-in thin clients complete with an operating system and storage space to hold presentations. Newer systems can pull content off a server without relying on a connection to a computer. Its a new trend in the industry that Sony led more than six months ago with its VPL-FX51 system.
Networking has become synonymous with standards. But thats not the case with projector management applications; they work only with that manufacturers brand of projectors. Such software design is not conducive to the purchase cycle of projectors, which usually happens over time with little regard for brand loyalty.
At the University of Minnesota, the school has a network of more than 300 projectors that comprises units from Eiki International Inc., Sony, InFocus, Proxima (a brand of InFocus), NEC Corp. and Sharp Electronics Corp. To manage such an eclectic mix of units, most organizations rely on third-party control systems from companies such as AMX and Crestron Electronics Inc. Waveguides Walker said he rarely sees a projector manufacturers native tool, like InFocus ProjectorNet, being used. Most opt for a universal tool that can interoperate with multiple units.
Thanks to MeetingManagers just-in-time notifications, the University of Minnesotas IT staff can avoid projector downtime. “We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to receive notifications overnight,” said Jim Gregory, the universitys manager for classroom technical service. “[The alerts allow us to] get into classrooms in the morning before classes start so that we can have the system repaired before the class starts,” Gregory said.
All this projector usage is tracked and recorded into a data log. By analyzing these data logs, its easy to see which projectors are getting the most use. When the budget for new projectors becomes available, youve got the knowledge and the audit trail to prove which departments need one the most. “Its a benefit that doesnt jump out immediately but over time becomes evident,” said Walker.
Kayye Consultings analysis of the industry predicts that within three years, almost all AV systems will be built with networking. Much of this will not be for the purpose of asset management but rather a consequence of the globalization of business and the need to make AV rooms more collaborative. “I think youre going to now see products that utilize the network very efficiently, not just projectors,” Kayye said. “Cameras, control systems, all the important elements of a system, videoconferencing, that are required for a collaborative meeting will become readily available via the network.”
David Spark is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected].