New Show Control Products At Infocomm

As I said the other day, Infocomm was a pretty interesting show this year, especially for new show control products (a couple of these were introduced prior to this show, but this is the first time I saw them and was able to talk to the manufacturers).

V16 Pro

Alcorn-McBride showed their long, long, long-awaited update to their venerable V16 product, the V16 Pro (click for larger images, or click the link to go to Alcorn's site):

 

The V16 has long been a workhorse, particulary behind the scenes at one of the larger theme parks and in a lot of permanent installs around the world.  One of the things that held it back from live show applications was that the Alcorn Winscript programming environment needed to be compiled after every change, so the show had to stop and restart each time.  In addition, the V16 was based on a pretty slow (by modern standards) processor, and the unit had no native support for Ethernet.  All of those things have been addressed in the new Pro version.  The new WinScript "Live" allows the program to be edited while the unit is running. There's a nice new display and a multi-function knob, along with the traditional buttons.  Two Ethernet ports (one could be used for show purposes and the other for programming, or however you'd like to use it) support a number of protocols.  I don't do much serial these days, but there must still be a lot of people asking for it, since this unit has the traditional 16 (the "16" in the V16), MIDI, balanced (yea!) SMPTE time code in and out ports, and MIDI.  The unit has a compact flash card that can be used to transfer the entire system and user program to another unit.  Alcorn also has touch screen softwre available to create user interfaces; it seems like a pretty cool unit overall.

Showmaster

Infocomm was the first time I had seen Medialon's Showmaster "embedded show controller".  Inside the box is a highly stripped down version of Windows XP embedded running a Manager-like "Showmaster Editor" software.

The unit marks a departure by Medialon, which had really only sold software products up until now (they made PC's for shows, but they were pretty much standard Windows machines optimized for Medialon's purposes). The units feature one Ethernet port (of course we told them we wanted more), a USB port, DMX, four serial ports, and 16 contact closures in and out.  This box is roughly equivalent to the Manager "Light" software with interface hardware.  This means one timeline (which is fine for many shows) and a few limitations on the types of hardware that can be controlled over the Ethernet connection (check the website for details).  But for larger shows, a "Pro" version, with few limitations, is in the works.

A Trend Back to Hardware?

Both of these units, I hope, mark the beginning of a trend.  I have always liked hardware-based solutions, as long as they have free online/offline programming software. In the old days (1990's), we used to have a lot of hardware boxes, but they just weren't powerful and flexible enough for many complex applications, and that became a limitation.  But over time, we evolved into total software solutions running on consumer computers (there's just no way we can compete with the computer market's economy of scale), and that has brought us enormous power and flexibility, which has been great.  However, the software on a PC solution has also brought us a new set of problems--virus threats (real or perceived), driver updates, automatic software and OS updates, non-technical users installing games on the system, etc. Going to an embedded system, I don't really care what OS is inside the box--that's the manufacturer's problem and they can beat to death the endless which-OS-is-better-discussions (a recent link I made on the show control email list resulted in yet another endless (but interesting) OS discussion).  With embedded solutions, there are limits and constraints on the systems, and choke points where things could be managed.  I used to worry about choke points, but now, when that choke point is something like a 100MB or Gigabit Ethernet port, which can easily be monitored using something like Wireshark, I'm happy to see them because they make troubleshooting much easier.  I know on the last few commercial projects I did, a rack mount box would not only have been an easier sell, it would have been a superior solution and one that was easier to maintain.

Embedding in a PLC-The Showmaster iPro

Medialon is actually taking this embedding concept to another extreme: running their show control software inside a Siemens PLC (Programmable Logic Controller), and they introduced their new system Showmaster iPro system at the Electrosonic offices in Orlando before Infocomm. 

Basically, the system works like this (slides courtesy of and (c) Medialon):

The Siemens PLC works with its own Profinet-based I/O (input-output) system, and in a typical application handles ride or machinery control, safety-related systems (Siemens makes fully safety-rated products), while Medialon's system (which is actually software, not the Showmaster rack-mount box as depicted in the above slide) handles all the show control-related tasks.  Medialon is actually running Windows XP Embedded inside the PLC, and Windows itself is scheduled by Siemen's real-time operating system. Both share memory for lightning-fast data exchange:

This is, I think, a very wise strategic move by Medialon, as a way to enter yet another section of the high-end market (and, not surprisingly, senior technical representatives of the major Orlando theme parks were in attendance at the roll out).  PLC's are great for controlling machinery; show controllers are great for controlling and coordinating everything else, and acting like glue between all the show elements.  There have been products over the years to facilitate this PLC connection, but most of those are obsolete now, and that means that this interconnection has to be reinvented every show.

It will be very interesting to see where all this leads!