If there is one thing the entertainment technology industry can agree on, it's that they cannot agree. While the industry waits for the Advanced Control Network (ACN) standard from Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA), many manufacturers are forging ahead on their own, creating a variety of networking protocols for lighting systems to satisfy customer demand for more advanced networking. These companies are roughly split into two divergent paths, with one side favoring proprietary network protocols, and the other favoring open protocols anyone can use. The proprietary approach is something of a return to the recent past in the lighting industry, where users are required to use all of one manufacturer's equipment to maintain the network, with none of the protocols working together. The open standards, like DMX, encourage interoperability.
One thing everyone can agree on: The future of lighting networks is ethernet. For medium and large-scale lighting installations, the scale of these systems will support an advanced lighting network. For complicated, multi-venue systems, like theme parks, cruise ships, television studios, and performing arts centers, a lighting network that reports back to a central control location makes a lot of sense. The end user can monitor the system as well as have the capabilities to upgrade software over the network, perform diagnostics and preventative maintenance, and in some cases tie into larger building management systems or parkwide control systems.
Coming down on the proprietary side of the divide, the larger dimming and control companies are developing their own ethernet networking protocols. Colortran, a division of Leviton, has the ColorNet II network. Currently, ColorNet II is implemented in the Innovator console and Network Protocol Converter (NPC) nodes available that support remote video as well as a handheld remote. The NPCs also support LumaNet, which is the Colortran architectural control protocol, and keyboard on the full-featured unit. NPCs use TCP/IP addresses for individual identities. The Colortran I Series E dimmer racks with smart control modules have two ethernet inputs.
ETC has the ETCNet 2 ethernet network for its networking projects. “The Net II networking devices are using the TCP/IP protocol,” says Thomas Ladd of ETC. “You can now have more DMX nodes and video nodes, each having a unique and distinct function on the network.” ETC has coined the term EDMX, which over the Net II, allows for 64 universes of DMX that can be patched and arranged in a multitude of ways. Net II is currently supported on the Obsession II consoles, Unison systems and will move over to the Expression range of consoles with the new Emphasis system. Emphasis will be an upgrade to existing Express/Expression style consoles by adding an external processor that also acts as a TCP/IP node.
Strand Lighting's network is ShowNet, the most established of the current crop of ethernet lighting networks. ShowNet has been running on a variety of systems for a few years. They also have an application named ParkNet, that runs across a ShowNet network , for park wide control in theme parks. “A ParkNet system has been running at the Universal Island's of Adventure for three to four years now,” says Mike Lay, Strand Lighting's vice president system integration. “We are going to use the ParkNet system for the new WW II Memorial in Washington, DC.” Strand is also working on cruise ship designs where consultants are specifying ShowNet.
Artistic Licence's Art-Net protocol was originally developed as a ‘stop-gap’ solution while the industry awaited the release of ACN. Customer demand and multi-vendor support has changed Art-Net into a standard that is now available for use as a public domain, royalty free protocol. Wayne Howell of Artistic Licence says the reaction to Art-Net has been extremely positive. “We wanted to hang around for ACN because we wanted a standard to work towards,” says Howell. “The approach to publishing it seems to have worked because the response we have had from everyone has been excellent.” The Art-Net Alliance now includes Artistic Licence, AC Lighting, ADB, Avab, Doug Fleenor Design, ELC Lighting, Electronics Diversified, Enttec, Goddard Design Co, I-Light Group, International Electronic Services, MA Lighting, Medalion, Media Motion, SandNet, and Zero 88.
Pathway Connectivity has created the Pathport Alliance. The alliance is made up of lighting control manufacturers that have undertaken to implement the Pathport Protocol in their products. “This alliance extends the power and flexibility of Pathport to a variety of respected lighting control platforms. Users will be able to connect these controls directly to a Pathport network,” explains Graham Likeness of Pathway Connectivity. The Pathport Alliance is currently comprised of Entertainment Technology, Flying Pig Systems, Interactive Technologies, High End Systems, MA Lighting, and Pathway Connectivity.
Entertainment Technology has signed on with Pathway Connectivity to send its DMX over ethernet via Pathport DMX. Entertainment Technology's Capio dimmer racks come complete with ethernet input. The rack was designed so that the contractor could run a full ethernet network in the theatre and test and certify it as a fully Cat 5 compliant network, then the lighting technician plugs a jumper from the ethernet jack to the dimmer rack. This allows for a more cost-effective installation. ET's newer IPS Intelligent Raceway will come standard with an XLR for DMX and an RJ45 connector for ethernet connection. The Horizon 1024 Ethernet Node and the Horizon Playback Controllers also support ethernet.
Advanced Control Network
Standards are a good thing. The lighting industry needs an ACN standard, as well as a refined version of DMX. But to build good standards, especially those up to the level of the American National Standards (ANSI), takes time. Some see ACN at least two to three years away from being adopted. Some see the ACN standard process as accelerating due to intense industry demand. “The ACN Task Group is about ⅔ of the way through with the ACN standards work,” says Steve Carlson of High Speed Design. “It is a large standard and it intersects with real-world networking. We want to go with standard networking technology. What is missing is a common communications protocol.”
The manufacturers are waiting, somewhat impatiently, for ACN. With the flurry of recent development, the ACN Task Group is starting to feel the pressure. “There are those on the Task Group who believe that we are going to have something for the first public review by the end of this year,” says Steve Terry of ETC, who co-chairs the ACN group with Carlson. “After five years of being a research project rather than a development project, the ACN effort is taking on a new sense of urgency.” There are a couple of reasons for this, Terry notes. “The first reason is that the market demand for an advanced network is starting to become tremendous. Manufacturers like us are saying, ‘Look, we are waiting for ACN. But if we don't get it, we are going to have to implement the kind of advanced features that we know ACN is going to provide in our own proprietary standard, because we cannot wait for ACN much longer.’ ”
Another impetus for the ACN task group is all of the other aforementioned protocols springing up to fill the needs of advanced networking. “They are putting the standards in the public domain and encouraging other manufacturers to support it,” says Terry. “This all solves a short-term problem, which is pushing DMX out over the ethernet pipe. The advantage to ACN — and one of the reasons it has taken the amount of time that it has — is it's a very extensible standard. Once we adopt ACN, we hope that it is going to fulfill the requirements for advanced networking for the next 10 or 20 years in our industry.”
ACN has many advantages: it can be used across a number of different transport layers, including TCP/IP, ethernet, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM); the further distances it can be sent; the amount of bandwidth it has; and the functionality are all very extensible. “It allows a platform for designers and manufacturers to add stuff ad infinitum,” adds Terry.
Almost all of the manufacturers have a representative on the ACN group, and they all have a vested interest in ACN becoming a standard. Most will be able to move over to ACN fairly easily, and look forward to the promise that ACN holds. “What I would like to see happening is ACN coming out straightaway, and we gradually move over,” says Howell. “What I actually see is that ACN is so far away that one of the formats that is already out there becomes the de facto standard and then evolves into something more ACN-like.” Howell feels that the delays in ACN may make it too late to take hold. “Maybe if it is launched tomorrow, it could, but if it is going to be the expected two or three years from now before there is a workable document, I think by that point the industry will have probably chosen its preferred route and it will be too late for ACN to take hold. I hope that is not the case, but that is how it feels to me at the moment.”
“A lot of people in the industry aren't really clear on this: ACN is software deliverable,” Lay says. “If you put in enough base hardware, everyone's pretty much ACN-ready. ACN, from a software point of view, can be as simple as one button station that could be ACN-compliant, but you've got to make sure that you put the pushbutton in a way for the software to read it. You can make some very reasonable assumptions about hardware design right now that will be ACN-compliant when the software is available.”
Many of the manufacturers interviewed for this article do not see ACN as replacing DMX, but working alongside DMX, extending its useful life. Mitch Hefter of Entertainment Technology sees continued growth of DMX, “It's not going away due to its ease of use,” he says. Hefter chairs the ESTA Task Group BSR E1.11, which is working on the revision of DMX, which will be referred to as DMX512-A. This new standard is designed to be fully backwards-compatible with current DMX512 (1990) products. The new version will clean up a lot of the loopholes and fix a number of issues with the current standard. A public review version is due very soon.
“DMX is not dead. It still has a lot of useful life left in it,” says David Higgins of Pathway Connectivity. “DMX512-A and RDM will extend the life of DMX by 10 to 20 years,” he continues. “It is a very cost-effective way to communicate. DMX has increased the size of the entertainment lighting industry. “It did away with proprietary language development,” Higgins says. “Anyone with a PC and prototyping could get into DMX.” Pathway (originally as Gray Interfaces) as well as Artistic Licence, Doug Fleenor Designs, and Goddard Designs, to name just a few, built their companies around DMX and DMX-related peripheral products.
Remote Device Management
The development of Remote Device Management (RDM) should likewise add years of useful life to DMX. RDM is also in the standards development process with ESTA, chaired by Scott Blair, formerly of High End Systems. Under the ANSI BSR E1.20 standard development at ESTA, RDM is an outgrowth of an ability that High End Systems developed in its automated fixtures and Status Cue console. Basically, it was designed to update firmware and provide feedback of their moving lights to their console. It will allow bi-directional talk along the same pair of wires that currently only send information out. This standard will allow intelligent devices the ability to feedback information along the DMX line, using the pins two and three. “RDM is the probably the most important thing that is happening in ESTA at the moment, if not the industry, in technical terms,” Howell says. “It's absolutely the concept that is going to allow ethernet to take off, because it is going to allow both sides of an ethernet/DMX bridge to be intelligent.”
“It is a self-discovery standard,” adds Terry. “In other words, when you fire up your system, the console can go out there and find out what is plugged to the data link. Then each individual device can report back to the console. It is very elegant and very simple.”
So, what's interesting about developing a bi-directional standard in the DMX world? “What is not immediately obvious is that RDM can be an important gateway between existing DMX products and ACN,” Terry says. “For example, there are hundreds of devices in the rig that need to get connected to the network, the vast majority of which now don't have an ethernet connection, don't have a TCP/IP stack running in them, and aren't ACN-capable,” Terry continues. “So, what are you going to do with those devices? Are you going to wait for new devices that have two-port ethernet hubs built into them, which would allow you to have an ethernet in and an out connection? Probably not. That would take a long time to propagate through the moving light and accessories market.” Terry envisions a box, which is an intelligent ACN-to-DMX gateway box with a DMX connection going out to up to 32 DMX devices, and then an ACN connection. So you could imagine that now the appearances of RDM will have a positive effect on the quick acceptance of ACN. Because it is going to allow ACN to grab control, potentially of existing DMX devices that have their software updated to support RDM.
Terry sees a future for DMX as a short haul protocol, since you cannot star a DMX system and you cannot daisychain an ethernet system. Also the ethernet connector, an RJ-45, is inherently not the right kind of connector for a rough, theatre environment. The beauty of this system is to run the ACN ethernet to each electric and then convert to DMX to run to the automated fixtures and scrollers, daisychaining between units with DMX.
Many of the manufacturers are incorporating RDM into all of their new products. It is anticipated that there is going to be wide adoption of it, and they are looking forward to it as the way to connect ACN to a much larger number of existing products than would have been possible before. A lot of products won't be updateable, but you can bet that most new products will be supporting the RDM protocol.
There are other benefits that ethernet networking brings to lighting as well. “Wireless ethernet is the next big jump,” Lay says. “Wireless remotes go well beyond handheld remotes; it eliminates low voltage cable runs. With wireless networking, a lot more devices can get onto the network.” Being able to send low voltage power over the Cat 5 cable also holds much promise. “There is a new standard about to come out that will allow you to put power over the Cat 5 cable,” says Howell. “It allows you to do both ethernet distribution and will distribute power out for you as well. Which in a theatre or fixed installation situation is great, because you can then just have the RJ45 on the wall and you plug your unit into it and it is powered up and supplied data.”
By using standard networking procedures and off-the-shelf networking equipment, the lighting industry is going to grow by leaps and bounds. The DMX protocol has grown the lighting industry very well, with many companies created to fill a need for splitters, routers, and a variety of protocol converters. The possibilities of more advanced networks will become feasible. These networks will be easy to configure and to monitor. As productions grow in complexity, networks will ease much of the end user's burden, especially at preshow check time. With a large and complex system, why check the good equipment, when you can get a report on the problem areas as well as the potential problem areas and concentrate the limited amount of time to addressing these issues before they become major problems in the middle of a performance?
In the end, ACN will most likely prevail as the standard for networking. All of the manufacturers will adopt ACN and the lighting industry will grow commensurately, like it did with DMX. “Open systems generate dollars,” Terry says. “It was proven with DMX, it was proven by IBM with the PC, and I believe that it will be proven with ACN. Interoperability generates profit.” Carlson says he believes that “with a standard ACN language, we will see the market take off and broaden and deepen and rise to a more sophisticated level.”