Streaming vs Screaming Media: USB 3.0 Tries My Patience

Clarity Monitor-220 Preface: This is a wee bit off topic, but I haven’t ranted in a while, and you may find it worthwhile in the end.

For many months I’ve been toying with the idea of using streaming video as an alternative to some of the training and demonstration activities that haunt me in my working life. Historically, sending staff and gear to some distant location was the primary means of selling the gear, or post-sale, conducting end-user training.

In the past year one of our more experienced sales staff has found that demonstration given by remote means can be very effective. Initially this was merely his response to having limited access to my time, but it’s also become a way for him to get ad hoc demo’s accomplished on very short notice.

gotomeeting_logo These remote demos have come down in two manners; most often he takes a piece of demo hardware into the prospects site and sets it up for presentation. As part of his setup he puts it on their network. Thereafter we use GotoMeeting to give me remote control of the device. At the appointed time I perform the demo from Houston, presenting by phone and remote means.

In our first few passes at this sort of demo I was concerned about the audio quality passed between my location and the prospects site. Some companies have elderly phone systems, or lack proper conference phones.

Clear-One-Chat160-200 To address this potential inadequacy I loaned the sales guy my Clear One Chat 160. He connected the Chat 160 to his laptop and we used Skype as the audio channel. It worked quite well, although we did wish that the Chat 160 could go louder in order to overcome the fan noise of the graphics server that we were demonstrating.

In some cases, where we’re showing a pure software product, we take a different approach. In those cases, which are quite rare, we just use GotoMeeting to show the prospect the desktop of the computer running the software that they wish to see presented.

When this past summer Citrix added the HDFaces feature to the GotoMeeting service I saw this an opportunity to do a better demo without resorting to shipping gear around the country. If I could show the prospect the real-time output of the device being demo’d then I could avoid a lot of costly travel & shipping. I would need to show them a real, high-quality, low-latency, 1080i HD video stream.

I’ve only used the HDFaces feature of GotoMeeting a few times, but I’ve found it to be impressive. It’s stable and delivers good quality video. In my opinion it provides better results than the “Hangouts” feature of Google+. However, since the GotoMeeting client is an installable program it has an advantage over a purely browser-based implementation. Since we already saw good value in the $50/mo that GotoMeeting costs, the fact that they added HDFaces without raising the price makes it a real bargain.

To make good on my desire for streaming demos what I needed was a way to get the production grade HD video (uncompressed SMPTE 292M @ 1.5 Gbps) that our machine creates into a stream suitable for use online. Then I’d need to find a way to expose that stream to some kind of service like GotoMeeting, Skype or VSee, where they typically expect to be fed from a webcam.

As it happens, I also have the genuine need for a signal converter to allow me to monitor the output of our devices. I don’t have a $$$ broadcast monitor with an HD-SDI input. All I have is a consumer HDTV with RGBS and HDMI inputs.

Prior generations of our products have offered analog monitoring outputs (RGBS) as a convenience. More recently this was dropped so that the rear panel space could be put to some more useful purpose. I was advised that I should purchase a low-cost HD-SDI to HDMI converter, like those made by Blackmagic Design.

ultrastudiosdi While investigating the converters I found that Blackmagic Design was on the cusp of introducing a new product that might serve dual purposes; the Blackmagic Design UltraStudio SDI. This device would convert from HD-SDI to HDMI for monitoring, but also connected to a PC to allow recording of the stream to disk. That meant that it might be cajoled into sending the stream to a soft phone or video conference client.

But alas, this new wunder-gadget was not yet shipping. A call to a dealer revealed that, while they would happily take my advance order, the shipping projection had been sliding. The end of October looked like a real delivery possibility. Ever optimistic, I ordered the wee gadget…and waited.

WD-USB-3-PCIe-154 While I waited I pondered it’s use of “Super Speed USB 3.0” to connect to a host computer. USB 3.0 has been an establish standard for some time but has thus far failed to become commonplace. It provides for 5 Gbps and has support in all major operating systems. This makes it appropriate for the Blackmagic Design UltraStudio SDI which allows the uncompressed HD stream to be recorded to disk, given a suitably fast disk array.

I thought that I would need an add-in card for my desktop to provide such an interface. Better yet, I found such interfaces on Amazon in the $30-50 range. I purchased a model offered by Western Digital.

When the PCIe card arrived I installed it to my desktop without incident. It uses a controller chip from NEC, which is now known as Renesas Electronics. I had to install the relevant driver software. Luckily, I had a USB 3.0 portable hard drive on-hand to prove out that the card was working nominally.

When the UltraStudio SDI eventually arrived I connected it and installed the included Media Express software. I was dismayed to find that the software could not find the device. Further, the OS reported that “This device could operate better when attached to a Super Speed USB 3.0 port.” Hadn’t I had just installed that hardware?

The Blackmagic Design UltraStudio SDI included install notes that referenced the NEC controller ship on the Renesas card. It made reference to specific versions of driver software. I tried various possibilities, but none worked. I also tried several host computers with different motherboards. Again, no joy.

This afternoon I finally called Blackmagic tech support. They told me very bluntly that there are issues with compatibility of their USB 3.0 devices and various USB 3.0 hosts. Very few USB 3.0 host interfaces are known to work with their hardware. Fun stuff.

Their FAQ made reference to specific makes & models of  motherboards known compatible. However, I don’t have the luxury of building a new computer simply to host a USB 3.0 attached device.

They also mentioned a couple of PCIe cards, but I could not find these from US vendors. Finally, in frustration I have made arrangements to return the UltraStudio SDI.

I’m not done yet. I’ve decided to replace the USB 3.0-wunder-widget with two difference devices; a plain vanilla SDI to HDMI converter and an Intensity Pro HDMI Editing Card with HDMI I/O. This combination costs a little more than the UltraStudio SDI but is known to work with the computer that I have on-hand. The two, used on concert will achieve my intended result…monitoring the HD video via HDMI and creating a stream for use online.

The Intensity Pro card is certified as supported by Telestream’s WireCast streaming software, the most likely candidate to meet my needs.

I am inching toward my goal.

So heed this warning about USB 3.0. It’s at best problematic. Perhaps this explains why it’s failed to achieve significant market presence over the past three years? If I might borrow a line from The Who, “I won’t be fooled again.”

  • perennialmind

    USB3 won’t be “safe” until Windows 8 brings it to Microsoft’s USB stack. Remember the early days of Windows XP, when USB2 drivers meant a vendor-supplied USB stack? Without the commonality of standard support layers, the testing matrix is simply unmanageable for anything but the most generic mass-market devices. Right now, about the only things you can safely expect to work are the external hard drives.

    Microsoft’s contribution to USB3 is not small, but it won’t bear fruit until Windows 8 ships. See
    http://blogs.msdn.com/b/b8/archive/2011/08/22/building-robust-usb-3-0-support.aspx