IBC Q&A: Pliant Technologies’ Rosen on how CrewCom changes the game for comms
At NAB 2016 in April, CoachComm launched professional-products division Pliant Technologies as part of its effort to differentiate its production-intercom portfolio with its well-known coaching-comms products. Pliant’s first product, CrewCom, is a highly scalable, distributed-architecture platform that aims to reimagine the way live-production teams think about intercom operations. According to Pliant, CrewCom’s distributed architecture, which operates on Pliant’s proprietary CrewNet network, permits a high density of users with an easily manageable infrastructure and lower cost per user than is typically found in large-scale wireless installations.
CrewNet coordinates and transports all system timing, audio, signaling, and controls and is capable of operating over standard Cat 5e (or greater) and/or single-mode–fiber lines.
CrewCom features a highly intuitive software-based user interface for setup, dubbed CrewWare, which provides comprehensive offline configuration, online control, and real-time monitoring of all system components.
CrewCom wireless products are available in the 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz spectrum in the U.S. (solely 900 MHz in Europe due to regulations). Any combination of these frequency ranges may be used simultaneously on the same CrewCom system, which enables the system to easily adapt to RF challenges onsite.
SVG sat down with Global Sales Manager Gary Rosen to discuss how the Pliant Technologies brand has resonated in the industry, what the launch of CrewCom means for the business, and how he expects it to affect live sports production.
What was the thinking behind CoachComm’s launch of the Pliant Technologies brand?
This is the first showing as Pliant and the first time unveiling the CrewCom line, which has been pretty exciting. CoachComm is already the leader in the sports market in terms of coaching [intercoms]. But, in the overall sports space and for broadcast, production, concerts, and industrial markets like nuclear power and hospitals, we needed a brand without the coach name. Pliant has the same people behind it, same engineering, same manufacturing, but the Pliant brand is really all about giving focus to the professional market.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the new brand and new line of CrewCom systems?
We already do a tremendous amount of studio production — everything from Good Morning America to Turner Studios to NBC’s Sports headquarters in Stamford, [CT,] which has 14 of our systems. And many OB-van companies are using our Tempest product worldwide. In that space, we’re fairly well known. Worldwide, we’ve got more than 30,000 Tempest beltpacks between the sports and professional markets.
But we’ve been selling [Tempest] for eight years, and technology is always evolving, so we looked at what people are asking us for and where else we can go with our product.
How did you go about developing an entirely new product line with CrewCom?
We started out with a blank piece of paper and said what if we didn’t worry about the established products and what if we could give people the most current technology possible. I joke that, in the beginning, the Earth cooled, and then there was partyline [intercom systems]. Partyline is older than all of us, and it’s wonderful: it’s cheap, easy to deploy, and doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge. But it’s extremely limited in functionality. It does only one job and does it well, and our Tempest product is a great partyline-style device. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have a matrix system, which is extremely flexible, very expensive, with depletable resources and needs a very competent operator. But it gives you almost all you could ask for.
We looked at those options and decided that there was an underserviced market somewhere in between. So let’s [develop] something based on the today’s modern technology.
How does the CrewCom system work?
The first thing we did was throw away the concept of channels and two-wire or four-wire and developed a system that’s based on conferencing. A conference is simply an audio stream that consists of whatever elements you’ve assigned to it: one person or many people can become a conference. We have 1,024 conferences in the CrewCom system; you can set up virtually whatever talk path you need.
To distribute this, we developed CrewNet, which is a proprietary network with a distributed architecture. Anyplace the network exists, you have all the resources of the network at your disposal. The control unit is a 19-in., 1RU rack, and its job is to handle basic I/O and to create the network. The network comes out of the control unit and can be distributed over fiber or over copper through hubs to multiple points. Anyplace we run that network, you have it available.
In a normal [production operation], everyone has full access at all times [to the intercom system], but you don’t really need that for every single person on your crew. If you have 20 lighting people on this show, they’re almost always listening and rarely [talking]. Through software, we’ve changed this into what’s called High Density Mode. One device can have 32 people on it sharing resources on the same four conferences. You don’t have to give every single person every conference, but there’s four to share. If you need your producer and director or a handful of people to have [talkback capability], you can give access rights to each person [on an individual basis]. That way, we don’t overwhelm the system and [can] use resources as effectively as possible.
We have 2.4 GHz and 900 GHz in the States, and those can be used simultaneously. It handles all [RF coordination] internally. So we changed the way the intercom works; we’ve built a true network with distributed architecture. In terms of [wireless RF], there’s really no other product like it. There’s a fair amount of wireless systems out there, but, for the most part, none of them have upped the ante on the intercom side. They give you some wireless capabilities, but they really haven’t increased your intercom [capability]. When people make a [substantial] investment in one of these systems, they often have to spend several thousands more on a matrix to route everything correctly. With CrewCom, it’s not just a matter of doubling your system by adding one transceiver. You don’t need all the extra infrastructure.
How do you believe CrewCom changes the intercom market for live sports production?
The sports market is mobile. For [productions] to be able to achieve the level of communication without a huge infrastructure, I think, is going to be a game-changer. They are going to be able to get RF for where their crews need it and have so many points of connectivity without needing that RF guru onsite. It’s a very simple system, and we think it’s going to change how people think about intercoms.