Telos Infinity® Virtual Intercom Platform: Transforming hardware-based broadcast intercom into a Cloud solution
By: Martin Dyster, VP of Business Development, Telos Alliance
As anyone involved in live broadcasting can attest, Intercom is a mission critical part of any TV production workflow. Without reliable comms, a show rapidly falls apart. With the pandemic as a catalyst, content providers have woken up to the viability of using Cloud technology to produce TV, while recognizing how important it is to understand how intercom can be deployed and used with the same ease as the emerging breed of virtualized video production tools. Although it is technically possible to adapt a hardware / matrix-based intercom to support cloud working models, those who are pioneering virtual production techniques have been quick to realize that is not ideal to have to pack and ship a physical Comms panel to every remote participant, nor is it easy to integrate a centralised hardware communications backbone into what is essentially a distributed virtual production model.
In short, the emergence of Cloud production has accelerated the need for more agile communications solutions that can be deployed rapidly to any user anywhere in the world without compromising the way TV is made. A software-based Intercom solution that can replace traditional hardware and integrate seamlessly into the new workflows.
In June 2020, in response to multiple inquiries from a global broadcast market, Telos Alliance® transformed the Telos Infinity IP Intercom Platform (Infinity IP) from a hardware product into a working Cloud deployable software solution. The Dev. team had a working beta available for testing within a few months from a standing start. They proved that the physical panel firmware developed for the hardware Infinity product launched in 2018 could be deployed using established containerized software technology and replicate the functionality of the hardware platform almost entirely.
Containerization is a lightweight means to package software code and all its dependencies so that an application can run quickly and reliably within a virtualized computing environment. Docker is an open-source example of containerization technology and has been around since 2013. The Telos R&D team had been experimenting with Docker prior to its use with Infinity VIP, as a possible means to virtualize other products within the Telos range. When the focus shifted to Intercom, they quickly determined that the core operating code developed for the physical Infinity product could be containerized to create a virtualized network of individual devices (panels) that could communicate to one another using the same core AoIP network topology. If virtual devices were connected on a common VLAN, it would be possible to build an AES67 media network on a VPC (Virtual Private Cloud) like Amazon AWS. A virtual intercom platform could become a reality using Docker and operate in much the same way as the physical Infinity hardware.
Using the same embedded software developed for the original hardware platform had several other functional benefits that would be redeployed in the new virtual platform. For example, each Telos Infinity Intercom Panel, whether physical or virtual has its own onboard webserver which can give the user remote control over their talk and listen keys. On a hardware panel this is generally used by maintenance or support to ‘remote in’ when a user leaves their mic open accidentally or has muted their microphone inadvertently. For the virtual panel, it is this handy built-in HTML-5 webserver and remote key control capability that became the hands-on user interface that the operator sees as their intercom device. Since HTML-5 supporting Internet browsers such as Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Firefox natively support bi-directional audio (think Zoom, Google Meet, Amazon Chime, Microsoft Skype etc.) the developers of the Infinity platform were able to utilize the same WebRTC / OPUS audio codec technology that we use on our supported devices like PCs, phones, and tablets to replace the audio I/O used on the hardware Intercom. Combining the existing remote panel UI and the browsers in-built audio capabilities, you have an onscreen Intercom panel that operates the same way as its hardware equivalent.
Using a mouse and keyboard to navigate Comms is an inconvenient way to operate a panel for many users in fast-paced TV production. However, Infinity has a lightweight API whose command set extends to the Talk/Listen keys and using the Elgato SDK, we were able to develop a plug-in that can be used to map a virtual panel to Stream Decks’ physical buttons.
Understandably, the operators of any Cloud production platform and particularly one used for communication, expect a high level of system security, comprehensive system management tools and reliable high-quality audio. After sharing the prototype product privately with several trusted partners, we found that customer expectations varied considerably and that there was (and still is) much work to do beyond just creating an Intercom. As mentioned previously, WebRTC is used extensively by browser-based media applications and addresses many of the security concerns expressed by VIP beta customers. However, we found out that when WebRTC is traversing the public Internet as is often the case, it needs Stun and Turn to make robust peer-to-peer connections. But many customers don’t want to use public Stun and Turn servers because they may expose the system to security risks; therefore, the Telos team had to address that concern and become experts in Internet Connectivity Establishment (ICE) protocols.
Roughly 24 months after development started, VIP is now being used around the world by customers who appreciate the ease by which they can deploy a software-based Intercom. In the field of virtualized broadcast production, Infinity VIP can be considered a one-of-a-kind product and a true industry disruptor.