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The Buzz: Install of the Month: Cisco NOW Van Fleet

AV on Wheels

The Buzz: Install of the Month:
Cisco NOW Van Fleet

Aug 1, 2006 12:00 PM,
By Don Kreski

AV on Wheels

Cisco Systems cites the Network on Wheels (NOW) program as a powerful new tool in its marketing arsenal. At press time, Cisco had 10 NOW vans traveling across the United States and Canada, bringing Cisco products and services to customers, rather than the other way around.

The interior of a NOW van, showing four networked computer workstations and a 50in. plasma.

Ed Kudey, senior manager for Cisco’s commercial market segment group, says, “With the NOW van, a Cisco partner can drive up to your site and give you a one-hour briefing on products and solutions that are relevant to your particular business.” The concept has been so successful that the company is now planning to take it worldwide. NOW vans recently have been announced for India and Japan, and more are planned for Europe and Asia.

Designing and building the vans posed an interesting AV challenge for the company. Each NOW van is built on a 27ft. Ford shuttle bus chassis, but has a completely redesigned interior with an AV system installed by SPL Integrated Solutions, a firm with several locations nationwide and corporate headquarters in Columbia, Md.

Rob Sprenger, NOW program manager for Cisco, describes the NOW experience this way: “As you walk into the bus, if you can ignore the fact that there are windows and a driver’s wheel, you would feel that you’re in a small but very high-end executive demonstration center.”

Inside each van is seating for 10 people, plus a powerful computer demonstration system. Gear includes a Fujitsu 50in. plasma screen (model P50XCA30WH), four Viewsonic 21in. LCD displays, an Extron VGA and stereo audio matrix switcher (MVX 84 VGA A), and a complete SP Controls sound system that includes speakers, a subwoofer, and satellites. A Crestron system allows user control over the van’s AV system, with a CP2 unit as the brains of the control, a C2N-VEQ4 unit for volume control, and four CNX-B6B six-button user controllers. A small rack with Cisco routers and switchers — part of the system being demonstrated — drives a wired and wireless network, and another rack houses the AV equipment.

“We can pull the bus up to a customer site, fire up our generator, and in about half an hour, we give demos that are compelling, educational, and really get business owners excited about the technology,” Sprenger explains.

According to Sprenger, the project’s roots go back several years to when Cisco sharpened its focus on products and solutions for small to medium-sized businesses. “The central goal is the convergence of voice, video, and data onto one network,” he says, “and that’s what our products and demos are all about.”

About four years ago, Sprenger began planning the NOW vans as the mobile version of the Cisco demonstration center in San Jose, Calif. The 3,000-square-foot facility has nine rooms that look like different business settings — schoolroom, law firm boardroom, hotel lobby, doctor’s office, and bank, for example. Cisco managers used it to generate the solutions-based demonstrations they eventually took on the road inside the NOW vans.

Eric Neuman, SPL’s general manager for Northern California, says the main challenges for system designers were to keep things simple and to fit everything into the available space. For example, SPL used the small, six-button Crestron remote to control source switching and volume.

“There are four workstations,” Neuman explains. “We take video and audio from them into a matrix switcher. Signals either go from each workstation to the corresponding 21in. monitor, and from there to the big display, or presenters can choose to send any signal to all five displays.”

SPL duplicated the Crestron remote four times, so a presenter can control sound and video from whichever workstation he or she happens to be using. This simplicity was especially important because Cisco does not put presenters on the road with the vans. Instead, the company makes the vans available to its certified partners and resellers.

The program was launched in October of 2003 and was an immediate success, says Kudey. “On its maiden voyage, we sent the first van to the West Coast region, because we wanted to validate the concept and gauge the customer reaction,” he says. “Ironically, we had a hard time getting the bus back for upgrades, because we ended up booking it for nearly a year in advance.”

SPL now provides nationwide service on the NOW vans, but service has not been a major issue. “Even though we’ve traveled a half million miles or more, technical hiccups are rare,” Sprenger says.

Neuman adds that SPL put the plasmas on a standard Chief mount (PLP-2023), but had to modify it slightly after a traffic accident dislodged one display. “We had to add a couple of rubber grommets and larger fender washers, so that the plasma couldn’t bounce out,” he says.

“[Maintenance] really doesn’t seem much different than what we would have in a large conference center,” Sprenger says.

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