A/V integrators who freelance as time travelers have an easier time with future-proofing than most others in the industry. But everyone can agree that it is a challenge to predict which technologies will become ubiquitous and which ones will never gain a toe-hold. While a client may be pushing for state-of-the-art and the latest greatest, a responsible integrator will help a client make an educated decision for the investment. The bleeding edge is rarely a safe bet.
Even though the art of future-proofing is akin to staying trained on a moving target, there are some basics to follow at this stage in A/V technology. Rob Gilfillan, president of integration company Cenero, has had the same conversation with all of his commercial clients regarding new control system features that leverage the power of Adobe Flash and other emerging technologies to create a truly dynamic and intuitive touch screen experience. “Make sure you choose an automation system with a standard platform and a touchpanel interface. Spending a few bucks on upgrading memory in touch panels will ensure you are able to develop feature rich interfaces both now and in the future,” Gilfillan says.
Outside of the core basics, there is plenty of uncharted territory for the manufacturers, integrators and end users. “The key is to maintain flexibility,” says Kathy Katz, partner at lighting manufacturer, Brightline. “Most manufacturers are developing both with an eye towards future trends as well as the open platform. Automation companies are making their products upgradeable, so firmware changes can be made remotely without having to change hardware.”
Standards Among Manufacturers
Fortunately, the foundation for A/V control and automation installations has been set by the IT realm. Jason Francois is a design engineer for nationwide A/V contractor CCS Presentation Systems in Scottsdale, AZ. For him, the patent line for future-proofing is: look at what the IT industry is doing. “Instead of direct run from controller to device, now we’re jumping across the local area network and going across the Internet,” he says. “If a piece of gear is not networkable by nature and by manufacture, we can add a small device to it to make it so.”
The difficulty over the past few years has been the lack of standards when it comes to future-proofing or technology that is on the horizon. “Control systems and automation make life easier because if we are interfacing with a building automation system, we can get into the simple network management protocol,” says Francois.
At AMX, part of the mission statement is to keep it simple. “We are a standards-based company,” says Ken Compagna, senior systems designer at AMX. “All of our devices communicate across the IP network so they are standard TCP/IP protocol. We are resident on the network with our single distribution.” For AMX, future-proofing means using current standards, not only internally for their devices to be able to communicate through TCP/IP, UDP and all the other standard protocols, but also the Cat6 cable they require for their devices. “For us, the future is now as far as communicating across the network,” he says.
Manufacturers are familiar with their customers’ frustrations about the expiration dates on some new technologies and take this into consideration when developing new products and systems. “When a customer spends thousands of dollars on a custom installed automation system, the last thing they want to hear is that their system is obsolete a year later,” says Nicolas Scott, solutions marketing manager, Control Systems, User Interfaces, Software at Crestron. “Both the Crestron network (Cresnet) and Ethernet have been the standards for device communication on a Crestron system for years. Ethernet continues to get designed into almost every new product, keeping the infrastructure standard and readily available.”
Making sure an installation is standards-based is the best and easiest way to prepare for upgrades down the road. “The moment you start talking about customized wiring, you’re setting yourself up for enormous cost in rewiring along with construction and demolition costs,” said Paul Williams, vice president of Security and Communications Experience at Control4. For that reason, Control4 decided to offer standards-based solutions in order to allow an upgrade path of continuity down the line.
Integrators and End Users Planning Together
Cenero’s Gilfillan believes a client relies on the experience and good instincts of a quality integrator who becomes a partner. “A good partner’s job is to say: ‘This is what I recommend today for the next four or five years,” he says. “If you want to go past that, these are the options out there. Here is the delta in terms of spending.'” The client does not need to know how to program the gear, but the client has to rely on a good partner to educate them on the value proposition of a decision.
When Lutron is engaged with clients early in the process, they are able to educate the client on what they have in the pipeline and what they will be able to do in 18 months, the typical timeframe for implementing a project. “When retrofitting buildings or classrooms, if we are brought in early with clients, we can let them know where the technology is situated on our roadmap,” says Brian Dauskurdas, director, Global Energy Sales at Lutron.
If brought in on a project once it is already underway, Lutron is then bidding on parts and pieces available at that moment. “Sometimes clients bring us in on the process two years before the shovel hits the ground. That way we start the planning focused on where the technology is going. If we are brought in three or four months before the shovel hits the ground, then the technology going in the building is already a year or two years old.”
Mobile Devices That Visit and Wireless Devices That Live There
A growing priority in the corporate and higher education environments is the integration of mobile devices into the A/V system. CCS Presentations has been hearing a lot of enthusiasm for everything wireless. “The bring-your-own-device culture is making its way in to the A/V environment,” says Francois at CCS. “Apple and Microsoft are having a huge impact on that because of what you can do with [iOS,] Windows 7 and Windows 8.” The end user wants to maximize this mobile device capability and implement the gadget in a professional way. They want to be able to push their content from those devices or from their laptop and have it appear on the big screen — wirelessly.
Along with mobile devices, the stationary devices are also going wireless. “Copper is not going away. Neither is Cat5 cable or co-ax,” says Francois. “But wireless opens a lot of opportunities to ease the installation process. The ability to communicate becomes easier and more effective with access to more gear from the master control system or a PC.” CCS is looking at more devices that begin to implement wireless natively or that can be put on a network with a wireless bridge. “We know everything at some point is going to achieve an IP address,” he says. “If IP version 6 gets out of the gate, every square inch of the planet is going to have an IP address.”
When designing or implementing control systems now, an integrator considers: How can I leverage the existing network? And what can I predict to take shape over the next three to five years to control this equipment? “In the case of AMX or Crestron, do I need to add IP devices for what we are trying to control? Are they already controllable natively?” asks Francois. From the A/V integrator perspective as well as from the IT perspective, the question now is: “How do we make that work?” If it does not work, how does the integrator use the existing technology to give the customer the equivalent experience? It all harkens back to the convergence of IT and A/V.
Infrastructure is the most elemental aspect of future-proofing that has to stay nice and flexible to accommodate change. Luckily, most commercial spaces are built to facilitate the easy addition of wiring, given drop ceilings and temporary walls. Also, most devices are standardized on Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or something-over-Cat5. “Thankfully infrastructure has not changed much over the past decade or longer,” says Scott at Crestron. “Maybe the amount of wire you run through the wall has increased, but the wire type really has not.” Looking at different components in an integrated system, it is easy to update certain parts and pieces as necessary. “It is easy to change out a TV, cable box, or even an A/V switcher,” he says. “Cutting open the walls is the harder bit.”
There is No Such Thing as Future-proof
The general rule of thumb for future-proofing is: early majority is great; bleeding edge is bad. Cenero is an integration company with one employee whose entire job is to test new technologies and new products. “We have a 70 percent failure rate based on manufacturer’s specs,” says Gilfillan. “That is relevant because everyone loves the latest coolest thing, but the latest technology is not always ready for prime time.” While it is impossible to be completely “future-proofed,” awareness of manufacturer’s latest products, along with some healthy flexibility, will keep doors open to try new solutions while running a reliable system.