AV and the Transport sector: Keep on moving

Bosch equips Helsinki Metro with public address and emergency voice evacuation system_1
Bosch PA/VA systems on the Helsinki Metro in Finland

We all expect to see and hear messages on our daily commute to work, yet cutting-edge AV is rarely used to do it. Paul Milligan explores the reasons why and how things might change.

Transport has always had a rather conservative relationship with technology. It has been a reluctant and unenthusiastic partner for AV at times. One reason for this is that train stations or bus terminals don’t really compete with each other in the way than say the retail sector does for our business.

The latest  technology won’t draw you in off the street to  use a bus or train if you didn’t want to travel in the first place, transport is a truly functional  pursuit. Also, if you need to get to Brussels from Paris you will go to Gare de Nord for example,  because that is where that train leaves. You are not choosing Gare de Nord station because it has the best audio or displays in Paris, like you would choose a cinema or nightclub or bar in the same city.

That is one reason why we are rarely wowed  by technology at points of travel. But there are  other reasons too, money inevitably plays a part, the vast majority of transport projects across  EMEA are public sector-funded. Stringent legislation requirements and durability/lifetime requirements placed on technology also play a  part in the transport sector’s reluctant to push technological boundaries. 

Yet we live in a  modern world, and as Keith Winchester, director, North American transit, from video surveillance systems provider March Networks suggests, technology  is unavoidable these days; “People expect technology to be there on their commute,  whether it is on a bus or a train station or airport. People expect innovation in their commute, its part of their daily lives.”  If we start at the beginning of a transport   project we can get an immediate feel why  this sector is a tricky one for integrators and consultants.  Getting project approval signed  off has always been a slow and arduous process, is this still the case? Yes, is the unequivocal  response from the industry. “Getting final signoff is a big challenge.

Bosch equips Helsinki Metro with public address and emergency voice evacuation system_3

It can take a year  to get something through a committee and passed. What it does do is separate the men  from the boys. If you aren’t large enough to  absorb a long delay, knowing that you won’t  get your final 10% or 20% for three years it’s  hard to do business,” says Winchester.

There are different issues depending on the project says  Vassilis Kyriazis, general director of sales and  management from Greek integrator Telmaco, “but generally speaking they are long-term   projects with difficult sign-off procedures.”  If it takes so long to get the money together   how do you deal with that delay as an integrator,  consultant or manufacturer? “We always put   a caveat in our contracts that the technology  might change but the spirit of what it will   deliver will remain,” says Winchester. “For us it’s a minimum of five years to support something you sell, then it’s another two years before you  can end life service.”         

Once you finally have project sign-off, are the    levels  of  the  budgets  ever  an  issue,  especially    given it’s public money most of the time? Money is always tight it seems, “The budget is always a    key point in government projects as they have to  be really strict,” says Anthony Krustev, product    manager  for  Bulgarian  integrator  Universal    K. 

“They want the best, but their budgets say they can’t  get  it,”  adds Winchester.  Fredrik    Setterberg,  CEO  of  Swedish  audio  consultant  Soliflex  raises  another  issue  around  transport    budgets  he  is  seeing  more  and more  of.    “In  Sweden  right  now,  purchasing  (decisions)  are    made from contracts with limitations on what  products can be used.  For example, loudspeakers    are  pre-defined  in  eight  different  models  that  can be used.  The budgets are fairly limited and    sound is not the top priority, (travel time table) screens is.”

Once budgets are in place, albeit probably less  than you would like it to be, is getting access to the  site still as tricky as its always been? ‘Availability of the site is more of an issue in these types of  projects because of the nature of the environment in which they are deployed.  More specifically, there    is a limited interruption of service and also usually have  much  tighter  security  constraints  than in   other environments,” says Alexandre Simionescu, co-founder  and  principal of digital  experience agency Float4.   

renkus heinz gothenburg station transport

The experience of Kyriazis has    been  the  same  with  site  access,“It’s  difficult, either due to the 24x7 operation in projects where we are working on existing operations or due to the location of the installation.”   Once a decision has been  made  on  the technology, how long are systems expected to last? Are they expected to be in place for years or even decades? If that’s the case how can you  ever  win  repeat  business?  “New systems  are installed in transport projects every 5-6 years,” says  Krustev. He cites a  recent  Universal  K project  for  Metro  Sofia  in  Bulgaria,  where  the client wanted the most up-to-date equipment, and as a result his company is now in regular  contact to update the systems.  Winchester says March Networks picks up repeat business from  new  bus  builds,  as  part  of  a  general  overhaul every  5-7  years.  Others  aren’t  so  lucky,  “In a recent project  we  were  asked  to  commit  on the availability of spares for 20 years after the installation of a videowall,”  adds  Vassilis.   It’s clear the transport sector is not for you if you    want to make a quick buck, which explains why integrators and consultants in this field are often transport specialists, with decades of experience.  

Has what clients are asking for in transport projects changed at all in the last few years? “I  think that the role of AV, in general, has evolved from being purely functional to something that contributes to the identity of aesthetics of the space; it contributes to the passenger experience in different  ways  than  purely  informational    applications,”  says  Simionescu.  Vassilis was another sensing a change in the market, “We see a switch to pure IP solutions. Transport projects are trying to use the IP infrastructure they are developing for other usages. Although  EN54  is not used extensively in our markets, we see more and more adoption especially in transport projects.”   

The feeling of progress was felt by all we spoke to, “Things are changing,” says Winchester, “The drivers for RFP are coming from the engineering department and the IT department, rather than the maintenance department, who only cared about how technology would last from a liability standpoint. The committees are intelligent, they  know what they want.  We are past the stage of ‘here is what we do, take it’. They are starting to  demand innovation. They drive us.” 

Float4 project at Vancouver Airport transport

If things are changing how is that manifesting itself in new technology?  Is intelligibility  still the number one issue around audio in transport venues for example? Or are they now looking at newer advancements such as directional or object-based audio? “Intelligibility is an important issue, but it is not really a priority for electrical consultants for example. Also, many systems are designed by non audio consultants, which makes it far from a perfect sound system,” says Setterberg. ‘There is definitely a need for beam steering, if the large station halls are to be left untouched, then it leaves only to make as good a compromise as possible, which beam steering is.”

Simionescu is another who would like to see object-based audio in transport venues, “There is a lot of ambient noise and distraction, so the ability to target the audience with more granularity would really help.”

Speaking of targeting the audience, should digital signage, so often just a basic offering in transport, be doing more than just showing a few (non-targeted) adverts to commuters? Should we now be looking to link signage with data applications? “In the context of digital signage, content should be more data-driven, its shouldn’t only be linked to big data but should also generate data by understanding traffic flows, deliver messages better, which makes the experience more personalised,” says Simionescu. “We have been proposing a ‘Video Public Address’ system,” says Vassilis. “Doing more with digital signage is increasing, but I think there is a lack of standardisation for such a systems to be a part of an evacuation plan.”  

Much like the industry-wide shift to AV over IP, there are fears that huge IT companies will swoop in on this opportunity to merge digital signage with big data, and take away a potentially lucrative slice of the pie from the AV world, as Winchester explains.  “If you look at all the bus stops for the top 75 agencies in America, there are 3.8 million points of interest in the US, data that can be captured, just from using that bus as a sensor.  “You can allow people to use apps so they can see if the bus is full, or it’s standing room only etc. In the next five years, whoever hasn’t advanced to that point will be gone from the market. My biggest fear is that it will be Qualcomm or Cisco will be the ones to figure it out first.  The data has so much value, so we need to work with integrators to figure out where they all are.”