Controlling influences

Steve Montgomery reports on the latest developments in AV control solutions.

As the number of commercial presentation systems increases and their inherent complexity rises, there is an ever-growing level of demand for integrated control systems that make operation simpler and more ‘sexy’. At the same time the real cost of high tech AV system components has fallen over the past few years to such an extent that the cost of controllers has been in danger of becoming disproportionate.
Both effects have combined over recent years to create a new market in remote control systems that has taken advantage of new platforms and the ubiquitous leaps in processing power and memory available to ever-smaller hand held devices. The net result is that suppliers of these control systems are acting in ever more creative ways to enhance their product by incorporating new features and expanding the range of devices that can be controlled.
There are essentially two ways that the manufacturers of controllers deliver products and systems to market. Firstly, the all-encompassing range of hardware, coupled with programming and design tools; the approach taken by the well-known vendors such as AMX, Crestron and Cue.
Alternatively, by offering universal control software and driver modules that allow third-party components to be used in a mix-and-match way; as favoured by and AVIT, who are incorporating TCP/IP communication between touch panels controllers and devices.
Carsten Steinecker, Managing Director of distributor COMM-TEC compares the different approaches: “For many years now proprietary legacy control systems have been sold successfully mainly on the strength of their reliability. However, our partners and their customers are increasingly suffering on pricing and other limitations of legacy proprietary systems.
“This is a factor which has slowed down the market penetration of next generation control systems in the past as legacy control system manufacturers bundled their hardware and software. The whole industry got used to it and accepted unrealistic hardware prices. What has proven to be the only way for a reliable system in the past has turned to become a competitive disadvantage these days and System Integrators learn fast.”
Conversely, Wilfred de Nijs, Director of Product Marketing at Extron preaches a single supplier solution for all control elements: “Configurable systems are more efficient for the integrator. Faster implementation and integration allows for cost effective system design and installation, system integrators are not dependent on expensive freelancers to carry out programming development, while post-installation tasks can be easily accomplished by field technicians.
“Unlike programming-based systems, configurable systems may be deployed more rapidly and consistently. In general, a configurable control solution allows the integrator to avoid the undocumented or inconsistent source code issues found in programmable control solutions. Extron has been delivering fully configurable control systems for more than a decade. System switchers, MediaLink® controllers, and IP Link technology are sitting at the heart of thousands of A/V systems, standardizing the control interface and bringing devices from various brands under one platform. With the experience gained from MediaLink controllers, we feel confident applying the same configuration philosophy to more complex A/V systems with the new Extron TouchLink configurable touch panel control system.”

Cue Systems covers both its own range of CueVision controllers as well has third party devices through an enabling operating system pdCUE, enabling the use of any Pocket PC, PDA or Tablet PC running under Microsoft Windows software. The company recently introduced Cue Composer. According to Jaroslav Dibitanzi: “Cue Visual Composer is not just about a new programming environment, it is also about new communication protocol and firmware for all our units.”
These are conflicting schools of thought, each with their own arguments. Rob Robinson, Director of Marketing at favours the open architecture approach: “History tells us that open architecture always wins in the long run: removing the tie between the hardware and software offers a better level of acceptance from equipment suppliers, and hence their support as well as opening the range and mix of technology that can be employed. It is ideal in providing third party extensibility allowing applications to be developed that were not originally addressed when was conceived. Open architecture takes advantage of any communication device, many of which are now web-enabled, including smartphones, PDAs and even wall buttons; it really is a scenario of ‘any action on any platform anywhere’ ”.
Web enabling is very much the technology of the moment, allowing access to, and a common interface methodology through, a well understood transport layer between the wide variety of controlling and controllable devices. Coupled with wireless networks it enables full control of distributed servers and clients at close range or over great distances. Although obviously not limited to devices with PC engines it has its forte there.
The key area in web-oriented control is the bridge between the IP network and non-networkable devices which have IR receivers or at best an RS232 input. Globalcache’s GC-100 Network Adapter provides such a bridge. A new device, the iTach, provides similar functionality in an even more compact unit, as Robin Ford, the company’s VP Business Development explains: “The palm-sized, ultra-compact device includes a choice of wired TCP/IP or WiFi connectivity to infrared, serial or contact closure equipment, supporting eight simultaneous connections. It is ideal for use with all control systems, even an iPhone or iPod touch with control software, receiving commands over an IP network and issuing corresponding commands over a choice of serial, IR and contact closures. It includes a built-in IR learner and is backward compatible to the GC-100. The Global Caché is a family of products designed to connect almost any electrical device to a network in a matter of minutes. It is flash upgradeable in the field and includes embedded web pages for quick and easy-to-use installation and setup. Wired models include a power over Ethernet option.” launched a new version: Stardraw Control 2010 at the beginning of September. This is a more powerful version of the current version with a similar licensing strategy aimed at individual applications in residential and business environments. Rob Robinson: “2010 has whole host of new facilities and is the most powerful control software available. It has been developed to take advantage of the wide plethora of web-enabled devices and advances in Windows’ graphical abilities. This version uses Windows .Net Framework 3.5 which is ideal for graphic-based control systems allowing new levels of realistic 3D animation and a much richer user interface experience. Event logging of user actions is included which allows text files to be created and then sent to manage the system at a higher level, for example to permit the integrator to observe and tweak its operation. It also offers asynchronous operation using AJAX browser support that has the advantage of delivering almost instant control of equipment whilst delivering visual feedback through the control panel to the user.”
As for the future, Carsten Steinecker: “The overall demand for control is currently almost flat and this is rather unusual for the AV-Industry, regardless of the overall economical situation. Users are suffering in Southern Europe whereas in Eastern Europe some System Integrators are in trouble; they find themselves in the position to deliver at prices which were calculated at very different exchange rates. However our best indicator the project pipeline has grown a lot and COMM-TEC predicts a strong 4th quarter. The future of control will be based on industrial IT standard concepts but also provide additional benefits to the installer and the end-user/customer”

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