Lighting and AV - still in the dark

Norwegian Joy Galaxy Pavillion
Norwegian Joy cruise ship - Galaxy Pavillion - Credit Rick Diaz Photography

Lighting should be an integral part of AV, but often exists separately. Paul Milligan looks at the barriers to bringing lighting under the AV umbrella, and asks is the AV sector missing out on a huge opportunity here?

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between lighting and audio when discussing the place of each one in the AV world. They both require a level of scientific knowledge to install properly, and both often perform their crucial tasks out of sight.

Something integrators/consultants can no longer say about audio, ‘it’s not my job’, is still being used about lighting and lighting control, so why is this happening? And by leaving lighting to others to design and install, is the proAV industry missing out?

One factor that sparked this article was a recent visit to a case study where the AV integrator had been given responsibility for the lighting at a visitor attraction housed in an underground venue. On this occasion the lighting was a fundamental part of setting the right mood for visitors on their arrival, so how big a part does lighting play in creating atmosphere in venues such as museums or visitor attractions? “Lighting is absolutely critical to create the kind of atmosphere you want to have. It’s akin to walking in to the cinema with all the lights on, it completely ruins the effect,” says Paul Marshall, senior technology consultant from AV consultancy firm Recursive AV.

Darren Gatenby, senior consultant from Hewshott agrees, “It’s fundamental to give impact, if it’s a theme park you want it to be dark and moody, but it can also be bright to keep young children entertained. Lighting controls can help you give an impact rather than just having a standard 100W lamp in the ceiling.”

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So if lighting is so fundamental, what are the basics AV engineers should know? “They need to understand how the lighting and AV systems can interact with each other. This understanding includes the various interaction signals and software programming required to accept those messages. All sophisticated control systems require training and, especially, experience in the field to understand how to install, commission, and programme them before they are put to work,” says Mark White, regional sales manager UK and Ireland, for lighting manufacturer ETC.

More training is definitely needed says Sam Woodward, customer education leader from lighting control company Lutron. “The first message I would give to integrators is think about light as a whole, and the second thing is there is a light source revolution right now, so education is required to know about the differences in load. Then there is the whole science of colour rendering. The AV community is so well placed to embrace changes in the lighting industry because they already have exactly the right mindset because they are used to high fidelity sound, so now they need to embrace high fidelity light.”

Is it fair to say there is a knowledge gap at the moment between what AV consultants/ integrators currently know about lighting and what they should know? “In general integrators know very little about lighting, the problem with lighting is that it’s outside of their comfort zone, if they were given a job they would skill up or rent in the knowledge they needed pretty quickly. As for AV consultants, I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the most part lighting is outside their expertise,” says Greg Jeffreys, director of Visual Displays, and former InfoComm (now AVIXA) president.

The wider consensus is in agreement, yes there was a knowledge gap, but as Paul Marshall points out, there is one big reason for this. “Traditionally lighting comes under the M&E contract, so that element is being done by someone else, or we don’t get to influence what the architect has specified. Often by the time the AV integrator gets to the space the lighting is already installed and up and running.”

This separate approach to lighting and AV does cause problems, as one recent example given by Marshall illustrates. He had discovered the lighting control was being managed with PIR (Passive Infra Red), which is common in a lot of modern office spaces (i.e. the lights turn off when you walk out of the room and turn on when you return). Problems arise in such systems when you integrate that with an AV system as you have to be careful the lights don’t start turning off midway through an event, and this is something that often gets forgotten in the planning stages.

“Everyone is very eco-aware about turning off lights when they aren’t being used, but you also have to be aware of occasions where you want to disable that function, for example if you were in an auditorium and someone moves in the audience and the lights come back up to full power is far from ideal,” he adds.

Philip Heselton, projects and specifications manager EMEA from Philips Entertainment Group Europe was another to admit there was a knowledge gap at the moment, but again was keen to stress the reasons for this. “It’s the way the procurement process works, and the way the tender packages are then put out to the market. Because of that there are areas where there are gaps, for example you are crossing over from architectural lighting into event lighting, which is where AV engineers tend to pick up their packages. So you sometimes get a situation where integrators say ‘architectural lighting is nothing to do with us’, but someone has to integrate all of that, and that is the bit where there is a gap.”

Much like the audio parallel from earlier, does this knowledge gap then cause lighting/ lighting controls to be underspecified (which has happened with audio products) in projects because AV engineers don’t have the knowledge (or desire) to install them? “I think it is underspecified for two reasons,” says Woodward. “Firstly it’s a rapidly moving field. We are in the midst of three revolutions, in LED light sources, user interfaces and network control, and if AV staff aren’t keeping their fingers on the pulse then it can become difficult and confusing. And secondly there is an element of ‘this is the electrician’s job not mine’.

The market is there for the taking (for AV), but if they aren’t careful electricians will start looking at mounting screens and projectors.” As an example, Woodward has seen a marked rise in electrical contractors in his training courses, which used to be filled with high-end home cinema installers. “The industry is splitting into the haves and have-nots. There are a lot of AV companies embracing lighting but there are equally quite a lot who don’t go beyond audio and video.”

Lighting is nothing to be scared of says Heselton, “Some miss it because of a fear factor, some miss it because of the way the tender packages are done. There is certainly a way of saying ‘ok, if we are doing the AV part of a corporate installation and there are a lot of things that are going on the network can we not have it as part of our package?’”

There is no reason for the knowledge gap to get any wider says Jeffreys, because AV engineers already have the right mindset. “The point about AV as opposed to the other disciplines is that it’s a multi-disciplinary job, AV integrators and designers have to know about signal processing, video, audio, control systems, the whole panoply of stuff. I don’t see it as such a big deal to get lighting expertise added to their skillset.” Jeffreys has been a long-time researcher and lecturer on ANSI standards, and revealed AVIXA is to have its first meeting to set a new ANSI standard on under experience during ISE 2018.

“I’m pretty sure one of the upturns of that will be a renewed focus on lighting,’ he says, before adding he would like to see more AV people take an interest in lighting, but is sceptical big numbers will do so. “One major opportunity identified in the latest AVIXA report is lighting, however the AV industry is also deeply conservative and I think only a relatively few players will move into that space.”

As mentioned by Woodward earlier, lighting products are undergoing a revolution at the moment, led by LED, but integrators must do research says Heselton as ‘there is LED and there is LED’. “There are different qualities of LED and different temperatures of LED.” White is another to add a note of caution on LED lighting. “They are deeply variable, and from an AV viewpoint their glare and uncontrollable beam angles can wash out some AV screens.”

We have talked about setting moods and creating atmospheres with lighting, but can it offer a genuine benefit to corporate clients, for example improving the comfort of a video conference or reducing fatigue in meeting rooms? “Absolutely it can,” says Gatenby. “You don’t want the room to be too light in the front area as it will wash out the image, but you don’t want the back to be too dark.” Lighting is a science, so mistakes are easy to make says Heselton. “I’ve been in situations where they have an immense piece of AV kit, broadcasting worldwide and the camera is revolving around the room doing wonderful things but you can’t see anybody because of the lighting.”

The transition to LED can provide a challenge for video conferences, as highlighted by Woodward. “LED lighting can sometimes cause unwanted and misunderstood side affects. A lot of LED fixtures get dimmed using a technique called pulse-width modulation (PWM). It works by effectively turning them on and off faster than the human eye can see, which gives the effect of being dimmed. A video conferencing camera can see it, so you get a strobing effect. If AV engineers did more lighting training they would understand it’s entirely possible to not suffer those strobing effects using a different dimming technique called CCR (constant current reduction). There are plenty of drivers available that use CCR rather than PWM.”

As we have seen, some of the issues around lighting and AV are out of our control (the way the procurement process splits up the jobs) but there are other factors we can do something about (fear, lack of training) and we should, as Woodward highlights: “There is an enormous piece of the pie for the taking with lighting. Folks that are ignoring lighting are ignoring three things; the essential part of a project, they are ignoring something very achievable, and it’s a good solid margin part of a project. We all know what margins are like on at screen displays these days, lighting controls and shading don’t have that problem.”

Jeffreys too is keen for AV not to miss out, “Lighting is the elephant in the room, it’s the missing link in terms of the AV professional being able to provide a great user experience. Until project teams or procurement teams find a way to join them up in a more integrated way there is a massive opportunity that will be lost.”