EDITORS CHOICE 03.02.17

Technology outlook: Hype or hope?

Back view of businesswoman working with modern virtual technologies

Gartner’s latest “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” includes several potential opportunities for AV firms. Tim Kridel explores drones, VR, artificial intelligence and more.

Few things are as tantalising as getting in on the ground floor of a hot new technology, then going on to lock up mind share and market share. There’s no shortage of them in Gartner’s latest “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies,” but some are better fits for pro AV firms than others. 

Case in point: drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They’re climbing the hype cycle’s “innovation trigger,” which Gartner defines as five to 10 years away from the “plateau of productivity.” Gartner declined an interview, but the plateau appears to be when a technology has gone mainstream, meaning the novelty sheen has worn off and been replaced with real-world proof that it’s a way to save or make money.

Since InAVate explored drones in the January-February 2015 issue, the market has boomed. One measure is the number and diversity of companies that have received US government approval to fly drones for commercial purposes: more than 5,500 operators in over 40 types of applications.

“Forward-thinking AV integrators are already starting to use VR/AR to showcase AV products in context of the client environment with other building products and furnishings.” 
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) maintains a database of approved users and application types at www.auvsi.org/advocacy/exemptions70. It’s worth perusing simply to get a sense of how drones are currently used and which applications pro AV firms could support. It also shows vendor market shares, which is useful for identifying ones to resell—and which ones might not be around when the ecosystem contracts, as is the case when any hot, nascent market starts to mature.

“I think we’re going to see it fall off the cliff and then level out,” says Ryan English, president and co-founder of FlyMotion Unmanned Systems, a US-based firm that sells customised drones and related services for verticals such as law enforcement. “I just read an article that said by the end of 2017, 50% of UAV manufacturers in existence today no longer will be. I’d say that’s pretty accurate.”

More than meets the eye


Drones are like digital signage in at least one respect: To prospective end users, they look pretty straightforward to operate on a daily basis. But once they’re up and running, end users often realise how much time and specialised skills are required, such as content creation and management in the case of signage. So they’re more than happy to outsource the grunt work. 

2016 Gartner Hype Cycle

At first glance, AV firms that specialise in video applications such as surveillance seem well positioned to expand into drones. But many drone-based video applications have challenges and requirements that are significantly different than when a camera is mounted on a building. 

“A lot of people [think], ‘We can sell drones,’” English says. “The reality is there’s so much more beyond that. It’s very different than dealing with a normal product: There’s policies and regulations, the training, integration, making sure the system is a good fit.”

For example, film studios were among the first drone users, and their UAVs have specialised cameras, gimbals and other systems not found on the off-the-shelf drones that the vast majority of businesses currently use. So although that customisation creates market opportunities, AV firms can capitalise on them only if they’re willing and able to add the necessary vertical-specific skills. 

And those that do face a growing amount of competition because the systems integration portion of the drone ecosystem is maturing. In agriculture, for example, some firms will build drones with sensors for attributes for soil acidity, collect the data and then help clients analyse it. 

“There are a lot of companies that are now coming up for those types of things because that’s a response to the demand of the marketplace,” says Tom McMahon, AUVSI vice president of advocacy and public affairs. “When the idea of commercial drones first came about, some folks thought, ‘I want to fly my own systems.’ 

“Then they found out there’s a license requirement, a special skill set and the time to learn how to do it and then actually fly it. Those integrators are coming along to do not only the flights, but all of those other services.”

Some drone vendors are spurring the market by helping end users with tasks such as integrating their drone-based video surveillance tools with their existing security systems. This trend also highlights how picking the right vendor partner is key because the market leaders will have more leads to pass along.

“As our customer base grows, we have realised that many companies don’t necessarily have the in-house knowledge or expertise to create a successful unmanned aerial systems (UAS) programme and/or know how to use the data they collect,” says Andrea Sangster, senior marketing manager at drone vendor Aeryon Labs. “With that in mind, Aeryon has introduced an Enterprise Solutions offering. We have in-house expertise, as well as a network of industry experts that will support an enterprise according to industry and business requirements.”

Interest in outsourcing varies by vertical.

“Some utility, energy, oil and gas companies worked with service providers to trial the technology and now have created their own UAS programmes to bring the inspection/monitoring activities in-house and expand to multiple locations,” Sangster says. 

“In the public safety and government space, I’d say those are pretty much doing it in-house,” English adds. “For industrial and other enterprise clients, a lot of them are looking to contract services out.”

The reality of AR and VR


Augmented reality (AR) sits in Gartner’s “trough of disillusionment,” while virtual reality (VR) is further along, in the slope of enlightenment. As with drones, it’s tempting to assume that experience with other types of video applications enables an easy segue into AR, VR or both. And as with drones, that’s not the case.

One example is Nutanix, which recently developed a VR video to showcase its enterprise cloud IT offerings. Although it might seem like the kind of company that would have the internal expertise and tools necessary to create the video itself, Nutanix outsourced development to Remedy.  

“We decided to go with an outside firm because we wanted an experienced partner in what is generally still a very new field/technology,” says Gleb Brichko, Nutanix senior director of digital marketing and operations. “While we have an AV team in-house, they do not have the experience, software tools or camera equipment necessary to execute something of this scope: shooting, editing, CGI components, etc. 

“Given the high level of investment into this video, we wanted an optimal quality output, and wanted an experienced partner in the space to produce a top-quality product. Remedy did a fantastic job on this, both from helping us scope and script, as well as the actual production of the final video.”

Some AV firms are using AR/VR internally rather than offering them as products. 

“3D immersive visualisation through VR/AR can be an important tool for AV integrators to streamline their own business,” says Ted Brodheim, Samsung Electronics America vice president of vertical business. “They work in a visual medium and have strong need to help clients visualise physical environments that AV needs to integrate into.” 

The hardware, software and skills necessary to create compelling AR/VR content are not cheap. But that investment can be justifiable if the content is used to make sales or upsales that otherwise might not happen. They also can be used to literally show clients why a particular AV design feature is necessary.

“Voice control has been around for 40 years, but it's only in the last two that we saw improvements in word accuracy rate and speed sufficient to satisfy an end user.” 
“Forward-thinking AV integrators are already starting to use VR/AR to showcase AV products in context of the client environment with other building products and furnishings,” Brodheim says. “Think [of] a virtual environment that you can walk through like you would in a first-person shooter game on a screen. Then imagine doing that in VR so you are immersed in the environment like you are there. 360 video can help AV integrators showcase their deployments in full immersion to help them close new business.”

Some AR/VR opportunities are arising out of trends in other industries or government mandates. An example of the latter is the US American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which required the use of building information modelling for government contracts.

“It set the stage for use of 3D building models that can be brought into VR through 3D gaming engines,” Brodheim says. “Costly physical buildout of environments for clients in the build and sign-off stage are being replaced by 3D models that you can interact with on tablets, screens and in VR headsets for total immersion. This also compresses the time for client sign-off.”

AI comes of age


AR, VR, drones and every other technology on Gartner’s hype cycle have one thing in common: They wouldn’t be as far along, or in some cases exist at all, if compute power hadn’t spent the past decade increasing even as its price decreased. Another example is artificial intelligence (AI), a sprawling category of technologies and applications that include the virtual personal assistants that Gartner says are in the cycle’s innovation trigger stage. 

Cheap, powerful chips enable smartphones and devices such as Amazon’s Alexa to understand everyday speech, a capability often referred to as natural language processing or understanding. NLP/NLU applications have conditioned people to not only feel comfortable conversing with a device, but also expecting it to be an option in more and more environments—including AV spaces such as conference rooms.

Adding NLP/NLU to AV devices such as control panels could be attractive to enterprises if it means, for example, that they’d need fewer techs to help users figure out how to find settings for the lights and shades. The attraction also could come from making it easier for users to get the most out of their AV systems, thus maximising their RoI. 

man playing with the drone. silhouette against the sunset sky

A startup, Jstar, currently is targeting the residential AV market with Josh, an AI platform that controls audio, cameras and other systems. 

“Voice control has been around for 40 years, but it's only in the last two that we saw improvements in word accuracy rate and speed sufficient to satisfy an end user,” says Alex Capecelatro, co-founder and CEO. “Voice is a great equaliser, making tech-savvy and technophobes alike comfortable with their systems. 

“I do believe we're starting to see a significant increase in NLP and voice controlled systems as the technology improves and integrations become better. I don't think there are any major inhibitors to this technology other than soured experiences with older systems.”

Josh already works with Crestron lighting, which some conference rooms use, so it’s not a stretch to see it being used for pro AV.

“Josh could absolutely work for non-residential applications,” Capecelatro says. “We've been approached by building developers, offices, smaller hotels, super yachts, condos and others. 

“Right now we're focused on larger single-family homes as they tend to be more complicated and custom than other install areas. As we scale, we will begin to explore some of the other verticals. But as of now, I don't believe anyone is using Josh in non-residential applications other than dealer showrooms.”

AV integrators interested in using Josh wouldn’t have to spend a lot on specialised programmers.

“There's no programming necessary, just some drag-and-drop and nicknaming via our web portal,” Capecelatro says. “You can see a video showing the install process at https://youtu.be/Xn0TRXQO8e8. Our goal is to make the install so easy the installer can focus instead on delivering a delightful and magical experience for the end user.”