30.08.11

User experiences

Are programmers being outstripped by processing power and potential? Steve Montgomery investigates the control systems market place.

It is doubtful that anyone in our industry could have missed the effect that tablets and smart phones have had on the way everyone interacts with technology. But neither could they have predicted the consequences and wider implications they have had on AV control systems.

Touch panels have been available for many years, but their cost and complexity have limited them to higher profile installations. Now, however, touch control is becoming ‘the norm’: people expect a device to respond to their fingers and are surprised if this does not happen. Microsoft includes touch control within Windows 7, display manufacturers have responded by making touch panels more widely available and cheaper.

But what effect is this having on the AV control world? Harald Steindl at installation company Mocom Communication Systeme thinks it will have major consequences:

“Consultants and programmers need to learn very quickly that the days of simply arriving on a job with no preparation and simply designing a user interface on–the–fly are over. Users now expect slick and professional interfaces that are intuitive and simple to use; without having to pay for a bespoke design. So there is an underlying assumption that the core system is present and it just needs to be tailored to their installation.

“It is the consultant’s job to specify and manage this. The availability and falling cost of interactive hardware has affected the margins available to integrators who will have to adjust their business models as they make less from hardware supply. They will have to increase programming and integration charges. This was a lesson learnt by the IT industry about 15 years ago; it is happening again in the AV world right now.”

Another factor lies in the way that devices are now ‘always on’ and continuously available. Protocols are tending to become open and it is nowadays assumed that disparate devices will intercommunicate in a meaningful way, so that integration of a wide range of service devices is possible.

A point taken up by Stephen Barker, a consultant with MJC: “Control systems are migrating to IP-based technology with greater and more sophisticated levels of integration with other services giving greater user control and simplicity. A typical example is building management where integrated control is becoming a requirement and environmental services combine with AV control to allow streamlining of air conditioning, lighting, energy management, room booking, catering and AV set-up in conference rooms and office facilities; something that can be achieved now that was unthinkable a few years ago.

“Our preference is to use IP as the control protocol where possible although interfacing to some devices through other protocols is sometimes necessary. This approach does throw up some problems as the AV systems cannot be completed until after the IP network is commissioned, a problem often encountered in new builds.

“The implication of this approach is that greater interaction is required between the designer and user to prepare and plan the system and decide how it will operate at the system planning stage; something that is often difficult to achieve. AV technology, and that means both content and control, are being absorbed more and more into the IT realm through networks, shared database, backup and server-hosted solutions.

At the moment the industry standard practice can make it difficult to design and manage installations using this model.”

Control systems are generally provided to make life easier for the user, but must be planned and deployed with them in mind. As they become more complex there is more potential for poor system design to surface. This is understood by equipment providers, as Andrew Smith at Kramer Electronics (UK) points out:

“Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of calls I’ve taken saying that the control system doesn’t work correctly, when in reality the control system is doing exactly what it is programmed to do, the problem being that it isn’t programmed to work the way the end user wants it to work.

“Control system programming isn’t a skill, it’s an art form and it takes a long time to learn. It requires an understanding of what the customer wants to happen with each button push on the touch screen and the ability to turn those requests into a solution. Dealers and system integrators need to engage better with the customers in terms of how the control system is expected to work. Currently systems are becoming more powerful but the software programming isn’t keeping pace.”

This is reflected by Brian Davies, European technology and training director for AMX: “The user interface is the single aspect of a solution that the end-user interacts with every time they use a system. Often far too little detail is provided in many tender requests with regard to the customers’ requirements and aspirations.

“This lack of detail makes it difficult for integrators to quote for design and programming services on a like-for-like basis, which can result in the customer receiving systems that do not fully meet their requirements. User functionality must define the hardware choice not the other way round.

“If the requirements of the end-user are well understood from the start the integrator will be able to allow for suitable engineering time when developing their response to the tender request. Technology is rarely the limiting factor as far as customisation is concerned; it is more a question of how the system is designed from the outset.”

Manufacturers have a key part to play in ensuring that as their offerings become more complex, they can be successfully deployed. This includes not just the system control aspect, but integration with external devices. An integrated control system requires that each individual component is set up and connected in the most appropriate manner to perform at its best.

“The convergence of video and audio infrastructure and the leveraging of structured cabling and IP make the design of the physical aspects of a system solution much simpler, especially when complex multi-room facilities are concerned,” Brian Davies explains, “However, many solutions on the market today require extensive configuration to overcome limitations in the technology, particularly in the way that video signals are displayed concurrently on displays with differing resolutions. This can result in the selection of the highest common resolution, rather than native resolution being delivered to each display with consequent reductions in image quality. AMX has gone to great lengths to ensure that this is not the case with our solutions.”

Danish manufacturer Neets has recently introduced a new generation of its control products. EcHo is a button-based panel with single button system configuration suited to classroom and conference room installations with configuration programming through a front facing USB port. SieRRa includes a built-in web server to enable an additional touch panel and integration with smartphones and tablet PCs, giving an unlimited number of functions and customisable graphical user interface. Its new Neets Expansion Bus (NEB) provides extended functionality including RS232 and RS-485 device control together with advanced room set up scheduling.

The ubiquity of control systems and the overriding need for simplicity is recognised by TLS Communication. Its Pathfinder control system is designed to offer transparent room control targeted at education and conference rooms where users want to focus on their presentations, rather than the equipment.

Reinar Dubiel from TLS:” Teachers are the hardest customers of all to satisfy and demand systems in which they can simply plug in their laptop and it does the rest: switching other equipment on and setting it all up. Pathfinder includes intelligent detection that does this giving error-free and optimal control of projectors, screens and heating and ventilation services from the simple connection of a VGA device. The system is designed to work without user intervention so there is no need for a user interface either.”

Simplicity in use is recognised by Kramer, as explained by Yuval Inditzky control systems product manager: “We roughly divide the installations into two groups. Random user rooms; where several people will need simple intuitive control. For these we offer products like the WP-500, WP-501, RC-8IR, SummitView systems and several other simple to operate systems. This will use familiar control protocols such as IR, RS-232, RS-485 and should include ETH connectivity to report to the AV managing application on equipment status.

“In single user rooms a more powerful, feature-rich control system is usually preferred by a few users who will spend the time getting to know how to operate the various functions. A touch panel or PC-based application is recommended since it is the most straightforward way to give the user control over a large number of different options. We have opened up our control protocol, enabling the installers to choose any common PC platform or touch panel device and use it as a user interface in a room control system based on our family of SL series room controllers.”

To cope with the multitude of new devices that can be used as controllers, Kramer has extended the K-NET system to allow several to be used in one installation and to allow any platform to be used as a user interface. AMX has also been busy recently with a clutch of new product releases to enhance and extend the user interface experience.

Included in these are the Modero X series of large widescreen touch panels up to 20” for enterprise installations with integrated high definition camera for video chat and conferencing, Bluetooth and USB external phone connections, video streaming and support for Near Field Communications technologies.

Extron’s latest products focus on their configurable control, outlined by Casey Hall, vice president of sales and marketing: “Our customers asked for a touchpanel that incorporated the sleek look and feel of our 10-inch TLP 1000 Series, but in a more compact form factor. The TLP 710 series provides the same powerful features, including PoE and an integrated twisted pair receiver, in a slightly smaller package."

The company’s new Global Configurator Pro configuration software package offers features like conditional logic and controller grouping for program-like functionality, but with the ease of configuration. This advanced configuring allows TouchLink to be used in larger, more complicated AV systems.

Stardraw offers a design package that allows designers to develop applications to control a diverse range of devices from third-party platforms including personal devices. “The iPad has changed everything by setting a new level in terms of perception and expectation of users,” says David Snipp, CEO, “Users should be able to plug any device in for it to just work, but this is not yet the case.”

The iPad and iPhone have affected the market drastically, however they are not necessarily suited to use in the AV control industry. “Apple’s methodology of approving all applications and only supplying them through the iStore and then taking a 30% commission is incompatible with bespoke control applications, where programmers need to be able to apply control schemes to bespoke systems. The solution we are focusing on is based on HTML pages which will operate on any web-enabled platform. Designers can easily create the applications, they can be run on all web devices and are future-proof in that they unaffected by hardware upgrades. Windows 8 will be based around HTML so this approach has been identified by Microsoft as the way of the future. In addition cloud computing will have major effects on the industry as more applications migrate to remotely hosted systems particularly in large, complex installation on both design and application sides.”

“There is a lot of interest in having access to systems through other means, such as PCs, laptops, and especially Apple devices” suggests Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for Remote Technologies.

“Clearly the iProducts are the hottest devices to hit the CE market in the last decade, and for many of us have become an integral part of our everyday lifestyle. Having access to the systems in a home or business from these devices is a natural extension.

“RTI has responded to this demand from the consumer with some amazing solutions, like the Virtual Panel for local or remote access to any RTI system from an Internet-connected PC or laptop, and the RTiPanel, which provides the same functionality for Apple devices is the most highly anticipated product we’ve ever released. Both products offer complete control over any of RTI’s powerful XP remote processors and all connected electronic systems from virtually anywhere in the world, in addition to providing a completely customisable UI.“

The future is likely to bring yet more convergence of AV and IT as the two worlds merge. As Yuval Inditzky predicts: “The open protocol approach that we see these days in the iOS applications field and with Android OS devices is going to become very popular in the room control market. End users and installers will prefer to get the knowledge and tools to use the hardware the way they see fit, without limitation on appearance, style and so on.”


This will affect everyone in the control systems industry and make certain that the recent shift in technology will continue more rapidly in the future.