Why software means big profits in the AV world

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The AV industry was created on hardware, but times are changing, and the provision of software is becoming big business for AV companies. Steve Montgomery speaks to those involved

For many years, microprocessors have been included in AV devices to control and manage their internal operation: starting with simple switching tasks and the display of information to users.  As processing power increased these devices were called upon to perform more complex tasks and enabling equipment to be connected to networks for remote configuration and control.  As technology evolved further, it became possible to design-in dedicated computing hardware and create bespoke software to perform more mainstream functions on the AV signals carried by the device itself.

The latest step in this evolution is to the use of non-specific, generic computing platforms and external control devices and applications that reside outside the processing device and perform functions that are desired by end users.

As a result the production of software to perform such a wide variety of tasks is becoming more necessary and important to manufacturers and integrators. Thomas Walter, section manager strategic product marketing, NEC Display Solutions, explains how it is affecting NEC’s display business: “As our customers demand extended end-to-end solutions, software and IT-network capabilities are becoming even more important to us. This is why NEC Display Solutions, formerly a hardware provider, is now very active in software based design such as IP-based video wall content management solutions, leafengine sensor integration for digital signage or collaborative applications for the NEC InfinityBoard.  Our all-in-one remote management software tool for desktop monitors, large format displays and projectors is an extremely important part of the display device for our customers.”
Pic 1Extron have experienced a similar transformation in the industry.  "Over 20 years ago we set up an AV control system using drag-and-drop configuration software,” explains Rainer Stiehl, vice president of marketing for Europe.  “The popularity of this user-friendly, configuration approach grew as platforms and system designs evolved.  Recently, with Global Scripter, we introduced an integrated development environment that uses the power and intuitive nature of the Python programming language.  Customers now have the convenience of the industry’s most powerful configuration-based control system solution and the freedom of Extron control system programming with Global Scripter and Python.”

A manufacturer that concentrates solely on the development of software that runs on generic PC platforms is Vioso.  Founder and CEO, Benjamin Fritsch points out that it was not an easy task to develop a company with this philosophy: “We have always been a software company and being very focused on digital solutions from the start. However, when entering the market with a software solution for automatic projector alignment ten years ago we entered a lot of resistance.  We were faced with comments from projector vendors that they expected hardware.  Integrators objected that they could perform the tasks manually can do it manually.  There was also a widespread belief at the time that software was not stable.  This situation has completely changed over the last few years.  They are all returning and talking about the need for digital solutions.”

Many modern installations take advantage of mobile devices to provide a convenient control and management interface to equipment; often linked to external services like room booking systems, personal presence detectors and building management systems.  As a consequence, manufacturers need to provide an interface mechanism to enable their devices to interact and relate to a variety of smart devices. 

Walter outlines the effect this is having on NECs activities: “Apps such as those used for media playback in our modular and fully embeddable computing devices, are becoming more important.  It is vital to be able respond to diverse demands from the market, this is why we are working on and delivering apps for Windows, iOS, Android, Linux as well as Raspbian, depending on the need.  Whilst Windows and iOS are still dominant in the office world; Linux, Raspbian and Android are well-established operating systems for digital signage and display applications.
pic 2“However, we don’t only focus on our own solutions in order to respond to this demand. Our collaboration with Raspberry Pi, which provides computing integration within our large format LCD displays, demonstrates how we seek out strategic partnerships within the industry including computing and digital signage software manufacturers.”

“We developed our first App, Extron Control, almost eight years ago,” says Stiehl.  “Today, it is has spawned iOS and Android versions.  Extron Control provides a control experience within a personal device. The app automatically loads the user interfaces present on any Extron control product without a lengthy setup and customisation process. The familiar interfaces emulate the TouchLink touchpanel, eBUS button panel, and MediaLink controller will soon include network button panels in a room.  All button presses are kept in sync between the app and the Extron control devices.”

One of the driving factors in the transformation has been the enormous growth in cheaply available processing capability.  In many cases there is so much that many internal processors and controllers have an enormous amount of spare capacity.  This has led on to the obvious step of combining several functions into a single device. 

“Historically, AV product manufacturers have invested heavily in creating individual hardware devices with less spent on software, but this situation is beginning to change.  We are experiencing a move toward consolidation of several systems on single devices, which is, of course, creating a demand for software engineers to work in the AV industry,” says David Margolin, VP marketing for Kramer.  “AV is becoming less reliant on hardware as it is switched, processed and manipulated in software.  The boundaries between devices are becoming less defined as powerful PCs form the platform for this processing effort.” 
pic 3This has led to a set of benefits: a single hardware platform can be configured in a variety of ways to meet individual applications, making it simpler for integrators to procure and configure systems.  As user requirements grow and change, new services and upgrades can then be added by extending the range of software packages on the computer without the need for additional hardware, or, in many cases, a site visit; simply by licensing and installing new modules.

As video distribution follows audio onto IP local networks and then migrates onto the cloud, the situation is likely to become even more hazy.  It will have consequences on those active in the AV sector.  “AV is no longer a local service performed by discrete boxes integrated together,” Margolin says.  “It is changing the industry.  In a few years AV delivery will migrate even more to the IT domain and will come under the ownership of IT departments with dispersed and cloud processing of signals in much the same way that the cloud-hosted Office 365 suite has taken over local processing of business packages.  We are already seeing this in video conferencing systems that use remote platforms like Skype and BlueJeans.”

“I see the future in software with smart and AV-optimised IT-infrastructure hardware,” Fritsch believes.  “Larger companies will follow this road and, as in every digitisation process, there will ultimately be fewer, more dominant, large companies, together with a lot of smaller companies focusing on special requirements and creative solutions.”

Margolin also thinks that there will be a shift in the skillsets needed to deliver AV services in the future: “In the same way that videoconferencing has evolved, AV will ultimately require a different, more IT-centric approach.  It is also interesting to note that videoconferencing and collaboration systems make use of cheaper, more readily-affordable components, like webcams, supplemented by intelligent programming and artificial intelligence to achieve the same level of quality as expensive systems of a few years ago.  This trend will probably affect the AV industry, causing further impact and upheaval within the industry.”

Security against internal and external cyber-attack is naturally a major issue; one that is compounded by the move to network distributed control and content of AV services and the introduction of many new processing devices at various nodes throughout a widely-dispersed network.  Corporate IT departments take an active interest in any component added to a network under their responsibility.  Most companies run their own security policies and integrators need to find the products and solutions that fit best within these guidelines.

According to Stiehl, Extron has a “built-in, not bolt-on” philosophy about software and product security.  “This philosophy extends across departments and is governed by an internal security group responsible for policy, process and measurement.  We continuously evaluate all our internal and external software as part of our quality audit process.”

Despite these future predictions, the AV industry is going to rely on a combination of hardware- and software-based solutions for some time yet.  Emerging technologies will continue to push traditional product boundaries while the deployment of systems will be enhanced by better tools and analytics.

The proAV industry of the future will be led by companies that respond best to the demands that end users make.  These will not be single-solution companies, but full-service providers covering all hardware and software demands that deliver the most complete and secure solutions possible.