Coming together

Convergence is playing an influential role in the AV industry. InAVate examines the technologies involved and the impacts they are having.


'Convergence' has become a buzzword of our times. Typically used to refer to the convergence impact of digital technologies and IP networking, it's much talked about in the telecoms market, where the lines between fixed and mobile voice and data services are blurring. But what does convergence mean in the AV industry? Crestron provides a clue with its integration of Windows OS and Internet access into its control panels. For Jeffrey Singer, PR Manager at Crestron US, convergence is synonymous with AV-IT convergence - or, more specifically, the integration of AV into an increasingly IT- and network-centric world.
"It's really the next logical step in true integration," he observes. "Convergence means integration, which is what we do. So we look at AV-IT convergence as a natural evolution in terms of integrating more technology in an organisation. It represents a tremendous opportunity for our industry to gain even more relevance and influence in modern organisations. AV technologies are no longer peripherals. Now that business is into global communication and collaboration, AV technology is a vital part of the enterprise."

For Crestron, integrating AV with IT technology and IP networks is about supporting open protocols such as TCP/IP, UDP, 802.11b/g and SNMP.
"Quite often now the IT manager is the decision-maker, so we need to be able to communicate with and share the IT network," says Singer. "If we're putting projectors and plasmas and media servers and DVD players onto a network, the IT manager wants to be able to manage all those devices the same way he does the computers, servers, hubs and printers, which is by using SNMP [Simple Network Management Protocol]."
Wi-Fi has now become an accepted, indeed essential, capability of AV control devices. The bandwidth of 802.11g allows streaming of audio and video to Wi-Fi touchpanels, while the ability to adjust PA or lighting settings from the middle of an auditorium using a wireless touchpanel is also a feature of today's AV world.
AMX enthusiastically embraced Wi-Fi on its touchpanels. Company President and COO Rashid Skaf describes convergence as occurring when "an industry adopts common standards and disparate technologies are combined into one. With the development and mass roll out of IP networks, four previously separate networks - data, audio, video and control - can now be integrated into a single converged system. For integrators, one single network means simplified wiring, programming and installation, which in turns significantly reduces cost for their customers."
Skaf points to the company's Modero touchpanel line as an example of a converged solution. "For many years, AMX provided a variety of touch panels with multiple architectures, each providing a different level of functionality with a different wiring requirement to access and control devices and information." In contrast, he says, the Modero line is united under a single architecture, enabling the same basic functionality from product to product and providing the same, standardised wiring requirements. IP connectivity enables a universal interface to all subsystems on the network, and applications such as streaming audio and video and Internet connectivity.
"IP addressability of AV systems will not go away," avers Peter Hunt, Managing Consultant at AV consultancy Hewshott Associates. "In fact it's only going to increase with the widespread use of WiFi touchpanels, projectors and plasma screens, the introduction of projectors and plasmas with built-in PCs, PDAs that can be connected directly to control systems and projectors etc etc - the list goes on."

Andy Mawdsley, Technical Director of AV installers Bugle AV, sees a shift away from traditional AV cabling and termination methods for the entire cabling. "Connections can be made possible at the end of CAT5e runs and converted to video, S-Video, hi-res video, and audio using appropriate transmitters-receivers," he comments. "This has an impact with regard to costings and timescales, and allows for crossover between what have traditionally been separate entities eg data installers and AV installers."
Although in some cases AV belongs to facilities within an organisation, Hewshott's Hunt sees AV and IT inevitably becoming "adopted cousins" as the technology arm of a business. "As IT impacts on AV, the increasingly complex world of AV is being seen as a technology issue, which means it is lumped into IT. This is particularly true of videoconferencing, which is one of the strongest arguments for using IP connectivity."
However, Hunt sees a "potential family rift" caused by AV's adoption of IT capabilities. Whilst the introduction of IT systems inside AV equipment seems a natural and logical path, what has been overlooked is that large and complex global organisations are reluctant to allow such products onto the network, he observes. "I've witnessed organisations that have such a long and complex process to get IP-addressable AV items onto their network, it almost makes you want you to give up before you start. On the other hand, some people are quite happy with a cursory glance - it all depends on the client and their policy."
The potential for viruses or malicious hacking to bring down a multi-billion pound business understandably makes them nervous, Hunt says. But "IT departments need to take note: AV and IP addressability is here to stay."
International technology consulting practice Shen Milsom & Wilke was founded by acoustic and AV consultants and has since grown to cover telecommunications, IT and building security as well. Chairman and CEO Fred Shen sees convergence happening through a unified network infrastructure, with previously distinct networks for audio, video, telecoms and building security converging onto a common network. However, he notes that more clients show an initial interest in a converged system than go ahead with it.
"People in various organisations can feel threatened by it, because you can operate a building with less people when you have a unified environment. There are lots of politics on the client side, people find it uncomfortable to transition from the old way to the new way."
For those that do go ahead, Shen notes that there are cost savings to be had in implementation and in ongoing energy conservation:
"More efficient operation of the building always results in energy savings." And he adds that with a unified network environment the ongoing adds, moves and changes during the lifespan of a building can be managed with much less cost.
Shen says that SMW is about breaking down barriers, and refers to its practice these days as a multimedia consultancy: "Multimedia is the convergence of audio and video with voice and data, all of which are digital." And he adds that the company no longer recruits separate voice and data consultants but one person who can handle both. The digitisation of voice with VoIP brings it into the data domain; VoIP is used more in deregulated telecoms environments, he notes, but where analogue voice is still used some companies ask for both a PBX and a VoIP infrastructure to be put in to allow for future-proofing.
"A blurring of the lines within the AV and IT industries will continue apace, particularly given that most if not all AV manufacturers have realised that this convergence is taking place," says Bugle AV's Mawdsley.
What we've seen is far more IT distributors dipping their toes into the AV pond, selling projectors, plasmas etc,as they know their resellers will have an interest in supplying these products."
So with less need for AV specialisation in the infrastructure, and the commoditisation of projectors and displays, will the IT specialists play an increasing role?
"They can do a great deal of it," says SMW's Shen. "But if there's an element in AV that the IT guys can never touch it's audio, because audio is far more complicated to engineer and design for a facility than the video side. With the video you compress it, you digitise it and it becomes part of data."
Shen says that SMW's experience with AV integrators today is that they lack understanding of networking and need to be better trained; as a result, on projects which require AV and IT experience the company would bring in separate integrators.
Concludes Hewshott's Peter Hunt: "With awareness, education and careful management, AV and IT can happily co-exist. The opportunity for AV systems using IT technology is immense, and I suspect we have not even come close to tapping the full potential. Those who do not embrace convergence - and this is true of IT people as well as AV - will find themselves left behind."

More info from:

www.amx.com
www.crestron.com
www.hewshott.com
www.smwinc.com

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