Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  February 2003

Is Everything Under Control?

It’s the responsibility of the system designer—whether an integrator’s engineer or the consultant—to design the user interface and make it something beautiful and functional just like the rest of the system

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

We have to know a great deal about a lot of things to design a pro AV system, including video, audio and enough about the acoustics, lighting and construction to make environments viable. But that’s not all there is to it. The systems we design certainly have to look good and sound good, but if they don’t work, it’s all for naught.

For most of the last three decades, it was all about good audio and video. The tools we had to make good audio and video weren’t as sophisticated or as capable as they are now, so we had to really work at it. And in the end, if it looked good and sounded good, then we’d done our job and our clients were happy. But that’s not necessarily so today.

Nowadays, it’s a bit easier (relatively speaking) to make good audio and video happen. Yes, we can make a good picture with knockout sound to go with it, but if the control system doesn’t have a user-friendly and intuitive interface or if the controls don’t work, then the users perceive that the whole system doesn’t work and this consultant/integrator/technology is perceived as bad.

Ozzie Osbourne has a really good audio and video system in his house, but he can’t figure out how to control it, so the whole system seems useless to him. Okay, maybe not the best example, but the outcome is similar even in a corporate, educational or government environment.

The Bottom Line

Users will primarily judge an AV system not by how pretty the picture is or how great the sound is, but by whether the DVD plays when they press “Play” and whether they can switch to the document camera in one button press instead of four. At the user level, it’s the user interface that makes or breaks the perceived success of the system. Not only that, but the technicians want something easy-to-use and that’s functional. For instance, can a campus’-worth of AV systems be managed and monitored from a central location by a small staff or is a bevy of technicians needed to canvas each room for projectors that have been left on and lamps that have burned out?

So, if the user interface is so important, then why is it so often left to the installation programmer to come up with the user interface as if it were just another wire pull and connector termination?

It’s the responsibility of the system designer—whether an integrator’s engineer or the consultant—to design the user interface and make it something beautiful and functional just like the rest of the system. True, it takes more time in the design to do this, but the rewards are many. For instance, the interface can be reviewed and approved by the client before the system is bid or installed, and the users can even begin training on the interface before the system programming and install are completed.

But who really owns it?

OK, let’s say we have a fantastic user interface that the client loves and of which the design and install team can be proud. The consultant did a great job designing it, the integrator did a terrific job of programming and installing it, and the users love it (and paid for it). Does the consultant own the interface? Does the integrator own the code?

Further, does the client have a clause in the contract that they own it all? There have been attempts by consultants, integrators and programmers to protect their creations in ways that may or may not be enforceable and may cause the client some headaches in the future, but does it really make a difference? There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, and there are many more like them.

Let’s say a consultant designs a great user interface for a project and the client loves it and has paid for it. Now the client has another project and wants the same interface to be used for it, too. But it’s a different consultant and a different contractor. Can the owner just give the interface and code to the new design and install team? Is it the client’s template now, or is it a copyrighted work like a photographer’s photograph? Should the original consultant just give away his/her hard work to a competitor?

Additionally, let’s say the integrator on this job lands another similar project with a different client and wants to use the great interface from his/her last consultant-designed project. Can the integrator use it without permission or should a license fee be paid to the consultant or even the previous client?

What if a consultant designed the user interface but the control system manufacturer programmed it for the integrator, but another consultant working for the same (or a different) client asks the manufacturer for the user interface for a similar project? Even more players are now involved. We’ve had to deal with all of these scenarios in my own firm, but so far we’ve mostly had to rely more on relationships than regulations to work out these issues.

Part of the answer should be that the one who designed it can use the interface approach freely, and the owner has rights to the outcome of the project for which the work was originally intended. A lot of work is needed within the industry—perhaps using lessons learned from other industries—as to how we deal consistently, effectively and fairly with these questions.

Behind the Wheel

There’s still a lot of room for innovation in the development of user interfaces (as evidenced in the movie “Minority Report”—it’s worth seeing for some of the depictions of potential user interfaces if nothing else). But what if using an AV control system was like driving a car? A Cadillac, a Taurus, a Ferrari, a Honda and a Mini Cooper have different styles of speedometers, gauges, steering wheels and gear shifts, but if you can drive one you can drive them all. The dashboards are similar enough.

The ICIA End User’s Council has been contemplating just this. Last year it began the “Dashboard for Controls” project, which is intended to investigate the idea that a set of standard guidelines can be developed to allow user interfaces to share a basic common approach that would still be recognizable from system to system, consultant to consultant and integrator to integrator. In addition, the ICIA Consultants’ and Integrators’ councils (ICAT and SAVVI) are working to address some of the code ownership issues. Whether this is a pipedream or a roadmap to consistency remains to be seen, but it will be an interesting drive.

 

 

 
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