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

Controlling Interests

As IP connectivity proliferates, AV control system makers may face increased competition from outside the industry in 2004 and beyond.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

As another year passes, I thought I’d revisit the state of control systems with respect to Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity and what it means for the future of AV. There are more questions than answers, but this is a topic that consultants, integrators, manufacturers, and technology managers need to consider for the long term — and to some degree for the short term, too.

Looking back to the early ’90s when the Internet was adopted by the masses, IP quickly became the mainstream way to create a local area network. At the time there were two pro AV control system manufacturers — AMX and Crestron — and neither was using IP or any other standard networking protocol. Similarly, neither were any of the pro AV manufacturers.

The hardware topology looked pretty similar between the two manufacturers, and a lot of their little boxes did the same things — converting between the proprietary control system bus and serial, IR, contact closures, and sensors. The systems generally consisted of a processor mainframe and a user interface panel. The boxes allowed the control software to talk to other AV devices — many of which didn’t want to be talked to and still aren’t that sociable when it comes to control and networking. Eventually, though, control systems manufacturers started to use IP networking for transporting control information, and audio and video manufacturers are now providing IP access on many, but not all of their products.

The software side of the systems has changed, too. Though we still have proprietary languages for programming control systems, both AMX and Crestron now incorporate less proprietary programming and display languages such as HTML, XML, Java, PERL, ActiveX, and Visual Basic.

At the same time, longtime-coming competition has been appearing from companies like Cue, Vity, Extron, Simtrol, and others fighting for a piece of the control systems market still dominated by the Big Two. But will these new guys be able to glean major market share in the long term or will the Big Two keep what they have? And I wonder if there’s an as-yet-unseen asteroid headed for the market that will cause control systems to evolve in a big ball of fire. Or maybe there will be a slow but steady move to more generic approaches.

When I look at the landscape and the technology, there seem to be compelling trends marking the slow-but-steady migration to a different mix of solutions and providers. As touchscreens look more like tablet PCs, as control systems become more friendly to standard programming languages, as more AV manufacturers put Ethernet ports on their equipment, and as higher bandwidth becomes available, the more opportunities there are for alternative AV control system approaches.

One trend of particular interest is the proliferation of IP in the industrial automation industry. Within the AV industry, companies such as AMX, Crestron, Extron, and Aurora Multimedia have developed Ethernet interfaces with embedded web servers allowing IP-based control topologies, even when not every audio or video device has IP capability. On the industrial automation side, there are a slew of companies with names like Digi, Advantech, Quatech, Arcom, Moxa, ICP DAS, and Actisys that are manufacturing very similar devices. The factory-loaded programming is a little different, but the devices aren’t that dissimilar.

It is feasible — though not necessarily desirable at this point — to use industrial IP to serial, IR, and/or TTL interface devices and create an IP-based control system for a small- to medium-sized pro AV installation using common Internet programming languages without using any of the pro AV control manufacturers’ control equipment or software. Would you want to? From scratch? Probably not — particularly for a large system. Nevertheless, the infrastructure is there for a programmer with a little time, ambition, and imagination to build something useful without help from pro AV’s Big Two, or even the Top Ten.

This is a new possibility that didn’t exist five years ago. There really weren’t any viable control alternatives available then. What will happen as the seeds of these generic solutions grow over the next five to 10 years? Are the current control system manufacturers doomed?

It seems clear that the long-term control system technology trend is toward more software-over-IP and much less proprietary hardware. However, there’s a value-add to having a lot of AV system control experience even with relatively generic products.

As an analogy, you can build a project management tool that produces Gantt charts and project information reports in a spreadsheet program with limited tracking capability if you know what you’re doing, but for a serious project management task, you’d need a program with pre-programmed features that allow you to do the work without reinventing the wheel. Still, there are times when a spreadsheet will suffice.

What we get from within our own industry are value-adds like pre-assembled libraries and macros, specially designed user interface hardware and software, and high-level application packages that allow for technology management at the building and campus level. And then there’s technical support that an industrial automation manufacturer isn’t going to have a clue about in the AV world. That isn’t to say that industrial automation technologies aren’t going to have an impact on us. For that matter, maybe the AV industry will teach the industrial automation folks a thing or two about remote control.

As we move closer to the all, or almost all, network-based pro AV system, the choices for control will be opened up to more generic technologies that will change the way many of us do business in the AV industry. People will be drawn to pro AV from even more diverse backgrounds than we currently have. In addition, the shift in value from hardware to software will continue for all pro AV manufacturers, and that’s the key to what we’ll all be doing five to 10 years from now.



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