Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  May 2004

The Convergence of Integration

(or is it the other way around?)

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

What do we really mean by integration? What do we really mean by convergence? These terms are used so much that their meanings have gotten lost in the chaos and hype of the past few years, and those new to the pro AV industry (and there are new people coming into the industry aren’t there?) may not know what these terms really mean. In fact, we may not have known what they really meant to begin with, or maybe the definitions have changed over the past few years when we weren’t looking.

Integration

The term integration really started to come into use in the 1980s and became more prevalent in the 1990s when audio and video systems started to become more complex and sophisticated, and control systems were created to help the user to manage and control all the equipment that was being installed. The dealers who had been selling individual audio and video components were being asked to “integrate” a bunch of standalone boxes into a “system” that would operate in a unified way.

As a part of the same growth, whether we liked it or not, we all became part of the building industry, which wanted to call pro AV integrators “contractors”, a term which is still used interchangeably with integrator, though most AV contractors prefer the term integrator (as do IT, communications, and other technology contractors).

As the building and its design became more important to the success of AV systems, we began to talk about the integration of systems into buildings. At this point, the term integration expanded to include not just the integration of audio, video and control components into a system, but the architectural design and physical installation of the systems into the building itself.

Convergence

Convergence, on the other hand, didn’t really get going as a buzzword until the 1990s when formerly separate information technology (IT) was beginning to creep into our AV systems. Slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly, the network started to grow around and into our integrated AV systems like kudzu (it’s a southern thing) until audio, video and control systems were all beginning to use IT technologies to get signals around.

At the same time, digital signal processing (DSP) technologies were starting to turn racks of equipment into electronic diagrams on a computer screen driving a single box that might satisfy functions that would have required dozens of analog boxes in the past. So the term convergence expanded to include not just the network, but the sister technologies of the DSP world.

As a mind-bending result, convergence now allows boxes that would be integrated into systems to be integrated back into a box via DSP, which is in turn is integrated into a larger system as indicated in the diagram below.


Integration and Convergence Flow Diagram

AV components are integrated into systems which are then integrated into buildings. Convergence of AV, IT and DSP technologies allow for the reduction of hardware components with an increase in the software and networking required by AV professionals. This trend brings the consulting, integration and manufacturing worlds closer together in terms of how systems are designed and built.


Assimilation

There are some aspects of the evolution of integration and convergence that are actually assimilation, and yes, resistance is futile. And this is where it gets interesting for pro AV as consultants and integrators as well as manufacturers, owners and the rest of the players in the delivery of AV systems. Control systems have probably converged with networks the most compared to audio and video systems. Audio comes next, and video isn’t far behind.

To some degree, control systems have not just converged, but they have been assimilated by IT. With an IT port on every piece of AV gear, how much of a control system is hardware technology ("HT") and how much is IT? Control systems are being assimilated. How many pro AV systems these days require outboard analog equalizers, or any boxes other than a DSP multifunction automixer with an amp and some transducers? Audio is being assimilated. How much video switching and processing gear is now being produced as a single DSP-rich box with streaming capabilities? What about codec technology? They too, are being assimilated. OK, I’ll admit the Borg haven’t taken over yet, but I think it’s worth a constant reminder to pro AV elders and well as the newbies that the tired terms “integration” and “convergence” really do mean something significant for us, and changes in our industry will continue to show it. We may just have to take a step back to see it. Keep in mind that it’s only been about 10 years since we started typing www into a browser!

Destination

So what else will be converged and integrated? More technologies will probably be sucked into the vortex, but what will change the most? I think it will be us—the people who make AV happen. As I’ve talked about before in this column, we’re either all headed for the same job or we’ll all be doing something significantly different from what we do now in a few years, or both. As DSP and IT and communications technologies converge with pro AV technologies, and as other integrated systems move onto the IT network, design and integration become blurred.

Consultants who design complete systems like they used to are doing it more in audio and video DSP software and control system applications and less in CAD. Integrators who used to have to install two racks of equipment for a given system now only have to provide a box or two and they are designing the system in DSP and control system software, not to mention HTML, java and visual basic. Integrators are doing more design and consultants are doing more installation when they design in DSP and internet applications and upload those to some piece of hardware or program a control system, particularly a LAN-based one.

And let’s not forget the manufacturers. Many DSP-based components have required the manufacturer to pre-configure a virtually integrated system inside their boxes before shipping or allow for a system to be created inside it by someone else. There are also large manufacturers who have multiple lines that could be configured into a complete system, and single smaller manufacturers who offer a few DSP boxes and a bunch of other AV devices that only lack a peripheral or two in their line to create a one-stop-shop solution. If manufacturers offer more software and netware and much less hardware, don’t they look a lot more like the IT world where IT departments just buy a system directly from Cisco or Lucent?

There will always be design for the building and the system. There will always be tranducers (mics, projectors, cameras, loudspeakers) to be installed. And there will be at least some other hardware somewhere that requires physical installation in future pro AV systems. Our roles in that future process, however, may be vastly different from what they are now for us as individuals. However, what we do as AV companies—consultants, integrators and manufacturers—may look a lot more similar.

 

 

 
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