Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  February 2007

Reevaluating Convergence

Convergence is a tired term that has been overused and overstated. Maybe it’s not the black hole we thought it was.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

When the term “convergence” was first bandied about in pro AV it was intriguing and fun to talk about. At first, it referred to the convergence of AV and IT technologies. Some thought it meant that AV devices would eventually become IT devices and vice versa. Wouldn't having the same infrastructure for data and AV be great? Then other industries started to expand the definition to include security, fire alarm, lighting control, building automation, as well as telephone and long distance communications. Convergence: All for one and one for all! Really?

Are we doomed?

Over the past decade AV technologies (if not AV professionals) moved wholeheartedly into the convergence mindset, with control via IP, every controllable device with an IP address, and audio and video on the network. At the same time, other related technologies moved ahead, too. Video compression algorithms improved, local area data networks got faster, Internet connections got faster, and HTML, Java, MPEG, and other Internet tools embraced audio and video as a means of communication beyond just intricately formatted text.

Then fear started to set in. We began to wonder if IT would take over pro AV, along with telephone, security, and all the other “low-voltage” trades that we work beside in the construction industry. Would we eventually become IT people?

If anyone asked the IT guys what they thought of this, most weren’t very interested. They didn't want to live in the big house where friends of friends kept coming to visit, and one day realized they weren't just visiting anymore—they had moved in. They wanted to protect their networks and their job descriptions.

On top of all that, despite laying down the law—the IT guys discovered that their new friends left their dirty laundry all over the place. Their network was no longer as clean, tidy, and efficient as they were trying to keep it.

Culture of convergence

Even if the IT industry wanted to do our AV job, should it? Could it? What about the other industries moving onto the network? Will IT professionals have to learn to be AV, security, fire alarm, and building automation specialists, too? Does everyone who touches the network get sucked into it? Probably not. But those who answer yes may be drawn to the idea that one low-voltage provider can be all things to all clients.

This concept has brought about an interesting side effect. As a result, many integrators —IT, AV, and building automation —have embraced “divergence” and expanded into other industries. The danger here, particularly for the buyer, is that the “converging” industries aren’t really converging, although some of their infrastructure is. Each has its own user needs and solutions, and requires expertise beyond the network.

Breaking through the fog

So is there a limit to convergence, particularly for AV? If we look at the “fully converged” AV system from a purely electronic standpoint, it’s a set of peripheral transducers—cameras, displays, microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers—attached to a network with all of the AV sources, transport, and control living in the “cloud” of the network.

For a long time, AV professionals have looked at that cloud as a vaporous fog that will remain a mystery forever. And with this view, the AV industry gets smaller and smaller, pushed out to a few pieces of equipment on the edge of the misty bog of the IP network. The industry gets smaller, AV businesses get smaller, and jobs get lost.

But if we extricate our view of AV from the equipment and infrastructure for a moment, we see that AV is a solution to a need to communicate ideas and information to one or more individuals using a variety of audio and video content sources. At the highest level, AV design is discovering end-users’ communications needs and developing a solution related to signal source, flow, delivery, and control—regardless of the infrastructure and devices used to address these needs. Producing a solution at this level requires expertise that has nothing to do with IT.

From this standpoint, we can see that there’s a limit to convergence. Convergence isn’t the black hole some fear it to be, but another form of infrastructure and AV devices —mostly virtual ones. We still have the AV transducers that convert back and forth between the physical analog environment and the to digital “cloud”. It’s just that the infrastructure and virtual devices between the transducers are different. Instead of DVD players, RGBHV cabling, and AV matrix switchers, it’s network storage, software, and data routers and switches.

Someone (probably not the IT guys) still needs to determine users’ AV needs, develop the solution in terms of audio and video content delivery, develop the user interface to control the content delivery, and implement the solution. This will still require the traditional acoustics, lighting, space planning, and ergonomics expertise for the analog part of AV work. But the new virtual forms of signal transport and processing require different expertise. For example, we may not ultimately need to know anything about composite, YC, component, and RGBHV video signals and cabling. Instead, we’ll need to know about MPEG, H.26X, IP data networking, and their derivatives and replacements over time.

AV is still AV

Is convergence what we originally thought it was? If we were really converging, we’d all end up with the same job. IT, AV, security, fire alarm, and building automation would become one industry. Is this inevitable? Not really.

For example, accountants and lawyers in a large company use software on a network to access and deliver a variety of sometimes overlapping content that includes text, graphics, numbers, and even audio and video, but it doesn’t mean their jobs are converging. They have very different careers, even though they sometimes work together and even use some of the same information over the same network.

This isn’t to say, as a result of digital technology and networking, that some parts of the AV industry won’t converge. The traditionally very different work that AV integrators and consultants have done in the past is in many ways becoming more similar and may eventually converge. But the fundamental expertise and experience related to audio and video integration to meet users’ needs keeps us separate from IT and other low-voltage industries.

Perhaps the term “transfiguration” is more appropriate than “convergence”. At some point we’ll reach the limit of convergence with IT, but the tools we use to design and build systems will continue to change. While different industries may be using the same infrastructure, we all have different work to do. Just because we’re on the same network doesn’t mean we have the same job—or that we’re all one industry.




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