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Published on September 12th, 2011 | by Dustin Baerg

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AV Control Systems of the future

In my opinion, the thinking behind AV control systems just hasn’t kept up with technological advancements. Note that there are more modern ways of doing programming, but the Industry leaders, Crestron and AMX still seem to be largely stuck in the past from an ideological perspective. Let’s discuss some of the key points that lead me to have this view. Keep in mind this is based on Corporate AV with multiple rooms that all need a control system.

The AV Industry should be following the IT philosophy.

This is the basis of my opinion. We just aren’t innovating alongside other players in similar industries. AV is NOT any more mission critical than other business applications and could be handled in a more global way.

GUI Design

Consider the programming of a touch panel. You assign numbers to buttons, then go into the code for the program, and assign these numbers to joins or button press events. This was breakthrough technology… in 1983. If you have programmed in a modern language, you have most likely worked with object oriented programming. Assign an identity to the button, then reference that identity in code. I can’t believe you still have to match up numbers in Crestron, AMX, etc. It is very time consuming, error-prone, and non-portable.

CSS is a technique used in web programming which allow you to update an entire site’s look with just a single file tweak. This could be implemented in Control system touch panels to easily allow modification to the look and feel of a panel. Having this ability would make it simple to customize a panel for a particular client.

Hardware Costs

With the advances of computing power why do we have to run control systems on locked down proprietary hardware? I know that there is money to be made selling hardware but as HP is realizing in the PC space, computing hardware IS a commodity and consumers are waking up to this. There is no question that the age of the internet has brought along advances in what computers can do. Unfortunately this has also brought down the margins for the technology. I think it is inevitable that someone will come along with a standards based control system and dominate the market.

Processor of the future

So what is my control system of the future? Back in the IT world, they handle millions of transactions of MISSION CRITICAL data per day in real time. This is what should be running our room control systems. What about redundancy? The IT folks have this figured out – computing clusters, load distribution, all sorts of fault tolerant designs. You can’t tell me that our single room systems have this sort of on-board redundancy. In the future, we would have room based touch panels that all talk to a central server which controls their functionality.

Room Based Dumb RS-232 terminals

A lot of devices are IP addressable but what about the legacy devices? We could have inexpensive boxes in each room that translate IP to RS-232 to talk to devices. These already exist in the market. I have yet to see a nice rack mounted multi-port version, but it would be easy to imagine.

Roomview/Global Viewer/RMS

Think about what these are – server based room management. In our control system of the future, the central server would RUN everything. It already knows what is going on because it is controlling everything. Servers are cheap – 5K would get you a very usable server that could be scalable. No need to direct communication from each little room “window” to the central server and manually define in each room what information should be sent and what control should be available.

Failure to Innovate

In parting, one last thing to consider. A business model that fails to innovate can quickly become yesterday’s news. Look at Palm – the Palm Pilot was once an everyday term, everyone had or wanted one. When was the last time you saw one of these? The technology has been replaced by a phone, made by a computer company. Technological landscapes can quickly change and you need to innovate to stay current.

What are everyone’s thoughts? I’m interested to see where other people see the control system market heading. Please leave a comment below and join the discussion!

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About the Author

Dustin has been involved in the Professional Audio Visual industry for close to 15 years, working for integrators both big and small. Learning the ropes through many years of trial, error, and firsthand experience, Dustin is passionate about creating resources to help share the knowledge that he has obtained the "hard" way.



18 Responses to AV Control Systems of the future

  1. I would like to chat with you about this post. Let me know how I can reach you directly.

    Thanks

  2. Rick McNeely says:

    I agree with much of your post. But I don’t see things changing dramatically in the near future, and probably for good reason.

    First, qualify everything I say by understanding that I am an AMX programmer by trade. I have done Crestron, but not a lot.

    All buttons/list boxes/etc are ultimately referenced by number. If the development system abstracts that to a name, that’s great. If not, you can assign constants yourself. But I don’t know too many programmers who really feel inconvenienced by this. In fact, button arrays can be a huge time saver.

    I have done a few control systems that run entirely on PC hardware. I enjoy that. If it were up to me I would do most like that. But PC hardware has hidden costs, like the time it takes to maintain OS upgrades and combat virii. There is a lot to be said for a proprietary box that can be installed and forgotten about for twelve years.

    Dealers, especially small ones, tend to have large investments in programmer training. Generally, AV programmers come up through the ranks and are able to leverage their installer/designer experience as programmers. Most aren’t paid what a college educated “real programmer” would expect to get. It would be very expensive to throw out this experience, or to have to develop alternate talents running in parallel, for what would be (at best) marginal initial gains.

    I agree completely that there is great potential for commodity type hardware on the control side. I think some of that is being utilized now. See TPControl.com..

    Server based control? In the right place, possibly. I know the education market would not be thrilled about a server failure that takes out two hundred classrooms. But I can imagine useful scenarios.

    I don’t think the Palm reference is an especially useful one. That was one product. AV is an entire industry. It has it’s issues, but competition breads innovation. And we have plenty of competition. I have a lot of faith in our industry. I do think it will continue to blend with IT, but I don’t see that it will be subsumed within it for many years to come.

    Please excuse bad typing/logic. Up too late last night!

    Rick McNeely

    • Admin says:

      Thanks for the insight, Rick.

      My “ideal” control system of the future does not fit all segments of the market (ie. the Education market) where they need something relatively simple but reliable and easy to maintain. The server based control I was envisioning would be best served in a large corporate office where they already implement an IT department staffed with database experts, have their own data center onsite (or off) and currently maintain mission crtitical applications for their business (VoIP phones, payment processing, CRM, etc)
      In this environment it seems crazy to have hundreds of individual processors programmed independently but doing similar tasks.

      I definitely don’t want to suggest that the local AV integrator should be cut out as programming done right can strengthen customer relations and help build reliable and robust systems. The current products and techniques on the market serve this need well and don’t NEED to be changed.

      There is a market need for a more enterprise grade control solution, and I think we will start to see more products from the IT realm creep into our space (albeit clumsily – should be interesting to watch)

      And… you got me on the “Palm” reference – not completely relevant… my point was just that market leaders sometimes can fall victim to complacency. Crestron and AMX are both innovative companies and have done a lot for our industry but even with the new “3 series” Crestron processors (I’m mostly a Crestron guy) they have clued into multiple programs running simultaneously on the same hardware but I would love that to expand into multiple rooms with one control processor when needed. (the hardware is physically capable of this but it would be sort of a “hack” to string a bunch of devices together this way)

    • Doc Greene says:

      I am one of those small dealers with a huge investment in AMX programming. It costs on average 12K to train a master programmer in AMX. I once held the AMX ACE certification myself and I have trained 4 other programmers over the years, none of which are currently in my employ and only one of which is even still in the AV biz. Today I find that AMX does nothing better than URC. Programming time on URC is 10% of AMX while hardware costs are 30%. Since AMX refused to standardize programming I still run into jobs that were done badly and have to figure out how to make up for the previous programmers failure. IE created a single device to run a whole AV system on one IR port. (problem – not enough commands. So for my company… URC and RTI now are the choice.

  3. Robin says:

    Your thoughts regarding AV Control Systems of the future are insightful. Transitions from high priced proprietary systems are an evolutionary process and do take some time. We saw it happen in IT back in the day and we’re seeing it happen now in the control and automation market. There are many new and innovative technologies and companies nipping at the heels of Crestron and AMX today. Companies that are providing powerful cloud-based control systems for higher education, like Utelogy, and cloud-based iDevice home control like iRule, and PC based control systems like Stardraw. We are curently seeing a shift away from Crestron and AMX, and the growth in open system companies is astonishing. I can’t help but comment on your mention of a lack of availability of rack mountable IP to RS232 products….we (Global Cache’) have been shipping products for years that translate TCP/IP and WiFi to IR, RS232, and relay, one of which is a rack mount version. Thanks for your interesting post.

    • Admin says:

      I have used Global Cache on a recent project (IP relay) and it worked flawlessly! Great product, I didn’t really look into your other products and was unaware of the scope of your other product offering but will definitely keep that in mind for future.
      Thanks for your comments.

      • Joey says:

        So have you tried Utelogy yet? I’ve done many many systems with Crestron AMX Extron, etc. My last three big deployments were Utelogy and Global Cache. Works really well!

  4. Suhail D'Souza says:

    Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison? A lot of IT applications remain within the IT domain, and interactions are bound by industry standards (whether it’s html / java, etc, on the software side, or usb / ethernet, etc, on the hardware side).

    From the perspective of a residential AV dealer, I love my little $1000 Crestron box because:
    1. It’s actually easily programmed from my PC
    2. It talks to world of old and new devices in their preferred format, where no real standards exist (IP, serial, IR, contact closures, etc) to make physical, not virtual, things happen.
    3. It keeps just keeps working, with no real need for reboots, patches, updates, downtime, etc.

    I agree that some of the programming methodology is archaic, but from what I saw at CEDIA, Crestron is:
    1. Finally making attempts to somewhat modernize touch panel design.
    2. Using their new “3 series” processor to better harness the power of a modern computer, with multiple programs running simultaneously, etc.

    • Admin says:

      One thing that I kind of didn’t mention was Crestron’s reliability. Their processors are rock solid and just work reboot after reboot. Firmware upgrades are available to keep you 2 series processor current for many years. (for example you could run a 6+ year old MP2E with a brand new iPad or current touch panel.
      That is something that the IT industry just can’t compete with.

  5. Derek says:

    I would like to add a few comments, some of which reinforce what has already been said.

    To break it down by section:

    GUI Design

    There are many manufacturers who are stepping in the direction of Flash, which is great, and in a way supports your argument, but I disagree that numbering button presses is obsolete in any way. In the IT and web development worlds, more complexity is needed in the higher level languages because of the amount of functionality that is needed to be applied to a button press. Button presses may trigger code to validate a form before submission, which is much more easily implemented using Object Oriented Programming.

    However, in the world of integration, an operation as simple as having a button press trigger an IR (yes another old technology that is still around) command could not be made any simpler, and that is a good thing. Complexity surrounding code can produce errors and make troubleshooting much more difficult. For the AV integrator who was raised in the industry, perhaps starting as an installer, a number press tying into an IR command is as simple as it gets, and all that is really needed.

    That being said, there are tools which most control manufacturers have developed (and continue to improve on) which eliminate the need to even know the numbers being assigned, and do allow you to apply different ‘skins’ to the same underlying code. This is all that is needed in the world of a/v systems integration right now, and asking that industry to learn CSS (and keep up with all of its versions over time, in addition to all the intricacies within their industry) is a bit overwhelming.

    Hardware Costs

    Rick nailed this one. Think of total cost of ownership. Hardware is cheap. People are expensive. A Crestron processor runs for a loooong time without flinching if the code inside is well written. Usually only a a power irregularity or physical environment condition causes the hardware to fail.

    Processor of the Future

    If I was running a company that handled hundreds of billions of dollars worth of transactions, I would invest heavily in my IT infrastructure to protect the integrity of those transactions. It makes business sense to do so. I would NOT want to invest this heavily in a system that controls my shades, television, and presentation system. I would probably make sure that we had a good maintenance contract with an integrator, or an on-staff techie (from the IT department maybe) with a backup processor for each room that was deemed critical enough for this investment.

    Room Based Dumb RS-232 terminals

    RS-232 is not dumb. It is lower level. Why implement an entire TCP/IP stack to speak to a drape? Why even have that drape on the network? I can argue for reasons why, but in many cases, it is not necessary. Why create more complex points of failure? I do agree that RS-232 may go away eventually, but it doesn’t need to.

    Roomview/Global Viewer/RMS

    A central server somewhere in the cloud that will control my local devices? Definitely possible, but why? I don’t want to send more info into the cloud than is needed, and full control of all devices is definitely a security risk, and opens up channels that don’t need to be present. I want a system that has a central server that can aggregate data, and potentially send a few basic commands (think smart grid) to devices, but not maintain full control. Distributed processing is still needed to allow people to control their space when communication is cut off from the rest of the world.

    Failure to Innovate

    Innovation thrives when different schools of thought try to tackle similar problems. The fact that the A/V industry uses different techniques and develops people who think differently than IT folks is a valuable thing. While these two industries are beginning to collide, they still need each-other, and will need players who can navigate both the AV & Electronic Systems Integration and IT fields. The mobile device takeover, specifically by Apple is a whole different discussion, but I will say that the leadership within that company made some of the brightest engineers in the world stop fussing amongst themselves and focus on playing well together to achieve a common goal. After years of this ‘playing well’ within the Apple sandbox, they have come out with some incredible products. If anything, I would tell the IT and AV fields to start following that model. Work well together, play nice, and everyone’s life will become a whole lot easier more quickly. Find the A/V manufacturers who are bringing on some great IT/Compsci minds, and you’ll find the next innovators in the A/V industry.

    • Admin says:

      You make some excellent points, Derek.

      With GUI design, the numbered join works fine and for the majority of individual systems it makes sense. I find once you start adding multiple panels and then try to port your code to other projects this is where things get messy. Any time you have to manually input information there is a chance for error, increasing the pain of debugging everything, multiplied by the number of panels and configurations a system can be in. Granted, this more of the exception than the norm.

      The hardware is relatively inexpensive but observing large organization deploy 130+ processors makes me think there is something being wasted. Especially knowing how the IT world is optimizing processor utilization through virtualization. (I’m not suggesting this is the way our industry should go)

      For the “dumb terminals” I just meant that the terminal has no control program. RS232 is a very good robust protocol but does have some limitations for distance and speed. Irrelevant for most systems, but something to note.

      When I talked about Cloud based I had in mind more of a data center hosted within the organization. I don’t suggest relying on device control over the internet.

      I appreciate your well thought out comments.

  6. Drew says:

    I liked your blog post. I think you are completely correct and have some very good points. In fact some of us are already moving the industry forward beyond the traditional thinking.

    We are the maker of the Universal Device Control Software. The UDC software fits many of the ideas that you have stated. My comments are from the perspective of the UDC software features and direction. The UDC software is 100% configured in a user interface that we strive to make simple yet powerful. No coding is necessary for the user to configure the UDC software. Here I have some comments to each of your sections from your blog post. Take a look.

    GUI Design

    We have included a feature in the UDC software to build custom controller interfaces (our naming for the GUI). You can drag and drop buttons, load images and more to build your user interface. Each button has properties where you can add commands. We code for new command sets and protocols for devices so the user selects them from a list or can create their own command sets and protocols through the software user interface (still no code involved for the user).

    Hardware Costs

    The UDC software is a windows application utilizing the powerful features of .net 4. Since one of the primary functions of a PC is to handle Internet and Network traffic it is the best and most proven platform for network communication. The ability to use off the shelf PC hardware makes hardware costs much lower. In addition having a backup Controller/Server is as easy as adding a second PC.

    Processor of the future

    PCs run 24/7 for mission critical operations everyday throughout the world and Windows is by far the most widely implemented, accepted and trusted operating system. Windows servers fill nearly every IT room in the world.
    Room Based Dumb RS-232 terminals

    Legacy devices that only support serial RS-232/422/485 control can easily be controlled with low cost Ethernet to serial convertors in line. These devices are widely used by our customers on a daily basis for mission critical as well as “On Air” purposes. Another type of legacy control is GPIO, relay or contact closures. Again there is industrial grade Ethernet to Contact Closure boxes on the market that work very well. Kissbox makes very reliable and robust multiport modular serial and contact closure Ethernet boxes. Kiss box convertors can be selected in the user interface of the UDC software. Another manufacturer of Ethernet convertors that are already integrated in the UDC software is Global Cache.

    Roomview/Global Viewer/RMS

    The PC running the UDC software is the server for the entire control system. All configuration lives on one machine that can be backed up and updated on the fly at anytime by the IT department or onsite personnel. Again no code is being written or specialist called in to make minor system changes and updates. The Webserver feature updates automatically to all connected clients so you don’t have to download the configuration to all of the clients.

    Innovation

    We are constantly innovating and outdoing ourselves. Our best source of innovation comes from listening to our customers. We constantly add minor features for specific applications and customers while keeping a larger picture of our direction with major feature updates. This allows us to be fluid while having a solid direction.

    To learn more please visit our site at http://www.HRScontrol.com

    • Admin says:

      Hello Drew,

      Always like to see what else is out there. I will take a look at what you have to offer and see it would fit with any projects currently on the go.

  7. Great article. We here at Activu couldn’t agree with you more. Until AV companies hire staff from the IT industry they will find themselves stuck between legacy and cutting edge solutions.

    • Admin says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Jason.

      I think that in everything the trend should be moving towards using the right tool(s) for the job rather than sticking to the status quo.

  8. Chris Ishoy says:

    A few comments now. I may have more later. As was already mentioned, control companies such as Crestron are somewhat constrained by what AV equipment manufacturers are willing to do. There were many bumps in the road going from IR to serial control, and many more moving to IP control. Crestron has been there every step of the way working with and educating the equipment designers and engineers on what controls and protocols are needed to make their gear easier to control. As a CAIP, I continually find devices that provide IP control that are not really ready for prime time. I think this is one of the reasons that has motivated Crestron to branch out from strictly control to creating other technologies – native integration works very well and can simplify programming and operation.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Greetings! I’ve been following your weblog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good job!

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