Image: Barco's CMS ClickShare in action
- I love portentous articles as much as the next reader, but I'm going to leave the predictive dart throwing to the experts. My 2014 trend forecast is actually quite simple: tech managers should expect more emphasis on soft skills, software, and creative problem-solving.
As stewards of day-to-day AV system operations and the user experience, tech managers will feel extra pressure in 2014 to stay agile and relevant amidst the crush of new products and hot topics. Trending this year: IP, 4K, smart building control, unified communications, cloud-based services, and new connectivity options. An advocacy effort is long overdue. Can't we, as an industry, educate shareholders, stakeholders, and the wider public about what's possible (and what's not) with commercial AV? If you're skeptical, look at the WiFi-enabled thermostat Nest. Once the exclusive domain of a specialized installer, this sophisticated automation system is advertised directly to consumers (I'm listening to a promo for it right now on my NPR station). There are problems and benefits with direct-to-consumer messaging, but it proves that outreach (and a billion-dollar acquisition) works. I'm also a fan of the cross-pollination of technology and architecture, e.g., offering AV-inspired RU credits for the AIA and other allied trades. The insightful audio professional Josh Srago, CTS, articulated some of these tensions perfectly when he stated: "Technology in the enterprise environments used to be a driving factor to encourage people to join the staff. Now it’s expected to be there, and if it is out of date or not well maintained, it will actually drive staff members away." The rest of his blog is a galvanizing call to action for the AV industry; I enthusiastically agree.
Here are six overarching trends that fold in most of the aforementioned topics. I hope they provide both an aerial view and context when thinking about the upcoming year for tech managers.
2014 will be a swirl of headlines about the new 4K resolution: 4K playback, 4K streaming, 4K processing, 4K end-to-end solutions, strategies for 4K content, and the 4K ilk.
Don't worry — 4K is not the new 3D (which was over-hyped, but not by this magazine). 4K is a quick way of indicating technology that is capable of pixel resolution four times higher than full HD (aka 1080p). A lot more pixels mean more clarity, detail, and image precision. Despite questions around net neutrality and its impact on 4K, targeted verticals like command and control are looking closely at it.
But tech managers should stay level-headed about 4K. There is going to be a lot of ballyhoo this year; it is important to separate fact from fiction. Bottom line: do your users and or stakeholders need this high level of resolution? As Jeff Porter, founder/CEO of Porter Digital Signage, explained in this week's DSE Consultants Council, "For most digital signage applications with traditional LCD screens, you don't need ultra HD resolutions. Digital Menu Boards, for instance, have no need for 4K resolution. In fact, in most cases, 1920x1080 is over-kill. The human eye cannot resolve this resolution from the typical viewing distance."
"Large video walls are a different matter. Putting multiple 1080p screens together in a large video wall matrix would obviously demand higher resolution content (again assuming the viewing distance is modest). So for content creators 4K will be important for video walls. For screen manufacturers, I'm not sure it's a pressing need. Very few applications would need that 'close up 4K resolution.' Perhaps medical imaging, but not much else," Porter stated.
One organization that is investing in 4K pixel density isHarvard University. The venerable institution is using Blackmagic ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K switchers to stream tennis matches online. BrightSign debuted its new 4K digital signage media player this week. BrightSign CEO Jeff Hastings says that its new player delivers "an end-to-end 4K solution that accepts H.265-encoded content, and delivers 60 fps output via HDMI 2.0."
Each of these characteristics is necessary to deliver a true 4K solution, Hastings added. "For content to remain 4K native and be delivered at the highest visual quality, video must be captured on a 4K-capable camera, encoded, and decoded using the new H.265 compression standard at 10 bits/channel, and fed to the display via HDMI 2.0 to preserve the original 60 fps frame rate." Hastings also emphasized that transitioning to 4K is not as intimidating as it might seem. The elements required for 4K are already here, but they must connected in the right way. "Any broken link in this chain of events adversely impacts video quality and the output falls short of what 4K is made to be."
Gefen wants to meet the need for 4K point-to-point transmission with its new ELR Extender for HDMI over one CAT-5 with POL (power over line). It transmits 4K Ultra HD content with RS-232 and bi-directional IR. Bonus: POL provides power to the receiver unit using the same single CAT-5 cable, so there's no need to buy an external power supply for the receiver side.
To facilitate the transition to 4K, Crestron is offering a 4K Certification program. Manufacturers can submit 4K sources and displays to Crestron to ensure that they: deliver true 10 Gbit/s data rates to get the signal to its destination; interface with DigitalMedia to handle cable-lengths found in integrated AV systems; and work with other 4K products in a DigitalMedia system.
Tech managers should take a closer look at High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), the video compression format that is the successor to H.264 (which is used widely in both content creation and playback). HEVC is, relatively, the new kid on the block and it offers new complexities and advantages: "50% better compression than H.264 in video-on-demand applications, which means similar quality at half the bitrate," according to Jan Ozer, contributor for Streaming Media and AV Technology magazine. He recently parsed the details of HEVC licensing by the MPEG LA.
2. Connectivity & Convergence Evolve
The only constant is flux. AV meets IT. Yawn. The technology convergence narrative is passé. It's here. It's real. Not only are we dealing with AV/IT convergence, students are majoring in it. Check the Collins College program devoted to converged technologies, and El Centro College's Convergence Technology Program.
El Centro College defines a convergence technician as a professional working in a large company that handles support for Voice (including old telephony and Voice over IP); Data (like regular computer networking); Video and Images; Wired, wireless, different qualities of service. Required skill sets include Audio/Video; Internet Access; File Storage & Backup; Security Design; Implementation; and Evaluation (and more). I'm impressed with forward-looking programs of this ilk, and I applaud the teams behind them. I wish I had the chance to take these classes as an undergrad.
The chorus of "constant change" underscores the need to rethink connectivity and infrastructure possibilities. Commercial designs are transforming thanks to HDBaseT, Power over Ethernet (PoE), and HDMI extenders. It's not free, but it is no longer cost-prohibitive to network AV devices together, tie everything to an IP-based network with flexible control with remote monitoring.
In his outlook in our "Meet Your Manager" series, Benjamin Pain, Technical and Audio-Visual Manager at The Royal College of Physicians, said that his main focus for the next 12-18 months will be to "ensure the building-wide cabling network is as robust as possible. Equipment is ephemeral and none of it can work correctly until the infrastructure is in place. Still I believe that it is dangerous to fully put faith in fiber and digital content management. Even after all these years, I still have greater faith in copper wire."
Expect to see more interest in fortifying WiFi coverage and deploying WiGig, the spec which allows devices to wirelessly communicate at multi-gigabit speeds. EdTech expert and design consultant Steve Thorburn said that connecting devices to a display wirelessly is still a challenge; there are at least five competing factions for this wireless “standard,” including Intel’s WIDI (Wi-Fi Direct), Wi-Fi Alliance Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Miracast, Apple AirPlay, and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance). "There are many more options with their own entire feature set. Once a standard is uniformly adopted, the limitations of using a tablet as the primary teaching resource will disappear." On the remote management front, the ZD (ZoneDirector) Remote Control from Ruckus Wireless is a mobile application that gives IT administrators the ability to remotely manage, monitor, and configure Ruckus Smart WiFi LANs.
We're seeing more smartphone-to-device connectivity via Miracast, NFC, BlueTooth, etc. Hitachi America's 3LCD projectors offer enhanced connectivity and wireless networking. Biamp is expanding its intelligent system networking category; it just debuted its Vocia 1.6, a networked public address and voice evacuation system. BlackBox's iCOMPEL O appliances are OPS-compliant and integrate into the company's networked signage systems. Tech managers can extend and distribute HD content over a network, multicast HDMI video, and deliver HD video where you want it, over a LAN. Kramer's KW−11T and KW−11R, for example, are a wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver combo that can send uncompressed 1080p 60Hz video with “zero” latency up to 40 feet (with no line of sight requirement). Kramer is quick to point out that its new tools are EDID, CEC, and HDCP compliant. There are a bevy of new matrix switchers which provides fast switching for HDCP audiovisual content. Look for products that also extend HDMI, of course.
3. Video Ubiquity
Video is no longer lagniappe; it's expected. The demand is increasing for video communications as standard UC features. We will see more solutions that enable video collaboration and instant video chatting via WebRTC and related platforms. I see the focus tilting toward Web browsers and apps. High-end telepresence, traditional MCUs, hardware endpoints, and immersive HD VC rooms still fill an important niche, but there is momentum for less expensive, browser-based collaboration technologies. Check out new VC bridging solutions from the likes of Blue Jeans, Cisco, Polycom, Vidyo, Radvision and Ayava Company, and Vaddio which glue together soft codecs like Jabber and Skype.
Expect to read more in 2014 about IP-based video, specifically IPTV in higher ed settings. IPTV feeds delivered to classrooms can piggyback on the same network that connects a school’s computers and connects users to the Internet.
4. New Focus on Real-Time Content
In 2014, digital signage manufacturers will deploy better methods of extending and engaging digital signage content directly to phones and peripherals. CradlePoint, for example, is offering digital signage products that can tie in mobile apps, PTZ surveillance cameras, IP-enabled thermostats, as well as security systems. Because of 4G LTE and advancements in cloud-based management, organizations are using advanced analytics to engage users through digital signage and kiosks. New products are building on increased network speeds, interactive touch screens, and better content development tools. Content is still queen.
New ways to share content are transforming the higher ed space, too. More affordable videoconferencing, online learning solutions, lecture capture, flipped learning, and student-centered designs, are helping tech managers and higher ed professionals transform learning spaces. The emphasis in design is the collaborative classroom and BYOD. (Read more about that in Mega Trend #6.)
5. Value Propositions are Changing
AVB (Audio Video Bridging), CobraNet, Dante, and other platforms are supporting AV networking designs and deployments. I cannot stress enough that each platform has unique specifications. As with any new technology, a rigorous needs analysis will best determine what is the right fit. I expect to see more iterations of scalable systems in 2014; what was once the province of six- or five-figure new-builds are now more scaleable. Biamp's TesiraFORTÉ comes to mind. Biamp's Tesira 2.0 is an addition to the digital signal processor-based line; TesiraFORTÉ audio processors extend AVB to application-specific settings, consisting of eight pre-configured models. Biamp says that the new line is designed to bring value to conferencing, telephony, and VoIP environments. We covered some amazing installations in 2013 where tech managers lauded the migration of AV onto the network. The National Gallery in Washington, DC, for example, migrated AV onto the network for their outstanding Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes exhibit. I expect that to continue in 2014.
The huddle room category should have an interesting year ahead. Makers of huddle room systems believe that they fit a hole in the market, especially for businesses with modest budgets, universities with dozens of break rooms, or hospitals with limited wireless coverage. Varying features and functions are available via the AMX Enzo, Barco CMS & ClickShare, Christie Brio, Crestron AirMedia, Da-Lite ViewShare, Extron TeamWork, Vaddio HUDDLE Station, WOW Vision Collab 8, and more. Each of these technologies are professional-grade and eschew the need for switches or proprietary cabling. Huddle systems provide alternatives for parsimonious tech managers who want real-time collaboration in BYOD spaces, but don't want to spend mega money.
6. BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything)
Users are bringing whatever devices they can carry in their pockets, backpacks, and purses into your buildings. They expect to connect and communicate any where at any time (without a data breach). It's a jungle in the BYOD world — iPad Air, smartphones, laptops, Galaxies, cloud solutions, DropBoxes, and hot spots. The key for tech managers it to stay responsive. Refine your mobile device management policy and invest in a solid wireless infrastructure to guarantee that your facility has the bandwidth to support the simultaneous use of mobile devices. These pesky devices will certainly be uploading/downloading/streaming more rich content in 2014. Again, I'm watching net neutrality developments closely to understand how they will affect tech managers' daily tasks.
We are also in the middle of an attitudinal shift: public and private-sector awareness is growing for broadband. For example, ConnectED is an initiative to bridge the digital divide and bring more schools and libraries up to speed (pun intended) with wireless broadband. It's receiving notable support in the private sector.
My final reading of the tea leaves: Get ready for Google Glass. Select universities and healthcare facilities are in beta tests, examining how wearable technology can complement their missions.
One proponent of the Google Class is Alisa Brownlee, an Assistive Technology Specialist with the ALS Association. Brownlee is leading an Explorer trial to learn ways the high-tech specs can be adapted to improve the lives of people living with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS).
A passionate advocate for the ALS community, Brownlee believes that Google Glass will be a cost-effective upgrade to current assistive devices, which are limited in functionality and can cost upwards of $15,000. (Conversely, Google Glass has an app store and it currently costs around $1,500. That price should decrease after beta.)
Ultimately, Brownlee contends that Google Glass can help "revolutionize the lives of those with ALS.“ Potential benefits include reducing social isolation common to those with ALS; increased mobility (current eye gaze systems do not work outside or in cars); the integration of apps that could open doors, control wheel chairs, assist communication, and change TV channels; and help people with ALS watch a concert, child’s soccer game, or other important life events without having to travel. Google will incorporate feedback from this trial into the final product design.
While an AV or IT tech manager might dismiss wearable technologies as superfluous, if a college or hospital wants to buy two dozen Google Glasses, you know where the maintenance/upkeep responsibilities will roll? Right into the tech team's wheelhouse.
Margot Douaihy is the editor of AV Technology magazine and EDUwire.com. She has taught at Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and advises universities on blended learning strategies.