Which Parts of AV Won’t Be Consumed By IT?

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Room-based conferencing systems like those that Cisco offers are often being overlooked in favor of desktop or mobile solutions.Let’s all hail Pac-Man, and how that classic video game’s pizza-shaped hero was manipulated through a maze, gobbling up dots as fast as he—or you—could manage.

Some ask if AV is going to be gobbled up by IT in a similar manner, relegated to a mere niche that is relied upon for fine-tuning the end-points of a communications system. Are we in a no-man’s land where IT won’t be able to master AV’s unique idiosyncrasies, or is there a definite line of AV/IT demarcation?

The answer is amorphous, both a yes and a no, said Julian Phillips, vice president at Whitlock and director at large on the InfoComm Board of Directors. The biggest challenge is not the difference or value of AV versus IT but it’s about who is going to manage it, he observed. “The problem AV has had, and still does, is that it hasn’t really had an organizational home. I’ve seen fairly sizeable AV departments in corporate, educational, healthcare, and telecom organizations in which AV belongs to security or facilities departments or is outsourced to catering companies. As a result, it’s been difficult for AV to establish itself in the corporate world as a mainstream service deliverable.”

AV often has lived and died by its own endeavors, engendering a misunderstood perception of value. “As an example,” Phillips said, “we have a global bank as a managed services client. The CEO values AV highly because there is always an AV tech by his side when he gives presentations, making sure he looks and sounds as well as possible. The CEO is dependent on the tech and values his support more highly than he does the guy who maintains the core system, who he doesn’t see.”

This casts AV’s value as personalitydriven and based on immediate service, good or bad. Because it hasn’t had a functional organizational home, has not been well managed, nor had proper investment or oversight in the corporate world, such as IT has had, AV hasn’t really flourished or become as integral. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t delivered high value, he argued.

“If AV is going to grow and flourish with greater investment and relevance to any business, we have to bring it into mainstream management and give it the opportunity to be managed by a part of an organization with form, function, and proper standards, recognized as a fundamental part of business, not an unmanaged sideshow,” Phillips said. “The answer is that only one function within an organization deserves to have AV responsibility, and that is IT.

Those wavy gray lines dividing AV from IT are not hard and fast at all, agreed Steve Emspak, partner at Shen, Milsom & Wilke. “The IT side can just as easily calculate power and heat as it can determine most of the cabling requirements, and based on some of the information that is readily available on various websites, size screens for straightforward applications. Most of today’s manufacturers are focused on the bottom line, with selling the box as the top priority. So information that had been closely held is much more readily available.”

The fine tuning of the system or commissioning—the last 20 percent of the project—will continue to be the dividing line, said Mark Linton, senior vice president of integration for the Eastern region at AVI-SPL. “Certainly, IT can install, wire, and configure the gear with the proper training, but our ability to make it look and sound good is the niche on which we will continue to be relied upon. This comes from years of training and troubleshooting, but most importantly from the experience and the subjective expertise we have developed as an industry to provide solutions that offer the auditory and visual experience our clients are looking for.”

A Shift

When Paul Depperschmidt, global AV integration market development manager for Cisco Systems, attended the recent Enterprise Connect show in Orlando, FL, he noted a repositioning representing the move to unified communications and enterprise video. Most of the major network/telephony players were there, with keynotes from Cisco, Microsoft, and Avaya.

“While there was a lot of talk about video, it was almost exclusively in a desktop or mobile discussion,” he said. “There was almost no talk about room systems, where the AV market lives. Most of the attendees have never heard of InfoComm or know there is an AV market.”

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An installation by Whitlock at Boston’s Northeastern University demonstrats the value that high-visibility AV can bring to a building.This illustrates where the networking world is coming from, Depperschmidt said. “They see the video move in a mass-market, cloud-based, and enterprise-wide deployment lens. AV still sees it in terms of a custom-room-based system. In the end, adoption of enterprise-wide video will cause more room systems to be built as employees will expect to have video everywhere.”

Think of video in enterprise as a pyramid, he suggested, with those room-based systems at the top and affordable, scalable video at the broad base. The whole pyramid will get larger in the years to come as large enterprises deploy more desktop, mobile, and BY OD right along with the rooms. Growth will continue in the bigger, custom rooms, but the less expensive rooms and the enterprise-wide deployments will grow much faster.

“There has already been a significant market developed where the telepresence product is purchased through a large network-based partner and the integrator provides the integration and other AV equipment,” Depperschmidt said. “Most AV integrators are quite happy to play in that model. Other AV integrators are determined to go it alone. Many of the network partners are very large and well positioned in enterprise accounts. They have a capacity to drive a much larger use of video and UC in the enterprise. We don’t yet see a significant desire for the large network partners to create an AV practice or purchase AV integrators. They continue to see AV as a niche. At this time they are happy to partner with the AV integrators to solve the AV requests for the client. But that could change.”

Evolutionary

There’s no doubt that as the industry continues to evolve, lines will blur and AV integrators will need to adapt.

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No matter how data gets to a video endpoint, ultimately it moves to analog as it goes to a human’s eyes, ears, and touch control, Depperschmidt added. “In room systems, that should be the domain of the AV integration market, providing the human experience at the end of the data stream. Unfortunately, too many in the AV space still consider their product to be boxes and racks of equipment. The problem is someone will always sell a box for less. But the skill to create and implement a quality end environment is much more difficult to obtain and is the integrators true value.”

The lack of awareness of AV quality works against the AV space. “Too many on the network side consider any display or audio speaker to be good enough. Many have never experienced a well-designed and implemented AV system with good acoustics and lighting. The goal of the AV industry should be to show how quality display, audio, and control can be obtained affordably and easily. There is a threshold of price and functionality that will allow for many more rooms to include AV. AV should strive to find that spot before others do.”

It’s An Art

Are there any remaining facets of AV that remain too esoteric for IT to contend with?

There is and has always been an art form to making a complex audio or video solution sound or look as it should, Linton said. “Audio and video theory is only one component of this. There is a subjectivity to what we do that has been developed over years of experience that is hard to replicate outside of our industry.”

But while AV may agonize over the right EQ, speaker zoning, and sound distribution, IT and clients may simply shrug and say it sounds fine to them, Depperschmidt said. “It will all depend on whether the IT side and end-clients recognize and place value on the difference. That’s all the more reason for the AV market to quickly develop a base level of knowledge, skill, metrics, and best practices used by all AV integrators globally.”

And it’s becoming increasingly important, Linton emphasized, that the AV industry gain a better working knowledge of networking and security in order to partner with IT departments to implement solutions that can live within the AV environment. “This knowledge will give integrators the proper communication tools to more effectively and efficiently manage their businesses and minimize security risks, especially if confidential information is being exchanged through the systems.”

Once an application crosses over to the more complex issues of interactivity between devices, as in large images in an auditorium where viewing becomes much more critical, factors beyond size such as brightness, contrast, resolution, and vertical head rotation, etc., demand much more than selecting a part number, Emspak said. “We can say the same thing about audio, the AV stepchild, where some information is readily available, but getting that audio system working in an environment with a high level of complexity so that consistency and intelligibility can be achieved is yet another matter altogether.”

The traditional AV integrator, armed with duct tape, a Swiss Army knife, and a ground isolator, has always been known as the guy who could get it all to work, he added. “That was called service once upon a time. Good, solid, responsive service.”

Now, developing and honing one’s skills in what has become a very competitive niche market has got to be the number-one consideration, Emspak said. “It’s still customer service 101—speaking from a position of knowledge, being informed, articulate, and responsive to your clients’ needs. Don’t make the mistake that is made all too often, which is treading upon another discipline’s territory, unless of course you are absolutely positive that what you are going to say is accurate. If it is not, your credibility is blown forever.”

More knowledge of network applications, specifically real-time applications such as voice or video, will always serve integrators well. “But an AV company will need to decide if they plan to offer more than AV,” Depperschmidt said. “The opportunity is there for an AV company to provide a one-stop shop that includes network structure, voice, telepresence, digital signage, web conferencing, building management, mobile video, and BY OD, etc., essentially all of the real-time traffic running on a network.”

With many AV integrators and consultants already gearing up to provide that, for most it will be a major transition. “The alternative is to simply be very good at AV integration and provide that part of the total solution,” he added. “The decision will be unique for each company. They could be acquired, build, buy, or partner their way to a larger offering. Or, they could put stakes down to offer AV excellence directly or through partnerships.”

Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Boulder, CO.

InfoComm Presents

InfoComm’s Certification Committee periodically looks at potential certification programs its members might be interested in creating based on the needs of the industry, job requirements, and access to a supporting body of knowledge.

“As AV on the network and cloud continues to grow so do security issues,” explained Melissa Taggart, senior vice president of education and certification for InfoComm. “The Committee has been looking at these issues, though a final decision has not yet been made. The newest versions of the exams, which will be released in July of this year, will also contain more networking content, based on the recent reevaluation of the exam content outlines for all three exams.”

In the meantime, InfoComm University has developed some new networking classes including Networking Technology, a new primer which will be offered for the first time at InfoComm 2013, and Networked AV Systems, an intermediate to advanced three-day course that debuted at last year’s show to strong reviews.

“We developed this class because our subject matter experts determined that in today’s industry one needs a CTS-level understanding of AV technologies and design principles, and quite a bit of the CompTIA Network+ level understanding of networking technologies and design principles,” Taggart said.

Networked AV Systems was created at the suggestion of members of InfoComm’s Professional Education and Testing Committee, who determined that the industry needed more advanced training in how to deal with the impact of audiovisual applications on enterprise networks. “It is a challenging class, taught by instructors who hold Network+ certifications,” she added. “We have developed an extensive pre-test so potential attendees can determine if they should take Networking Technology first. We’ve also developed Networking Technology Online which addresses basic networking technology issues in a class that can be accessed at any time.”

In today’s networked environment, AV professionals need to understand how to glean customer needs, manage trade-offs between quality and bandwidth, and work through the sometimes conflicting needs of customers and network managers, Taggart said. “Through better coordination among clients, IT professionals, and AV designers, network-based AV systems can deliver the kind of exceptional communications experiences that benefit everyone.”

—K.M.

Credentials, Please

Maybe you’re wavering about which certifications and standards to add to your bag of tricks. Beyond those that are AV-related, certain IT certifications are out there, too, with the horizon looming closer and closer. Will you need these to attract and qualify for desired projects in the future?

There is no question that various certifications will be required, said Shen, Milsom & Wilke’s Steve Emspak. “If AV is to become involved, it’s going to be sort of an all-or-nothing approach. Without the generally accepted certifications, credibility will be even more difficult to achieve.”

Certifications also will ensure that the industry remains educated on the IT component and the solutions being implemented. “Standards will certainly play a key role, especially when dealing with network security, emergency paging systems, or other critical environments where our solutions are required to deliver vital messaging,” said AVI-SPL’s Mark Linton.

Even when not required, they will be necessary for survival in the business climate as AV integrators migrate to working primarily with IT departments and managers during the implementation of solutions, he added. “In the past, we were more directly tied to facilities, but that has shifted over the past several years. If we cannot relate to IT and ‘speak the speak’ we will ultimately fall behind and cause our niche to seem less relevant. Certifications such as CompTIA or the many Cisco certification tracks are good examples of training opportunities that the AV industry needs to take advantage of immediately.”

The current AV market can be compared to those of networking and VoIP years ago; essentially cottage industries of individual companies, each with its own best practices and standards, Cisco’s Paul Depperschmidt explained. “The magic was their differentiator. As the markets matured, those companies were compelled to create and adhere to best practices and standards across the industry to survive. It was expected that every integrator followed certain norms and those that did not were soon pushed aside. The AV industry is working through that same transition as we speak.”

The days of that other AV integrator in your town as your only competitor are over. “In many cases, the network and telephony partners are now being asked by clients to provide AV,” he said. “Without a method and reason to differentiate, customers could simply stick with the network partner they have known and trusted for years. In that case, AV requirements could go down, with poor AV quality as the end result.”

Perhaps the best defense for the AV industry, Depperschmidt argued, is to quickly develop a base level of knowledge, skill, and best practices used by all AV integrators globally. “Individual certifications such as CTS-I, CTS-D, CCIE, and CCNA are important and will continue to be. But more important is a collective base level used by all AV integrators regardless of certification. That would set a bar and allow customers to easily identify who could provide a quality AV system. Otherwise, every AV company stands on its own and can easily be replaced by a networking or telephony company that may not have the necessary AV skills.”

Groups such as InfoComm and AQAV are developing those base-level best practices and standards. They are developed from input by integrators, consultants, end-users, and manufacturers globally. Rapid adoption of the best practices would allow every facet of the industry to establish what quality in the AV industry means. Without them the AV Industry could easily lose control of the definition of AV quality and the market could follow.

The AV industry already is recognizing that it needs to move to greater open standards and to a more IT-centric world. “Whether you’re a manufacturer, integrator, or IT professional, we’re all going to play in the same sandbox to provide unified communications services,” explained Whitlock’s Julian Phillips. “AV currently is a difficult, complex infrastructure lacking standards. The reason why CIOs run away from it is that they are fearful. They are without professional standards and have limited toolsets with which to remotely manage it. We have to present AV in a way that IT can understand it; there is so much value there and we have to make it easier for them.”

AV players need to learn to operate in the IT world, he insisted. “Some still believe the pure science of AV is served by analog. But the IT world is standards based, and you have to drive and support open standards. Some integrators are slow to get that, and their awakening is coming.”

The economy is going to remain what it is for several years, Phillips said. “Yesterday’s AV value is gone; you cannot hope it will get better. You have to make value relevant and fresh today, promoting it in the way people understand. You might have the best engineering tool but if you’re not relevant in the world, globally, whatever quality you present will be irrelevant. Look at the future and rethink how you are creating value.”

—K.M.

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