There is a common factor that unites the electronic systems business with industries as disparate as automotive and prepackaged food. It is a factor at once indispensable and invisible. It is all-pervasive and yet totally evasive. And while it seems impossible to define, it means more every day.
Automation is still a fledgling contender, as many control interfaces are far too techno-centric to be described as "automatic" in any capacity. "It's about the press of a button to make a videoconference call without having to specify that it's an ISDN line or T1 or Webex," explained Rashid Skaf, president and CEO of AMX. "The user just wants to talk to the person on the other end. How the technology works really shouldn't matter."
Automation takes many forms in the audio and video systems business, and some might say that it is in fact the foundation for an enterprise that makes a profit from connecting and improving the capabilities of products that would otherwise be purchased and installed by the end-user. It is by automating the function, control, monitoring and to some point even the integration of AV technology that those in this industry make increasingly complex systems more accessible to technology novices and know-it-alls alike.
The ever-increasing variety of technological offerings in the low-voltage universe, combined with a vast array of budgetary limitations stipulated by clients, has a tendency of altering the definition of "automation" from project to project. It can be said that these definitions in fact mirror the three types of offerings typically presented by designers and integrators. The first of these is basic control of essential functions like volume control and manual source inputs, the second is integration of control into one user interface or management tool, and the third is automation. Of these levels, as described by Rashid Skaf, president and CEO of AMX, automation is still a fledgling contender, as many control interfaces are far too techno-centric to be described as "automatic" in any capacity. "It's about the press of a button to make a videoconference call without having to specify that it's an ISDN line or T1 or Webex," Skaf explained. "The user just wants to talk to the person on the other end. How the technology works really shouldn't matter."
This is an increasingly common sentiment expressed by manufacturers, consultants, and contractors interested in selling efficiencies and ease of use rather than a tangled infrastructure highlighting the many gadgets that make up a system. Adopting the "lifestyle" sales approach employed in so many other industries, this is a shift away from gear and toward the nebulous concept of "convenience." Which is a welcome change. "Sometimes it seems like those in our industry feel that the more functionality they put into a touchpanel or control system, the more the end-user will feel like they're getting their money's worth, versus the other way around. I think what end-users are really saying is 'show me less,'" Skaf noted.
Nearly every sales experience is one hinging on an imbalance of knowledge. The customer is inevitably paying the salesperson for their expertise, whether it relates to vacuum cleaners, designer jeans or video switchers. In all these cases, the inner workings of suction, denim distressing, and signal routing are hopefully not presented as a hurdle to the end-user's ongoing experience with the product. This is especially true in the provision of an automated presentation system. So when a user would like to initiate a videoconference, provide them with a control interface button dedicated to this task, rather than directing them to power up the videoconferencing unit, set mute, adjust the audio levels and lighting, etc.
"People don't necessarily have any idea what a videoconference is," noted Matthew Barmash, director of business development at Cloud Systems, developers of the software-based AV control system Atmospherics. "If you ask them to do a videoconference they're going to go look for their remote control, which is obviously not what control systems are. Control systems are an amalgamation of a series of remote controls to provide a quicker solution so the presenter can focus on their presentation rather than on the AV. It's a transparent service as opposed to excessive audiovisual complexity."
Barmash added that it might be wise for those designing automation for AV systems to adopt the IT world's "80/20 rule," which stipulates that 80 percent of a system's functionality should be simple so the end-user can execute it without much thought, while the remaining 20 percent is made available to the more techno-savvy user. In a sense, many control interfaces have already been designed with this in mind, as often there are "layers" of control accessible by different parties. Frequently these varying interfaces also cater to other concerns such as aesthetic preferences and even font size for those who don't want to get out their reading glasses every time they operate their system.
Skaf has an 80/20 rule of his own when it comes to automation. "When we've gone into the field and in talking to integrators and end-users, we found that 80 percent of their time was spent making things work together, and very little, less than 20 percent, was actually spent talking to the end-user about how they intend to use this equipment and how they're likely to interact with it," he said.
All too often, users are presented with buttons that say things like "satellite," referring to the source of a television signal rather than just the understandable notion of "TV." "To those of us who deal with technology on a regular basis, it may seem obvious, but we're selling technology and integration and automation to people that want to speak in human terms," Skaf said.
Still, the user interface shouldn't be sold as too powerful in its simplicity. "There's a tendency in the industry to over-promise what a system is capable of," observed Josh Weisberg, president of Scharff Weisberg in New York City. "When a client asks me to make a system work 'at the push of a button,' I tell them they have the wrong designer. Because they're asking me to do something that is impossible. I don't care how good the automation system is, it takes human intervention and knowledgeable human intervention is much better than ignorant human intervention."
This is where automation on the back end of systems takes over, Weisberg added. "That's what all these remote management systems are all about, taking those functions away from the owner/operator and transferring them to other humans who have been trained to do that particular job. Then what they're doing is amortizing the cost of those humans across multiple control applications or multiple installations, where the owner operator can't amortize that cost. He'd have to pay those people to run his room, and that's expensive and they don't want to do it. So instead they say 'I want a room that my CEO can run by himself.'"
Gus Garramuno, Crestron senior GUI designer, agreed: "There's no such thing as a single-button approach. We have attempted it, but there's always a certain process that you have to follow. Being that there are so many sources that you can access your presentation through-laptop, DVD player, VCR, projector-there's so many variables that it's difficult to come up with a single-button approach unless it was a very simplified system, which you normally don't see."
As a GUI designer, Garramuno has observed a kind of automation that is taking place in interface design. Through Crestron's involvement with the InfoComm Dashboard for Controls Committee, Garramuno and others are working toward a standardized approach toward touchpanel layout design. Still, there will be a good deal of customization required for any project.
"Each project is a living thing; it grows according to the unique needs of end-users," Garramuno said. But the functionality can be laid out in a clear way so that a CEO traveling from an office in Los Angeles to a New York headquarters will be able to quickly ascertain how a presentation system is run. "He should be able to understand that touchpanel the same way as how he sees it in the Los Angeles meeting room," Garramuno said.
Of course there are much more grandiose applications of automation in systems integration. "I see automation as the stitching together of disparate systems well beyond the room," said Steve Emspak, a partner with Shen, Milsom and Wilke in New York City. "The building and the campus really are the focus in my mind. Everything from addressing issues of building efficiencies and dealing with building management systems, to trying to keep the building cool or warm, or light or dark. It really begins to address some of the things that are becoming more and more important on the building management side, and that is saving money and saving energy. You're saving resources and addressing a more efficient building operation in general."
This level of building and campus automation enables the integration of electrically operated doors, security, HVAC, lighting, irrigation, and more. "The broader focus is that you want to manage the facility. If there's a fire you want to control your HVAC system, trip the fire alarm, trip the security systems, and trigger the security monitors. If there's a break-in you want to isolate-close and lock the doors automatically."
Of course these visions of a rather James Bond type of theft prevention have existed for some time, but Emspak pointed out that "not enough of it has been stitched together adequately and consolidated into a rational user interface. In the past, user interfaces consisted of a bank of computer terminals, now you automate the entire process."
Shen Milson and Wilke…www.smwinc.com