"The Future Is Here..."

Recently, I was able to work with a very talented group of industry professionals to develop the InfoComm seminar, Design in the Digital Age, which was about the impact of disruptive digital technologies-like DSP and control systems-on AV designers. We did this in order to get to the heart of why so often this technology is poorly implemented. What we discovered was that the flexibility and virtual elements of these technologies permitted the design of the systems to be deferred until very late in the build process and, as a result, they were often "designed" by people without the proper design skills. We labeled this phenomenon, "deferred design." The development of the virtual elements, or software, of these systems (GUIs and DSP virtual wiring diagrams, for example) has become a major design component, but this design work is rarely done before or in conjunction with the hardcopy wiring diagrams and written specifications.

As part of this seminar, we dedicated some time to the future of design so that we could focus some attention not only on how these products are disrupting our design habits today, but how future technologies will change the nature of the audiovisual industry. Our goal was to help designers prepare for and adapt to these changes in advance. Author William Gibson once said in an NPR radio interview, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." In this article, together with the skillful contribution of editor-at-large, Kirsten Nelson, we look into the future of the audiovisual industry, but instead of predicting, we will look around us today to see glimpses into the future that "are just not evenly distributed yet."

As we explore the future, we will, most likely, see many divergent models of professional audiovisual system development and design.

In The Future...
Below I have listed some of the categories of future change that were developed during our Design in the Digital Age seminar. For each of these "predictions" we can observe AV industry companies and people today that are starting to take advantage of these coming trends.

• High Level Integration-Manufacturers are working to integrate more functionality into a single package. Harman's HiQnet allows centralized control of many audio components, Crestron is making video switches to pair with its control hardware, Extron is selling systems with everything but the projector, and there are many other examples. All of this is an effort to provide more integrated packages. If you are an integrator, then these efforts may be biting at your profits in the future by providing less need for "integration." If you are in the control business, these efforts are aiming to eliminate the need for components that require translation and custom coding. The benefits will be for the end-users who can be assured that their systems are designed to work well together and take less time (and less money) to install.

• Commoditization-As these systems become more highly integrated and pre-packaged, they will become more commoditized. We have, in our short lives as audiovisual designers, already seen one of the past cash cows-video projectors-become a commodity. This will happen with the integrated, customized systems. These pre-integrated systems will be inexpensive and easy to implement.

• Personal Customization-Although this may sound like what we have now, what this will be is the ability to easily provide end-users with thoroughly programmed, self-customizable systems in the form of sophisticated skins and presets, much like what we do with our own PCs and sites like my.yahoo.com. RFID will even allow the systems to configure themselves for us before we even push the first button. This high level of customization will be part of the highly integrated, commoditized AV system described above.

• Network Integration-This is fairly obvious, but the implications regarding plug-n-play are important. Wireless plug-n-play is going to happen. TCP-IP will be relegated to deep inside the system, unseen by human eyes. Plug-n-play will allow users to easily add on new components to their "starter" commodity system with little or no integration.

• Simulations/Automation-Automated systems and simplified simulated systems will put the complex tasks of display design and electroacoustical design into the hands of anyone. This changes the roles of designers, integrators, and end-users. This is analogous to the difference between the lab-coat-wearing scientists that were required to record audio in the early '60s and today's Apple Garage Band software.

• Hybrid Physical/Virtual Interfaces-Touchpanels can work well if the panel itself is the main focus of attention; such as in a standalone kiosk. However, touchpanels are a mediocre choice for a complex system control because the focus is beyond the panel on the projection screen. Simple tactile button controllers are superior for system control and will make a comeback in the AV industry. We are already seeing strong proof of this in the consumer electronics world with the newest MIDI controllers and the iPod. Hybrid touch/tactile button panels will become more sophisticated and better suited to control AV systems.

• Visual Playdoh/More Visibility-Video DSP and more "flexible" video displays will allow us to implement video in numerous ways. The cognitive ramifications (confusion, distraction, and lack of focus) of having so many moving images surrounding us will not be fully understood until our walls are covered with video displays. For millions of years we have evolved to be very sensitive to large-toothed animals sneaking up behind us, so movement in our peripheral vision can be very disturbing. The upside is that we won't have to deal with as much hidden information. So many of the displays we currently employ are incredibly coy with providing the information we need. It always seems to be hidden behind some double-clickable icon, some overlaying window or some nested menu. More video everywhere will increase the availability of information we need to access.

• Completely Virtual Designs and Implementation-This has been talked about for decades, but it will happen. Not only do I think we will eliminate paper someday, but because of the visual playdoh mentioned above we will be able to display the information we want in the display format that is appropriate for the environment. This will enable us to eliminate paper and work in a format that will support better virtual, "soft" designs.

• Ubicomp (Ubiquitous Computing/Ambient Information)-This will simply allow for information where we need it, when we need it. Peter Morville's book, Ambient Findability, describes a world with Ubicomp paired necessarily with good findability, which will make meeting spaces abundant with relevant information.

Deferred Design On Time
With all of these changes we will finally be forced to rework our design practices, partly because the physical infrastructure requirements will be simplified beyond our ability to charge anyone to design them. Our profession will be distilled to the 20 percent of projects that will call for the design of customized physical environments and integral interface design, which is more closely related to the disciplines of architecture and interaction design than to audio and video engineering.

Our goal will be far beyond displaying computer images; we will be focused on optimizing humans working together. The other 80 percent of AV systems will be bought off the shelf and will require little or no design or specialized integration. In order to respond to this shift in our marketplace we will need to focus our attention toward better understanding the interface of space, information, and the human mind, the most complex and messy of these being the highly fallible and most mysterious human mind.

  • 1. Our profession will be distilled to the 20 percent of projects that will call for the design of customized physical environments and integral interface design. Our goal will be to focus on optimizing humans working together. The other 80 percent of AV systems will be bought off the shelf. That means systems integrators need to better understand the interface of space, information, and the human mind.
  • 2. High-level integration will be something for installers to behold in the future, especially in the control business where the need for components that require translation and custom coding is diminishing. The systems designed to work well together take less time and money to install and wil