Control Your Destiny

With all of the kerfuffle about interface issues, what are control system manufacturers doing about it? Well, relief may be in sight. The way product announcements appear to be going, the promise of "convergence" that has been just over the horizon for more than decade may finally be close enough to warrant a yell of "Land ho." The only question that remains is who will clamor ashore and plant their flag first.

Ideally, the convenience and ease of use now associated with most aspects of ethernet, the internet and USB functionality would be a key attribute of control systems in the near future. "Contractors and consultants would like to reduce the amount of hardware required in a system and simplify set-up of devices," noted Joe Da Silva, Extron director of product marketing. "They would also like to decrease on-site engineer visits and reduce device ownership costs as well as make more efficient use of labor resources. With systems control, the use of a help-desk function could better expedite resolution of technical problems."

Along these lines, Extron has introduced its GlobalViewer and Global Configurator, which assist in setup and provide remote monitoring functions.

The future may be in a reduced number of systems components and easy setup, but so far the evolution of control in AV systems has led to a three-tiered hierarchy of results. First, there's basic control, then there's integration, and finally there's automation. The last of these is the ultimate goal, but sometimes just getting through the first two levels is so time-consuming it is impossible to provide a truly simple control interface for the end-user.

"Integration is what 80 percent of our dealers spend their time on, which is making things work together as a system," observed Rashid Skaf, president and chief operating officer of AMX. "Automation is the application code, where they can take that integration and really automate some of the functions. Unfortunately, because most people spend a lot of time with the integration portion, they don't get to the automation."

AMX's answer to the eternal conundrum of control versus automation is its growing list of manufacturer partners who have committed to using the new Dynamic Device Discovery aspect of the Duet platform. AMX created Duet to "make it easier to do business with us, and to integrate all these devices together so systems integrators can spend their time and effort on customizing their solution for the end-user," Skaf said. AMX anticipates an "exponential increase" to the Duet partners list in September, when the company will present a list of its latest partnerships at CEDIA.

If there are similarities to the ease of connectivity found in the world of computing, that is because Duet is a combination of AMX's proprietary NetLinx language and Java. This could have an interesting impact on the AV systems industry. "There are 4.2 million Java programmers in the world, compared to roughly 10,000 NetLinx programmers," Skaf said. "So it opens up the spectrum for other people wanting to write code on an IT-centric basis. This also means there will be more programmers that can be hired into this industry. That's probably the number-one request we get from our dealers today. They just can't find enough good programmers out there."

Michael Peveler, AMX's director of the InConcert program which initiates Duet partnerships, has seen a positive response on the manufacturer side as well. "There's not a manufacturer out there that wouldn't tell you that one of their number-one goals is to make their product easier to work with," he said. "If there's an open standard that allows a manufacturer's product to work with others then they're going to embrace that quickly. It's gotten to the point where they're saying they can't afford not to do this."

Dealing with issues on the back end of integration is one thing, but the user interface is the final frontier. But what if the user interface was so flexible it only needed a hyperlink to trigger a series of events? This is the notion upon which Calypso Control Systems is building its c_Link platform. "One of the core things that contributes to the complexity of existing control solutions is that they tend to mix control logic with user interface logic, and those things are really intertwined with each other," observed David Parish, PhD, president of Calypso Control Systems. "Our approach is to separate control logic from user interface logic and simplify both. The way we do that is by defining an event database on our controller and allowing the dealer to identify incoming events and then specify what actions it should take."

Calypso's controller can learn anything from IR commands to serial control strings, which it will then match with corresponding output commands as advanced as serial commands or relays. But how does the user interface play into this scheme? "It turns out that because of the event database structure that we've developed, you can use simple hyperlinks in order to trigger event control," Parish said. "So all anybody needs in order to control events out of our controller is the IP address of the controller and an event number. On the user interface side, all you need is a hyperlink. That's huge. You can drop control buttons directly within your PowerPoint presentation, trivially."

This is another benefit of control systems connected over ethernet networks. "Any job can benefit from having an ethernet-based control system, not just the high-end projects," said Marc LaVecchia, co-founder of BMA Software Solutions, an audiovisual service and support company specializing in control systems such as Crestron. "Now somebody can go to a website and have access to the room along with full status and control of the room remotely. That's extremely important to customers, because they spend so much money on replacing accessories like projector lamps." It's important to integrators, too. Now systems programmers like LaVecchia can complete their portion of a systems installation remotely, saving costs related to having extra personnel onsite.

In addition to saving on costs, it may increase integrator revenue as well. "It's allowing a new level of service and support at the systems integrator level," Levecchia said. "Add a browser, add a help desk, put in Crestron RoomView software. Crestron has some of the most advanced ethernet software out there and I'm stunned that more people do not use it. That's where we come in. We work to educate the sales people on how to sell this. Because now you're not just talking to the AV manager as an end-user, you're now talking to their IT person as well. They've got to prospect a little differently, and in order to do that, they need to be able to speak the language."