Mobile Control

Here's a new phrase to stick into your daily lexicon. While it doesn't exactly flow off the tongue, if you're in the commercial AV business, chances are good before long you'll be tossing around the term, "Ultra-mobile lifestyle PC," or "UMPC" for short, without a second thought. With recent buzz coming out of Microsoft on its "Origami Project," code name for a UMPC development platform, and the Samsung Q1, Asus R2H, and TabletKiosk Eo all scheduled to ship this year, the UMPC train is rolling. And as with most trains larger than the HO variety, if you're in the way, you better think about moving.

The UMPC notion is simple. Combine a nice size (7-inch) touchscreen with Windows XP (Tablet Edition) and built-in Wi-Fi (802.11g) in a small, slick package and price it under $1,000 to ride the momentum of exploding consumer demand for an endless supply of digital media and connectivity. It's the ultimate portable media center and has a "can't miss" feel to it. Cool factor aside, however, the Samsung Q1 and similar products are going to have the unintended side effect of permanently changing how AV integrators and our customers think about, build, deploy, use, and support device control.

As the user interface platform and single point of integration for many projects, device control often defines the commercial AV customer experience. It's a zero-compromise situation-the interface must be completely intuitive (training will not be tolerated!) and the buttons, sliders, dials, switches, etc. must work every time. The challenge for integrators, of course, is that for the most part, manufacturers have partitioned control solutions into (a) functional and affordable, but inflexible (e.g., hard-wired buttons punched into a wall) or (b) flexible, expensive, and complex (e.g., Flash programming with a touchscreen interface). When it comes to control, the middle ground has been elusive, forcing customers to either overspend (relative to the rest of the project budget) or make do with what's affordable.

So how does a UMPC evolve from the coolest gadget this side of Apple into a freight train barreling into commercial AV device control? For starters, UMPC devices are going to drive down the cost of integrated touchscreens (i.e., no additional PC needed), while driving end-user awareness and access to these devices way, way up. In the world of commercial AV, single-gang, wall-mount touchpanels can easily carry an MSRP of $900, while larger tabletop, lectern, and wall-mount panels can range to $3,000 and above. When Samsung begins shipping its sub-$1,000 Q1s by the trainload to every Best Buy in the land later this year, commercial AV customers will quickly connect the dots, and the bottom will fall out of the proprietary touchscreen market. In fact, to some degree, it's already happening, with the realization that products like the Nokia 7700 (same idea, smaller screen, proprietary OS, $350 street price) supports a fully functioning web browser, which can be used as a control interface.

While access to an integrated touchscreen is a nice start, two problems remain. First, the controller running behind the scenes must be able to take advantage of the architecture and tools present on this new generation of touchscreens. The combination of built-in Wi-Fi support, security and a web browser suggests running an HTML control application served directly by a networked controller. Suddenly, the "open architecture" buzz that's become popular with control manufacturers over the past year is looking pretty useful, and the notion of an affordable, GUI-based control solution sounds realistic.

The remaining problem, though, is tougher to overcome. Specifically, it is difficult to deliver a low-priced, graphical control interface when custom code writing is in the mix. The cost of control programming, where user-interface logic (e.g., make it look nice) is combined with device control logic (e.g., make it do something useful), drives the price of the overall solution up, beyond the reach of most customers, and beyond the skill set of many dealers, despite the drop in touchscreen prices. Again, this is where the industry needs to lean on open architecture approaches, finding ways to take advantage of tools that deliver customized solutions, while reducing or eliminating dependence on proprietary systems and specialty skill sets.

As commercial AV evolves from serving specialty industries to serving broad-based markets, the requirements and buying habits of our customers will continue to change. Video is showing up everywhere, and projects are more numerous, have compressed timelines and carry lower budgets. Increasingly, customers will insist upon control that's integrated into the tools and platforms already in use. Customers will prefer control as a web application within a desktop or handheld browser, as a simple desktop icon or as a button easily dropped into a PowerPoint presentation. Control will need to be quickly customized or modified by an AV technician rather than by a programmer.

Bundle Up
Coming from manufacturers, distributors, and dealers, equipment bundles combining projectors, mounting gear, cables, control systems, etc. are popping up everywhere, often in the form of good, better, and best packages. The goal is to simplify and speed purchasing decisions while bringing much needed operational efficiency to all involved. As equipment margins drop, efficiency separates winners from losers. It is, in a maturing market, the difference between profits and losses.

While it's conceptually easy to bundle "boxed" items, requiring little custom configuration, bundling breaks down when it comes to control systems. The problem is that control systems require some amount of attention for each installation. Attention means time, money, support, and, in the end, less efficiency. The compromise has been to restrict bundled control systems to those requiring little customization. Namely, wall-mount button panels that are functional, but which offer little flexibility and which, of course, don't offer remote monitoring and control. The alternative, involving custom code writing to combine user interface and device control logic, has been too complex and expensive to fit into a bundle strategy.

Calypso Control Systems replaces control logic code writing with an event database that resides on the controller. The database acts as a translation table that converts any incoming "trigger" (e.g., IR, relay, serial string, network string) into any outgoing sequence of control actions. With support for 128 triggers and up to 512 actions, the architecture accommodates most small-room applications. Most importantly, the database can be pre-configured by an AV technician, with no programming experience, for each equipment bundle.

Events can also be triggered by an internal clock, based upon day, time and/or interval, or through simple hyperlink commands.


Calypso Control

Microsoft's Origami Project...