AV Touch Panels are Out of Control by Christopher Maione

At their origin, control systems were, for the most part, custom designed and engineered electronics.

They were combinations that included lots of detailed wiring, punch blocks, switches, lamps, and relays. A typical lectern “control panel” was made from about 40 EAO momentary switches with a lamp in each one. Wiring to a lectern control panel would typically be via (2) large 50 conductor cables that terminated in bulky Amphenol “D” connectors. Techs used to sit at a bench for hours soldering control panels and connectors. Each button had its own very basic functions and would illuminate when “on."

Typical operator and lectern control panel functions included:

• System On/Off
• Screen Up/Down
• 35mm Slide Left / Center / Right On/Off
• Slide Focus In / Out
• ¾-inch UMatic Play/Stop/Rewind/FF/Pause
• ½ VHS Play/Stop/Rewind/FF/Pause
• Audio Tape Reel Play/Stop
• Lav Mic On/Off
• Speech & Program Volume (actual knobs on potentiometers)
• Shades Up/Down
• Lighting General/Conference/Meeting/Special

To my knowledge, the first AV control panels were designed and engineered by the original AV consultants at the firm of Hubert Wilke. Hubie is, by all understanding, the grandfather of AV. I consider myself privileged to have worked as a young engineer under the direction of the consultant at his firm.

Operator and lectern control panels required depressing a button for each and every function. The EAO buttons used made a definitive “click” followed by the incandescent button being illuminated.

Then, of course, the amazing Mr. George Feldstein brought us Crestron. A few years later, a company called York Control Systems appeared on the radar which later evolved into AMX.

Later in the control system evolution, FSR began building us all sorts of neat switchers, relays, and gizmos needed to make control system design, engineering, and wiring simpler.

The touch panel was introduced in mid- to late-1990s and opened an entirely new world of control system design. Clunky old control panels were replaced by a not-so-sleek, single color touch panels (the original panels had either orange or green buttons). Our wiring of EAO switches was replaced by this touch screen “pallet”.

Fast forward to today; we have more than a dozen control system manufacturers. This line-up of companies provides us with wired and wireless touch panels, in more colors than we can comprehend, with 3D buttons and sleek looking touch screen control panels that can be wall mounted, tabletop, furniture mounted, and are available in a large variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Unfortunately for control systems, I believe that touch panel design became a clutter of buttons with screen after screen of page flips, menus, pop in, pop outs, ups, and downs. There are all sorts of colors and buttons which light up, change color, change state, change text, disappear, and appear. I believe that touch panel design was (and in many cases still is) out of control. No pun intended.

In 1994 I began working closely with some brilliant Crestron programmers to develop standard templates and what we called a control system “medley” of touch screens. One of those rookie programmers was Steve Greenblatt, now president of Control Concepts, a leading third party programming firm.

Together, Steve and I developed standard templates for a host of our clients and did our best to “standardize” how touch panels looked and operated. We focused on a clean “look” that had a nice graphical design and an intuitive simple to use, “user friendly” layout of buttons. We had a firm rule. There was to be a maximum click path of three—meaning that the AV function could be controlled with no more than three button pushes on the touch screen.

Since then, touch panel design, now called the GUI, has again exploded. AV equipment has become more complicated, more control of equipment is available, and software based equipment has added menus for even more control. Programmers believe the need to include all this functionality into their touch panel designs and the GUI’s have become a cluttered mess. Side note—hey InfoComm—how about a standard on proper touch panel design? The last InfoComm paper on Dashboard design was issued in 2005.

So here we are today; I see touch panels everywhere. I’ve reviewed and operated hundreds of different GUIs and they are, in my opinion, a complicated mess. Because we CAN control a particular function (or 1,000 functions) should we add a button on the touch panel to do so? Has anyone heard of Apple? Simple = Better... that's the mantra.

End-users across all markets want a simple to use AV system. And that starts with a simple to use, intuitive touch panel. I challenge anyone out there to present to me a simple and intuitive GUI for a basic AV system (which must include audio and videoconferencing functionality, this is the challenging stuff).

I am not sure what is the best approach is—but the way AV designers and system integrators are going about it is not the answer. We need a different approach to AV systems control, and it needs to be simple and easy to operate. And oh, yeah, it needs to be intuitive. It shouldn’t be so hard. Think about this—we’ve each used ATM machines all over the world; they have, for the most part, a clean, intuitive and uniform look and feel. We need AV control systems be the same.

One other note, InfoComm registration is now open at infocommshow.org.

Christopher Maione, CTS-D, is president of Christopher Maione Associates, a firm specializing in all aspects of AV business, technologies, emerging trends and marketing strategy. He serves as an InfoComm Adjunct Faculty member since as well as on several standards committees. What is your perspective on touch panel design? Email Christopher at cmaione@chrismaione.com, reach him on Facebook at Christopher Maione Associates, and Twitter via cmaAV.

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