Investing in technology for an enterprise is a balance between meeting the functional needs, financial constraints, and the return on the investment. While most of this consideration is focused on present needs and expenses, understanding total cost of ownership (TCO) and planning for the long term can save additional expenses in the future. Long-term planning can add complexity to the early stages of budgeting as well as design and infrastructure plans, but taking stock of future needs in a strategic, systematic way will ultimately save later.
While planning for upgrades and end-of-life replacements can feel a little like trying to predict the future, there are certain elements that are relatively predictable. Think of network bandwidth and the number of endpoints. Display sizes and image quality, and audio quality—these can all be reasonably expected to increase. Furthermore, the demand for each of these elements will almost certainly increase. Control Concepts president Steve Greenblatt, CTS, explained essential lifecycle criteria this way: "All AV systems are living, changing organisms that need to be updated for a variety of reasons from time to time. Whether due to equipment replacement, expansion, or deletion, system changes, and thus system programming modifications, are an ongoing need. Equipment failures or upgrades, variations in users’ needs, changing of system application, and/or technology refresh are some of the specific reasons."
In planning the network bandwidth for an AV system control room, there is fine line between assuring enough bandwidth and network backbone and inflating the budget beyond feasibility. Affordable switches today are typically equipped with 1GB ports. The key question is how long that bandwidth size will be viable. If the RoI assessment on the control room is based on a five-year return, will 1GB per port be enough to last five years? Consider additionally whether 10GB switches, which may cost much more now, will allow the ROI assessment to be extended past five years. With a longer lifecycle, the higher budgeted cost now is much easier to accept.
The observable truth of media technology is a continued path towards higher quality and greater bandwidth usage to deliver that quality. It can potentially be more difficult to assess the longer term needs and ramifications of this continued evolution. An approach to lifecycle planning with regards to displays and audio delivery and capture technologies may well be a modular approach to the design. What parts of the system are easy to replace and refresh at a quicker rate in order to keep up with advancements? Can those elements be modularized such that the effort to replace them has minimal impact on the infrastructure or furniture or other technologies that benefit from longer usage?
For Paul Harris, CEO of Aurora Multimedia, control room lifecycle planning must prioritize infrastructure and communication methods, as they will determine system longevity. "Since video bandwidth is always increasing, cabling to support future bandwidth and distance should be taken into consideration," Harris said. "Running more than one cable, even if it is not being used, never hurts; at some point you may need it. One day a product may require RS-232 and the next 1G Ethernet. I am a big fan of fiber so running both fiber and copper is never a bad thing unless the budget limits."
Particularly with control rooms, a major consideration is the human interface. Building a robust KVM system and control interfaces can be essential to a control room that runs efficiently and has minimal training time for new operators. A scan through any technology news headlines, however, makes it clear that voice control, gesture control, and face recognition will be a part of our lives as consumers and in the workplace. While emerging technologies like AI and AR may not have practical options for a control room or command center today, it’s reasonable to presume that these will be options in the future. Planning for these specific interface technologies is difficult but not impossible. Provisions for their inclusion may simply be a matter of considering the proximity of multiple operators to each other, sight lines between their individual stations and shared AV elements, and simple furniture layout in order to prevent major refurbishment needs before the intended lifecycle runs out.
Control rooms have unique functions and requirements apart from other AV spaces, but they also share commonalities. In some ways, the approach to preventing large future expenses with present investment is no different. Build for the highest quality and capacity with the elements that are harder to replace, and modularize the elements that evolve more rapidly. The same is true in control rooms, but they can appear more daunting because of the larger degree of AV equipment reliance and investment. Even with that being the case, taking a future-looking approach will maximize the investment and the return.
Justin O'Connor, AV Technology magazine's Technical Advisor, has spent nearly 20 years as a product manager, bringing many hit products to the professional audio world. Over that time he has served the proAV, professional sound reinforcement, permanent install, and music instrument retail markets with passion. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Music Engineering Technology from the Frost School of Music at The University of Miami. Follow him at @JOCAudioPro. Subscribe today for The Agile Control Room newsletter sponsored by RGB Spectrum (distributed twice per month, every other Tuesday).
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