The audiovisual systems business is undergoing one of the largest transitions it has ever faced — some would even call it a complete disruption to the business as we know it. The good news for those who plan and design facilities where audiovisual communication systems are critical to communication and collaboration is that today systems are easier to control, monitor, manage, more resilient to change, and can be configured at lower cost.

For decades we have been a sector of designers and integrators who pair parts and pieces from various manufacturers to create a complete system, marrying them with the proper cable type and writing unique and proprietary code to control the systems on touch screens and button panels. Today, we are rapidly becoming an industry where disparate components are connected by writing code and configuring network switches to create an integrated system.

Giving Everything an Address
In the past decade, three major shifts have created this disruption. First, most audiovisual components have become IP-addressable and can act as nodes on the network. Second, we have seen the transition from traditional baseband cable transport to a world of network transport. Finally, because of the first and second factors, we now look at software to not only control, but to configure and manage the hardware.

The first shift – giving components an address. By first putting devices on the network, we have enabled the installation and management of devices to become much more simplified. Today, thanks to an IP address and category cabling all devices can reside on the network with unique addresses allowing for remote monitoring, control, and service.

Enter the Network
The second factor — the long-anticipated transition from traditional transport methods to a method of transport that utilizes an enterprise network — is well underway. Historically to enable transport of audio, video, and control signals around a facility required a different, specialty, copper-based cable for each signal type. Further, each cable type has had varying restrictions to their use.

This approach limited where equipment could be located, inhibited the ability for scalable and flexible system designs, required expensive and sometimes intrusive infrastructure to be installed to support it, and kept the focus on configuring a different assortment of boxes for every project. Thankfully, in the last few years, most the AV industry’s components have converged with the IT network, which opened a world of revolution for design and configuration of audiovisual systems.

It’s All About the Software
The third factor — the disruption from a hardware-centric industry to a world more software-centric — has shifted the way we as consultants and designers think. Previously, the thought was that software supports the function of the hardware — merely a tool that enables the hardware to do its job — and aid in the setup of a system. The hardware was the design. Today that dynamic is changing. We now look at hardware as a host to hold and operate our software. The software is the design.

This shift in approach creates the ability to really rethink what and how we design. We see this type of shift in other industries. The automotive industry is one example. In the past, if a car wasn’t working, a mechanic replaced a piece of hardware or made a mechanical adjustment. Now, when something isn’t working, the driver gets an alert on the navigation screen, the mechanic plugs into the car’s computer, determines the issue, and makes ‘software’ adjustments to settings to fix it. That update is forwarded to the manufacturer, who, on review, makes the change universally, and via the network updates all cars created by them the next day. Leveraging the power of software enables both disruption and innovation.

What’s it All Mean?
The changes that are impacting the audiovisual industry closely mimic the telecommunications industry’s transition nearly 20 years ago, from land-line (aka, Plain Old Telephone Service or POTS) to Voice Over Internet Protocol (aka VoIP) services. Communications as we knew it changed when VoIP became prevalent. The explosion of mobile phones the most obvious impact.

The innovation from that shift was revolutionary to the way nearly everyone communicates. Easy connectivity across multiple platforms – phone, video, computer, wired or wireless — regardless of where a person is located — known as Unified Communications was born out of that transition. As with the shift to VoIP, the digital IP-transport/IP-control innovation happening in the AV industry was made possible by the shift to the network and the advancements in software programming capabilities. That shift has already proven to be disruptive and will continue to be.

This disruption has pushed manufacturers to create standards and form alliances within and outside of our industry. We are seeing alliances form with IT giants such as Cisco and Microsoft and some of the leading manufacturers in the AV industry. As designers, this has enabled us — for the first time — to have truly interoperable systems. Equipment from different manufacturers now can speak the same language and we can specify how that communication happens. Specifying standards-based equipment allows for systems that scale and adapt to the needs of users across a global market.

Designing with Backbone
Flexible system architecture impacts how buildings are designed. The industry is moving away from room-based systems and moving towards whole building systems. Systems can now share the same backbone and infrastructure as IT equipment, reducing the square footage for equipment rooms.

The explosive growth of smart sensors and AI-driven building automation — the Internet of Things (IoT) — is another outgrowth of this same wave of innovation. IoT allows us to make smart buildings smarter. Some of the advanced concepts of the past, such as reliably connecting building controls to the AV system, are no longer theory. AV system controls are more intuitive, mimicking the comfort of familiar icon-based phone and tablet interfaces. System health can be monitored, and metrics tracked. Potential issues can be preemptively fixed. These are a just a few of the things that have long been thought of as dreams but have become reality for we as systems consultants.

As an industry, we’ve collectively gotten smarter and are pushing further and further into this new world. Continuing to push adoption of these innovations will only yield greater results. It has even made us rethink how we do business and what services we offer as a firm. Recently, we launched software development services to our clients. We understand how important and crucial software has become to the success of our client’s projects – software is becoming the design.

Full-Circle
Adoption and adaption of these innovations has been slowly picking up over the last few years. In the next 2 to 3 years, we believe we will see a complete shift to the new way of doing business. It will take a concerted effort among designers, architects, owners and end-users to push forward into this new world of connected audiovisual systems. We see a world where audiovisual processing and switching won’t even need to live within a building — when you can utilize cloud-based services to operate your facilities. When we get there — and we think that is very soon — we will have then fully realized a transformation and disruption to our industry.

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Principal Mark Grassi’s extensive knowledge of designing and commissioning large-scale, custom audio, visual and broadcast systems has served clients well, from challenging corporate assignments the likes of Google, Samsung, SAP and Under Armour, to some of the most advanced medical simulation facilities, command and control centers, theaters, and performance spaces in the United States. Mark is part of the New York office, but calls New Jersey home.