I’ve been writing for some time about how the days for dedicated hardware in the commercial AV realm might be numbered. We will always, of course, need edge devices: loudspeakers and amplifiers, microphones and audio digitizers. Video encoders, video decoders. Displays. Between all of these devices, however, live the entire world of AV switching, control, audio processing, video processing. These are, at their heart, collections of algorithms and instructions, with little need for a dedicated box. Where will this take us? A not-unexpected announcement from our friends at QSC is a clear waypoint along one path.
What QSC Is Doing
The announcement is a simple one: QSC is putting their software in a standard Dell server — the same kind of server that would run pretty much any other enterprise software. If I understand this correctly, that means no big grey box with the words “QSC” stamped on it. What’s more is that the QSC platform can be used as a control platform as well as an audio-processing platform. Even assuming that video transport isn’t coming soon (and I have every reason to suspect that it is), there’s no reason the Q-SYS software cannot be used to send control strings to a series of network-based video encoders and decoders.
Meanwhile Utelogy has been making inroads with their own software-based platform. The two firms have taken very different direction: The Q-SYS platform is built on the type of audio-processing environment with which we’ve been familiar for over a decade now; it’s an active and sophisticated system involving specialized configuration skill set. The Utelogy platform is a bit simpler and more closely resembles a unified communications platform such as Cisco Call Manager than it does a traditional AV control system. Q-SYS is, at its heart, an audio processing platform with control processing and video transport (currently via QSC’s IP cameras only, but I expect to see more added to it). The Utelogy platform is an enterprise communications and ID management system with AV control overlaid. The latter is probably better for handling various user-IDs and permission levels, while the former better lends itself to the “work” of an AV system, including audio processing.
As software grows, it will be interesting to see which approach gains the larger foothold.
What Does This Mean?
The superficial answer is that a specialized box will be replaced by a non-specialized box performing the same function. That is technically an answer, but a reductive and not terribly interesting one. A better question is that of what it means for our business and for how the AV integration world works. What IS an AV system? What does an AV professional actually do?
I wouldn’t be your pixel and ink-stained wretch if I didn’t answer in metaphor. For today’s metaphor, let’s look at IP telephony. While there are specialized firms to handle this kind of work, they do not design, build and configure an entire telephony system for a single space. What they create is an infrastructure on which a larger system or set of systems can be constructed. Can I see a future in which streamlined “conference room” modules in an instance of Q-SYS software could be implemented to add a huddle room with a USB microphone and IP camera to an existing configuration? I absolutely can. In such a world, a new room could be brought online in less than an hour and tear-down could be just as quick.
Where Does That Leave Us?
It leaves us with our core competencies — in understanding audio, in understanding sight-lines and in helping our clients build the infrastructure on which they can build. It’s understanding microphones and loudspeakers. It’s forging relationships, including on-going service and support contracts to keep the systems working and help add to them.
It’s leading the discussion on what is possible in an ever-changing and ever-evolving world.
If we insist that it’s our role to sell boxes, then the death of the box WILL be our death as well. If we remain smart and adaptable, we’ll find more chances to do what we do well and to fit into a whole new world.