Consumerization in Pro AV

consumer-lenard-330The proliferation of consumer technology in professional AV has been a hot topic as of late both in the office and amongst my fellow AV bloggers. Over the past week we got commentary from Mike Brandes, Josh Srago, Mike Brandes again. It’s also been a recurring topic on LinkedIn and Google+ AV professional groups.

There are some who fear that the increasing use of consumer-grade technology is hurting business, some who see the use of consumer goods as a way to reduce cost, and others who see users’ increased familiarity with interactive AV technology to be an opportunity. I land largely in the last camp, but recognize value in several positions on this issue, depending on exactly which technology one is discussing.

Consumer Tech as Value-Add

In an entirely unrelated blog post on customer service, Mark Coxon related a story about a system that wouldn’t perform correctly because the consumer TVs the client had purchased in lieu of commercial flat panels couldn’t handle the various resolutions output by users’ laptops. Five or so years ago this would have been a serious concern. Video switching and routing was largely based on simple transport, without scaling or any other type of signal processing or conversion. A commercial flat panel would be able to handle whichever resolutions one gave it, have locking BNC connectors for the RGBHV, Y/V (S-video), component and composite inputs. A consumer flat panel would not only handle fewer resolutions, but also have consumer oriented connectors, which wouldn’t always lock and would sometimes require adapters which add to signal attenuation. BNC connectors can be easily and quickly field-terminated, making it easy to pull cable through conduit and cut to length. HD15 connectors (the “VGA” connector) take at least fifteen minutes for a technician to solder, if you can find a technician who knows how to do it. In short, there were real advantages.

Today, things are different. Until 4K becomes the de facto standard (another change driven as much by the living room as the boardroom), most commercial AND consumer displays have a resolution of 1920×1080. Digital matrix switches cross-convert signals to HDMI and often scale to the native resolution of the display. Consumer or commercial, one gets the same non-locking HDMI connector which cannot be terminated in the field. If one adds the fact that the average viewer watches around thirty hours of television per week, one finds that a high-quality consumer flat panel is more than suitable for commercial use. Consumer displays increasingly have RS232 and IP controls, allowing as easy integration with a control system.

What does one lose? Perhaps a warranty, but some distributors are willing to provide that. 24×7 operation, but that’s a requirement in relatively few situations. What does one gain? A far lower cost. For the cost of a professional display,  you can usually purchase about four consumer models. That means that one can purchasing a consumer TV, throwing it away when it breaks, buy a new one and still have spent half the cost of a professional model.

Consumer Tech as a Dangerous Expectation

One of the scariest bits of tech in the pro AV world is the Apple TV. It’s well-beloved by its users, but for various technical reasons (largely its device discovery protocol) is a terrible thing to put on a corporate network. The only thing worse than putting an Apple TV on your corporate network is putting two Apple TVs on the same enterprise network and trying to control which one users connect to.

The challenge is that there’s not really an “enterprise Apple TV” available at this point, and if there were it would still post challenges about levels of network access and security. These aren’t insurmountable challenges, but at the very least require serious thought and attention. This is drifting towards another topic, but that’s a reason I’m persuing Cisco certifications now that I’ve achieved my CTS-D. At the very least, a basic understanding of networks is required to navigate this kind of issue.

The other big pitfall we see is in touch panels. Ten inch touch panels from Crestron, AMX, and Extron have MSRPs ranging from $2,400 to $5,000 dollars. On the positive side, the dedicated touch panels have wired connectivity (as opposed to Wi-Fi only), hard buttons, and some other nice features. On the negative side, most lack the graphical processing power of an iPad or similar and don’t scroll as smoothly (the new AMX panels does very well here, but at the highest cost. I’ve not seen the very newest Crestron or Extron panels yet, but their current models still lag a bit in graphical performance), at a cost of between five and ten iPads. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to sell the idea of a dedicated touch panel as worth the effort when what the user sees isn’t any better than consumer products at a fraction of the cost. As a user, it’s a question worth asking. As a designer, it’s also an option at the very least worth exploring. Does a professional touch panel have enough increased utility to justify a doubling of cost? That’s a very project-specific question, but I’ll say that I don’t consider the answer to always be an unequivocal “yes.”

Consumer Tech as an Opportunity

The best thing about this — where is is an opportunity — is that the initial explanatory part of our job is largely done before we open the conversation. Gone are the days in which we need to explain the concept of a touch-screen operated control system; enough people control their home entertainment with Android or iOS devices that the concept is, at least, familiar. Likewise, personal use of Skype, Apple Facetime, Google Hangouts and the like needn’t be a replacement for enterprise videoconferencing solutions — at the least it can be a conversation starter. At most… these types of solutions CAN fit into a larger ecosystem. Why not have larger specialty spaces with appliance-based Codecs, pan/tilt/zoom robotic cameras, DSPs and installed mics alongside smaller “huddle” spaces with stationary cameras to support Lync or some other desktop solution?

Our value add as professionals is not, in my estimation, steering clients away from consumer solutions and towards “professional” ones. It’s a matter of helping them navigate a world in which the lines between consumer and professional gear are increasingly blurred. The target shouldn’t be “commercial” or “consumer” but “appropriate.”

Therein lies our challenge — and our opportunity.