Integrators Tackle Technological Change

TechofAV_300-0316By Dan Daley
Special to InfoComm International

This is the second in a series. To learn what these AV professionals think about how the business of AV integration is changing, read our earlier report.

In many ways, technology is the basis of the AV industry. But when technology changes quickly and often, as it’s been doing since the dawn of the digital era, it creates challenges for AV integrators, who must keep up or perish. In fact, change has become so rapid and relentless that new formats already are being overshadowed by newer ones — even if neither is widespread yet. Consider the supposed imminence of 8K video, even as 4K continues to gain traction.

On the audio side, immersiveness has grown predominant, with integrators monitoring an array of formats, such as Dolby’s Atmos, the MPEG-H Audio Alliance’s eponymous entry, and Barco’s Auro. When it comes to digital audio networking, Dante has established itself alongside other audio-over-Ethernet technologies, while the recent finalization of the AES67 interoperability standard has smoothed out much of the remaining wrinkles between networked-audio formats.

Calm before the next storm? Probably. There’s always a new advancement around the corner, and integration companies have to anticipate where they might fit into their own long-term strategies.

Staying on the Edge

Many AV integrators have been keeping themselves at the leading edge of major technological trends in AV as a matter of practicality. “For example, we’ve been doing 4K video work in California for going on eight years now,” says Lisa Perrine, CTS®, CEO of Cibola Systems, a 17-employee design firm in Orange County, Calif. “It’s part of our comfort zone. My background is in design, and as a company, we’ve always embraced the new and the challenging. It’s part of our philosophy as a company to take on what other companies may not be ready to.”

Phillip Cordell, CTS-D, Director of Engineering at M3 Technology Group, an APEx-certified integrator based in Nashville, says the shift to network-based distribution and management has been at the core of AV technology change in recent years. Understanding that fact has to be part of a company’s strategy at all levels.

“Firms must employ individuals who have a firm grasp of both AV and IT concepts,” he says. “AV and IT have officially converged, so much so that virtually no AV conversation can take place without a thorough understanding of the network on which it will live. As such, it is important to begin those conversations with the client as early as possible in the planning stages so that bandwidth allotment, protocol stacks and a myriad of other topics can be considered in advance of deployment.

“Firms must dive in and learn the ins and outs of deploying technology on these platforms and devices, or else cede the business to someone else,” Cordell warns. In fact, he says, finding the intersection of these two converging forces is the single largest personnel issue in the business. “The largest challenge we and the industry face is recruiting IT-savvy individuals who are also interested in pro AV.”

That said, however, Cordell sees blooming tech diversity as enabling deeper engagement with clients. “These concepts — each complex in its own right — are enriching the traditional AV environment by facilitating a deeper connection between users and the technology,” he says. “As the relationship between users and their technology grows, new challenges are presented in terms of seamlessly marrying pro AV with each new concept.”

At the same time, and in very specific ways, AV and IT will likely remain discrete entities, both within companies and projects. “They’ll still be separate propositions, even if AV and control are running on the network,” says Tom Peters, CTS, General Manager of Garden Grove, Calif.-based SybaTek, an 11-person, two-year-old integration company. “Think of a car dealership — they have sales and repair services that are looked at as separate but still have to work together. AV will remain separate, even when they’re operating in an integrated manner.”

Peters believes that AV and IT will be more closely integrated on new-construction projects than in upgrades to existing facilities. At the end of the day, he says, the ultimate convergence of the two domains will offer clients unprecedented management advantages. “They’ll see it all as a single platform.”

Consumer Device Inroads

Peters has other concerns about to technology adoption, however. He’s watched consumer-grade devices — particularly displays — make inroads into commercial projects, a trend he’s wary of.

“The commoditization of displays is presenting some significant challenges,” he says, with consumer models making their way onto commercial BOMs, often at the behest of a budget-conscious client or consultant. “Clients and client advocates aren’t helping themselves with this, and the gap between consumer and commercial-grade functionality is getting bigger. More consumer displays are dropping RS-232 jacks and are supporting fewer resolutions. We end up having to put in scalers to compensate for that.”

Peters says that brings the conversation back to the influence of a wider range of integrators approaching the high-end commercial AV space. “They’re looking at putting audio and video into a room; we’re looking at that room as a node on a network,” he says. “That’s a huge difference in perspective.”

That’s why, Peters continues, AV integrators need to stay on the cutting edge of new formats and platforms, even if it compels them to specialize in some areas more than others. “We need to reinforce to our clients what it is that commercial AV integrators can bring to a project,” he says.

SybaTek, Cibola Systems and M3 Technology Group all are recognized by InfoComm as Audiovisual Provider of Excellence (APEx) companies. InfoComm’s APEx program is becoming an integral part of how AV integrators find opportunity in a changing AV universe.

This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.