As AV designers, we naturally want to find ways to standardize things. Whether it’s a process, hardware design, finding IO (input and output) “typicals” or programming and control protocol standards, the goal is to simplify the entire workflow process. It’s like this for our entire industry: Technicians become familiar with the typical deployments and related cabling and IOs, so they can commission quicker and more reliably. Project managers can review project documents and sites quicker and more efficiently while meeting client targets. Salespeople can push proposals quicker and close projects easier on budget with less scope creep. Even we designers and engineers can produce our design drawings and engineered concepts more effectively and with ease while mitigating changes even if the use case changes. Whether new build, renovation or upgrade, there’s plenty to gain.
Why don’t we have more “hard-and-fast,” go-to standards in the audiovisual industry?
Let’s talk about audio first. You may have to integrate CobraNet, Dante, AES67, AVB, AES3, ADT or MADI, to name a few protocols. You may have one (or even a few) of these protocols that exist on the same system design, where you’ll now need a black-box solution to translate all these digital languages to get audio from point A to point B. So, which is best? Which one can provide the best standard? These are loaded questions that, depending on who you talk to, can have very different answers. That’s the problem.
Now take video, for example. We have many of the same issues as audio. For any given project there is a chance you could be designing RTMP, RTSP, HLS, MPEG-DASH, CMAF, WebRTC, SDVoE, HDBaseT and IP, again, just to name a few. So how do you make the “right” decision for your client or your team, especially at the beginning discovery discussions of a project? Each use case, each budget, each hardware manufacturer and each client’s needs will have a different set of criteria that may dictate the right protocol. However, that will not dictate the best or simplest solution. Each protocol comes with its own set of risks, benefits and limitations of products available, which may not meet one or more of the aforementioned criteria. All of this gets even more complex when a project is a renovation or upgrade where existing equipment may have known limitations or legacy gear the client isn’t willing to remove.
How do you know which protocol to use and when?
This is where standardization comes in. You’d think this would be an easy conversation with straightforward answers, and everyone would be up for some adoption of set standards. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple! Look at the heated and controversial debate happening in the EU about USB-C charging ports. In that example, we see an opportunity to simplify homeowners’ lives, keep waste out of landfills and keep the “cable drawer” in your home empty (or at least less full). All these benefits and more are based on one simple idea — using a standard connector on mobile devices. You’d have to think this is a great idea. It just makes sense!
However, device manufacturers don’t like this. Also, somehow, consumers are also against the idea. Why? Big money pushing consumer opinions? Consumers that are bent on certain connector types? Are manufacturers worried about the loss of sales of proprietary connectors? Unfortunately, this is an example in which we’ll just have to see what happens in the weeks and months ahead.
I understand that manufacturers, especially for big brands like Apple, want a closed ecosystem in which they can control the product, supply chain and price. They even control the software and data all this closed ecosystem produces. The win is huge for them and comes to the bank in the form of billions. We still see this same thing with respected AV brands like Bang and Olufsen. Remember trying to program universal IR remotes to control B&O RF back in the day? “Sorry client — no can do.” But hey, things progress and change. Sometimes manufacturers realize that. It pushes them to create more universally standard communication protocols that, in turn, help sell more products and allow more acceptance by consumers.
Thanks to primary control systems and universal automation companies like Crestron, Control4, Savant, RTI, Extron and so on, a lot of third-party hardware and software companies see value in standards and creating third-party control APIs to allow adoption into a previously closed ecosystem. Because ultimately, the companies don’t want to get left out of a project because they are simply too hard to program or too hard to use with other systems needed in the project.
This more standardized mindset saw large adoption as we converged IP and IT networks with AV as the primary backbone for projects of all scales — and voila — AV and IT became friends rather than enemies. It just makes sense; we all win. Buying IT switches that are pre-canned to handle our intense AV protocols is way easier today than it was even five years ago. We all win. Are there differences, sure, but together we’re stronger, and the consumer and the manufacturers and all the people in between win more than they lose when we do this.
Why do we still have so many varying options when it comes to protocols in the world of AV?
Let’s look at programming and control protocols next. We have seen the adoption of HTML5, finally, both in internet protocol standards and in home automation control and programming protocol standards. This opens the door to so many things. It also allows for adoption in our industry of the larger well-adopted internet protocol and all the great things that come with it (like access to more programmers and talented web designers worldwide). Albeit, designing home control user interfaces (UIs) and understanding AV user experiences (UX) is a far cry from webpages. We still have a big hill to climb before we realize all the benefits. Again, we all (consumers, integrators, staff, etc.) win more than we lose when we make these changes and take on an “us” not “them” attitude.
What do I hope to see as someone who has been designing from the time of X-10, CRT, turntable and DOS all the way through to 802.11, AV-over-IP and HTML? I hope to see a larger adoption of standards in our industry! The days of AV being cowboy culture are dwindling more and more each year. I know people like their proprietary world and closed ecosystems, but the next generation, for the most part, does not. The IoT and younger generation of Raspberry Pi breadboard kids want standards. It’s just not cool to have a gazillion cables and converters in your tool kit anymore — as my 10-year-old neighbor reminds me every chance he gets.
My gut and cross-industry experience say, the longer we close the doors and huddle in our corners, the quicker we’ll see that bottom line drop. Sure, some manufacturers have deep pockets and justified reasons to stay proprietary — that’s their choice. I’m also not saying we need to dictate a world of standards on people; that would simply stifle innovation. However, having a lowest-common-denominator interface standard, IO standard or protocol standard would be a benefit to all. Profits and efficiency would go up, everyone in the chain would benefit and ultimately the knock-on benefits from environmental impacts to staff deployment ease … Well, let’s just say I can hear a collective sigh of relief. Again, we will all win more than we lose.
So don’t shoot the messenger; just give it some thought. Maybe if enough of us request simplification from the bottom up, we can get there. Because as Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”