Onward — Towards the Future!

onwardfeat

I’ll open with a personal note: This marks the 200th published post on this blog! Over the past years we’ve talked about commercial AV, speculative fiction, and even enjoyed some original writing. I’d like to thank all of you for joining me on this journey, and hope to continue to share my words with you for a long time to come.

Thanks for listening. And now onward — towards the future!

As those outside of the industry don’t always know what they should be looking for in terms of AV solutions, requirements often incorporate broad concepts at best, buzzwords at worst. Some of the most common are scalability, accessibility, and today’s topic, future-proofing. It makes AV design like a science-fiction story in that it reaches from the present towards an imagined future. Like good SF, a “future proof” technological solution must make sense today even as it builds towards our best guess at tomorrow. How does one future proof? Is it even possible in so rapidly a changing world? Let’s consider some opportunities and some potential pitfalls in building for the future.

When is the Future?

The first point to discuss is what you mean by “future”: is it next decade, next year, or next week? From the perspective of AV design, next week is still “today” while next decade — at least from an equipment and systems point of view – may very well be the end of time.

Conceptual Design: What Does the Future Mean to You?

Before pen goes to paper to create actual designs, there need be a discussion on not only current uses but on future plans. Are we looking at a corporate environment in which real time collaboration and document sharing will be the focus? Real-time collaboration between branch offices of an expanding firm?

If it’s an educational institution, are plans being made for new pedagogies, including “flipped classrooms,” distance learning, or creation of on-demand content?

Some of the above are user-focused discussions, based on their business models and future plans. It’s also important to have AV industry-focused discussions centered on the things about which we know. Will the spaces discussed someday be a good fit for 4K resolution and beyond? Will a converged network topology allow greater flexibility? Will there be appropriate uses for emerging technologies such as virtual or augmented reality? In these cases industry trends and client needs go hand-in-hand; as professionals, we cannot simply ask “where do you see yourself in five years?” We need to tell the client “in five years, the technology will likely be available to do this, which can fit your operation in this way. Let’s explore the possibilities together.”

We need to think boldly, and we need to remember that the future may not look like today. I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction. He got many things right, but there were so many either near- or complete-misses. The first of his classic Foundation novels centered around a project to create a “galactic encyclopedia” to save human knowledge in the face of an upcoming galactic collapse. He couldn’t imagine that such an encyclopedia would not only exist, but be created by a loose network of volunteers. Early computers were big, so he posited bigger and bigger centralized automated computers, rather than the distributed networks of smaller computers we see today. The point is that the future is the future; don’t expect it to be the exactly like the present only moreso.

Infrastructure

The first — and least sexy — part of AV design is infrastructure. This is the part in which we discuss floor boxes, wall-boxes, conduit, electrical power, and data requirements. It’s not what people think of when they think “technology,” but good infrastructure design can be the difference between an easy, pleasant project and a tangled mess of work-arounds and improvisation.

Infrastructure can also be a bit of a tightrope. On one side, it is absolutely imperative to have enough infrastructure in place to be able to build the system. On the other hand, somebody has to pay for all of the pipes, boxes, and power for which we ask. It can be a delicate balancing act.

I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction. He got many things right, but there were so many either near- or complete-misses. The first of his classic Foundation novels centered around a project to create a “galactic encyclopedia” to save human knowledge in the face of an upcoming galactic collapse. He couldn’t imagine that such an encyclopedia would not only exist, but be created by a loose network of volunteers.

At this point we start talking about not only raceways, but the physical plant, as we bleed into system design.

There’s been plenty of talk about 4K video recently, and plenty of confusion about what is, at this point, present technology. See fellow AV blogger try to make sense of the spec sheets on various digital video switching systems. One thing has become clear: 4K uses a great deal of bandwidth, 8K – when it comes – will use even more. Is it time to step away from our old friend copper and start using single-mode fiber? Is the cost of fiber too great to be reasonable for the modest gain it will give us today? As usual, the answer is that it depends. As one nears the distance limitations of current technology, there can at least be a concern that higher-bandwidth future applications may fail using current wiring standards.

Software vs. Hardware, Modular vs. All-in-One

Finally, we reach questions of design topology. Are elements replaceable and upgradable, or is the only upgrade path a complete system redesign? This is where reliance on “all-in-one” presentation systems including a video matrix switch, audio and control processors, and audio amplifiers in a single box can be a scary proposition. They are useful in that they afford a simple, cost-effective solution. A “room in a box” if you will. The drawback is that an upgrade to the video transport system, for example, means replacing everything: control, audio, and local switching. The upgrade path becomes a matter of throwing it away and starting anew.

This is one intriguing positive for software solutions; software grows, software is supported software is updated, software can be replaced by client’s own IT department. When we say that software eats hardware, this is one reason; replacing software rarely means replacing actual infrastructure or equipment.

Follow the Trends, Gaze into the Crystal Ball

next-question-0615The concept of future-proofing and of designing for the future is one reason I spent so much time last week on possible HDBaseT and TSN-based solutions which are years out from being actual product; the project which starts today might not be completely built until next year or later. Sometimes future-proofing means creating a solution which can grow with changing technologies and requirements, but sometimes it can mean creating a solution which is current the day it is completed.

I’ll close with words from another science fiction writer — the great Theodore Sturgeon:

“Ask the next question.” Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that. It’s the symbol of everything humanity has ever created, and is the reason it has been created. This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, “Why can’t man fly?” Well, that’s the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked.

The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We’ve found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it’s technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That is it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.”

This, perhaps, is what future-proofing really is. It’s asking questions, then asking the next question and seeing where it leads.