Open Up!

Crew CallThe world of commercial audio visual, the world of shows and installations, is a world that is increasingly multilingual. But it’s not just the languages that we people speak — it’s happening in our inventory as well.

Think about this: Only twenty years ago, virtually all AV equipment was controlled through switches or relay closures, if it was remotely controllable at all. Over the last two decades, we progressed from relays to serial and then to network control. But it has largely remained a world of different, proprietary control software, even when the connectors and transport systems began to merge.

Whether you are in the sales or the rental and staging end of our industry, it is likely that a big part of your job is to create working systems from components from many manufacturers. These devices use different types of control ports, and different software protocols and systems. Often, these are components that were not designed to work together, so the integration is our job.

In the integration portion of the industry, we use hardware control systems with many types of ports, combined with custom software, to make these devices work together in a coordinated system.

The principal difference between creating these systems for installation, and creating them for rental, is the speed with which it has to be done. Often, complex systems have to be created, and run, onsite. That speed says that it will usually be impractical to create truly “custom” control code, especially when the system may be (probably will be) used only once in any specific configuration.

So how do we accomplish control of these systems in a show situation? Lets break it loosely into three types of control:

Uncontrolled (or “Directly Controlled by Dedicated Human Being”): I was raised in the business this way. Every station, and nearly every complex device, had a human operator in a headset, waiting for cues. In a way, it’s the earliest form of voice control.

Split control by discipline: As show control became more common, we began to work our way into “Control by Department.” Lighting went first, largely due to an accepted, open control protocol called DMX, which brought together equipment from multiple manufacturers into a single control “universe” (no pun intended, lighting folks). Audio followed suit with a variety of control systems, both open and proprietary, and video came along with serial and network control of a number of varieties, leaving three distinct points of control, organized by department, for many shows — with the common bus between them once again being ClearCom.

Unified control: As soon as it was possible to control most equipment remotely, a number of different control systems manufacturers came to market with show control systems that worked a lot like Integration systems — a software/hardware platform that combined disparate control ports and standards into something cohesive. There are, and have been, any number of these systems on the market. My personal favorites have always been Dataton’s, beginning with its Mac-based, timeline-oriented system called Traxx, but there have been similar systems from a number of manufacturers. However, like their counterparts in integration, they take a lot of time to learn, and operators are always having to add and develop driver software and adapter hardware for new systems. But they have been the standards whereby we controlled large shows that required a high degree of precision and repeatability. So they have traditionally been used for high-dollar shows that required that set of characteristics.

Now, however, we enter a world of increasing labor and equipment costs in the rental portion of the industry. As it becomes more and more difficult to maintain profitability, largely because of the cost of personnel, a simpler and more open standard of control could lower our costs of producing and staging shows.

Short of a true show control system, we are left with very few choices for remote control of gear and the resulting reduction in crew labor. Mostly, that choice revolves around manufacturers’ dedicated control programs that ship with the gear. And, as most of you know, these are of varying quality and level of control.

Personally, when it comes to low-end control, I like working with devices that generate a webpage internally. While this does not often give me combined control with other devices, I can at least stack my devices in browser tabs and page between them as necessary. Provided, of course, that these devices don’t specify differing browsers, or differing plug-ins. Other varying types of network and serial control programs can be made to work, but may be more effort than a small show is worth.

So let me give the manufacturers some ideas on improving their dedicated control programming.

First, stop specifying a particular browser, and in particular stop specifying Internet Explorer. It’s a declining browser even on the Windows platform, and open standards have become the norm. I should be able to control your device with Safari, Firefox, etc.

Then, Web-based software should also be platform agnostic. And so should your dedicated control programs. The rental industry in audiovisual uses a lot of different platforms, among them, the Mac. Many of you claim to accommodate the Macintosh by requiring the use of Windows under Parallels or Fusion. If I wanted to run Windows, I would not have invested in the Mac in the first place. And I do assure you that for me and for many of my colleagues the availability of native Macintosh-based software over Windows software does indeed make a difference in the device we will choose. Emulation is a lot like artificial respiration. It will do in a pinch, but I’d much rather have the real thing.

Then, take a look at your control interface. If it is nothing but a replication of the unit’s hardware remote control, it is insufficient. If I wanted to use a remote, I wouldn’t have bothered to bring a computer. Manipulation of your GUI via a graphical interface just doesn’t cut it.

Plus, those of you who don’t document your APIs — many of us can do simple macro-based programming, and if I need to add just a single command could do it if I’d had documentation on what that command is.

What is needed in this arena? A common, simple, open standard for network-based software for device control. But it looks like will be a long time coming with that one. In the meantime, control manufacturers should look at their offerings and consider offering a stripped-down, configurable rather than programmable interface. Something I could use to control two or three devices during a show from one control position, without having to do dedicated programming.