The digital transformation of AV infrastructure.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the audio visual (AV) industry, which has its annual European flagship event, ISE2018, in February. This article looks at how open systems are starting to transform AV infrastructure.

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The relentless march of open systems

Open systems and interoperability are vital to deliver communications, and yet proprietary ‘standards’ still linger longer in many technology sectors. Many argued that open standards would be slow, unsafe or unstable. The reality is more to do with protecting supplier revenues, rather than customer experiences. No sector is immune, including the audio AV market. It is already on a convergence path with IT and will also feel the dramatic impact of the shift to open standards.

For IT itself, it was only really in the 1990s that universally acceptable standards based around the protocols of the internet transformed computer networking to open systems. This was despite the early adopters starting an open movement a decade earlier. The telecoms industry hung onto its proprietary approaches a little longer. It eventually switched predominantly over to digital networking using IP, the internet protocol, in the 2000s.

Now every ‘thing’ is becoming a digital asset, converged onto and connected to a ubiquitous open wired and wireless network – the Internet of Things (IoT). This is absorbing proprietary sensors, monitors and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems as it goes.

This convergence opens up huge opportunities, but also causes massive disruption in the value chains for manufacturers, channel partners and consultants that thought things would carry on as they were.

The demands on AV infrastructure

The impact on the AV sector, which due to its focus on customer experience excellence, high fidelity sound and high definition video distribution has so far only seen part of what digital transformation means, is likely to be equally significant. Once an open standard has passed the required capability threshold, the arguments for proprietary certainties no longer hold.

Market disruption can then be sudden, despite the vested interests that once held sway. The best approach is to understand what is driving the change and embrace it. The drivers which are already enabling changes in the AV sector are gathering pace:

  • Mobility and location. Users could be anywhere, want to connect simply to anyone and expect to be able to use any device. This often means small and mobile, but also not necessarily using corporate assets or connecting from within a corporate network. AV systems are historically designed to deliver high fidelity over known networks and cables in a well-managed and controlled environment. The received wisdom was that bringing in remote video had to be highly planned in order to be well executed. Now the user expectation is an excellent ad hoc experience anywhere. Dedicated systems, specialised adaptors and wires all get in the way and slow things down.
  • Data once existed in proprietary formats and dedicated networks. Specialised endpoints, encoding and distribution equipment was once the norm in telephony and has been in AV. Universal and commoditised devices means all media can be combined and are anticipated to be usable anywhere. Once, high definition AV formats, such as HD and 4K seemed to require dedicated hardware. The expectation now is that all content is data and software driven. The only separation is between control and data planes.
  • Scale and capacity. Dedicated systems mean inflexibility, along with over-capacity where money is no object, but under capacity for most, often only discovered at the most critical moment. A hyperconnected global world means that demand is highly variable. Organisations need to be able to scale up (and down) to adapt. Crucially, they also need costs to scale as OpEx alongside the value being received and there is an expectation of service delivery, not product delivery based on upfront CapEx.

All of this can be intensely unsettling for those involved in building and delivering compelling AV experiences. Manufacturers are including many of the right core technologies, but in their rush to innovate are sometimes failing to recognise that the best experience comes from the entire picture, not just several amazing elements.

For the industry, this not only means closer co-operation, as often discovered in other sectors with competitors (co-opetition), but also with adjacent groups. In this case, it is the already heavily committed IT sector which needs to be more closely involved. Networks, security and the adjustment to an as-a-service model are already a primary focus and lessons already being learned could be shared in a couple of areas.

Opportunities for change

One aspect to address is mobile or wireless connectivity. There have been and remain any number of proprietary standards, but those oriented around 802.11 and Wi-Fi have gained most traction and widespread adoption. The trend for greater capacity, spread and individual performance has moved through the alphabet of ‘b’,’a’,’g’ and ’n’ to now reach ‘ac’. This delivers sufficient performance for connecting multiple end user devices to AV systems, such as meeting rooms and video conferencing, but probably not enough for the highest performance requirements for video.

For wireless video, there has been a plethora of potential standards from both AV and IT sectors. WiDi, WHDI, and WirelessHD have all thus far mostly failed to convince vendors, integrators and end users that they provide sufficient benefit. 802.11ad, also known as WiGig looks like a different matter. It might be the standard that finally convinces many to cut the AV cord.

Wireless connectivity simplifies matters for the users, but can make systems installation more complex. AV integration is becoming a much more sophisticated and IT-heavy process than the ‘hanging and banging’ installation challenges of old. These issues are not new in IT and most IT departments have learned to reduce their integration challenges in several ways:

Firstly, channel partners are chosen more carefully based on the value add that they can bring to the whole process. It is no longer a matter of just easing selection and procurement, but also of providing support through the entire lifecycle to deployment and usage. Professional integration services and ongoing support are vital. A good choice of channel partner will make installation less of a burden. Some in the existing AV channel will need to adapt to meet the growing integration needs of their customers.

Next, outsourcing the heavy lifting. This is where ad hoc or on demand services can be delivered from the cloud. If infrastructure flexibility can be delivered as an operational cost it can be scaled up or down to meet changing demands.

Finally, automation. From development to deployment, tasks are being automated though smart software architecture choices, application programming interfaces (APIs) and scripting languages. Automating repetitive tasks, not only removes effort, but also reduced the risk of error.

Time to build new relationships

Altogether this represents a huge disruption to the AV sector. It might seem like a simple matter of moving to open standards, but this enables more complex and sophisticated integration and convergence into many elements of IT. This will also necessitate a shift in relationships.

AV vendors and their increasingly IT integration-aware channel partners will no longer be focusing on selling AV/IP to facilities managers, but to the heart of the IT function as well as the lines of business functions. It’s not about AV switching, encoding and decoding, but delivering a compelling communications and collaboration experience. To get a first-hand view of the companies already tackling the challenge of driving the open transformation of AV infrastructure, visit ISE2018 in Amsterdam in February.