ISE 2018

Smart Building Conference

I don’t do much resi these days, but two weeks before ISE I was asked to help plan a smart apartment for a well-off businessman. He wants to control everything with Alexa. After looking into it, I realized there would not be much programming to do. Music streaming, audio distribution, intercom, lights, shades, climate – even the GUI are all set up automatically without any programming. The only code I need to write is an Alexa skill to control a TV lift in the living room.

So I thought it was a great idea when Bob Snyder suggested I attend the Smart Building Conference. Maybe I would get some ideas on how to stay relevant in the Smart Home space.

Voice is the next UI

David Hoffmann’s presentation on Consumer IoT Trends delivered just what I was looking for. After laying out why voice is the next UI, he explained the key points to making successful Smart Home products and services.

  • Reduce Complexity
  • Reduce the Price
  • Drive Communication
  • Sharpen Positioning

The first two are kind of obvious (but not always easy to do). The last two are something new to the traditional AV professional.

Driving communication means making it easy for users to share how they use your product on social media. That is something you will never see in a bid spec, but could have some real value even for commercial applications. Get your users to answer this question online: How do you use Product X to make your job/life easier? That kind of interaction can turbo charge the popularity of your offering.

Sharpen positioning means do just one thing and do it great. We’ve come a long way from putting every function on every interface – but there are still times when we just can’t help ourselves. Think about that one thing that your system needs to deliver, and do just that – and nothing else! I have this problem so bad that I’m thinking about starting a group for functionality addicts.

Everything Over IP

SDVoE got me all giddy last year, and the trend is not slowing down. The Software Defined Video over Ethernet logo was present on many booths and always accompanied by a refreshing attitude. And if the SDVoE Partner Consultant Program is any indication of where the standard is heading, we can expect to see efforts that make SDVoE accesible to more AV professions. Maybe it’s time some programmers got involved with this software defined business. Right?

Chatting with some distributors enlightend me to the fact that more IT distributors are delivering AV projects. IT will influence more and more what workflows and technologies are favored in AV deployments. And if that is where the money is flowing, it is probably a good idea to learn what makes products and services successful in that channel. The convergence isn’t just about technology.

Open Source

It is amazing what happens when you put your ideas out in the world. Open source in AV is not exactly a popular idea. So as happy as I was that Avixa accepted my proposal for an Open Source AV Management and Control class, I was a bit worried about how it would be received. The class was far from full, but those that attended were genuinley interested in learning a new approach (except that one guy who fell asleep in the back ? – must have been the jet lag 😉 ).

The best part of talking about open source is finding out about other open source AV projects. Here are a few eye-opening examples of software defined systems.

Kim Burgess told me about an open source media control system for museums called Nodel, and another building control platform called ACA. I’ll be having a closer look at ACA after reading this on their website, “We beleive in modern tech and despise black boxes”. Strong words. And from the looks of if it, the code to back it up.

Brigham Young University developed an Audiovisual API (available here on Github) and has already rolled it out to 75 rooms with many more to come. They showed me their mounting solution for a Raspberry Pi attached to the back of the official Raspberry Pi Touchpanel. The whole thing fits into a standard three-gang wallbox. They expect to save millions of dollars by using commodity hardware instead of traditional AV equipment – despite the cost of developing a new software framework. Did I mention it is open source?

Control Envy was by far the best technology I saw at ISE. Take my biases about alternative platforms as you will – these guys have done some fine engineering. Nick Melin gave me the back story that I know so well as an AV programmer. They kept coming up against the same limitations of the popular control platforms and decided to take action. That’s where the similarities end though.

All I could think while Nick demonstrated the system to me was, “These guys are crazy”. Crazy because I know how much work they must have put into Control Envy. Having a “single source of truth” that propogates to all user interfaces and sub-systems may look easy in a demonstration, but getting there is another story.

It is a dream I’ve tried to build on a smaller scale several times with some success and plenty of dead ends. So it is hard for me to understand why anyone would put themselves through that kind of torture.

The difference? They played the long game. Nick told me they decided nine years ago (9 freakin’ years!) to dedicate resources to thinking about and tuning a data model that can handle anything a building can throw at it. Project by project, features were added and the system refined.

The signifigance of getting this right should not be underestimated. The data model is what will determine the longevity of these kinds of systems. Whenever you ask ,”Can it do this?” or “Does it support that?”, the answer all depends on how the data is structured. There is no single revelation or stroke of genius that will deliver the right model. The only way to get it right is through patience and determination. I can’t wait to try Control Envy on my next project.

Fear of the Unknown

Throughout the week, I got the chance to speak with many people about using low cost hardware like the Raspberry Pi for management, control and even media distribution. Everyone I spoke with that “got it”, tended to be much more relaxed and open than those who did not.

Fear of the unknown is perhaps the most scary thing of all. But in the case of AV converging with IT, the answer is quite simple. Keep learning…


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