Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of the Year as We Know it - personal wrap-up of my AV adventures

Happy December everyone. I'll close the year with my last "pixel" post; a wrap-up of my adventures in the wonderful world of professional AV, as well as some thoughts on what's happening in the industry.
This isn't a comprehensive list, but a few stories and trends that, for whatever reason caught my attention.

Extron left Infocomm, Finally released XTP

I was at Extron for one of their week-long training classes the week that this news broke, and it took everyone by some level of surprise. Not too many years ago, if I were designing a high-end conference room I'd start with an Extron switcher without a second thought. They didn't seem to follow the shift to digital as quickly as many of their competitors, and today I'd still choose Crestron Digital Media or AMX Enova before Extron's newer XTP. They have some nice ideas and features, but I'm not sure if they're quite there yet. Still, Extron had an interesting year, debuting several intriguing new products including the first energy-star certified amplifiers, audio DSPs, and signal extenders with varying price-points and specifications.

They also opened an impressive showcase in their Saloon and Ranch, using their own control products along with some nice Meyer Sound line arrays. It's loud and sounds amazing. Here's hoping that 2013 is a good year for them, whether or not they come back to the big trade shows.

Avaya buys Radvision. Polycom moves to software
Since Cisco purchased Norwegian teleconferencing giant Tandberg they've been the force to recon with in the telecommunications/telepresence/unified communications arena. Logitech purchased Lifesize, leaving not too many independent operators in the telepresence field. Avaya threw their hat into the teleconferencing ring by purchasing Radvision. Radvision has both teleconferencing appliances (including integrated 4 and 8port MCUs on even the smaller ones) and a suite of software-based desktop applications.

Polycom, meanwhile, seems to be taking steps to move away from appliance-based solutions and towards software. The name of their RealPresence CloudAxis might sound like it came from a buzzword bingo card, but the idea of a secure, enterprise quality video system which can link Skype, standards-based VTC appliances, GoogleChat, Microsoft Lync, and even Facebook is a very good one. I'll be interested to see where this goes.

Green AV is something we talk about. But that's about it.
There are steps towards more sustainability in the AV field, from RoHS-compliant hardware to the first Energy Star certified AV product (the aforementioned Extron's XPA line of amplifiers), but it's still nowhere near the top of anybody's list. This is a conversation I'll be looking to continue next year, with Gina Sansivero of Project Green AV and others. Until there are LEED or other certifications available for green AV it will likely not be anyone's top priority, but it's still worth thinking about.

I left AV Project Management for Project Engineering

My workspace at Biamp Training
My favorite parts of the job have always been the technical ones; figuring out the best way to accomplish something, how to help end-users answer questions they didn't even know to ask. I even liked getting my hands dirty and fixing something - or at least figuring out where it was broken. Juggling schedules, managing construction sites, and horse-trading for resources has never been my favorite part. So, the good people on our team at AVI-SPL agreed to help me transition to the Project Engineer position. I spend much of early 2012 learning, travelling a bit, and settling into a new role. After years of implementing other people's designs and concepts, I had a chance to put my name on the title block of our drawings.

I left AV Project Engineering for Consulting
It's been a whirlwind. Late summer I left AVI-SPL and took a step even farther from the hands-on part of the industry towards the pure design realm of consulting with the firm of SM&W. I've already had the chance to work on some eye-poppingly cool projects, met some more very talented colleagues, and am genuinely enjoying this next phase of my professional life. In addition to the other skills acquired over the past year, I've learned the basics of Revit, much more abotu AutoCAD, and even took part in my first screening-room design. This is a role where my borderline-obsessiveness (the first thing I notice anywhere I go is AV) really fits in and will pay off.

Those are my personal thoughts at the close of 2012. In 2013 I look forward to learning more, seeing more, doing more. I've also made a New Years resolution to update this blog at least weekly, so watch this space.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pixels, Ink, and tears. Some thoughts following a tragedy

I'm due for a writing-related post, with perhaps some thoughts on character, on modernism, or where I'm going to go next. Perhaps Duotrope's move from a donation-based to a fee-based service. Instead, I find myself writing this in the aftermath of yet another gun-related tragedy - the murder of twenty schoolchildren in Newton, CT. Today I give you my thoughts and reflections on that tragedy - as a writer, as a father, as a human being.

This will not be a post about gun rights or gun control laws.

Today is the first weekday since, a day I took a rare late start (for reasons unrelated) to drop off my own six-year old girl at our own local school and trying not to think about how final this same act was for so many people last week. I write these words on the Long Island Railroad, a commuter line that itself saw a senseless massacre two decades ago.  I didn't find out until hours later when I finally arrived home after a long, long delay in my commute. I was riding on the very next train. Caroline McCarthy, widowed those twenty years ago, ran for and was elected to Congress where she fought against the gun lobby and for gun control laws. There were flurries of action and long lulls, victories and defeats and finally, as the horror faded into memory for most of us, a slow erosion of regulations as we just simply stopped talking about the issue.

But, as I said,  this is not a post about gun control.

What is it about? What do I see in this about which I want to talk?

As a writer, a former gamer, and a citizen I want to talk about our culture.

This is a discussion some of us seem almost ready to have, but one which is still too easy to dismiss. When asked about the role of violent films, critic Roger Ebert turned the question around and blamed news media. When fellow writer Andrea Trask (her work, including Flash Fiction, horror, and even Pirate-themed erotica can be found on Amazon or Smashwords) and is highly recommended) shared her poignant thoughts as a parent of young children herself (here), it sparked several discussions on social media, including one in which a woman spoke of requesting that her (adult) son set aside his violent video games for a time as a sign of respect. Trask's answer was personal, well-stated, and encapsulates the pro-violent entertainment side of this discussion beautifully:

I play violent video games.

I play violent video games a lot. I play World of Warcraft and kill creatures by the thousands. I play Diablo I, II, and III and kill horrors unimaginable. I play Portal I and II and die endlessly, throwing myself against the wall of a physics-oriented challenge until I triumph over it. I play GTA, driving various vehicles willy-nilly through wet dark city streets, running down pedestrians who don't walk fast enough and shooting gangbangers. I play first person shooters, I play epic RPGs.

And I don't run people over, torture or kill small animals, or shoot people in the real world, because those are just games. They are pixels. They are NOT REAL.

Do not blame any sort of entertainments for a person's inability to distinguish right things from wrong ones.

Someone killing another person is not the fault of a video game, or a gun, or a book, or a genre of music, or a television show. It's the fault of a widespread cultural inability to foster the need for and encouragement of reaching out to other people, to give them anchors, and love, to keep them grounded in the face of a vast uncaring universe that is not obligated to care about any one of us. First we have to care for ourselves, and then for each other.

Cultural entropy is inevitable; the trick is not to stand around pointing fingers of blame, but to give it direction, and turn it into change.

I wish I could be so sure. I at one point was with her. Slaughtering orcs on the weekend, and slaughtering the demonic horrors of Doom in all their pixellated glory. I have not (so far as any of you know) murdered anyone. Along with Ebert, along with Trask, I considered entertainment to be just that - entertainment. But it is, of course, more. It becomes part of how we think. It becomes part of who we are. Does watching violent movies or playing violent games make all of  us violent? Of course not. One effect they do have is to make us see the exercise of physical power as a virtuous act at best, as a just another means to an end at worst. Having respect for violence, seeing supposed heroes commit acts of violence on the silver screen or the pages of a comic book, role-playing such violence yourself through video games or pen-and-paper role-playing won't turn you violent, but it will erode a barrier towards seeing yourself that way.

As writers, should we even be writing if we don't believe that our words can change people? Should game-makers be game-making and filmmakers film-making?

Sharing such entertainments might not create killers overnight, but they help weaken those barriers between acceptable thoughts and the idea of murdering everyone you know. We push and push at them, until something breaks and people are dead.

This is not a new idea.  Plato, in his Republic said that the state should carefully choose which stories we can tell our young people because stories have power to shape the development of our values.

This is not an old idea. The American army uses simulations -- video games --  both as a recruiting tool and a method of training. Scenarios are played over and over again until what the army considers to be the "right" choice has become the soldiers natural choice.

This is not a purely subjective idea. Powerful tools such as fMRIs let us look into the brains of people as they play games. We can see how an increasingly immersive experience is effecting emotional responses, and compare it to the effect of real-world actions. 

Finally, this shouldn't be a controversial idea; after all, a story or film or video game is, beneath all else, a means of communication. If you believe in literature -- if you believe in stories -- then you believe that they have the power to move people, to make people think and, after all is said, to change people.

I don't know what the answer is. This is a time when there really are no answers. What I know that we shouldn't do is fear asking the questions, and fear examining the parts of our culture and our actions that could lead to this kind of tragedy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tweet-up and Meet-up: an evening with the Women in AV

Tweeted from Chapel Hill
Holiday season is here, which means - amongst other things -holiday parties. Last night was a special event in the AV industry as we had the first of what I hope to be many annual multi-city celebration of the Women in AV.

Why celebrate women in AV, and why is WAVE such an important organization? I talked about that in this space last year, but you probably know already. Professional and commercial AV, like so many other technology-related fields, continues to be dramatically male-dominated. In fact, some see it as worse than the IT field. Are reasons for this? Maybe. Are there clear, simple reasons with clear, simple answers? No. So the talented women in our industry mentor, they educate, they join their voices to the chorus whispering into the ears of young girls that they can have a career in technology.  And perhaps, slowly, attitudes change.

Tweeted from New York, NY
The New York City branch of the WAVE party was hosted by Crestron and Sapphire Marketting at Crestron's New York City showroom and design center. It's certainly more residendial than their Experience Center in Rockleigh and, therefore, less of a fit for my interests, but it is a sleek and modern space which does an excellent job of showcasing applications of various Crestron control solutions, including wall-mounted iPad docks, touchpanels of varying sizes, and a faux living room boasting a 90" LED TV. It not as jaw-droppingly impressive as the Theo Kalomirakus-designed "home" theater in the Rockleigh location, but is a very nicely executed system.  
Tweeted from New Jersey

Our event wasn't as well attended as it could have been, on the heels of the Crestron/Sapphire Marketting Holiday party (Marla of Sapphire joked that we're trending towards a party together every week. Which would be fine with me), but there was a nice and engaging crowd of bright and enthusiastic AV professionals on hand. Discussion ranged from the disappointing number of women in the industry and why that might be, to green initiatives in AV, to little-league baseball and parenting. See the pictures for a taste of how the various cities presented their events via the magic of Twitter.

The City of Brotherly (and Sisterly!) Love

...and low.

Salt Lake City!
I had a terrific conversation with the talented Gina Sansivero of Project Green AV about the directions our industry could and should go in environmental sustainability. More on this at another time, but to make a long story short, there are few accepted standards, nobody earns LEED points for using more efficient AV gear, and there's just not much incentive for end-users to invest in more sustainable technology unless you can sell them a ROI based on energy savings alone. This will likely change, but it looks like a depressingly slow process. In the meantime, it's great to have people like Gina fighting the good fight. It was a pleasure to meet so many colleagues with passion for not only our work, but for how our industry fits into the world at large.

All told, it was a great event and a good something to be a part of. Thanks to the good folk at Women in AV for putting it together.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dispatches from the underside of the iceberg

I'm back from too long a break from having posted here, with an update of where I've ended up in the AV field. I'm still in the commercial AV world, but have left not only AVI-SPL, but the entire world of systems integration. I've moved crosswise and upward to the consulting side of the business as an associate in the AV department of the very talented multidisciplinary consulting firm Shen, Milsom and Wilke. So what does that mean? It means no more time in the trenches trying to make things work, and no more creating detailed "shop drawings" with individually labelled wires. What it does mean is being in a place closer to the actual user, helping them figure out what their needs are and how we can translate those to an AV design.  Why do I feel misunderstood here? Let it suffice to say that last to weeks ago, when I was summoned to jury duty, I was the only one asked "what does that mean" after telling the judge what  did for a living.

So what do I do for a living? The easy answer is that I'm part of a team that sells expertise; we don't sell microphones or loudspeakers or touchpanels, but will tell you what kind of a touchpanel you need, and where you should put loudspeakers or microphones or projectors. We work with the people who do sell you those things, but our work is largely on the other side of the iceberg.

The metaphor should be obvious. An iceberg is a tiny sliver of frozen water bobbing above the surface. On it you might find a microphone, a touchpanel, a speaker, and a projection screen. In fact, you'd see every inch of an AV system you'll ever see. Seemingly in contradiction of the laws of physics, it floats above the surface of customer expectations. If you get too close without exercising a great deal of care, the bigger part - the part that lurks under the sea - will send you and your unsinkable ship to the bottom of the ocean. Just like an AV project. Having worked on bid-build projects from the contractor side, I've dealt mainly with the top of the iceberg; the last few months in a process that could take years.

My new desk. It's grown a second monitor since
this photo was taken.
Much of the bottom of the iceberg is made up of things I'd already known about; needs analysis with the eventual end user, the need for infrastructure like power and data and conduit, coordination of AV systems with lighting and millwork, ceilings and walls. It's the meetings in the design development phase, not only before there's construction, but before there are even floor plans.

It's lots of fun.

Office, Sweet office
I'm lucky to be part of a team at SMW with a terrific, open team-oriented culture. Everyone has their own projects, but everyone also has at least some idea of what everyone else is doing, and someone is always there to pitch in with help from a technical suggestion to the tedious detail work of re-numbering a drawing package to anything in between. 

Do I miss anything about the contractor side of the business? I do miss the hands-on scramble to make something work. The odds of  my having to grab tools, a laptop, a ladder, and an assortment of adapter cables and make something work are pretty slim these days. Some of my fondest memories in the AV field were having the "aha!" moment that comes from solving what looked like an insoluble problem. There are different problems and challenges, but part of me will miss the hands-on aspect. So, for old-times' sake, I'll close with a real-world puzzle.

Sources included a Mac Mini, Windows PC, and laptop interface. Destinations included a projector (Digital Projections dVision series) and interactive touch-monitor (Smart interactive pen display) and two rack-mounted test monitors. The windows PC displayed to all locations. The Mac Mini displayed on the projector, but not the touch-monitor.  If I swapped the touch- and rack-mount monitors, the problem followed the touch-monitor. If I bypassed the Crestron digital media switch at the heart of this system, the Mac would display perfectly on any of the displays. If I swapped the Mac and PC, the roblem followed the Mac. It was ONLY through the system going to the projector plus touch-monitor that there'd be a problem. I ended up calling Crestron who told me all that I needed to know to fix it. AV people out there: what did Crestron tell me to do? It seems obvious now, but took roughly forever onsite to figure out.

Reading the above again, perhaps I shouldn't miss the "hands on" bit that much after all.

Tonight I'll be meeting some of my friends in the industry for the Women in AV Holiday gathering and "tweet-up" -- look for updates soon.