Wednesday, March 13, 2013

AV Systems, Integration Angst, and what I did last Thursday

UCLA-based Greg Brown has been giving us something of a customer's-eye-view of the AV industry in his blog over on the Infocomm site (for those not in the know, Infocomm is the professional organization for the AV industry). He recently had a pointed two-part series on some of the challenges he's faced with AV integrators in general and in the higher-education vertical in particular. Specifically, in subsequent posts he identified two very different issues: poor design and poor workmanship. I'll leave the latter for another day, although there are some interesting things to say about that in which I'm mostly in agreement with Brown; I especially applaud his efforts to be an educated consumer capable of recognizing workmanship errors beyond the obvious (projection screen installed backwards!) to the more subtle (tie-wraps cinched too tightly in a rack).

What raised my eyebrows on his design complaints is that he identified two opposite issues: gold-plating and corner-cutting. He then raised the additional issue of unauthorized and unexpected equipment substitutions, which is a real but more minor issue. A few thoughts, of course, jumped out at me.
First is that if too much complexity is a problem sometimes and too little capability is a problem other times, then perhaps the real issue - or the only issue - isn't with the integrator. I recently left the integration world for that of consulting, making my responsibilities a bit different. 

This brings me to last Thursday; we have a healthcare client looking to deploy technology in a new facility. I saw lots of spaces labelled as "conference rooms"; some less than 200 square feet, some larger, and some divisible. Many of the latter were shotgun-rooms joined end-to-end rather than side-to-side. Standard practices seemed fairly clear; the small rooms would likely have local presentations, the larger ones videoconferencing and some kind of front-projection system. Simple, straightforward, and standard. To be sure that this was what everyone wanted, I arranged a meeting not just with the architect (my client) but with end-users and their AV support staff. We spent two hours discussing how the spaces would be used, by whom they would be used, how they would be supported, and how current spaces are used. This is part of what I learned:

1. They are very heavy video conference users. Every room was expected to have a dual-display VTC system.
2. Image quality is very important to them. Very large flat-panel displays are greatly preferred over projection systems in any but the largest spaces.
3. End-users are intelligent but not very technologically savvy. AV support personnel would be located in a different building, but be expected to access systems remotely via a network.

This caused quite a few design changes. Dual flatpanels everywhere. No portable equipment. Ceiling microphones in the remaining divisible rooms to save end-users the trouble of having to connect hard-wired devices without local support. Yes, I can hear you out there gnashing your teeth over the idea of hanging mics from the ceiling. I don't care for it either, but they had reasons to not want wired table mics or wireless mics; this leaves relatively few choices. A number of Greg's (and other clients') issues quite likely were integrators doing a poor job. Equally many, though, could have been jobs which were doomed to failure long before anyone showed up on site and picked up tools.

The point of this story? Not asking the right questions to the right people today would have resulted in a disaster a year and a half from now when they get around to actually building it. That's one reason that  most large jobs involve consultants and part of the value we bring; it also creates a sense of continuity through system designs in various rooms and spaces.

So is the moral "hire a consultant"? I'd give an unqualified and utterly-self-serving "yes" if the consulting firm you're considering is Shen, Milsom and Wilke. Joking aside, that's not quite it; the moral of the story is that y


  1. You are absolutely correct. I recently began a Specialist/support gig at a distance learning university in the Silicon Valley. Having spent the last several years as a regional manager at a alarge enterprise, I am ridiculously expereinced in working with integrators and users in designing solutions that can be supported.

    My new employer did not have the luxury of a knowledgeable A/V staff. He is an IT manager and hired a large AV integration company to upgrade 4 videoconference rooms abkut 9 months before he hired me. Of course, without an AV expert to guide him, he was dependent on the integrator. The integrator first sent a salesman to nod his head at all of his requests. Then a project manager to hire a subcontractor. Then the subcontractor who seems to have no intuition on user interface and no skills at working with a client.

    To this day, the rooms suffer from Crestron interface issues and hardware failures. We can't get the integrator on the phone, and the subcontractor is working other jobs.

    The moral: integrators (especially the "national" ones) are mostly interested in landing the gig first and willing to deal with the blow back from failure later. And, they are perfectly.content blaming any issues on an ignorant client rather than representing and expert opinion based on previous experiences and a sense of technology.

  2. Thanks Ruben.

    I've actually heard more (or at least as much) complaining about "trunk-slammers" than about large integration houses with reputations to defend. I've worked for two contractors before moving the the consulting side of the business, and both (VCA and AVI-SPL if you're wondering) were staffed with some very smart people who cared deeply about their work; I've never had to walk away from an unfinished job and was pretty much always to walk away with my head held high. There certainly are good big companies out there.

    1. An integrator is only as good as the project manager and the subcontractor. Like anything -- a Motel 6 franchisee could turn his business into the Ritz or he could turn his business into the Bates Motel. I've had more than my share of problems with AVI-SPL specifically on follow-up and maintenance, mostly because they don't have much of a physical presence in Northern Calfornia. I've had some very good luck with small local shops who relish the opportunity to grab major business, and who are located right down the street if you need them. The keys to a good integrator IMHO:

      1) Do they pick up the phone when you call?
      2) Do they deliver in a timely manner?
      3) Are they conscientious about follow-ups?
      4) Will they steer you against new technology that hasn't been vetted (even if its more expensive) in favor of functional technology with a track record (so important to me)?

      Say yes to all of this stuff, and you've got a friend in me. :)