Friday, September 12, 2014

Learning to Think: Android Updates and AV System Topology

As a lover of both words and technology, I take particular notice of word choices in the technical realm. One recent change I noted was when the OS on my phone upgraded itself to Android 4.4.2. In addition to the various cosmetic changes, there was a shift in label of one particular icon from the familiar "GPS" to the new "Location Services". This appears, at first glance, to be a purely cosmetic change. Enabling "location" turns on the GPS radio in the phone, disenabling it turns it off. That said, I find myself thinking about the device a bit differently and seeing this change as a gateway towards thinking about both personal devices and the larger world of commercial AV in different ways.

How is the Phone Different than it was a month ago?
The short answer is that it isn't. IT still does the same things it once did. What changed for me is the feeling of intent. Enable GPS has the appearance of being a device-oriented command; Users feel that they are toggling a little subdevice on or off. The thinking is "I want my phone to know where it is. I'll turn on the GPS". Location Service  has a somewhat different emphasis. In this case, focus is on the result as an available feature for other applications. One enables "location services" and whatever subsequent applications or even webpages with one chooses to engage will have access to that particular service.

This is a label which merely acknowledged the overall use pattern we already had. It's similar with other options; if I connect my phone to a bluetooth speaker, for example, that becomes just another tool for whichever media playback, telephony, or game programs the phone is running.

It's become the same for network-enabled computer hardware. If I am to print something from my desk, I can select the network printer as if it's just another peripheral. "Printing to the copy room" is another service enabled on my office PC. For that matter, if I print something from my phone, I don't rout the phone to a printer or anything like that. I select a file from, say, the Google Print application and let the phone access the printer the way it would another shared resource. In fact, my home printer is a network resource for both my phone and my desktop machine.

"Location services" may sound the same as "GPS", but it changes how I think of it from enabling a hardware feature of my device to enabling a suite of services which happen to use that feature. It's a change in how we think.
Current AV system topology, with a
switcher in the middle.

What about AV Systems?
How is the world of AV different? In the world of AV too many of us still think concretely and too much of that concrete thinking is anchored on the bedrock of yesteryear, when the central element of most large systems would be a matrix switcher. Not too long ago, this was a reasonable idea. One would want to send the DVD player to the screen. Send a laptop to the videoconference codec, then send the output from THAT to a screen. Etc. Operation of the system becomes, at its core, an exercise in routing  sources to destinations. Thinking about the system as a matrix router informs choices from initial system design all the way through implementation, especially when it comes to designing a GUI. In fact, GUI is, in some was, at the heart of the problem and the problem lies mainly in the touchpanel. 

What if we were to remove the touchpanel and most of the traditional AV system? The simplest idea is to put all of ones applications -- videoconferencing, recording, even laptop inputs, into a PC. No more laptop inputs. No more hardware Codecs.

The model is no longer switching, either real or imagined. The model of an AV system can now be the way we interact with any other technology.
Where did the system go? It vanished into the
Does this make a difference?
I'd say that it certainly does. As AV and IT continue to converge, we in the AV industry need to change not only the way we work, but the way in which we think. This has been a near-constant topic of conversation amongst the team here at Shen Milsom and Wilke, impacting everything from programming to infrastructure design all the way through system design and implementation. 

One of the most rewarding, exciting, and terrifying moments comes when you wake up to realize that the world has changed in a fundamental way, and that everything you thought you knew is now wrong. I feel that we're all at that point now, discovering (and creating!) the new rules for new ways in which people can work.

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