Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Dishwashers, Refrigerators, Kitchen Tables, and the Evolving Role of the AV Consultant

As some of you know, I've recently moved (which is why I'm not here quite as much) and am trying to take my kitchen to the modern era. When told about the kitchen project, people are invariably off all manner of advice and requests. I've been asked often if I'll be putting a microwave above the stove (I won't) or if I want a table near the one blank wall (I don't). The interesting question for today's discussion is about the new appliances - would I be getting a single-manufacturer suite, or buy each on its own.
Old appliances. No interconnectivity.
The answer to the appliance question was, for the kitchen, an easy one; there's no synergy at all between a refrigerator, a stove, and a dishwasher. A single-source would perhaps give a slightly more consistent look, but that's it. Instead I'd look at each item on its own and choose the best fit for our use profile and budget.

"Single source" versus "best in breed" is a question which frequently arises around technology, and one which not many years ago I'd have approached the same way I approach appliances today. I especially remember analog systems which might use video switchers, video conference appliances, and control systems all from different manufacturers. In a large build gear might not even be consistent from room to room; I've seen, for example, one manufacturer's touchscreens in specialty spaces and another's keypad controller in a simpler rooms. With purely standalone systems, it made sense to choose best in breed rather than a single source. As a consultant, I'd need (amongst other knowledge) broad familiarity with the product offerings of many vendors and and understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

Is this still the case? I find it telling that when I told one of my colleagues at SMW that single-source didn't make sense for my kitchen because the appliances don't talk to eachother he corrected me: they don't talk to eachother YET, but they almost certainly will. It's easy to imagine a home full of smart appliances coordinating, for example, energy and water usage so as not to overload the infrastructure at peak times. It's quite likely that my next set of kitchen appliances (a long time from now, I'm hoping) will be a single-manufacturer ecosystem. 
Newer appliances. Shinier, but still not interconnected.
And yes, my countertop is a half-sheet of OSB.

In the AV world, of course, we're already most of the way there. For a very simple example, nearly every manufacturer who manufactures control systems also has some kind of remote asset-management software to provide remote monitoring and control. Suddenly mixing in less costly keypad controllers from an alternate vendor no longer makes sense; you might still be able to save a few dollars and get a slightly nicer device, but at the cost of cutting one space out of the larger ecosystem you're building. "Ecosystem" is a word (and a concept) which I find myself using with increasing frequency these days. That, after all, is what many vendors are selling. I spoke about AV transport over standard IP networks a few times, focusing mainly on functionality. Another interesting development is that many vendors of such systems aren't selling standalone products but broad suites including options such as recording appliances, windowing processors, control, and monitoring. It's an approach which saves the AV contractor headaches in getting disparate systems to work together, saves finger-pointing between manufacturers when two products won't work together, and somewhat simplifies the design process by taking advantage of the R&D manufacturers have put into creating an ecosystem of interoperable products.

Does this mean that the AV designers role is fading? After all, if one is going to deploy a single-source solution it's quite easy to get a master quote from one or more vendors listing all of the pieces and parts it would take to make the solution work. I'd say that this can't be farther from the truth, and the consultant is every bit as important. First,  we still need to do the same work in evaluating client needs, in project programming, and in coordinating all of the moving parts it takes to get  from the idea of needing AV solutions to the actuality of having working solutions. That part can't be sources to a vendor if one wants independent, unbiased analysis.

Another thing to remember is the value of form as well as function and communicating with clients about how people work and how they want things to look. This goes to the kitchen table which at least three people have suggested to me. We generally don't eat in the kitchen, but do quite a bit of cooking. As you can see, it isn't all that large a space. While adding a table would increase workspace, it would do so at the expense of cluttering the area and cutting travel between, say, the microwave and the sink. It's a bad tradeoff for the same reason a gooseneck mic on a conference table is often a bad tradeoff. In both cases, there might be a narrow functional improvement which, to the user, is not worth as much as the tradeoff in aesthetics or workflow that will come with it.
As a designer, it's great to start with a blank canvas.
Even if you need a sledgehammer to get there.

Finally there is, in addition to the obvious need to evaluate entire ecosystems as opposed to single products, a requirement for much more attention to connectivity with other infrastructures. Data networks. Scheduling systems. Security systems. Building management systems. As important as it can be for some types of spaces, audiovisual almost never occupies a central place in the design process; nobody is going to design their entire network infrastructure around the AV system needs. Working with choices made by those in unrelated disciplines remains one of the big tasks and challenges of the AV design consultant.

The work we save by using single vendors - if  we save anything - is what I'd argue is the least important in terms of design. It's the detailed bits and pieces which make the vision work after it's been conceived. While this is absolutely vital, it doesn't speak to our core purpose in the design realm. In my years in the industry, I've seen clients having various levels of satisfaction with the end results of AV projects.  THose who were less than fully satisfied almost never had functionality complaints; AV contractors are very good at delivering systems which, at the end of the day, work. The user hits the button, the projector lights up, an image appears on the screen. The bigger problems are almost always ones of expectations; the projects which fail have often failed when someone didn't ask the right question, months or even years before anyone has chosen the  nuts and bolts needed to execute what would eventually be a flawed vision.

The role of the AV consultant (and designers as a whole) might be evolving even farther from a focus on "nuts and bolts", but the core of what we do - helping clients find a vision and marrying that vision to available technology - hasn't changed.

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