Control without the Controller
With a couple of the projects we’ve been working on recently, I’ve been forced to think about the future of control interfaces and systems. Control of the equipment in an AV system has been for many years a key ingredient that turns a collection of sources and endpoints into a cohesive unit. The intention should always be to simplify the use of the tools, so that any user can benefit from the investment, regardless of their training and knowledge. Work on improving that “user-friendliness” in GUI design has become an industry in itself, and yet it seems the AV industry has never quite managed to remove the laminated quick start guide from many systems.
Like so much of the IT industry though, AV has been changed dramatically by consumerisation. Tablets, smartphones and home automation gadgets never come with instructions, and gain a traction with many users regardless, by being designed so well and consistently. Of course, the lessons offered by these devices can be learned by AV system designers and applied, but simply copying these layouts and iconography won’t create the leap forward embodied by consumerisation. Nor can it keep up with the pace of change – for example, passwords being gradually replaced with biometric approaches, or the increase in chatbot AI providing services to customers. So perhaps the AV industry needs to perfect “controller-less control” to make the systems truly modern. I have heard several times lately from customers that they don’t want the “complication” of a control system – which of course is the opposite of what one should bring.
The AV industry has already responding to this for the last few years. Priority auto-switching allows source control without manual switching, and Extron and Crestron, amongst others, developed their solutions that incorporate buttons onto the input cables that both select the source and turn on the displays. Lights on the cables or the table connection give a nice visual confirmation to the user of what to do when they plug in – a step in the direction of controller-less control. It works best in simple systems though, and is quite dependent on the system all being from the same vendor.
Room-booking systems are also responding, bringing in integration with occupancy sensors to release room resources when bookings are made and not kept – some go as far as monitoring how many people are using rooms to help facility management keep track of how rooms are being used.
Crestron have gone as far (in the US) as providing a connection between the Amazon Echo voice assistant and their control systems, again providing a step towards AV facilities that respond to users without a controller. Again though, there are limitations – the system is very impressive as long as you know the commands to use.
In the home, users are creating control systems themselves by using tools that bring together the various home user systems. IFTTT (IF This Than That), Microsoft Flow, and Zapier all offer ways to create context sensitive control, maybe by turning on lights as a response to geo-fencing a mobile device, but these scenarios tend to be quite personal, and in any case, whenever I’ve thought of something commercial to use these tools for, it’s always been one step too much for them despite their many options. Home technologies may be setting the objectives for AV system usability, but they can't be used to deliver those objectives.
One of recent projects at Open University challenged us to take some of the work that has been done to create controlled, controller-less environments and push it a little bit further. We used a combination of Kramer priority switching with their Maestro technology built-in. These clever little switchers include RS232 control that can be programmed to respond to detecting inputs (and, importantly, NOT detecting inputs). Like the Extron and Crestron solutions, they are really designed for single room installs, but, in this case we had multiple inputs, multiple outputs, and one of our sources itself had multiple outputs! Certain inputs were related to audio settings that needed to be changed too. We layered up the switchers, and made a number of changes to PC settings, to achieve what we were looking for, ensuring that simply plugging in a source anywhere automatically took care of setting the rest of the environment as it should be. It was an enjoyable logic challenge, but got me thinking … what next? A related project we covered recently for a corporate client was to rewrite the Crestron interface for a Polycom RealPresence Group system – to reimagine the dialing and conferencing bridge interface as a wizard, asking context-sensitive questions as a chatbot might to guide the user accurately to the use they needed.
Systems that can make assumptions about how the space is to be used – effectively deploying AI – responding the user’s needs without recourse to the laminated sheet – they will be the way AV systems come closer to the consumer understanding of control systems now, and remove any remaining reluctance to deal with, what can be seen as, complication. I will be looking at all our designs now for ways to build on the examples above, and create more of these controller-less, controlled, environments.