Convergence Takes Off

Meanwhile, traditional A/V vendors are responding by offering new products, training and assistance to help their dealers and digital integrators offer converged solutions. Those opportunities and technologies will take center stage this month at InfoComm05, which has transformed from a convention showcasing legacy A/V products to one touting innovative converged solutions.

"Never before has our culture been so exposed to so much technology to entertain, inform and instruct, whether in classrooms, concert halls or boardrooms," says Randy Lemke, executive director of A/V trade organization International Communications Industries Association (ICIA), which runs InfoComm. "The integration solutions of IT and A/V technologies that make this possible are found at InfoComm."

A strong example of the market's direction is Glenn Polly, president of 21-year-old VideoSonic Systems, a New York-based integrator that is creating converged solutions for museums, educational institutions, retail locations and other businesses. At New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid, VideoSonic combined projectors, lights and speakers with IT servers, CAT 5e cabling and control software to re-create how the boat survived kamikaze attacks during a World War II battle. "People like myself are not just talking about convergence; we're doing convergence," Polly says. "We're taking sound, video, audio, lighting, show control, and are having them all communicate."

Integrators throughout the industry agree, saying new converged technologies allow them to develop advanced commercial and residential solutions. Last year, for example, North Haven, Conn.-based HB Communications, looking for new ways to apply its 60 years of experience in the education and commercial A/V markets, established the HB@Home division to offer security, control and media distribution to the residential space. HB CEO Dana Barron says even though residential sales currently represent only 2 percent to 3 percent of the company's overall business, that could grow to 25 percent in the long term.

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The moves by VideoSonic and HB into converged sales is signaling a groundswell in the industry. In ICIA's 2005 market forecast survey, 65.7 percent of its integrator and consultant members say the integration of A/V systems into customer IT environments will have a positive effect on their business over the next three years. Plus, for the first time in the annual survey, respondents selected residential sales as one of their market categories, with 24.5 percent of dealers reporting some involvement in the home.

The growth of converged A/V and IT installations and residential emerging opportunities will receive prominence at the InfoComm05 show, June 4 to 10 in Las Vegas. Over the past five years the show has increasingly highlighted combined A/V and IT solutions, and for the first time will include a residential pavilion. The show will also include a model home with converged solutions, seminars on home and IT projects and a flurry of new products. "Forty percent of people who attend our show do not attend any other show," Lemke says. "If 20 percent of them are getting into residential, if they don't get it from us, they won't get it from anyone."

The work VideoSonic did on the Intrepid is a sign of where the A/V industry is going. Four years ago the museum's directors decided to update the exhibit of the kamikaze attacks, which relied on slide projectors and audio tracks. The museum, looking to use more immersive technology to create a dynamic presentation of the attacks, recruited several companies with experience in movie production and lighting design. It brought in VideoSonic to develop the back-end IT hardware and software system to run the show.

The exhibit, located in the ship's hangar deck, includes gear one would expect in a traditional A/V installation, including speakers and subwoofers from Bag End Loudspeakers, five Sanyo video projectors, smoke machines, motorized screens and acoustic treatments. But the real power comes from the control room on a lower floor. There, racks from Middle Atlantic Products are filled with PCs from Hewlett-Packard and Dell, a ViewSonic CRT, servers from Dell and IBM running Windows Server 2000, a UPS from MGE and a Belkin KVM. The room also includes a video server built by VideoSonic and a Biamp AudiaFlex digital signal processor.

From the room, all of the power, control commands and audio and video run over CAT 5e cables to the output devices in the hangar. "It cost a little over $1 million to produce the whole show," Polly says. "The A/V integration and programming were kept under $200,000. The only way we could do it was as an A/V and IT installation."

Polly points to a wide range of other benefits of a combined A/V and IT installation, including easier maintenance, support and upgrading. Polly says relying on digital signal processing allows for finer control of A/V output and makes it easy to use preset settings. Though the show runs automatically, staff members can monitor it from any computer in the museum, or even from the exhibit floor via a wireless HP iPaq. VideoSonic installed a wireless network in the exhibit, and plans to expand it throughout the museum. VideoSonic is also working on systems to control several additional exhibits inside the museum, and creating distance-learning programs, all of which will be managed from the current control room. "In the future, exhibits will never be wired in a strict audio/visual way," Polly says. "All exhibits ... will be wired the same way as this system, which has proven to be more flexible and far less expensive to install than shielded or coax cable."

VideoSonic's expertise also helped it meet the needs of New York-based Bumble and Bumble University, a haircutting school that wanted to use innovative new technologies in its training. Seminar rooms throughout the building include surround-sound speakers, Sony IP cameras, Apple AirPort wireless products, projectors, microphones, UPSes and displays mounted on carts. Live or recorded video or music can be streamed to rooms in the building or over the Internet, and modules with preset settings can be used to control multiple devices in a room. Instructors in any room can use notebook PCs to select media and control lighting, cameras, projectors and other devices, and a Gateway Tablet PC provides easy wireless control of audio levels and mixing. Students attend media classes to learn how to make DVDs and use video technology in their salons.

"We wanted everything to be software, no proprietary hardware and proprietary programming. We wanted to use open standards, be open-based," says Craig Teper, the school's director of new media. "Glenn was the only person who understood that, at the price we wanted."

On the other side of the convergence coin, integrators such as HB are seeing new opportunities in the residential market by combining A/V and IT products. "We decided to take the expertise that we've driven into the industrial A/V presentation and integration marketplace and leverage that into the consumer side, and bring the kind of technical expertise that we have and roll it into the consumer market," Barron says. Seeing the profit and growth potential of the home arena, and already having most of the necessary skills, also helped convince HB to take the plunge.

Many of the products HB sells into the home are from its existing A/V vendors, such as Sony, Crestron and Sound Technologies. HB also works with boutique vendors such as Control4, StarTech and RBH Audio to target home sales.

In many cases, integrators transitioning from legacy A/V products to converged solutions still face many challenges, including a lack of programming skills, unfamiliarity with new technologies, the need to build new vendor relationships, and a services model necessary to offset margin erosion. Integrators have overcome those problems by teaming with experienced partners, building new vendor relationships and leveraging their training programs, and tweaking business models. IT solution providers entering A/V sales face the opposite hurdle, often underestimating the challenges involved with installing A/V products. More attention needs to be paid to topics such as line-of-sight issues, acoustics and the aesthetics of installations.

Another challenge is that homeowners need to be approached differently than businesses. When HB entered the residential market, it adjusted the way employees dress and behave on the job, and how the company manages projects and works with contractors. "There are subtle differences between the commercial and home spaces, but as subtle as they may be, they are significant and need considerable attention," Barron says.

In the commercial market, many customers are hesitant to adopt converged solutions out of fear that transferring large A/V files over their IP network will slow network traffic or lead to security threats. Donald Mastro, vice president of integrator SPL Integrated Solutions, which specializes in A/V and conferencing solutions, says up-front communication with the customer's IT department can help allay concerns. "We pride ourselves on presenting the issues. We show this is how it works, how much impact it will have," Mastro says. In each of VideoSonic's installations, Polly says the company installs a dedicated network for the A/V files, with a connection to the main network for monitoring and control.

A/V dealers and solution providers are increasingly turning toward the industry to find solutions to these problems. InfoComm this year will include 183 manufacturer and vendor-neutral courses on topics such as media streaming, programming of control systems, room acoustics and residential sales. CEDIA is sponsoring 12 courses on home integration, and the Imaging Science Foundation, which trains integrators throughout the year in proper video setup, will present a course at InfoComm on the optimization of digital video in the analog world.

In addition, InfoComm will feature many convergence and residential products from well-established vendors and those new to the show. Global Caché, whose products allow nearly any electronic device to attach to an IP network, is looking to expand from the residential market into commercial and education sales and will attend InfoComm for the first time. SonicFoundry, whose media streaming products will be used in InfoComm's seminars, will show new versions of its Mediasite recorders for corporate training and education. Meanwhile, TecNec Distributors, which sells through integrators to the government, presentation, education and home markets, is a regular attendee and will show presentation routers, high-definition cable assemblies and small LCDs.

The convergence of A/V and IT products has also opened other new opportunities. Remote monitoring and maintenance of installed systems is a growing area of revenue. InfoComm will highlight the trend via a Command Center in the convention center's lobby where attendees can monitor events and devices throughout the building. Mastro says SPL will soon launch its own 24x7 proactive monitoring and support program for any of the networked A/V devices it has installed anywhere in the world. ICIA's survey also found growing interest in digital signage technology, and several vendors will be showing new signage tools at InfoComm. Axonix, which develops media distribution products for the training, education and home markets, will be showing new digital signage scheduling software.

After years of being one of the few to recognize the benefits of converged solutions, Polly says he's relieved to see so many vendors and integrators acknowledging the market's direction. "Something we want to broadcast to all of the other professionals in the industry is that one day, following our lead, this will become the standard for how A/V architecture is treated in a project or installation," Polly says.