Published in 2003 IT/AV Report

By Joseph Bocchiaro III, CTS-D

     “Metacontrol” is an artificial intelligence (AI) term meaning the “control of control systems.” At its core, this is IT applied to AV control (AVC). As AV and IT convergence opens new possibilities for unifying media production, distribution and storage, and as the information explosion continues, it becomes ever more important to manage AV information and the means by which it is presented.
Metacontrol is a challenge for AVC. According to Ken Kalinoski, CTO of Forgent, “You have to bring everything back to work with IT, instead of trying to circumvent IT.” Many applications important to AV personnel, facilities managers and IT managers are affected, and may be enhanced by AV metacontrol. It may even become central to an organization’s mission.

Boundless Applications
     “Users do not care about all the network issues,” said Kalinoski. “Everything has to be handled at the user interface: endpoints, gatekeepers, gateways, routers and switchers.”
Metacontrol applications include:
• Managing multipoint control units (MCUs) in conferencing or distance learning.
• Scheduling portable equipment in a multi-room environment.
• Help-desk functionality of multi-room environments with limited staff.
• Automating classroom events such as media retrieval.

All these require equipment connection, bandwidth management, room scheduling and session control. Metacontrol interconnects and configures AV networks and makes them available for simplified and immediate use.
     Metacontrol is allowing IT managers to better integrate AV into their universe. According to Simtrol CEO Rick Egan, his group’s “development is focused on creating interfaces and functions that IT professionals already are accustomed to. This includes proactive system monitoring, system health and status, mean-time-between-failures tracking, component shelf life and alarms. IT professionals have a firm understanding of everything on their network, but when they go into the boardroom, they don’t know what’s going on….The whole control system is network-based, from the boardroom to the NOC [network operation center].”
But metacontrol is much more than remote administration for AV systems. According to Rashid Skaf, vice president marketing at AMX. The ultimate goal is true automation: based on rules, not people touching buttons.”
     The possibilities are boundless. “Proctor & Gamble has been conducting consumer research into the possibilities of touchscreens built into household network appliances,” said Skaf. “This includes grocery lists on touchscreens on refrigerators in the kitchen, health and beauty aids in the restrooms, and home and automobile maintenance in the garage.”
     AVC manufacturers are looking far past the entertainment and presentation technology fields that they thrive in, to control many types of components and systems in a multiplicity of environments.

Imagine the Meeting
     Just image the huge potential for advancing productivity. A multi-city videoconference requires meeting scheduling. A busy executive, instead of having an assistant call numerous participants, room-scheduling secretaries, catering services, AV technicians, IT personnel, videoconference bridge services, etc., organizes the entire event. Using one web-browser interface, the executive selects the required date, time, recipients and meeting requirements. Metacontrol sends invitation emails, books meeting rooms, configures the MCU for the multipoint call, emails refreshment requirements to catering services, alerts the AV group of the pending event, and notifies the security department of the level of executives attending at each location.
At the time of the meeting, metacontrol turns on the AV systems in each of the videoconferencing rooms, establishes connectivity between codecs and configures the system for the conference. Metacon- trol has posted the meeting on the master web page for each of the meeting rooms, on the displays outside each room and on the master display on the floor of each conference center. During the meeting, a network administrator can browse into any room, view camera signals and electronic presentations, and be available on a help-desk basis. Participants have “help” buttons on their screens to access this administrator, who may take control of their system remotely if necessary.
Why stop at the end of the meeting? When the moderator tells the local control-system interface that the meeting is finished, metacontrol performs the required cleanup functions: It logs usage of each room and device for maintenance tracking; logs bandwidth, time, relative success of the videocon- ference equipment, connections and MCU; calculates “charge-back” billing for the call and meeting; and submits a report to the accounting department for use in tracking all expenses associated with the meeting.
     Metacontrol collects the notes from every interactive electronic white- board used in the videoconference rooms, and emails the files to all participants for their record of the meeting. It has digitally recorded the meeting and saves it on the company file server.
The final level of metacontrol is typical of AI: The system learns from users’ behavior, and adapts, modifies, predicts and even anticipates future behavior.

How Did AVC Come to This?
     AVC has come a long way. It began as an accessory to AV, controlling a single piece of equipment: the “show-control” or “multimedia” slide projector/audiotape unit. In the mid-1980s, four manufacturers—York Controls, AMX, Crestron and FSR—revolutionized the industry with digital signal lines, programmability, integrated packaging and expandability. Their systems gradually took into account a growing number of control interfaces: traditional dry-contact closures, RS232C, infrared and various proprietary signal protocols such as Sony VISCA.
As AV system size and complexity expanded, AVC did, too. There was tremendous opposition to the next obvious step: software. There were already enough points of failure in their systems, and an unwillingness to take additional risks. But end users wanted the capabilities they saw developing on PCs, so many AV integration firms created a new job description: “control system programmer.”
     As PC and networking costs plummeted, the AV industry stuck with a closed-box, proprietary-processor/software model. Each manufacturer produced its own digital protocol to link its distributed components. These networks linked the touchpanel interfaces that were becoming ubiquitous. The ability to create systems with multiple, customizable and changeable interfaces, distributed throughout a room or building with simplified cabling, ushered in a new era of AV sophistication.
     Because PCs were not robust enough yet to control AV, proprietary approaches were needed and AVC companies thrived. But both users and the PC vendors naturally sought control of AV from the PC. An early example was the IBM Interactive Multimedia Classroom (IMMC), which married an OS/2-based PC with an FSR control system. The age of computerized multimedia had begun.

Java Enters
     Sun Microsystems’ Java language came along early in the 1990s with the motto, “write once, play anywhere.” It would be widely used for AVC, but nonstandard variations resulted from Microsoft’s bitter rivalry with Sun.
     Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) rapidly became the de facto standard for internet work management. Based on the “manager/agent” model, SNMP came to underlay the World Wide Web. According to Simtrol’s Egan, “Browser-based connectivity to AV systems is possible because of our ability to utilize databases for managing system information. This is built with SNMP traps capturing and logging status chan- ges.” Because each “agent” device requires minimal software, this protocol is referred to as “simple.” The “traps”—event notifications from the “agent” to the “manager”—are the fundamental means by which control and status are communicated through the network.
     According to Crestron director of technical sales Fred Bargetzi, “The first generation of internet-enabled systems was designed for a cross-platform operating system. Our second generation is based on Active X. This allows for numerous ways to interface to our systems: conversion to HTML…which will work with a browser such as Internet Explorer; conversion of web pages directly into executable files for speed and security; and…control from any industry-standard device such as a Pocket PC PDA using 802.11b wireless, or from ‘web tablets’ such as the Viewsonics Viewpad.”
     Convenient, ubiquitous interfaces have opened up new possibilities for AVC…just as lower-cost PC-based componentry means users are able to deploy many more systems that require control.
     Meanwhile, bandwidth and compression advances made it possible not only to control media systems via computer networks, but to deliver the content over them. Not just one, but numerous users could connect and conference over sophisticated multi- point videoconferencing (VC) systems. Traditional telephone interfaces evolved into IP networking.
     Along came new problems: multi- point control units (MCUs), the scheduling of rooms and conferees, and the management and maintenance of equipment. But it was possible, too, to foresee simplification of the major stumbling blocks of the AV industry: the plethora of cables, signal types, protocols, connections and disparate equipment types.

Embedded AVC Systems
     AVC is everywhere now. VC manufacturers such as Tandberg and Polycom offer powerful control software for their codecs and MCUs. Poly- com offers the iPower series of PC-based codecs that control system hubs.
     Virtually all consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers offer integrated remote controls, some of which operate many types of equipment not necessarily of their own manufacture. Some offer touchscreens that rival the comparable commercial units of a few years ago; Extron Electronics recently embedded AVC into its switching systems.
     Not to be outdone, AMX, Crestron and FSR offer AV components that incorporate AVC. Most other manufacturers’ AV components are now at least digitally controlled if not completely digital. Increasingly, computer software and hardware manufacturers are offering software-controlled connectivity to a variety of AV components. The lines are now completely blurred between audio, video, computer and control systems.

Distributed Component Control Systems
     The proliferation of digital consumer media devices has created a dynamic network challenge. The computer and CE industries have been working for several years to integrate data transport with a wide variety of control protocols.
The early leader here was HAVi (Home Audio Video interface), championed by Sun and Philips. An open standard control protocol written in Java, it is meant to facilitate peer-to-peer CE connections.
     In HAVi, devices can be connected and disconnected frequently, randomly and without the aid or intervention of a network administrator. HAVi is a thin layer of software used by relatively dumb “network appliances” with embedded, dedicated-function interfaces.
The promise of embedded network interfaces and control systems is that devices can be connected, recognize each other and communicate. In other words, plug-and-play over a network. This becomes increasingly important as networks increase in size and
     Microsoft has cooperated on HAVi, but was never happy with it, technologically or strategically. HAVi creates networks that are not PC-centric. More serious for AVC, it is cumbersome to program, operates at a low layer of control, is focused on CE rather than on AV over IT in the
enterprise, and largely stops at the edge of the LAN.

Too Much Java? UPnP
     Something better was needed. Microsoft came up with UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), which uses declarative wire protocols expressed in XML, and communicated via HTTP. Based on IP, it aims to span different physical media, to enable multiple-vendor interoperation, and achieve synergy between the internet and home and office intranets. UPnP can also bridge to non-IP networks and protocols such as Simple Control Protocol (SCP).
     A Microsoft white paper lays out the UPnP dream: “A device can dynamically join a network, obtain an IP address, convey its capabilities, and learn about the presence and capabilities of other devices—all automatically; truly enabling zero configuration networks.”
     A clear advance over HAVi, UPnP suffers from slow acceptance. CE companies don’t want to let Microsoft into their boxes for competitive reasons, and resistance to bulky software in AV hardware devices is still around. UPnP benefits from being far more current code than much of HAVi, which was written in the early 1990s, though it is also still in development, for good and ill.
Neither UPnP nor HAVi is ignored by the AV industry. Said Bargetzi, “We’re embracing the PC industry: Anything that is a commodity item…we’re making provisions for these to be used with our systems and software.”
     The convergence of AVC, the PC and CE moves metacontrol to the very center of every device’s functionality, and makes it the central playing field for a great deal of the electronics industry.

Joseph Bocchiaro III, CTS-D, principal consultant with Electro-Media Design Ltd., is a member of the ICIA ICAT as well as Sound & Communications’ Technical Council.

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