in 2003 IT/AV Report
By Joseph Bocchiaro III,
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
“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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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’