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Barco’s Dirk Hendrickx on migrating AV kit onto IT networks

The company's vice president of strategic marketing discusses the advantages, implications and challenges surrounding the convergence of AV and IT.

What are the advantages of putting AV onto IT networks?

The ultimate dream of large end users is to have a visual system that enables them to communicate faster and collaborate better. They want to get something from an IT channel, plug it into a network and power it up, and have their IT staff configure it. But today many AV infrastructures have different ‘flavours’ – even within the same corporation. Those flavours have been designed and redesigned, and they run on a very particular network – call it an AV network – which is not standardised. As a consequence if you want to combine visualisation over different sites you run into hurdles.

On a panel at one of the first ISEs, I think it was in 2007, I was asked, will HD videoconferencing break the rules and be used everywhere? I said yes, but only if the interface is as easy to use as a mobile phone. It’s to do with having the same look and feel everywhere. The only way you can do this is by making use of an existing IT infrastructure. This offers you several benefits. First, it’s already there, and second, if there is one infrastructure in a company that is heavily maintained, made secure and kept up to date, it’s the IT infrastructure.

Presumably this thinking goes wider than the corporate example you mention?

Far wider. For instance in healthcare, inside a surgery room, some conditions dominate your choice of equipment. Previously there would be zillions of cables, matrix switchers and touchpanels. But they need to be able to clean this by spraying water everywhere. In our healthcare division we’ve created a network-centric solution where the only thing you have is a network cable, and this could be wireless, where you can see everything under glass without touching it. All the applications, videos or analysis that you need are in front of you before you start the surgery.

Another example is inside control rooms. Traditionally people have worked with a big overview. But we see a migration towards the operators – they want to access any data anywhere, and they don’t want their workstations sitting under their desks. So we see a migration of those workstations into a server room – and they need to be able to access these in a network-centric way. Again, they will make use of standardised networks to assess, control and manage that data.

One point you made when we last spoke was that endpoints are becoming more commoditised and so AV expertise is migrating towards networks, connections and communications. Where will it that trend end?

Ultimately it will end in software running perhaps on FPGAs that are decoding those specific AV signals. If you have zillions of AV cables or signals today, you could package them over an IT network – and then it’s about how you deploy them, manage them and make them available. So ultimately you will have standardised hardware using hardware or software decoders (depending on the quality and latency that you want) to regenerate and recomposite images for whatever display there is.

But presumably there will still be real-world AV knowledge that integrators need: How big should the videowall be? Where should we put it? What are the sightlines like?

You surprise me with these questions because most AV specialists haven’t asked them. But you’re right: it’s about ergonomics, what are you going to do with this, what kind of data do you want to see, how are you going to work with this, how is it going to affect your workflow? These questions are seldom asked by AV specialists and sometimes even consultants. It’s all about providing a display on which people can really work.

In some cases you see people running displays that are too large, where they don’t really know what to do with all that resolution.

In some ways it’s like building a house. A good architect shouldn’t ask you how many living rooms and bedrooms you want – they should ask, how do you want to live? What do you like doing? What are your hobbies? So that they can configure an environment in which you’ll feel good.

We see similar mistakes in the AV world. When we ask those ‘challenging’ questions to end users, like ‘What are you going to do with it?’, some of them say, ‘What do you mean’? But that’s what it’s all about. It’s a secondary transition that the AV world had better try to make – seeing the purpose, seeing what kind of application the equipment will be used for.

So are you saying that AV integrators should be thinking more like consultants?

They at least should understand what the customer is trying to achieve with building an expensive infrastructure. For instance, how long is it going to be used for? For instance in control rooms, there is the debate between super-narrow bezel LCDs or rear-projection cubes. Many people say they could live with the seams, but many of those control rooms are being used for 15 or 20 years, so you really need to consider what the best solution is – but those kinds of questions you seldom see being asked.

Once you’ve built an AV infrastructure, the cost of the AV part is often negligible versus the surrounding costs. The cost of maintaining the AV infrastructure is often not considered.

I believe the AV world is on the verge of changing; but it’s like changing the DNA of the world – it’s very difficult.

And do you see that change as positive or negative?

The change is positive – there are so many opportunities for AV people, because many IT people don’t understand anything about AV. in some corporations IT is taking over the infrastructure responsibilities as well. In many cases, for small AV integration, you can see the IT department hesitating: should we take this on or leave it to the food and beverage department? I say food and beverage department because AV is seen as a consumable.

The big opportunity for the AV world is to convince the whole user community that it makes a lot of sense to make proper use of AV – because seeing is believing. If I want to convince someone, I put together some PowerPoint slides and I lead the meeting, I lead the way of thinking. That’s what we have as an advantage in this industry, but we have to be careful that we don’t throw it away.

That’s the threat, but the opportunity is there: make sure you combine visuals with multi-site collaboration, and you run it over the IP infrastructure which is out there and under-used as of today. That’s also the big strategy of Barco: we have visualisation components; we are working heavily on collaboration – Clickshare is a nice example; and the next big pillar is network infrastructure components. We’re not going to be Cisco, but we are building components which hook up into an IP infrastructure, with managed services, which will allow the better use of visualisation to enhance collaboration.

What do you see as the barriers to this change?

This thing with networking is so logical that the only thing that could be hindering us is resilience and resistance from integrators and fear from consultants. We are working with probably the largest AV consultant worldwide, and he said, “If I design something for a large corporation, it has to work for certain. With IT, I’m not too sure.”

So what is happening right now is we need a proof of concept for the end-user. It’s per se less expensive – there’s no need to build a second infrastructure. But the capabilities… You build your network and expand it, in terms of size and capability, as technology the evolves (and it evolves faster than any AV market, as the market is much larger). When I need to decode more show more, combine more, all I need do is add more standard hardware. As a consequence I’m buying something that is per se futureproof. If I need to change anything, I simply add applications. I grow with an ever growing and changing market.