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The Importance of Software in AV

By Adam Fosbenner

Some folks might think that AV integrators only have to concern themselves with hardware. They wire racks, pull and terminate cables, and hang displays and speakers.  It is true; these tasks are a big part of an installation. However, today’s integrators need to be versed in more than just the aforementioned procedures.  They need to be able to work with software, and understand its importance to AV systems.  This importance of software exists  throughout the integration process and is visible to the equipment manufacturer, the AV integrator, and the end-user.

Software of some variety exists in or around virtually every piece of modern AV equipment.  Any integrators reading this will immediately think of the ubiquitous firmware upgrades that are performed on nearly every piece of gear that rolls through the shop.  Firmware is kind of an ambiguous term, but it generally refers to a low-level program (close to the hardware, as opposed to close to the user) that allows the equipment to run.  This is sometimes the entire operating system for the device, or could be even lower than that, such as the BIOS or some ROM that the OS uses.  Other examples of AV-related software include audio digital signal processing, control systems, digital signage technologies, to name a few.

The trend is getting even more pervasive.  With the emergence of streaming video and audio, software is essential in handling the encoding and decoding of these streams.  Some manufacturers build standalone encoders and decoders, which run firmware designed to perform this one task.  Other companies create multitasking machines that are closer to a computer that we are all used to.  For example, Vistacom’s flagship video wall solutions utilize a software stack model, allowing the wall controllers to decode, process, and render video, all in one device.  This makes for a more complex upgrade, when necessary.  The details of a firmware and software upgrades are usually unseen by the integrator (unless they are of a particularly inquisitive nature), as these patches are handled by the equipment’s manufacturer.  The integrator need only concern him- or herself with getting that new firmware into the box.

Wait!  How do they get the new firmware into the device?  You guessed it: software.  Many manufacturers distribute their own software for configuring and maintaining certain devices.  Some companies have one or two programs that give integrators access to most of their products.  Other companies have a different program for each family of products.  Still others use web applications to compliment or even replace traditional compiled software, in order to make administration tools more accessible.  It is important that this software is both feature-rich and fairly easy to use.  Availability of configuration options is a double-edged sword, though; the product can be customized to best fit the context of the AV design, but too many check boxes and drop-down menus can intimidate an inexperienced technician. 

Regarding usability, integrators work with some of these programs very regularly, and can perform common tasks with their eyes closed. If they have to do something less common, it is important that the software is designed well to make it intuitive to use.  Most technicians have seen some configuration software that is not so easy to use, and the good ones have a habit of figuring it out.  What is most important is the usability of the end-users’ software.

If the manufacturer’s user interface is to be deployed (with little or no configuration on the part of the AV technician), then you want to make sure it passes the sniff test and is as easy to use as the manufacturer claims it to be.  Try it out, if possible, and get the actual end user groups to test it prior to deploying it. 

At Vistacom, we have a dedicated team of programmers that write functional and usable software to control the AV system.  These programs appear mostly on touch panels and sometimes on web panels and button panels.  In most cases, these are the primary way that the end-user interfaces with the system. They must do what they are designed to do and be easy to use.  If it doesn’t work, we have a service call on our hands and you as the client have a system that doesn’t do what you wanted it to do.  If it is hard to use, we have a confused user. Either way, we have an unhappy client.  To complicate matters, AV systems are often made up of devices made by different companies, and these must work together. A handful of control protocols have been developed to standardize the communication between devices, with pros and cons for each.  Control systems manufacturers (and sometimes our own programmers) have continuously written libraries and modules to help streamline the development of control software.  The AV programmers then have the task of assessing the functionality of the system, creating a user interface that is easy to use, and writing the program that makes it all work.  Fine tuning this program is among the final stages of completing an AV installation.

It is important to understand the importance of software of all types and its role in a well-designed and well-implemented AV system.  A good AV integration firm will have multiple staff trained to configure and program that software or, at least, be able to bring in the right outside resources to do it as part of a team.  A successful client outcome is one where the system is stable (including both its hardware and software components) and where the user interface is accessible, reliable, and easy to navigate by the end user groups.

An AV integrator should provide both hardware and software solutions that meet the need of the end-user. Software goes into the hardware, it is used in the installation and configuration, and it powers the interaction between the end-user and the system.  So next time you use your AV system, thank a programmer, and of course, an integrator.