AV at 40: Control Systems
Peter Lloyd, September 27, 2012
Getting the attention of the people in a room is vital, but so is simultaneously managing presentation technology. Peter Lloyd looks at the development of AV control systems.
Over the years, two very different styles of control system have been required by the AV market – room control and show control. Room control is based around the need to turn things on, play material or allocate sources, while show control is about timelines and scheduled events.
Here we look at room control. In the November-December issue – our final piece in this AV40 series – we’ll be looking in more depth at show control and the multi-image business.
The nature of the AV world in the 1970s and 1980s, with its reliance on pre-produced slides, video and film, meant there wasn’t a great call for complex room control. Presentations tended to be large affairs with back-up crews looking after the technical requirements and any smaller meeting room installations used self-operated media such as OHPs, single slide projectors and video players.
There were exceptions in the world of large corporates and visitor centres and these were largely catered for by specially-built consoles with dedicated back-lit buttons.
A favourite story from the time came from the unveiling of a London ad agency’s new client presentation suite. Confronted by a bewildering array of backlit buttons (one to open the curtains, one to close them..) the agency chairman wasn’t phased, saying: “I haven’t had so much fun since I bought my first helicopter.”
Self-drive presentation suites based around computer-generated slides and video replay via data projectors started to become prominent from the mid-1980s and the market subsequently boomed. Generating visual material directly from PCs rather than via film emulsion accelerated the process and companies like AMX, Crestron and Electrosonic started to ship more and more control systems based around a wired control ‘backbone’ and button-based remotes.
The ability to provide control via a touch screen interface and to programme systems based on standardised product sets changed the way the sector worked, with AMX and Crestron programmers hired to configure systems to meet precise client requirements. Later on, opening up the systems to TCP/IP made it possible to integrate new kinds of AV hardware – including disc-based video replay, computer workstations and video conferencing. The availability of IP-controllable displays and audio systems meant that the control could all be done from the one panel.
Since that boom the major vendors have broadened out from commercial room control, using their technology to handle everything from home entertainment to lighting, heating and home security. They have also fully embraced IT networking and both digital content management and delivery.
Their next challenge may, however, be even more perplexing – how to sell room control in a world where users bring their own devices to the meeting room and expect to seamlessly interconnect to other meeting participants over IT networks.
Key dates in the industry
Controls were simple, to say the least. One 1972 AV article described the latest in automation – perforated tape readers able to handle eight tracks of information with which to control slide projectors.
An early example was a show on a BOCM Silcock exhibition stand. Farmerama used 24 Carousels controlled by a punch card reading mechanism as part of a show made by Mike Eveleigh of Audio Visual Equipment (AVE).
Crestron, formed by George Feldstein in 1968, hired its first employee. Over the next few years it took on general control work, then Feldstein developed a wireless remote control for commercial AV systems.
Shows, not installations, were the big thing, but control systems started to make an appearance. The Guaranteed Venues Scheme, organised by Conference Spectrum, planned to provide hotels with sets, projection and a rostrum fitted with control buttons for lights and projector control.
Early room control systems emerged at the NAVA show in Houston. Players included Computronic and Mast Development Systems.
Sarner AV launched the Mackenzie Laboratories Z-Mac range of control systems at the Audio Visual 82 show in Wembley.
In Texas, salesman Scott Miller found a way to control a slide projector using a modified wireless garage door opener, built his first run of products (the MX20) and founded AMX. He went on to grow the company and acquire technology by the purchase of competitors such as York Controls.
Permanent installations, most of which use custom control systems, came to the fore with AV featuring presentation facilities at IBM and London Bridge City installed by Control Technologies (CTL) and Mediatech.
Dataton, which had launched its Pax show control range two years earlier, showed a presentation room control system, Mictouch, at the AV89 show. It was able to handle lighting, curtains, audio systems and video replay.
‘Product’ control systems had started to be used in earnest. Saville AV was building control based on its MAVIS (Microprocessor Audio Video Installation System) into installations, while Electrosonic launched its MRC (Meeting Room Controller) product. President Clinton had Crestron SmarTouch systems installed in The White House.
Meeting room installations were featured more often. Examples included work by MarCom, Saville AV and Avant Garde. Suppliers included AMX (now distributed by a new company, Axcess Technology, a joint venture with Sarner AV). Crestron launched its SmarTouch LCD panel-based system at photokina. MarCom, Integrated Circes, Presentation Projects, Stavekirk and Saville AV all used their own proprietary systems.
AMX launched its Axcent2 control system for small to mid-sized installations.
Crestron Europe and Extron made their first appearances in the European market.
AMX publicly listed on the NASDAQ share exchange.
AMX and Crestron moved into Ethernet and IP at InfoComm. AMX showed AXB-Net, an Ethernet gateway designed to distribute control information over TCP/IP, while Crestron brought out its CNX systems, designed to communicate using TCP/IP and SNMP.
Control systems manufacturers listed in AV’s survey include AMX, Crestron, Cue and Dataton, as well as Saville AV and Integrated Circles.
AMX, now rebranded as Panja and trying to develop into the home market, majored on NetLinx at InfoComm, where Crestron launched its Isys ‘intelligent’ control panels.
In March Axcess Technologies re-branded itself as Panja UK. At InfoComm in June Panja re-branded itself as AMX to concentrate on pro markets, with a new management team of Bob Carroll and Rashid Skaf put in place.
Crestron, meanwhile, had moved into digital video processing, while Extron unveiled its MediaLink control product family and Kramer moved into the presentation room market.
Extron entered the ‘low end’ control market with an £890 system, MediaLink.
At InfoComm Crestron moved into digital switchers and interfaces, while AMX launched into lighting control, vowing to develop “more IT and network-based systems’ that would be used to control ‘everything from lights to telephones and fireplaces.”
Manufacturers listed in AV’s guide to room control systems included AMX, Audace, Crestron, Cue, Dataton, Electrosonic, Integrated Circles, Saville AV, SP Controls and Webdyn, a brower-based system.
Crestron set up its own direct sales operation in the UK, so distributor RGB switched to selling AMX. At InfoComm Crestron introduced Media Manager and the QuickMedia transport system, while AMX majored on Meeting Manager – a scheduler and source manager.
Crestron embedded Windows XP PCs into its latest panels, while Extron moved its Media Link offering more up-market and AMX brought out Design Express programming tools as well as the MAX content delivery system.
CAD specialist Stardraw released its own control software package able to control AV devices using TCP/IP, RS232, DMX, IR and EtherSound. AMX was sold to Duchossois for $315m.
Crestron released Adagio, a system that included an audio distribution network and digital audio server.
AMX started the year by buying three companies – Endeleo, AutoPatch and the Canadian firm Matrix Audio Design, which was seen as an entrée to the multi-zone home audio market. Endeleo’s signage product was used as the basis for a Universal Distribution Matrix (UDM) system targeted at classrooms and conference rooms.
At InfoComm International AMX pushed into digital signage following its acquisition of signage specialist Inspiration Matters, but it also launched RFID-compatible systems as part of its Resource Management Suite (RMS).
Crestron moved further towards IT integration with the latest version of its RoomView software, but also launched MPS systems based on QuickMedia digital transport. AMX bought UK company Procon Technology and partnered with show control specialist, Medialon.
AMX acquired video content management specialist Atrium and launched an IPTV delivery system, Vision2. Medialon’s latest control system, Manager V5, handled a full range of events, installed show and presentation room requirements and interfaced with AMX.
InfoComm predicted that the European control system market would be worth $1.4bn by 2012. ‘Crestron now describes itself as an infrastructure company (and) AMX is expanding its horizons, moving into digital signage and digital TV systems,’ said AV’s buyer’s guide.
Ever since iPad appeared the days of expensive dedicated touch screen controllers have been numbered and almost every installer and control systems manufacturer has had to build or acquired tablet interfaces.
“Users are starting to drive what is being used as a front +end to their AV system,” says Gordon Innocent, chairman of RGB Communications.
“They are carrying a device that is intuitive, powerful, small, and has great graphics in their pocket or bag and they want to use it. Assuming Apple maintains its market lead in devices such as the iPhone and iPad, that’s what will be used and nobody will be selling expensive touch screens.”
Because the iPhone-iPad graphics are so wonderful, the basic expectations of a GUI (graphical user interface – the front end) are now so high and seemingly free that the ability to sell many hours of very expensive programming every time is going away too.
“But fortunately, until everything is WiFi, a box (the heart of the system) of some description will be required. Even if all it does is generate IR or RS232 outputs, it’s something tangible to sell.
“This may sound like a rather negative long term view. However, for now and the next few years, we have a great opportunity to ride the Apple wave, selling new systems and upgrading old ones. “