AV software: Breaking the code

kramer pix
Man looking at computer screens, examining software code

The AV industry was created on hardware, but times are changing, and the provision of software is becoming big business. Steve Montgomery speaks to those involved in developing proAV software.

For many years, microprocessors have been included in AV devices to control and manage their internal operations.

As technology evolved further, it became possible to design-in dedicated computing hardware and create bespoke software to perform more mainstream functions on the AV signals carried by the device.

The latest step in this evolution is the use of non-specific, generic computing platforms and external control devices and applications to perform functions that are desired by end users.

As a result, the production of software to perform such a wide variety of tasks is becoming more necessary and important to manufacturers and integrators. Thomas Walter, section manager even more important to us. This is why NEC Display Solutions, formerly a hardware provider, is now very active in software- based design such as IP-based videowall content management solutions, leafengine sensor integration for digital signage or collaborative applications for the NEC InfinityBoard.”

A manufacturer that focusses solely on the development of software to run on generic PC platforms is Vioso. Founder and CEO, Benjamin Fritsch points out that it was not an easy task to develop a company with this philosophy: “We have always been a software company and projector vendors that they expected hardware. Integrators objected that they could perform the tasks manually. There was also a widespread belief at the time that software was not stable. This situation has completely changed over the last few years. They are all returning and talking about the need for digital solutions.”

Many modern installations take advantage of mobile devices to provide a convenient control and management interface for equipment; often linked to external services like room booking systems, personal presence detectors and building management systems. As a consequence, manufacturers need to provide an interface mechanism to enable their devices to interact and relate to a variety of smart devices.

Walter outlines the effect this is having on NEC’s activities: “Apps such as those used for media playback in our modular and fully embeddable computing devices, are becoming more important. It is vital to be able to respond to diverse demands from the market, this is why we are working on and delivering apps for Windows, iOS, Android, Linux as well as Raspbian, depending on the need. Whilst Windows and iOS are still dominant in the office world; Linux, Raspbian and Android are well-established operating systems for digital signage and display applications.

“However, we don’t only focus on our own products in order to respond to this demand. Our collaboration with Raspberry Pi, which provides computing integration within our large format LCD units, demonstrates how we seek out strategic partnerships within the industry including computing and digital signage software manufacturers.”

David Margolin, VP marketing for Kramer, says: “Historically, AV product manufacturers have invested heavily in creating individual hardware devices with less spent on software, but this situation is beginning to change. We are experiencing a move towards consolidation of several systems on single devices, which is, of course, creating a demand for software engineers to work in the AV industry. AV is becoming less reliant on hardware as it is switched, processed and manipulated in software. The boundaries between devices are becoming less defined as powerful PCs form the platform for this processing effort.”

This has led to a set of benefits: a single hardware platform can be configured in a variety of ways to meet individual applications, making it simpler for integrators to procure and configure systems. As user requirements grow and change, new services and upgrades can then be added by extending the range of software packages on the computer without the need for additional hardware, or, in many cases, a site visit; simply by licensing and installing new modules.

As video distribution follows audio onto IP local networks and then migrates onto the cloud, the situation is likely to become even more hazy. It will have consequences on those active in the AV sector.

Margolin says: “AV is no longer a local service performed by discrete boxes integrated together. It is changing the industry. In a few years AV delivery will migrate even more to the IT domain and will come under the ownership of IT departments with dispersed and cloud processing of signals in much the same way that the cloud-hosted Office 365 suite has taken over local processing of business packages. We are already seeing this in video conferencing systems that use remote platforms such as Skype and BlueJeans.”

Fritsch believes: “I see the future in software with smart and AV-optimised IT-infrastructure hardware. Larger companies will follow this road and, as in every digitisation process, there will ultimately be fewer, more dominant, large companies, together with a lot of smaller companies focusing on special requirements and creative solutions.”

Margolin also thinks that there will be a shift in the skillsets needed to deliver AV services in the future: “In the same way that videoconferencing has evolved, AV will ultimately require a different, more IT-centric approach. It is also interesting to note that videoconferencing and collaboration systems make use of cheaper, more readily- affordable components, like webcams, supplemented by intelligent programming and artificial intelligence to achieve the same level of quality as expensive systems of a few years ago. This trend will probably affect the AV industry, causing further impact and upheaval within the industry.”

Despite these future predictions, the AV industry is going to rely on a combination of hardware-based and software- based solutions for some time yet. Emerging technologies will continue to push traditional product boundaries while the deployment of systems will be enhanced by better tools and better analytics.

The pro AV industry of the future will be led by companies that respond best to the demands that end users make. These will not be single-solution companies, but full-service providers covering all hardware and software demands that deliver the most complete and secure solutions possible.