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AV Takes Control

On March 29, 2008, 370 cities participated in Earth Hour. In many cases, that meant sending employees to each room to turn off light switches. There's a better way. Why stop at just screen and sound? AV pros look for new business by automating clients' lighting and HVAC systems, too.

Credit: Courtesy AMX

ON MARCH 29, 2008, 370 CITIES around the world participated in Earth Hour, during which consumers and companies used as little electricity as possible. For large enterprises, the major challenge was turning off lights, shutting down displays, and adjusting thermostats in hundreds or thousands of rooms. In many cases, that meant sending employees to each room to flip switches.

Crazy as that sounds, some enterprises do just that the other 8,759 hours in a year.

One Fortune 500 company used to manage its AV equipment by having a staff of four drive to all 16 of its offices every weekday to ensure everything was up and running. To Richardson, Texas-based AMX, that didn't seem like an efficient way to manage an AV infrastructure, so it pitched the company on its Resource Management Suite product, which lets users remotely monitor and manage AV and other devices from a central location.

"Now [the company] can put those resources on other things because these guys aren't driving from building to building to make sure that the projector bulb still works and that the screen still comes down," says Robert Noble, AMX's chief technology officer.

Efficiency can be measured in other ways, too, creating opportunities for AV professionals. For instance, the same system used to remotely monitor AV devices could be used to dim the lights slightly or adjust the temperature a few degrees to trigger a discounted rate from the electric company. The company reduces its energy consumption and, in the case of new construction and major remodels, possibly meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) benchmarks ( Such benefits are driving AV pros to consider systems that link AV, lighting, and HVAC, among other systems. After all, they already know best how to build the systems that control AV equipment. Why not branch out into whole-building automation?

"We had somebody tell us the other day, 'Anything that I can put into my building that's going to save me energy or money, I'll spend the money today,'" Noble says.


Systems that put AV gear under the same control as other infrastructure span a wide variety of environments, from individual museum displays to an entire office building or campus. The common denominator is that they all often require knowledge of non-AV technologies and protocols, such as Building Automation and Control Network (BACnet), which was developed by the AmericanSociety of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers [see "At a Glance: Control Protocols," end of article].

One type of control is "macro" systems, where the user sets a series of pre-programmed actions in motion by pressing a button or triggering a sensor.

"For example, an exhibit at the Federal Reserve Bank educates visitors about the security features found in a hundred dollar bill," says Glenn Polly, owner of VideoSonic, a New York City-based integrator. "A button labeled 'press to start' activates the audio narration, which begins by informing the visitor that there are several security features and describes the special paper the bill is printed on. Four seconds into the narration, a showcase containing a sheet of blank paper illuminates." Over the next 2.5 minutes, more lights go on and off to spotligh other parts of the bill as they're discussed.

"To prevent the visitor from re-triggering the sequence during the show, the push button is deactivated," Polly says. "This is accomplishedby employing another relay in the controller that disengages the push button switch's contacts for 2 minutes and 31 secondsthe duration of the show. This is a good example of how simple or complex intelligent logic programming can be accomplished with 'dumb' analog devices."

Another example is a conference room, where the presenter hits just one buttonon a touch panel to automatically lower the shades and screen, dim the lights, lower the speed of the HVAC blower, turn on the projector, and launch the presentation.

"Controls over light dimming systems are quite common, [but] HVAC control is not," says Darren Cheshier, CTS-D, an engineer at Conference Technologies, a St. Louis-based integrator. "Usually if they already have a dimming system and we are putting in a control system, we will control the lights. Motorized drapes and shades are quite common also."


No matter how it's defined, many vendors and integrators say that the control market is already a significant opportunity.

"It's exploding," says Randy Klein, executive vice president at Rockleigh, N.J.-based Crestron Electronics. "There are no verticals. There are only horizontals. It's in every market in every sector."

But some integrators see differences in interest and willingness to pay, often based on the space itself.

"Mostly boardrooms get these types of [AV and lighting] controls, but most conference rooms do not," Cheshier says. "It's usually the high-finish spaces. We also see this type of control for scripted presentation facilities. I think this type of control will continue to increase as people see them as standard and not as a luxury."

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls also sees differences in market opportunities.

"Owner-occupied office facilities and high-end retail are prime commercial opportunities, while the home automation market is generally thought to be ready to take off as soon as we get out of the construction slump," says Terry Hoffmann, director of BAS marketing for the company's building efficiency business division.

Another factor that can affect an enterprise's interest is the age of its existing AV, lighting, and HVAC equipment. Older gear often lacks the interfaces necessary to be connected to a network. If the hardware still works fine, the enterprise might not be receptive to replacing it. They also may not be willing to spring for the cost of labor and materials to link all the devicesin a room or building. In those cases, short-range wireless technologies, such as Zig-Bee, may provide a low-cost alternative.

"It is much easier to control legacy devices with a simple plug-in device that communicates over the air than having to wire them," Hoffmann says.

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