Commissioning In Pro AV
Typically in discussing the quality of an AV system, we first talk about the quality of the image or the audio or the usability of the control system interface ? all of which are important. But a more vital element of the quality of a system is its ability to meet the needs of its end-users.
HOW DO we know when a pro AV system is “good?” More importantly, how do we know when it's “good enough?” Is the image large enough and bright enough? Is the lighting helping or hurting the image? Is the audio good? Can the presenter be heard and clearly understood? Can the end-users control the system intuitively? Does the system work?
Typically in discussing the quality of an AV system, we first talk about the quality of the image or the audio or the usability of the control system interface — all of which are important. But a more vital element of the quality of a system is its ability to meet the needs of its end-users.
What happens when we get to the end of a project and the end-users feel that the system isn't adequate? Is it because the image isn't large enough or the lighting washes out it out? Or is it because two images were really needed, but only one was provided?
One is more of a technical issue, while the other is a user-needs issue. The criteria for the users' needs are based on information gathered in the program phase where needs were assessed at the beginning of the project. The technical issues aren't quite as clear.
Links in the chain
The process of meeting the users' needs in an AV project can be thought of as a circular path that starts with the users' needs and ends with the users' AV system. It's what happens along the way that determines how well the system produced in the end meets the needs that were established in the beginning. The course of this process resembles a chain. The circle can only be successfully completed if the links in the process or chain are sufficiently linked from beginning to end. As you might expect, the weakest link can cause the chain to break.
The AV project cycle starts and ends with the end-users. Their needs drive the design from which the system is built. At the end of the cycle, the system is turned over to the end-users. If all goes well, the system meets the users' needs both in terms of its functionality and performance.
Within this chain are three overall links: the end-users and their needs, the AV designers and their documents, and the AV installers and their system installation. Each must sufficiently make the connection from one step to the next for the AV system to be successful.
As a part of the first link, we first need to determine what the end-users need to do. If the end users' needs aren't sufficiently communicated, the process will be doomed from the start. This may happen because the organization didn't allow the “real” end-users to participate in the needs-analysis process, or it might be that the end-users don't yet exist, such as in a startup organization. It could also be that the AV designer didn't properly perform the program phase to determine the information in the first place.
Once the needs are established, the AV designer translates these needs into a set of documents that describes the system and its infrastructure. The creation of these documents forms the second link. When a consultant is involved, the documentation for the electronics might be a bid package consisting of specifications and drawings. In a design-build scenario, the result may just be a set of design drawings given to the installation team.
Next, the integrator's installation team uses the design documents to assemble and install the third link: the AV system. At the end of the process, the system is turned on, checked out, and turned over to the end-users who started the whole process, thus completing the AV project cycle.
In the end, the big question is this: How do we know the process was successful? Hopefully, we can say that we've met our ultimate goal: The end-users are happy. But what if they aren't? How do we know and document that the end-user's needs were correctly communicated, that the design met those needs, and that the installation met that design? In a word: commissioning.
Commissioning is the process of verifying that these three links hold together — a practice that has been woefully lacking in the AV industry. In principle, the concept is very simple. It can be summarized in three basic questions:
- Does the AV design conform to the end-users' needs?
- Does the AV installation conform to the system design?
- Have the end-users' needs been met?
Having a third party or internal AV team answer these questions is the essence of what commissioning should be for our industry. It encompasses how well the installation was completed according to the design, how well the process transported the users' needs from concept to working reality, and how well the system actually works.
What's “good enough?”
The commissioning process focuses on tying users' needs to the system design, and tying the system design to the system installation. However, an important aspect of this process is to determine criteria to evaluate system design and performance on a technical level. It's one thing to verify that the users' functional needs are included in the design, but it's another to verify that it really works.
An example of this would be a user who teaches software programming. As a part of this function, computer code in the form of text needs to be displayed in a classroom environment. We can verify at the end of the process that there's a video display that can accept the computer video to be viewed, but how do we confirm that it works and that students can read the screen other than by subjective evaluation?
What we need is an objective standard by which to evaluate AV system performance, including the minimum contrast ratio of an image and the maximum acceptable keystoning parameters, as well as standard audio, acoustic, and lighting requirements. These could perhaps help to avoid the quagmire at the end of projects when the key parties involved — the end-users, the AV designer, and the AV integrator — don't agree on whether the system is good enough.
Coming to an agreement on these standards won't be easy, and developing the basis for these standards will require a multifaceted effort starting with technical best practices that can be used as the foundation. Consultants, manufacturers, integrators, and end-users will all need to participate. This effort will ultimately pay off because developing standards and embracing the commissioning process will help raise the pro AV industry to a higher level, and in turn, help us become better integrated and accepted within the building design and construction industry.
Tim Cape is a contributing editor for Pro AV, the principal consultant for Atlanta-based technology consulting firm Technitect LLC, and co-author of “AV Best Practices,” published by InfoComm International. He's the current chairman of InfoComm's ICAT consultant's council, and an instructor and presenter in AV technology design and management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.