It’s been about a year since the last time I thought about where AV programming is headed. The world was a different place then. COVID-19 has caused the shutting down of shared workplaces, diminishing the need for complicated spaces even further than before. What’s a programmer in the AV industry to do?
This is what I’ve been hearing the most since our work lifestyle has changed:
- Touchless Control
- Virtual Offices
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Aside from learning that a holodeck sounds cool in theory (Augmented Reality is going to try to kill you or steal your ship), barking orders at a computer came pretty naturally. At any moment you could request “Computer!” and the ship’s computer would chime that it was listening for a command. We’ve seen this idea materialize in Apple’s Siri, OK Google, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Cortana was a feature in Windows 10 that I immediately turned off due to her popping up unexpectedly when my young children would babble loudly near the computer. Oh well, like all technology, it’s not perfect.
I’m a programmer, so I cringe at interfaces that don’t involve a full keyboard. But even I’ve accepted that there are environments where some other type of control is preferred, even necessary. Someone texts you while driving? Respond with a voice text using Siri. Handling raw meat but need the next step in a recipe? “Hey Google.” Ready to start your video conference? Ask Cortana to start the meeting while you’re getting your laptop setup. I’m surprised I was never asked to add some type of voice commands to a control system, but maybe it wasn’t necessary until now.
Something Crestron has introduced recently is CrestronOne. You basically create an alternate menu-based interface that can be downloaded to an app on someone’s phone. This allows them to control a system from their personal phone instead of the touchpanel in the room. I haven’t used it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something we sell sometime this year. The idea is neat, but it feels like something that should eventually evolve into an open standard that works across different platforms. I should be able to use the same app to control a system, whether it’s AMX, Crestron, or Extron. Having something that can respond to standard messages like “system on” or “dial video call” will become one of those hooks that more easily connects users to the equipment in the room.
Keep an eye on touchless control. It will be an important feature in shared spaces, mostly because it gives users a stronger connection to the space they’re in.
Also due to COVID, many people have now opted to work from home. Some companies view this as a permanent split from the traditional office, but I think the culture of working together face-to-face is going to persist and we’re always going to need some type of shared space to fall back on. Let me share how my company has evolved over time to adopt a more virtual presence while still catering to the in-person needs.
When I started at my current company 11 years ago, if I wasn’t working in the field, I was costing the company money. If I was at a customer site, I was contributing directly to the bottom line. This idea persisted for a while. It meant I was constantly traveling across the country for my job. I probably traveled 50% of the time away from home. This definitely prompted me to keep my ear to the ground about other opportunities.
And then, we were bought out. The culture changed. I briefly left the company but came back. I traveled 25% of the time now, utilizing TeamViewer for the other 25% when I would have normally been on-site. I still worked out of an office most of the time, but occasionally would work from home if I needed to shift my hours for some reason.
And then we were bought out again. The culture changed more. Now I travel maybe 5% of the time and utilize TeamViewer for at least 50% of the work I do. I could potentially work from anywhere as long as the Internet connection is good enough. I’ve transitioned to working mostly from home.
But I still find myself going into the office every now and then. I used to have a decent lab environment setup there, so I told myself that was the reason for going in (that lab has since been moved into my home office due to COVID). There’s definitely an attraction to going into the office, seeing coworkers regularly, having idle conversations in the middle of the day completely unrelated to work. Now that we’ve all migrated home, those conversations have died down, but the need to have them is still there.
So while I think people working virtually this year is a huge deal and has boosted everyone to embrace video conferencing, I think we’ll eventually settle on an even split between people working in the office and from elsewhere. And when those people need to meet, video conferencing spaces will still be important. So don’t worry that AV is going away, it’s not. And I think programmers who work the Residential markets will continue to be in demand since people will want to improve their setups at home.
The latest mantra in the corporate world is diversify, a good indication that being solely an AV programmer isn’t an option for much longer. In reality, this is the continuation of IT swallowing up AV. I’ve been worried about the future of AV programming for years. Have I chosen a dead-end career?
Under an “AV” lens, I may have judged a system based on its capabilities and complexity. This would undoubtedly be something custom, something I would be on-site with technicians for a week getting the programming ironed out. It would have a lot of wow factor and bring value to the customer by being easy to use so that the space is used often. I’d say this approach puts quality first.
But under an “IT” lens, I need to judge a system based on its consistency and simplicity. The biggest concern is that the system works reliably and doesn’t create support tickets. We accept that the system isn’t customized to the environment it’s in because we value feature conformity with many other rooms. I’d say this approach puts quantity first.
Neither approach is “wrong” but they are different. In the IT world, it is crucial to have a consistent framework and responsive UI that can adapt to slight equipment substitutions. You won’t have the luxury of dialing each system in since that would invest too much programmer time into one space. We’ve commoditized programming, and many manufacturers have aiding that by creating systems that lend themselves to configuration instead of programming. Configuration lands squarely in the IT world. Even in a world of configuration, programmers are still valuable assets. It may not happen as frequently now, but when you do need a system with customized features, you’re going to need a programmer that can implement them. Good luck getting Cisco or Polycom to customize their products for one customer. And if you want to live ahead of the curve, you’ll need a programmer that can bring your ideas to life.
Learning a new programming language or environment isn’t difficult, and becoming proficient in one just means you’re using it and thinking in it every day. I imagine many AV programmers fitting into DevOps when not engaged on strictly AV projects. You may have to write more throwaway scripts than you’re used to, but the skill sets seem to align quite well. And now that HTML5 is a reality, programmers who are more design conscious may land toward web development. The salaries in either of those directions are typically better than what we see in AV.
So keep an open mind if you’re told to diversify, there are plenty of opportunities out there that need those programmer skills. Good luck in 2021!