This article originally appeared int he April 2019 issue of Professional Sound.
By Andrew King
Continuing convergence with IT. Network-streamed media. Ultra-high-resolution displays.
The commercial audiovisual market has long benefitted from a rapid rate of innovation and evolution, though with each passing year, it seems its pace is quickening. For stakeholders at every level of the market, keeping up with technological progress and overall industry trends is increasingly challenging. It’s not only a matter of monitoring those changes, but also determining how they can enhance the capability, efficiency, or return on investment in a specific application.
In the fall of 2017, after a decade operating as a division within Mulvey & Banani International Inc. as a subsidiary company, Mulvey & Banani Audio Visual Inc. (MBAV) was launched and Gregory Rushton was appointed as its VP.
MBAV designs systems of audiovisual technologies and tools for a user experience based on the desired functionality and integration with the human interface: equipment, furniture, lighting, controls, and software platforms.
Here, Rushton joins us for an overview of today’s commercial AV market, and shares some insights into some of the technologies and trends that are starting to shape its future direction.
[Méga Parc in Quebec City]
Professional Sound: First off, how have things been going for you and MBAV since you launched as a separate division of Mulvey & Banani International in late 2017? Any standout or particularly unique projects you’d like to highlight?
Gregory Rushton: Things are going great. We’re constantly growing, which indicates what the market is doing right now. In terms of projects to highlight, not only have we been doing a lot of commercial projects, but we’ve been active with more specialty entertainment spaces such as Cineplex Rec Rooms and Méga Parc in Quebec City.
PS: How do those two kinds of projects differ in terms of your general approach?
GR: In entertainment, we focus on bridging the gap between what’s available in the consumer realm and what’s viable in the commercial world... Take iPads and wireless screen sharing, for example – this was mainstream in residential before we saw similar technology adoptions in the commercial world. With specialty entertainment projects, there is more focus on technology, whereas in the commercial world, architectural integration is key. They’re both challenging in their own right; it’s great to exercise your brain with different options on different projects.
PS: Let’s talk technology. Whether it’s an entirely new category or a new development for something longstanding, which technological development of the past 1-2 years has had the greatest impact on your or your firm’s work of late and why?
GR: Network-streamed media is definitely a big one, as is direct-view LED. We’ve found that both have interesting adoption rates, whether due to cost, or due to familiarity. Another area that we as the group of Mulvey & Banani companies are working together on is building intelligence – we’ve dubbed it BI. Electrical, lighting, lighting controls, IT, security, AV, and mechanical systems are converged and tied together over a single network for multi-system monitoring and control. Additionally, there are many opportunities to integrate all these systems with end-user technologies, services, and apps.
[Gregory Rushton, VP of MBAV]
PS: Immersive experiences and, by extension, AR and VR have been major topics at industry events like InfoComm and ISE in recent years. Are some of these concepts and technologies starting to seep into your work, or perhaps even just into the market’s overall direction that you’ve experienced? Why or why not?
GR: They’re certainly starting to. There are a few sectors that seem to be ahead of others in terms of adoption. Design is one sector that is getting heavily invested in virtual and augmented reality. Healthcare is another sector where we are seeing these concepts being adopted in treatment and surgery simulation labs.
PS: In Canada, are we at the leading edge of that in terms of the companies working with and integrating that kind of technology and the applications taking advantage of it?
GR: On the market side, we’re certainly not on the “bleeding edge,” but you could say we are on the “leading edge.” I wouldn’t call these technologies as a whole mainstream at this point. The majority of our projects don’t include AR or VR, but it’s certainly on the uptake and definitely being driven by the entertainment side. A lot of high-end attractions, whether it’s at The Shard in London or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, serve as draws for general consumers to come in. On the commercial level, that draw doesn’t exist to the same degree. In the everyday operation of firms, it may be a value add, but it’s not necessarily going to directly equate to ROI.
There are many projects where MBAV has come up with incredible ideas and concepts with virtual or augmented reality, but are sadly value-engineered out; however, in those cases, there’s often a caveat to ensure the design allows it to easily be added later.
[Remai Modern art museum in Saskatoon, SK]
PS: With InfoComm 2019 being right around the corner, I’m curious as to the various ways that you and your team keep pace with tech developments and the overall direction of the industry. Thinking of things like trade shows and conferences, manufacturer-driven education opportunities, etc., have any of those means become more or less relevant or effective in recent years?
GR: CES is one show that we follow. We have a Twitter feed running on screens in the office throughout the show and even though we don’t attend, CES is a forecaster of what’s to come in the commercial world. A lot of people purchasing products that show at CES are running major companies and want to see it in their boardrooms. We need to be versed to say, “Yes, you can have it,” or, “No, it isn’t recommended, and here’s why…”
We’re at InfoComm every year. What we find is that many of our clients are starting to go to these shows and it’s great to take them around and show them technologies first-hand, and give them a concierge-type service of the AV industry over the course of a couple of days.
We don’t take a lot of meetings on the show floor anymore; we just go see what’s out there, because there are a lot of exhibitors in small 10 x 10 booths with very interesting and viable products. To continue to be on top of our game and at the forefront of development, we need to be aware of all of these things.
We are seeing the InfoComm Show dwindle a bit in terms of value for us, only because we’re seeing a lot more trends or product releases coming out of ISE. Many more trend developments are coming out of Europe, whether on the environmental side or mass-notification side because, generally, codes are more stringent there; this drives faster product development.
There are some other outliers – the Digital Signage Expo and some other industry-specific shows we follow. There are also keynotes; Apple’s keynote is always interesting to follow since they have such a loyal base, and it directly affects what we need to integrate – for example, they were an early adopter of DisplayPort.
PS: Can you tell me about your process of going from being introduced to a new product or technology and recognizing its potential as a solution to being familiar enough with its capabilities and confident enough in its performance that you can fold it into your work and stand behind it?
GR: New products and new technologies are very different things, though the approach is somewhat similar.
When new products are brought to our attention from firms we know intimately and have a lot of trust in, we can hedge a little and utilize their resources to prove that something’s going to work on our behalf. We can have them vet our design if it’s our first time implementing a product. Almost guaranteed, every new product or technology we plan to spec, we are very hands-on. Just last week, we got a new product from a manufacturer that’s been on our watch list for a while. This particular product was an HDbasedT transport, but also dealt with a lot of USB and alternate video formats that aren’t common in the marketplace yet but will be. We got our hands on it and just tested all sorts of different things on it. We came up with our pros and cons of the product, and keep that on file.
When we’re considering a product, we look at the pros and cons for a particular project. In this case, one of the cons was that USB-C is great for doing video and everything, but it didn’t charge your device. That’s a con; it’s not ideal, but certainly isn’t a deal breaker for all projects.
We comb through the technical specs, trying different frame rates and resolutions. Frankly, we try to break it and put it through the rigors we expect it to go through, and see what happens. Even simple things, like how long it takes to power up after it’s unplugged.
With audio specifically, it’s a bit different. You really need to hear it! If you’re just looking for a general low-budget paging speaker, there are plenty of them out there, so you know generally where the quality is going to be and don’t need to do an overly intense test on it with sweeps and measurement equipment like you would in a critical listening environment. There’s a bit of subjectivity there in terms of putting into perspective what the product is going to be used for. Ultimately, we’re not evaluating the product as a product; we’re evaluating it for a specific application in a project.
In terms of technologies, that’s a whole different ballgame. We find newer technologies are very manufacturer-specific. Although it may not be a proprietary technology, it often starts that way, like with early adopters of Dante or AVB, where, yes, it’s out there, but there’s no real solution start to finish. You’re not really evaluating the technology or product for the job; you’re evaluating the whole ecosystem, and in many cases, not every component in that ecosystem is where it needs to be.
With things now being more IT-based as well, we’re having to vet things from a security and management standpoint. So in some cases, we’ll have clients that take a product and try to hack it over six months to a year with their internal teams. This is a very real thing that our industry needs to get used to and comfortable with. As we become more IT-based and network-reliant, these products will be going through rigorous testing with security firms, whether it’s internal to the company or an external testing firm, and we’ve dealt with both, numerous times. Cyber security and management needs to be discussed upfront because it can significantly affect timelines and budgets.
[Cineplex Rec Room in Edmonton]
PS: Some major manufacturers and distributors have been increasingly focused on vertical or turnkey solutions for integrators of late, offering several brands or product series designed to integrate well with one another and simplify the channels of communication, sourcing, etc. Has this trend had any kind of impact on your work lately?
GR: There are many facets to this development. First, we absolutely have non-biased designs; we’re not affiliated with anyone and choose the best products for the project on each individual product level. That being said, there are some clients that do benefit from partnerships or alliances to have everything under one roof. Quick timeline projects, for instance, that need to have one point of contact and an entire shipment for a certain date, benefit from this type of procurement.
We’re still finding that most contractors are staying true to what we specify and tender. We don’t solid-spec anything unless it’s a specific client request, so for every product, there’s the one we designed around, and then the two or three other manufacturers that we’re willing to accept.
I suspect that, based on what we’re seeing in the lighting industry, we’ll start to get package deals from manufacturers and distributors, because every manufacturer has a typical downlight and a recessed linear fixture, for instance, or other core staples. In the AV industry, we have run-of-the-mill recessed in-ceiling loudspeakers from many manufacturers or, say, standard wireless mic solutions. For presentation purposes, you could have a Shure, Sennheiser, AKG, Lectrosonics – they’re all going to do what you need them to do, generally. I suspect that, at some point, distributors are going to start putting these types of packages together.
PS: We’ve also seen an ongoing rise in increasingly sophisticated technologies offering control through increasingly simple interfaces – basic touchscreens, iOS integration, etc. Is that actively affecting your approach to projects?
GR: It’s definitely a challenge, and there’s a new aspect in the marketplace making it even more difficult, such as third parties like Microsoft with Teams or Skype for Business. That interface is locked down, so whether you have it on a Crestron or your actual Windows PC, they’re really trying to define and control that experience, which is fine with a standalone Microsoft solution. When you start integrating this into room combining with multiple screens and audio conferencing and other aspects of the traditional integrated experience, it starts to cause challenges. Now your workflow is different. You have a defined workflow you can’t change, and then whether it’s Crestron or AMX or any number of systems out there, you have a pallet you can manipulate. For a good user experience, you’re often locked down to mimicking the Microsoft interface. It’s interesting these third-party players are affecting the pallets that were made available to us from the likes of Crestron, and then we’re told, “You can do anything you want, but you have to do this portion – Skype for instance – a prescribed way.” That’s a very interesting challenge.
Companies like Microsoft can change this dynamic overnight. With a simple update, suddenly the experience is different, or with a migration from Skype for Business to Teams, the experience is changed. It’s very interesting in this regard as to how we’re going to adapt and deal with that side.
I think the AV industry as a whole got a bit of a stain when it came to the user experience in the past, because things were being programmed by technical people. Along with that came the ability to have breakaway audio and video and very complex control systems where a techie could do anything they wanted, but typical users were left confused.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Sound