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Why AV Standards Matter
Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper
Date: December 2011
Recently, Thom Mullins, CTS®, chair of InfoComm International®’s Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology Council and leader of the AV design group at Seattle-based Affiliated Engineers, told this story about a system he was working on:
“In the owner-review comments of a recent project was written the following,” Mullins says. “‘Please attempt to include and/or reference industry-standard testing procedures. Some of the adjustment and testing procedures included in this section appear to be somewhat subjective. What defines an acceptable result versus a non-acceptable result?’ Fortunately, I was able to direct the owner to the System Performance Requirements portion of our specifications, which ties acceptable results to solid numbers. He appeared to have missed that part and instead focused on the testing and adjustment process. Once he put both sections together, his heart was at rest.”
As Mullins describes it, this kind of back-and-forth represents “a slow but steady change in our clients.” Part of it has to do with a decade-long transformation of the client himself — from an end user of AV systems to, in many cases, a facility manager or even a chief technology officer. “And although an AV pro may be skeptical of [this transformation], it’s only accelerating,” Mullins explains. “And their key issues — security, bandwidth and up-time — must be our key issues. Of these issues, up-time is vital to our client’s trust in the work we do as designers and integrators. It requires a shift in thinking about how systems are designed, installed and operated."
In almost every market where they’re used, audiovisual systems have evolved from “nice-to-have” toys to business-critical systems — to the benefit of the entire AV industry. As a result, AV design and installation practices have received more scrutiny from those responsible for acquiring and operating the systems. The good news is, greater scrutiny moves the AV professional higher in the client queue. The bad news is (and it doesn’t have to be bad news), AV pros have to be prepared to face tougher questioning. “Far too often, their questions belie concerns over whether the AV systems will be ready on time, function properly, or require too much support from outside their company,” Mullins says.
And that’s why AV standards matter. Now, the industry at large needs to buy into the idea.
“Development and implementation of AV standards will help us gain credibility with our clients, who use standards on a daily basis in the design and deployment of their communications and data networks,” says Mullins. “When we can point to a standard, or ask them if they would like us to design to a standard, their trust in our systems and our capabilities will grow. When we reference standards in our Basis of Design or Programming Narrative, and when we insist that the integrator install and test the systems in accordance with these standards, our knowledge and work become more valuable to them. In many ways, we become a trusted guide helping them to navigate their business.”
A Good Thing
Ask an AV consultant or systems integrator what they think about standards for AV systems and the general consensus is that standards are a good thing. After all, AV is a $75 billion industry that works closely with IT and construction — industries that readily accept standards as a way of life. It makes sense that, as AV technologies and design techniques grow and mature, a governing body would put benchmarks in place as quantitative proof of a system’s performance.
InfoComm recognized the need for standards and invested in a years-long journey to achieve accreditation as a Standards Developing Organization (SDO) by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 2008. InfoComm has published three approved standards: ANSI/INFOCOMM 1M-2009 Audio Coverage Uniformity in Enclosed Listener Areas (ACU), 2M-2010 Standard Guide for Audiovisual Systems Design and Coordination Processes, and 3M-2011 Projected Image Contrast Ratio. Gradually, the standards are showing up in new projects, but the education process has only just begun.
“Early industry feedback was that standards will ruin the creativity of the designer and make it so that anyone could design a system,” says Joseph Bocchiaro III, Ph.D., CStd, CTS-D, CTS-I, vice president of the InfoComm Standards and Industry Innovations Program. “We’ve had to conduct education and outreach because of the confusion over standards. They are not a map that anyone can follow to create an AV system.”
Bocchiaro says that the biggest source of confusion has been the difference between a technology or product standard and a system performance standard. InfoComm’s standards are the latter, whereas IT standards are often the former.
“InfoComm standards are mostly performance standards that address how people experience AV in a venue. They consider technology, physiology and architecture,” Bocchiaro explains. “Most IT standards are technical, interoperability standards. We use a lot of them in AV for media streaming, videoconferencing, networking, etc.”
Another source of confusion is over what, exactly, an InfoComm performance standard should include. Some AV professionals have read the published standards and concluded they don’t go far enough. But that has to do with the way standards must be crafted and developed. Bocchiaro says ANSI, ISO and other third-party accredited standards are consensus-based documents that are required to represent a balanced perspective – not just for the good of the industry, but also to comply with ANSI or other standards-body rules.
“Standards are meant to be easily understood so that anyone can use common, simple test equipment to find measurable results,” Bocchiaro adds. “The standards are vetted by hundreds of people involved in the program and then the standards go to public review. Anyone in the industry can make comments and suggestions for improvement.”
Richard Derbyshire, partner at AV consulting firm Shen Milsom & Wilke (SMW) and chairman of the Standards Steering Committee, says, “If a standard addresses all issues, then it becomes incredibly complicated and difficult to test. We want to encourage the use of standards, not discourage it. Therefore, each standard defines a specific measurement.”
The question becomes, then, when will AV professionals begin incorporating InfoComm standards in earnest?
“To my knowledge there are only a handful of consultants and end users that are requiring the standards at this point,” says Jeffrey Lipp, CTS, president of Lipp AV Design and a member of InfoComm’s Standards Steering Committee. “There are really two main issues that are holding back widespread adaptation of the new InfoComm standards: public relations and long construction timelines.”
Some AV professionals haven’t heard of the standards and are surprised they even exist. “Once there is more widespread knowledge of the standards, it should be very common to see AV consultants require systems to meet the design standards and require conformance forms from the contractor,” Lipp says.
Plus, Lipp adds, it may take a while for standards to slip into the project pipeline. After all, the schedule for new construction projects can stretch for years. The consultant on a project being built today may have designed the AV systems two or three years before the standards were produced. It is too late to specify conformity to a standard during construction. “It will just take some time for this process to catch up,” he says.
Derbyshire has included the ACU standard in only a few projects over the past two years. He says that including a new standard in a design is more complex than just dropping boilerplate language into a specification, citing the stringent Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) MasterFormat standard the majority of AV consultants use.
The Long View
So while it may take some time for InfoComm standards to make their way into more real-world projects, the long-term view of standards adoption is one that addresses AV’s seat at the project-team table. “As a system designer in the design phase of any project, there are meetings and collaboration with the architect,” says Lipp. “Sometimes architects don't like to make any compromises to properly integrate our AV technology. Now, when I walk into a design meeting in an architect's office, I'm carrying the weight of the entire AV industry. All I need to do is reference a standard.”
InfoComm is developing many more ANSI standards, including the Audiovisual Systems Energy Management standard and the Videoconference Lighting standard. The ACU standard will be one part of a much larger Amplified Audio System Performance Standards Suite, which is currently in development.
Derbyshire says that InfoComm’s committees are always looking to learn and refine their processes to better serve the industry. For example, InfoComm has started to publish guides to using standards, such as the ACU Design Guide and ACU Field Guide, which sold out at InfoComm 2011 in Orlando. A companion design guide for the Projected Image standard is also in the works. “The standards process requires tiny steps,” says Derbyshire.” We are not at the destination yet, just at the beginning of the journey. This process needs a fairly long gestation period. We'll see more evidence of success in maybe a couple more years.”
Moreover, every ANSI standard must be renewed every five years, so the reaffirmation and review process starts again for ACU in 2013. At that point, the AV industry will once again have the chance to provide feedback during public review.
Overall, Bocchiaro thinks standards adoption will mimic the way AV professionals have embraced InfoComm’s Certified Technology Specialist™ (CTS) certification program. “It was slow going for a while and then end users started asking for certified designers and installers,” he says. “We have to stay focused on the big picture and remember that, as leaders in the industry, you need standards to point us to the past as well as into the future.”
For more information about InfoComm standards, including links for acquiring the standards themselves, visit the standards page. To learn about what using standards can do for your business, visit StandardsBoostBusiness.org.
Freelance AV writer Linda-Seid Frembes contributed to this article.