IT/AV

Why Meta-Convergence Matters

Microsoft HoloLens augmented-reality headset in use aboard the ISS, as part of Project Sidekick.

The fusion of audio, video and data networks has enabled us to create innovative solutions that address the pressing communication needs of today’s users. If we are to respond to the needs of tomorrow, we need to integrate such emerging technologies as augmented reality, 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI) and crowdsourcing into our designs, workflow and strategic thinking. There are many levels of meta-convergent solutions, from the simple combination of different appliances for a new use, to the use of bleeding-edge materials technologies in one field for the creation of new products in a different area.

When using the term “meta-convergence solutions,” I’m referring to products and solutions that are a combination of technologies that are already the result of prior convergence. A simple example of this phenomenon is the use of a connected tablet to preview streaming content and control of AV/IT systems.

Not Science Fiction

Science fiction has been a perennial source of ideas for convergent solutions, ideas that often lay dormant until their enabling technologies were ready for prime time. Arthur C. Clarke’s detailed plan for geosynchronous communication satellite systems had to wait 18-plus years before we could be blessed with CNN, worldwide reality shows and celebrity Twitter wars. After decades of progress in a dozen disciplines, the “Mirror-Shades” foreseen by William Gibson have just recently emerged into reality as Microsoft HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. These headsets are currently being used by NASA aboard the ISS and on Earth as part of Project Sidekick, to develop more effective training and remote support for astronauts.

The Apple Watch and its ilk are also examples of meta-convergence that had to wait for multiple technologies to mature before they could be realized. Combining ordinary watch functions with phone capabilities, messaging, remote healthcare, fitness, voice recognition, Bluetooth and internet connectivity, these meta-convergent devices could only be realized when cellular data networks, microprocessors, memory and a dozen other technologies came of age. Eat your heart out, Dick Tracy!

D-Tools System Integrator 2016 uses a cloud-based infrastructure to streamline the complex workflow of collaborative system design, estimation and project management.
D-Tools System Integrator 2016 uses a cloud-based infrastructure to streamline the complex workflow of collaborative system design, estimation and project management.

Breaking It Down

Here are some steps I’ve found useful over several decades of working with teams in several organizations to develop, design and deploy convergent products and solutions:

  • Identify a specific need that is not being satisfied by current solutions, whether it has been expressed by specific users, or is something you’ve experienced yourself.
  • Look at a broad range of potentially convergent technologies and tools that might be combined in useful new ways to satisfy this need.
  • After you’ve identified potential “main ingredients” for your solution, develop a clear idea of the software or hardware “glue” required to make them work together in the desired way.
  • In preparation for “convergent” problem solving, devote time and other resources to learning as much as possible about a broad range of emerging technologies.
  • Develop a realistic business plan for your new solution and do market research as a reality check.
  • Have fun! There are few experiences more rewarding (financially or creatively) than solving a significant technical challenge in a new way.

Opportunities

Many popular convergent solutions are so ubiquitous today that we forget how inspired and innovative they appeared just a few years ago. Examples include the use of smartphone cameras and mobile apps for site surveys and troubleshooting, and the use of mobile streaming in security and AV system management.

There’s never a shortage of unfilled business needs and, going forward, there is a wealth of potential enablers for meta-convergent applications in AV and communications. These tools range from the ubiquitous to the far out: artificial intelligence, augmented reality, smartphones, facial recognition, 3D printing, social media, GPS, avatar capture, nanotech and the IoT.

The emerging use of augmented reality in digital signage and museum-based experiences provides examples of this fusion. Another meta-convergent solution, deployed by The Nature Conservancy, uses an ingenious combination of crowdsourcing, geotagging, phone cameras, drones and cloud sharing to rapidly track and share information on California beach erosion caused by the recent El Niño-related storms (www.coastalresilience.org).

Hiding In Plain Sight

There are also possible sources of convergent synergy that might be familiar, but have been overlooked because they are so mundane, or belong to conventionally segregated categories. One current example is the use of low-cost, IP-based security cameras in lecture-capture systems.

Because many imaginative solutions can now be realized through customized software applications, the emergence of low-cost computing devices with easy programmability is an encouraging sign for would-be innovators. The new Raspberry Pi 3, for example, includes everything required to create a wireless networked media center or IoT device for less than $40. Pi 3 can be easily programmed using varieties of Linux or Windows 10 IoT tools.

Recently, a team at the MS DevOps Hackathon rapidly developed a better mousetrap using Pi and Windows 10 IoT. In addition to reporting mousetrap activity and environmental conditions to a mobile device, the solution also integrates a variety of cloud-based tools (including Azure Machine Learning) to analyze, predict and plan optimal anti-rodent deployments. On a more practical note, simple programming tools, such as ZigBee, already provide creative ways to interoperate hundreds of devices from a wide range of manufacturers. And, of course, for AV/IT-specific applications, Crestron, AMX, Evertz and others offer rich tool sets for the realization of valuable meta-convergent system concepts.

Some convergent applications are not intended directly for end users, but rather enhance the job of creating or deploying solutions. One New York City-area integration company has been prototyping system components on its 3D printer for years. Onsite collaboration, design and deployment work are now almost easy, thanks to convergent mobile and cloud-based apps, such as D-Tools SI 2016, AutoCAD 360, Stardraw Design 7.1 and similar cool tools.

Open Mind Required

Uncovering new, useful, combinations of technologies requires several qualities: an open mind, broad technical expertise and the willingness to devote at least some resources to the exploration of new convergent tools and solutions. In-depth familiarity with the nuts and bolts of new tech makes it easier to see how it might fit with other tools to create a useful new solution.

Uncovering a real need is usually the first step toward development of a meta-convergent solution. That need might be yours, your customer’s or one that exists in a broader market or community. This need can be obvious or it can be hidden beneath the surface, because many needs (such as online collaboration) exist below public awareness until they are publicized.

It’s important to determine the extent of a need before gearing up. The technoscape is littered with cool convergent ideas that nobody wanted or were simply born well before their time. Remember the talking microwave oven and the Newton? Your needs analysis should also include identification of specific “choke points,” such as complaints from users or support personnel regarding current solutions.

Realistic Estimate

A realistic estimate of market size is also important, as is the perceived value of the solution. Though focus groups and spreadsheets are valuable tools for evaluation of potential products and services, it’s good to remember that, ultimately, they are essentially “rear-view mirrors,” and that a well-trained intuition often provides a clearer view of future needs.

To discover useful new combinations, it’s also important to look at the broadest possible range of both mature and emerging technologies, seeking combinations that create synergies of function, cost or concept. There are many brainstorming techniques that may help with this process. Although many combinations may make no sense and have to be discarded, persistence will likely reveal some surprising gems. I’ve found the writings of Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) and Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) to be good jumping-off points for my own meta-convergent thought experiments.

Convergent Glue

Once you’ve identified the need and the major “ingredients” required to create your needs-driven solution, it’s helpful to develop a clear idea of the technical “glue” required to make them work together in the desired way, whether that glue is a new piece of software or hardware, or an apparently unrelated existing device. This is often one of the most challenging parts of the process, and may involve the creation of something truly original as a bridge between disparate technologies. This might be anything from a mechanical linkage or custom connector to a new protocol converter or GUI concept.

The more you know about apparently unrelated technologies, the more likely it is that you’ll find the right new ingredients for an innovative solution. I’ve found it useful to regularly allocate some time for learning about tech beyond your day-to-day areas of concerns. There are many reasons why Google and other creators of disruptive technologies mandate that their employees spend worktime pursuing interests outside of their job assignments, but one of the benefits of this activity is the cross fertilization of ideas sparking innovative solutions.

Being open to new ideas, receptive to customer needs, realistic about market potential and committed to new learning experiences are sure ways to increase the odds that you’ll come up with your own game-changing solution.

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