Designing Simplicity Into Complexity

Working with experts helps.

My local town hosted a music festival this past weekend. It was a huge event filled with multiple performance spaces and many different artists and performers. My friend, an audio engineer, volunteered to operate the sound system for one of the venues. Like any good friend, I popped by to chat at the most inconvenient time possible: right when he was busy doing a sound check for the next band. What surprised me was that I didn’t find him parked behind an audio console as I expected. Instead, I found him on the stage, iPad in hand, walking from performer to performer.

My engineering instincts immediately kicked in to observe the situation and analyze the benefits. Because he was standing next to the performer, making adjustments in real time, their communication was way more effective and didn’t disturb the audience that was quietly waiting for the next performance. It took only a couple of minutes of chatting with each performer and manipulating virtual console controls before they were all set. Clearly, the tablet didn’t replace the audio console. The console was still a critical component of the system and was sitting backstage as you would expect. What I found fascinating is how a common piece of consumer technology was used in conjunction with the audio console to bring simplicity to something that is normally much more complex, not to mention impersonal!

There’s absolutely no shortage of technology to choose from nowadays, and the same holds true for the AV industry. Chances are, if you have a need, someone out there has invented some gadget or software app to address that need. The dilemma we face is that most projects are comprised of a list of complicated needs. This leaves you looking for a list of gadgets to address them, and then figuring out how to connect them together to magically bring your project to life. When these gadgets are not designed to work together, the level of complexity involved with the integration of these types of projects is enough to drive many AV integrators and end users mad.

So, what can be done to bring simplicity to these systems?
The best place to start is to work with vendors and manufacturers that are experts in the application you are designing. Smart manufacturers know that the best way to succeed is to focus their resources and develop products with specific applications in mind. For that reason, they generally develop products and accessories to provide elegant solutions for those applications. As the saying goes, it’s better to do one thing well than to do a dozen things poorly.

This advice may sound like common sense, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen integrators and end users try to fit a square peg into a round hole by using the wrong product for the job. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to leave their comfort zone and learn new things. Other times, it boils down to cost savings that are quickly eaten away by the mistakes of picking the wrong tool for the job. I’ve even seen the wrong solutions pushed because the integrator is obligated to meet quotas to maintain its dealer status with a manufacturer.

Whatever the reason, there is no substitute for consulting with the right vendor for the job at hand. Because they earn a living based on their reputation in a particular area of expertise, it is in their best interest to provide you with the simplest solution to your problems and support your installation efforts.

For example, if you’re a broadcast engineer who’s been tasked with designing a museum exhibit, try to resist the urge to use broadcast equipment. Research companies that specialize in museums instead. The museum’s accountants and maintenance staff will thank you.

The next piece of advice is to stop trying to find the one magical object that will solve all of your problems. Instead, find things that perform their individual duties well, that are designed to work together nicely.

To use a non-industry-related example: I have a colleague whose company once purchased a “magical” piece of software with the expectation that it would handle Customer Relations Management (CRM), manufacturing and accounting. Sounds like a nice idea, right? Well, it was an absolute train wreck. This one piece of software tried to do so many things that it ended up doing all of them poorly. The CRM was completely worthless and the manufacturing and accounting interfaces required an engineering degree to master. The end result was a debacle that cost his company countless dollars in lost revenue and wasted time.

This story has a happy ending, though. Through the pain and suffering, they realized that the attempt to find a single magical solution was not a realistic expectation. With the lessons learned from that experience, they invested in a great CRM tool, a great manufacturing tool, a great accounting tool and the expertise to make them all work together in harmony. The end result was an elegant solution that effectively satisfied all of their needs.

This same experience rings true in all things involving technology, including AV. If you need to build a theater with projection, lighting, video and an operator-friendly touchpanel interface, the goal is not to eliminate as many hardware components as possible. Once again, it might sound silly but it’s so common to see installers attempt this with the belief that fewer components equates to simplicity. You usually see this attempted with software apps and personal computers, which were never intended to be used for AV applications like this.

In most cases, the simplest solution is to find devices that are well suited for these individual tasks and that are designed to work together well. In this example, that means finding a reliable projector with good specs, a lighting controller that lighting designers can intuitively program, a high-quality video player, a touchpanel interface and a control system that seamlessly ties them all together. The component count may be higher, but the clear division of tasks for the hardware is much simpler to manage than a system that is not so cleverly organized.

There are also many advantages to this approach, and that often goes unrealized. Because projection, lighting, video and control are all individual components in this system, they can all be worked on in parallel by experts familiar with their operation.

Everybody does their thing with their product, and then the control system programmer simply ties it all together to provide the finished experience. That’s teamwork at its finest!
Another practice that is becoming an important part of modern AV systems is leveraging consumer technologies. Smartphones, tablets and ultrabooks are a part of our daily lives. On their own, they are nowhere near being a substitute for the gear we use to implement professional AV systems. However, when used properly, these tools can drastically simplify the use of this equipment and even expand its capabilities.

“When used properly” is a key phrase, of course. There will always be examples where technology is used just for technology’s sake. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure I understand how my life is simplified by an iPad monitoring the temperature of my steaks on the grill. Cases like that aside, there are plenty of good examples of how these technologies can be used in a positive way.

My friend the audio engineer using a tablet to remotely control an audio console so he can interact more closely with performers is smart: all of the power of his professional audio console with the mobility of a wireless tablet.

A maintenance technician using a tablet as a touchscreen interface to wirelessly monitor a large AV system is also a great use of the technology. What better way to observe and fix a lighting fixture, projector or special effect than to stand right next to it as you control it. WARNING: Pyro-specialists may want to take a few extra steps back before firing up your gear….

For all of you museum enthusiasts, imagine iBeacon technology being used to change pages on a tour guide’s tablet as she walks into an exhibit area. Each page could contain notes on the exhibit so that even rookie tour guides have a tool they can use to learn on the job. In fact, why not add some simple controls on the page that they can press to make the exhibit area come to life with all kinds of AV goodness?

So what is the real goal of all of this simplicity? Cost savings and improved client experiences. Although keeping your system designs simple may appear to elevate the bottom line, it will almost always result in fewer problems during installation, easier maintenance and more system up-time. It doesn’t take an accounting genius to see the financial upside to that decision. Clients also tend to prefer when their systems work reliably…and if you like being in business, I’d be willing to bet you prefer happy clients.
So, remember the KISS Principle when you’re designing your next AV system. Then, once you’re done Googling “KISS Principle,” team up with experienced vendors, use good products that work well together and leverage smart devices to make your systems easier to use.

Happy integration!

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