The Internet of Things (IoT) seems to be part of the conversation everywhere these days. Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, Google, Amazon and other tech companies are releasing a seemingly never-ending string of devices for consumers, while also occasionally dipping their toes into the commercial space. As a part of the AV community, it’s hard to ignore the devices. They’re interesting technology that bring convenience to people’s lives, but many people are struggling to see why they have become a key topic of conversation when discussing the next wave of devices and business opportunities in the audiovisual industry. Is IoT where AV is headed or is it just a fad?
What Is IoT?
The Internet of Things is, put simply, an idea to put as many things in the world onto a network and allow them to connect and talk to each other, provide analytics information, and improve the lives of the users. This could be as complex as automation systems in buildings that react to the position of the sun throughout the day, causing the HVAC and shading systems to automatically react to keep the building cool and employees running efficiently without disruption, or it could be as simple as a water glass sitting on a table at a restaurant that tells the wait staff that your glass is empty.
How are all of these devices going to connect to the networks? Sensors. There is a wide range of predictions as to how many devices will be connected to the internet in the next 36 months. On the low end, some have predicted that there will be about 21 billion connected devices, while others declare that there will be up to 50 billion devices on the network by 2020. To give you a comparative baseline, the current estimate for connected devices at the end of 2016 is 6.4 billion.
Not all of these devices are the same, though. Most of them are designed specifically for the consumer space, such as Fitbits, iWatches or smart light bulbs, but the trend that we’ve seen in the audiovisual industry of consumer devices and technology making it into the commercial space is more prevalent than ever.
Think about the potential of a device like the Amazon Echo. For those unfamiliar, this is the closest society has gotten to a home digital assistant. It operates on voice command by calling out, “Alexa,” and can connect to your music playlists, log task lists on applications on your phone, and be told to order just about anything in the Amazon universe. It’s set up to be the central controller in your home, working with lights, to be the center of your entertainment system and, as one of Amazon’s advertisements has shown, even control things like your home sprinkler system. What executive do you know who wouldn’t want to just walk into the office and start the day by saying, “Alexa, start my meeting,” and have the in-room display turn on while the matrix triggers the right input to be displayed, making the user experience as seamless as possible?
The key function of the IoT technology is to gather information. Every single one of these connected devices is polling for information about you or any other users. One of the best examples of this came about after Google purchased the company Nest. Nest is a smart thermostat and fire alarm device for people’s homes. Shortly after the acquisition, the jokes began about how you might be at work and know that your house was burning down because Google, a company well known for offering targeted advertising while you browse the web, was offering you deals on fire extinguishers.
Your smart watch, Fitbit and phone are being used by the applications you’ve signed up for to monitor your health data, as well as your location through your GPS, so ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft know where to pick you up. This data is vital to the companies tracking it to provide you their services that provide improved convenience to your life. To do so, though, it requires access to that data about you. They then take that data and analyze it to find trends in order to provide improved services that get you to use the services more frequently.
For example, Uber has publicly been testing self-driving cars in the United States for the last few months. If you use Uber to give you a ride to and from the grocery store every Sunday around the same time, they can track that information. Now, they can schedule an unoccupied self-driving car to be in your neighborhood every Sunday around the time you go shopping so your ride shows up faster, creating the illusion that they are more convenient when, really, they are just using your behavior to dictate how to offer a better service.
The AV Use Case
The funny thing about IoT and the audiovisual industry is that this is something AV has been doing for years. How many connected control systems are out in the world that monitor meeting-room status, projector lamp life, room-scheduling systems or just general-device usage of a building’s meeting rooms?
As an industry, we have been putting this data to use for years to understand how to offer better solutions and provide better service to our customers. In some cases, integrators have been known to reach out to customers and let them know that a room needs maintenance before the customer even knew something was wrong. It certainly isn’t the everyday case, but it has been known to happen.
AV, when considering IoT, is in the same boat as all the app developers and the rest of the companies in Silicon Valley. We are seeking the data and information from our clients’ systems in order to provide better services and solutions. The more we know about how they are using their systems, along with how those systems are performing to meet those needs, the faster we can respond to any issues. But it goes beyond that. If we know that certain room types or room functions are more frequently used by a client’s staff, then the next time they look at doing an expansion or modification, we have that hard data at hand to advise them on what should be deployed next.
This is all possible to be done with the control systems and services that we already provide. Services like Extron’s Global Viewer Enterprise, Crestron’s Fusion, AMX’s Resource Management Suite and some newer players like VL Pro from Evertz and Medialon from Barco, are offering solutions that allow for centralized room control, monitoring and reporting. Audiovisual companies knowing how the systems are being used is the first step in providing information about the possibilities of improving efficiency and effectiveness for our clients.
While the data is absolutely necessary to the development and improvement of the services we offer, what it really ends up providing is the justification for the value of the solutions and systems that we provide and how that affects the bottom line for those who hire us.
Board Room & Beyond
There are several areas to be considered:
The corporate environment is a standout use case for incorporating the concepts of IoT into audiovisual environments because it’s a localized system (a building or small campus) on a local area network (LAN) with all devices physically located nearby.
The audiovisual industry is at the heart of these corporate applications. We provide the interface between the user and the building. Our room schedulers are the visual indicators that a room is occupied or not. Our touchpanels are what trigger the room to get ready for the next meeting. Our control systems interface with the building’s HVAC, lighting and other building systems. The network is the nervous system of a building, but in a smart building, the audiovisual system will often lie at the heart of it, providing an intuitive user interface and experience for how clients interact with their environment.
While the corporate environment for audiovisual integrators is mostly about deploying multitudes of meeting rooms, there is an additional aspect to these projects: people.
Every single smartphone and watch is an IoT device that is providing information and available for a connection. This means that they are capable of providing and sharing data. With the growth in open-office and remote-work environments, it isn’t always easy to find the people you’re looking for, if they even happen to be in the office that day.
Integrating with the smart devices through Bluetooth, or even WiFi, gives employers the ability to monitor the location of their employees. Through enterprise communication platforms, such as Slack, an employee or employer can ask the question, “Where is John Smith?” If that person’s device has been set up to be located through the system, the response could be, “He was last seen in the kitchen area.”
Centralized Monitoring Systems
This same use of IoT can be incorporated into centralized monitoring systems just to determine how many smart devices are connected to the network, letting the employer know how many people are onsite that day. The value this provides is that employers can see if the office space they are paying for is being put to the best use. Should they create more desk spaces, more open-office areas or more collaboration/meeting room spaces? If people are more frequently working from home, do they need the size of space that they are paying rent to occupy?
In the retail environment, IoT has been around for several years. There are two types of systems that often find their way into the retail environment: Bluetooth and ultrasonic.
Audiovisual integrators in the retail space are deploying background music and paging systems along with the digital signage solution. As patrons walk through the stores and shop, there can be a Bluetooth beacon located at each digital signage display. These beacons are pinging the nearby environment for people who have Bluetooth active on their phone and have downloaded the retailer’s app. Once it connects to a device, the beacon is used to pull purchase history for each individual and show related products or other products that might interest the patron on the display, providing relevant and actionable information.
For example, a person is walking through a sporting goods store, having just recently purchased a new baseball glove. As he passes by the digital signage system, the display detects the individual’s phone, tracks his user account data, connects the recent purchases and displays that there is a sale on baseball bats.
The ultrasonic method is providing a continuous trigger tone through the PA system beyond the range of human hearing. If the shopper has the smartphone app from the retailer downloaded and active, the tone triggers the app to provide relevant notifications. This means that, while the shopper may be sitting at the café with friends, his phone may suddenly let him know that he is going to be given a 10% discount on the next purchase of his favorite brand of jeans, but only if they are purchased today.
In each case, the user’s data is controlled by the store because the person has volunteered to share it by signing up for the app, a credit card or a frequent-purchasers program. The AV integrator is simply providing the devices: PA, digital signage and a platform for those to integrate with the retailer’s system.
The ability to apply IoT to the security field might seem more like a Big Brother action than anything else, but there is real value here when tying it into the audiovisual integrator’s solution offerings.
NSCA, InfoComm and manufacturers have all offered information about the emerging Mass Notification/Emergency Communication Systems (MNS/ECS) market. The requirements of these systems are typically beyond that of a standard fire alarm system, meaning that the skillset of the audiovisual integrator becomes vital to their proper execution.
The intention for these systems is to provide intelligible and actionable information in the case of an emergency. Rather than just an alarm telling people to evacuate, an MNS/ECS system can tell people what action to take. Should they evacuate or house in place? If they should evacuate, which way should they go to remain safe?
The IoT environment’s ability to monitor the location of personnel based on the location of their smart devices comes into play here because now the MNS/ECS system can use that data to determine population density in a given region of the building. This information can then be used to provide the best actionable information to them. If there is an immediate need to get a group of people out of an area, but the time it would take the size of the population to evacuate through a single door before the emergency would escalate is too great, the group can be redirected to an evacuation path that would have double doors, allowing the evacuation to execute faster.
All About APIs
Audiovisual integrators are used to taking disparate devices that weren’t necessarily meant to work together and finding a way to integrate them. Throughout the industry’s history, this was done with relays, diodes and other physical devices and connections. These days, though, this is done with software and coding. The most common method for this in the IoT environments is through APIs (Application Program Interfaces).
The term “open API” means that the manufacturer of the product and its associated software will provide the source code to developers who want to find ways to integrate it with other systems. This is the key to the development and growth of IoT, and having it reach its ultimate goal of removing the user interface by having the devices talk to one another and take action based on the data being passed between them.
The main roadblock that the audiovisual industry, including both integrators and manufacturers, is facing is that code writing in common computer languages is not something that is necessarily an everyday occurrence. In order to start having our devices take commands from Amazon’s Echo or tell the smart lighting and shade system to do something, with or without requiring a user to trigger it directly via touchpanel, the API must be developed. This takes time and resources. And, at this point, it does not have a proven monetary return.
Making this more difficult is the fact that the makers of the IoT devices and sensors are doing so in their own bubble. There is no common software platform for development of these devices. So, if you were to take the time, and invest in the development of writing an API to communicate with one smart home system, there’s no guarantee that it would work with every other smart home system, or that the smart home system you chose to support would be the one that wins out in the long run (a la Beta versus VHS).
Network of Things
Although the conversation about IoT often revolves around the things themselves, it cannot be forgotten that these devices have to connect back to a network somewhere in order to talk to the other things and perform functions, as well as report the data they are tracking. This returns the audiovisual industry to an all-too-common conversation about the need to continue to develop network configuration skills.
Devices in IoT can require different ways of connecting to the network. Is it a connection that only requires a local network? This might be something like a smart lighting system. The lights connect to the local network and only need to be able to communicate with the controlling device also located on that network.
There are other solutions, like the Amazon Echo, that need to connect to the internet so that it can reach out to other services and applications and share that information. When you tell Amazon Echo to order something, it has to be able to communicate to the Amazon servers in order to make that purchase and have it shipped to you. If, however, you wanted to have Amazon communicate with another service, that would require it to not only reach out to the internet, but also potentially require it to communicate the other service’s network through the cloud.
As an example, if you want to update information on your favorite calendar or task management application, and it has an API to work with Amazon Echo, you can tell the Echo to “change my appointment.” The Echo will have to access the internet and, using that API, communicate with the service to update the data you have stored on its servers, which then synchronizes back through the internet to your smart device.
The ability to understand which devices have to connect to which things and configure the network appropriately is absolutely vital to having the Internet of Things work properly for people.
Editor’s Note: Read Part 2.