Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Campus Technology: Advice and Reflections on the Best of InfoComm 2016

In July 2016 I wrote a recap of my experience at the InfoComm Show 2016.

Advice and Reflections on the Best of InfoComm 2016
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
If it's June and you work in audiovisual system design, installation and support, then you either attend the annual InfoComm show, or you follow the news coming out of the show and wish that you were there.  The 2016 event was in Las Vegas, and it certainly didn't disappoint — hitting record numbers of attendees and vendors. Plus, more people than ever took advantage of the educational opportunities at the show.
Even though I now work in the AV consulting field, much of my show experience mirrored the years I attended when I worked full time in higher ed AV support. Most of my clients are higher ed institutions, so I try to experience InfoComm through their perspective. This year at the show, I concentrated on teaching, networking and building manufacturer relationships. I certainly got to see many new products, but rather than try to race from booth to booth on the show floor, I instead focused on experiencing some of the other benefits of attending InfoComm in-person. I will preface this article by saying that I'm an independent consultant, and I have no financial affiliation with any of the manufacturers I mention in this article, as well as the InfoComm International organization.
Teaching & Education
When I talk to individuals who are attending their first InfoComm, I always start by stressing that they need to take advantage of the educational opportunities at the show. Professional development is key in an industry that is changing as rapidly as the AV industry is, and InfoComm is your best opportunity for industry training.
This year is the first that I was a presenter for a couple seminars held during the show. I taught a seminar on ADA compliance in classroom AV design, and another seminar dissecting the various phases of a classroom AV construction project. Both of my seminars targeted academic technology managers. A quick poll of each seminar showed about 90 percent of the attendees were from higher ed institutions, with the remaining 10 percent made up of AV integrators, consultants and corporate AV support staff.
Both of the seminars had more than 100 attendees, which was in part due to the fact that InfoComm tried a new seminar package model this year. In past years, we had to enroll in each class/seminar separately, and pay a fee for each. This year, attendees were able to purchase a package that granted attendance to all the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday seminars. This seemed to be a big hit with the large number of attendees participating in the educational opportunities.
Normally I take advantage of the InfoComm University classes that are offered on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of the InfoComm show week. These are three-day-long classes that offer a deeper dive into subject matter than the shorter seminars offered on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If you haven't taken these three-day classes, I highly suggest you look into them. This is an opportunity to learn from some of the brightest AV instructors and professionals in the business, and make some nice networking contacts too. If you're pursuing one of the InfoComm CTS certifications, and you're looking for some classroom instruction to complement your independent study, then look no further than these InfoComm University classes. This year, I didn't end of taking one of these three-day classes only because I already have my CTS-D and CTS-I certifications, and I've taken many of the other courses being offered. I'm hoping that InfoComm adds some new higher-level design and project management classes to their three-day InfoComm University program.
Another piece of advice I always give InfoComm newbies is that they need to take advantage of every networking opportunity available during the week. Attend every relevant event, party, reception, committee meeting, etc. that you can get your hands on. With more than 40,000 people attending the show, you're bound to make some solid industry connections. 
When I worked in higher ed AV support at Harvard University and Ithaca College, I always made sure to attend the annual Technology Managers Reception. This is one of your best resources to meet like-minded AV technology managers at the show. You're bound to find someone from another campus who's in the same boat as you are, grappling with a tricky AV installation or searching for that piece of equipment that will solve their unique AV design issue. Collect business cards like your job depends on it and a few months later you'll be glad that you've built a nice network of industry professionals.
Another aspect of networking at InfoComm that many higher ed technology managers overlook is the goal of meeting manufacturer representatives. Many tech managers want to avoid getting the hard sell, so they slip in and out of the booths and remain anonymous. I suggest taking the opposite approach: Walk into the booth, immediately ask if your regional marketing rep is there, and make a face-to-face connection with them. Sure it'll result in more sales calls over the year, but having a direct contact at the manufacturer is a great resource for product and technical questions. Even as a design consultant, I rely on my manufacturer marketing reps heavily. During the year I constantly contact them with design and technical questions, and at InfoComm I try to schedule 30-minute booth tours with them.
OK, I get it, everyone wants to hear about the new and exciting products that were premiered at InfoComm this year. Unfortunately, it's just not like it used to be. In the past, all the companies waited until the show to introduce their new products for the year. This doesn't seem to be the case anymore, with manufacturers releasing products all throughout the year — and even the products premiered at InfoComm are usually preceeded by a "sneak peek" press release a week or two before the show. 
My goal on the show floor isn't necessarily to hunt down the new and exciting products, but rather to get my hands on products that I need an in-person demo to experience. I'm talking microphone and speaker demos, projector and flat panel display shootouts, and other equipment that can't be evaluated just by reading a cut sheet back in the office. I also like to find manufacturers that may not have the flashy and exciting products, but have the products that will make my life easier as a system designer. Products like unique display mounts, equipment rack accessories, under-table or in-ceiling equipment storage solutions, etc. Head to the back of the show floor to find those smaller companies.
I think we can all agree that the AV/IT convergence has happened, and the premiere products at the show this year certainly exhibited this. The AV industry is all about moving audio, video and control signals over the network, using proprietary or standards-based methods. The audio section of the show floor has always been a bit stale in past years, with very few groundbreaking advancements (compared to the video world), but this year you couldn't help but notice the mention of Dante everywhere. Even though this was pretty evident at the show last year, this year's plethora of Dante-enabled devices secures their place at the top of the heap when it comes to networked audio. 
One Dante-enabled product line that caught my eye was the new audio DSP offerings from Crestron. The company premiered its new Avia line of DSPs, with all the features I'm looking for in a classroom/conference room DSP: AEC, USB interface, Dante connection, VoIP (SIP) connection and control system integration. Crestron has an uphill battle to turn users away from their preferred DSP manufacturer, but with all those features and a design team lead by audio industry veteran Dennis Fink, I think they'll have some success.
Another Dante-enabled product line that I made sure to experience a demo of was the Shure Microflex Advance ceiling mic array and table mic array. The mics have Dante outputs, and depending on the model, offer on-board DSP features like echo reduction, steerable coverage, auto mixing and EQ. Even on the noisy show floor, we were easily able to steer the ceiling mic coverage over to pick up our voices.
Sticking with the networked AV theme, QSC's Q-SYS AV-to-USB is another new product that I think is very useful for classroom and conference room AV systems. In a nutshell, the company is expanding on its Core 110f DSP to now integrate IP cameras and a USB interface. If you've ever struggled with a classroom or conference room web conferencing system design that consists of a bunch of USB extenders, a USB hub and/or switch, control issues, multiple camera switching challenges and poor audio processing, definitely take the time to learn more about QSC's offerings.
I was happy to see that Crestron will be offering DigitalMedia compatible patch panels and premade cables. The AV industry loves to rely on direct cable runs between field devices and rack equipment, with field terminations of male RJ45 connectors. For years, IT standards have dictated that structured cabling needs to terminate at punch-down jacks and patch panels, rather than direct connections between, for example, wireless access points and the network closet switch port. Crestron's new DM patch panels and pre-made cables will help to push AV system designs toward tried and tested IT structured cabling standards.
Another product that rose to the top of discussion at the show is Biamp's TesiraLUX encoder and decoder, which will support video distribution using the AVB standard. Biamp had previously incorporated the audio portion of AVB into its Tesira DSP line, and now will show that video can be transported over a network using AVB. The idea that someone has finally figured out the "V" in AVB is exciting, but I really need to experience this product firsthand before I can consider incorporating it into my system designs.  I'm not totally sold on the idea of AVB being the future of networked AV, so I'm interested in watching how this all plays out.
One last product offering that I took notice of is Middle Atlantic's DC Power Distribution solution. If your AV equipment racks are full of power supplies (wall warts) and power strips for all the smaller devices, then you can look to this product from Middle Atlantic to clean things up. This is a 1RU device that offers different common DC voltage outputs on phoenix connectors, replacing all the individual wall warts. It's one of those tools that will make your installers happy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 44 (June 2016)

We recorded our June EdTech podcast live from the InfoComm Show floor.  Bill O'Donnell hosted, Ernie Bailey was there, and we welcomed back Greg Brown.  We discussed our experiences at the Show, and commented on products that caught our eye.

Campus Technology:  Keeping Classroom AV Technology on Track

In June 2016 I wrote my fifth article for my recurring Campus Technology column titled AV Smarts.

Keeping Classroom AV Construction on Track - Part 5
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
Over the past four months, I have written about the design and construction process for higher education classroom audiovisual systems, including the administrative, schematic design, design development, construction documents and bidding phases of an AV design-bid-build project. This brings us to the final phase: construction.
Now that an AV contractor (integrator) has been signed onto the project through the efforts of the bidding phase, it's time to actually install the AV system that we've spent months designing. Just because we're up to the final phase doesn't mean that we can let our guard down and float along to a completed project: This is where the rubber hits the road. The construction phase requires attentive coordination efforts to make sure that all contractors properly furnish and install all the components of the AV system. Even though the AV design consultant may have gone to painstaking lengths to design every aspect of the AV system — even down to the connector — proper construction coordination and communication are needed to make sure the finished product matches the design intent. All of those hours of needs analysis meetings can be thrown out the window with an uninformed contractor making decisions independently in the field.
Architects typically remain on projects after the general contractor (GC) bid has been awarded, in order to oversee the efforts of the contracted GC. The client wants the architect to make sure that the building is constructed as the design documents dictate. The AV design consultant typically provides the same service during the construction phase; the consultant's role shifts from a design role to a review/approve role. It's best when the AV consultant remains on the project to oversee the construction process through final system commissioning and client training. Even if an AV contractor makes every effort to install the same system that's shown on the design drawings and specifications, the contractor just hasn't invested the same amount of time in the project as the design consultant has.
Construction Administration
The construction phase typically starts with a kick-off meeting to get all the contractors, design team and owner's team in the same room. Periodic construction meetings during the lifespan of the project will also take place. Because of the interdependency of all the various contractors, it's important that relationships are established between them early, and construction details start to get hashed out before everyone's tripping over one another on site. This initial kick-off meeting is an opportunity for the design team to walk the contractors through the design intent of the project, as well as discuss project scheduling and other construction phase coordination issues. Being the subject-matter experts that they are, the contractors may throw up some red flags right away as design intent is clarified. Making sure that the contractors have a thorough understanding of the design details right at the beginning of the construction phase means that there will be fewer surprises down the road, when it's harder and costlier to make changes.
There are quite a few pieces of AV equipment that span the responsibilities of various contractors. Items like projection screens, flat panel/projector mounts, floor/table boxes, etc. require furnishing, delivery and installation coordination from multiple contractors that need to work together. The project manager and consultant need to be at the root of coordinating those efforts.
Right off the bat in the construction phase, it's important for the project manager, architect and AV consultant to document everything. From the moment the kick-off meeting starts, all the way to the final client training session, there are lots of ideas, information and changes being thrown around. The introduction of all the contractors into the project creates lots of "cooks in the kitchen." Their input is usually invaluable, but sometimes important items can slip through without a formal documenting process, which causes issues down the line. A contractor may make a suggestion during a construction meeting, another contractor takes that suggestion to be an informal change order, and now all the involved parties are no longer on the same page.
Following a simple, yet organized, project management process can save everyone lots of headaches. Project managers, architects and/or AV consultants who create detailed meeting minutes are taking the first step to proper documentation. Distribute those minutes to all meeting attendees, as well as those that couldn't attend, and everyone is operating with the same information. Weekly written status updates from the AV contractor are also a way for everyone to stay informed.
The submittal process is an essential component of making sure that the final product matches the design intent. In the case of audiovisual systems, submittal materials are items sent by the AV contractor to the project manager for approval before proceeding with procurement, construction and installation. The required submittal materials should have been clearly defined in the construction documents (bid specifications), so there aren't any surprises. The submittal process can be lengthy and costly for the AV contractor, depending on the complexity of the project. If the required submittals weren't clearly defined in the bid specifications, then the AV contractor will no doubt express objection to spending time and labor hours on creating these materials that weren't part of the original proposal.
Typically, submittal materials that are required from the AV contractor are shop drawings, the contractor's proposed project schedule, finalized equipment list, AV furniture details, cut sheets, finish samples, product samples and control system/DSP programming details. Obviously, not all of these items will be required for every project. The AV design consultant is responsible for reviewing and approving all of these submittals, making sure that they follow the design intent as described in the design documents. Contractors are instructed not to order any equipment or begin construction efforts until all of the submittal materials have been approved. Paying attention to the details during the submittal process really sets the stage for a successful construction phase. As long as the AV consultant keeps an organized record of all submittal dates, and responds to them quickly, this process will work well.
Requests for Information
One important aspect of documenting the flow of information during the construction phase is the request for information (RFI). As a contractor is working through the process of preparing for installation, or even while they're in the middle of site work, they may have questions about the design intent. While it might seem easiest for them to pick up the phone and call the design consultant for clarification, it's important for their questions to follow a formal RFI process. If the contractor sends questions on an RFI form to the project manager, and the consultant's response is returned in that same format, then you have easily referenced materials if a question comes up in the future about the same issues.
Change Order
A close cousin to the RFI is the change order (CO). If the question posed by the contractor in the RFI results in a change that involves procurement of additional materials, or additional labor efforts from the contractor, then a CO needs to be issued. The change order originates from the project manager and is sent to the contractor outlining the change, all associated costs, and the new project total cost after the change. All contract scope and pricing changes need to be documented in this fashion to prevent confusion later in the project — and to keep control of the project's budget. Change orders can also be issued when materials and/or labor are being removed from a project, after being deemed unnecessary to the project. Sometimes the contractor is working in the field and decides that a change is necessary to keep the project on track, and seeing no other alternative, they create a construction change directive (CCD). The CCD is sent by the contractor to the project manager for approval.
Quality Control
Depending on the complexity of the project, the AV consultant may wish to be involved with various quality control efforts during the construction phase. This may involve the consultant visiting the AV contractor's shop to test the AV systems after the shop-build process is complete, but before the equipment is moved to the installation site. The consultant may also want to visit the site periodically as the other trades are installing the AV-related infrastructure. Take pictures of all the walls, floors,and ceilings while they're still open and before the finishes are placed on them. Knowing where the cable paths and wall blocking are located after the drywall is up can be priceless. The AV consultant also can perform a final "AV room ready" assessment after the infrastructure is installed, but before AV equipment is shipped to the site. During the AV contractor's site installation period, a few site visits from the AV consultant is a way to make sure that construction is progressing as planned.
Systems Verification
After the AV contractor notifies the client that the systems have been installed, configured and tested, the AV consultant typically visits the site for formal systems verification. Many have started relying on the ANSI/InfoComm 10:2013 Audiovisual Systems Performance Verification standard during this commissioning process. The Performance Verification Checklist that accompanies this standard has become a widely accepted industry standard that can ease the verification process greatly. Whatever final systems verification checklist or criteria that is decided upon should be presented to the AV contractor at the beginning of the project, so all parties are on the same page as to what's expected during these final tests. If specific performance or reference specifications were described in the original bid specifications, then that testing takes place now. A punch list is created by the AV consultant, who makes a return visit to ensure that all items have been addressed.
Client Training
After all systems have been fully tested and punch list items completed, client training can occur. Resist the urge to train clients on partially tested systems, or systems with outstanding punch list items. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and if a faculty member runs into technical issues during his initial training session, he'll never trust that AV system again. It's best to have the lead installation technician or the AV consultant conduct the training session, since they have a deep understanding of the system operation. Conduct a couple training sessions, with one focusing on non-technical users and the other directed toward the technical support staff that will have to operate, service and maintain the AV systems.
Now that the equipment is installed and the clients are trained, don't let the project fizzle out just yet. The final step is for the AV consultant to review and approve the closeout submittal from the AV contractor. This submittal package may consist of the as-built system drawings, compiled and uncompiled control system/DSP programming files, equipment/system manuals, equipment inventory/MAC/IP address list, warranty statement, maintenance contract, keys and spare parts. Again, the contents of the closeout submittal package should have been defined in the original bid specifications.
From an AV design and installation standpoint, the project is now complete. The client gives the final sign-off, the warranty period begins, and our journey through all the phases of the project has come to an end.