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Are You in 'Control'?

Common myths about integrated control systems may be taking the ‘smart’ out of your smart classroom. Here’s how to choose wisely for your campus.

IN HIS CHRONICLES OF NARNIA series, C.S. Lewis attributed the following to a Calormene p'et: “He who attempts to deceive the judicious is already baring his own back for the scourge.”

Smart ClassroomNot much has changed, it seems. How many times have integrators, manufacturers, or even consultants sung the praises of installing extensive (and expensive!) integrated control systems for the classroom, even when contrary to common-sense functional and budgetary concerns? To make judicious decisions for your campus, beware of three big myths about integrated control systems, and what implications they have for classroom applications.

Myth Number One

Control system programming is too difficult for the mere mortal to understand. There are two big players in the classroom-integrated control system market—AMX and Crestron Electronics. Both have traditionally used proprietary programming languages and software to create the “magic” of pressing a button and seeing things happen. Consequently, most AMX and Crestron programmers are among the highest-paid technicians because of their specialized skills. With only a limited number of trained and qualified programmers in each geographical market, these individuals hold a strong bargaining position with their employers for wages and benefits. An important part of maintaining this mystique is convincing others that control system programming is too hard for the average person, even a savvy campus technology specialist, to understand.

Yet nearly every AMX and Crestron competitor of the past 10 years has claimed that its own system d'es not require knowledge of proprietary control languages. So can control system programming really be that difficult?

The truth is, programming can be complex. However, planning the way the room should work, laying out touch panels, and creating control code are all based on logical processes. The specific details of each manufacturer’s software vary, but understanding how one system works helps make the others more transparent. Both AMX and Crestron offer classes to campus technology specialists so they can learn about how to design, program, and support integrated control systems. Once a solid programming template exists, a campus technologist with minimal training can make basic changes (such as changing equipment models) without extensive and expensive outside assistance.

Myth Number Two

IP control systems are so smart, they manage themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong—IP control systems can provide significant benefits when properly implemented. But c’mon, how many PowerPoint slides should it take to explain what the benefits are to most users? The bottom line, not found in the standard sales pitch, is that AV systems are managed by people, not by hardware and software. From a Web browser on the other side of campus or the world, it may be possible to monitor lamp life usage on a classroom projector down to the minute, but if there’s no campus technologist available to replace the lamp, clean the filter, check the usage logs to see which equipment is user-friendly enough to be favored by instructors, or be proactive in addressing maintenance issues, then what is the point of having all this data generated automatically? Successful outcomes are based on the quality of the people committed to the process, not simply the software version.

Myth Number Three

Bigger is always better. With some integrated control touch panels costing as much as midsize cars (AMX’s NXT-1700VG with RGB card lists for $16,550; Crestron’s TPMC-17-QM-LB for $13,600), there’s little wonder that some commissioned salesfolk hawk the largest touch panel for every classroom application.

The rational argument for larger touch panels is that controlling complex equipment (such as videoconferencing Codecs) requires more buttons. And in order for buttons to be appropriately sized for human fingers, the panel needs to be large enough to accommodate the necessary number of buttons. (I have never seen anyone, other than a programmer or a consultant, use a stylus to operate a real touch panel.)

However, most classroom systems are not especially complex, from an equipment standpoint. One or more projectors, a few sources, audio volume, lighting presets, and the like typically do not need more than 10 to 15 buttons. A physical button panel (instead of a touch panel) can provide a tactile, robust interface that costs only a few hundred dollars. Since all of the button choices are visible and available all of the time, a well-conceived and carefully designed button panel can provide adequate control for many, if not most, classrooms with a basic presentation technology complement.

A pet peeve of mine is seeing big, expensive touch panels with lots of wasted space. A recent visit to an existing auditorium at a new client’s campus revealed a 12-inch color touch panel in the control room with fewer than four small buttons on each page. Upon seeing me shake my head with disbelief, the dean accompanying me asked, “Why did the contractor sell this to us?” Yet how could I respond? That the contractor was greedy? Ignorant? Both? I answered that perhaps the salesperson who specified and sold the system (including the panel) had good intentions; that the institution would now have potential for adding more equipment and complexity in the future. “But we already have everything we’re going to have in here!” protested the dean. Hmm; Narnia strikes again.

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