Welcome to the latest eye boggling invention in audiovisual (AV) technology. It is a 50in table, with an LCD screen, which looks a bit like an upturned TV. Except the TV screen, which faces upwards, is actually interactive. It uses Through Glass technology (pioneered by Handy AV) that enables users to touch the screen to interact with the images on display. Users can scroll through menus, drag and drop images, or do anything they would normally do with a computer, only sitting at a table. More impressive still, users can download images from a mobile phone onto the computer below. They can be networked with all the other ‘terminals’ in the seminar area, shared with everyone else on the network or projected onto large screens.
This is also going to be an extremely profitable AV opportunity for the channel. Vendors such as Nokia, LG and Samsung are clamouring to find out how they can incorporate AV technology into their product lines.
Nokia, for example, is working on an Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) project for a chain of cinemas. If the project succeeds, displays in cinemas will be revolutionised. Posters in the lobby will be replaced with new digitised systems. The new poster sites will have an RFID tag, as will the Nokia handset of whoever is in charge of updating the promotions for new films. When a new poster is installed in the cinema lobby, the RFID tag on the poster will confirm this transaction with the RFID tag on the installer’s handset. Then a report will be sent back to head office, to confirm the job has been done.
Aubrey Wright, managing director of vendor/distributor Handy AV, said: “There’s some really exciting new developments in AV technology. We have moved away from dumb screens. We’re well into the age of interactive technology now.”
Big interactive screens were an idea mooted by none other than Microsoft chief architect Bill Gates, so they have some momentum behind them. Granted, he is not right about everything, but Motorola was clearly impressed. Handy AV has recently installed a 100in screen, illuminated by a 6,500 lumin projector, in London’s Park Lane. It has recently been working on a similarly scaled project at Brompton Road, opposite Harrods. This will only help to popularise the cause of ambitious AV projects and bring the technology into the consciousness of corporate buyers.
There are big margins to be made on these large projects, not just for the installation, training and consultation, but also for the ongoing management, Wright said. “The system needs to be managed and we have the skills to do that,” he said. “We can remotely monitor the system, and proactively replace the equipment when it looks as though it may be coming to the end of its working life.”
Handy AV is eager to recruit partners to help it work on these types of project. Unfortunately, Wright is not too keen on working with IT resellers, at the moment. “For the sort of project work we’re involved in, IT resellers are clueless,” he said. “I wouldn’t trust them not to hurt someone.”
A harsh verdict perhaps, given that many experts claim that AV technology is increasingly the domain of the IT reseller. “It’s true that IT people know all about networking, and a lot of AV technology is networkable,” Wright said. “But just because an IT VAR can get video conferencing to run across Cat5 cabling, or that plasma screens have IP addresses now, it doesn’t mean they can handle the AV projects.”
It is often pointed out by AV installers that IT resellers don’t know anything about the aesthetics of AV technology. This usually means they don’t know what the considerations are when positioning a screen and setting the configurations, or how to place cameras. That may be so, although surely it is a matter for each individual IT reseller. There are plenty of resellers out there who seem to think that they are experts on any given subject.
But Wright said his nervousness about using IT resellers has a more fundamental basis. “If you’re going to install a 40kg projector on the ceiling and don’t know the structural considerations, then you risk killing someone if that equipment falls down,” he said. “I’ve yet to meet an IT reseller who is insured to carry out this type of work, and none of them meet the health and safety considerations.”
Before resellers get involved with any ambitious AV installations, they will need to achieve a new kind of accreditation. The Client Flow Control Scheme card needed to satisfy health and safety regulations for working on construction sites is not as mentally taxing to achieve as an IT qualification. However, obtaining it could potentially occupy as much of a VAR’s time.
If resellers are prepared to put that work in, they could be ready to enter the highly lucrative market for Handy Touch and Handy Screen interactive products. They are already very much in demand in the retail and entertainment industries.
Not everyone thinks IT resellers should be restricted to the ghetto of commodity AV products. Maverick, one of the longest established IT distributors in the AV market, is helping IT resellers to extend their brief in the AV market. Managing director Jon Sidwick said products that were once regarded as strictly AV entities – such as its Polyvision conferencing systems – are now to all intents and purposes really IT systems.
“Video streaming is more IT-based than AV these days,” he said. “The only AV part is the actual screen on which the images are shown, and that’s just a plug in. The kit is connected by networking cable, not VGA. All the challenges that an installation throws up – such as security considerations and content delivery – are IT issues.” In this case, it is VARs that customers will turn to address these problems.
However, at this stage, IT resellers have to be realistic about their ambitions. “The very high-end stuff, such as boardrooms and virtual reality, will continue to be for the AV crowd for now,” Sidwick conceded.
However, IT resellers are gradually fanning out across the landscape. AV installations in training rooms, meeting rooms and educational establishments are increasingly being carried out by the IT crowd. Universities tend to be too high end, but schools and further education establishments are definitely fair game for the reseller.
Maverick is now offering a range of training programmes, to encourage both AV resellers to acquire IP skills and resellers to gain AV expertise.
Sidwick says the IT reseller’s lack of knowledge about how to sink cables into walls or observe building regulations should not be an issue any more. Maverick runs a Pro-Install service, which allows resellers to outsource the installation process. Of course, that means they may be surrendering some of their margin, but they are also avoiding a lot of time-consuming angst. That time could be more usefully employed on looking for more profitable work.
However, it is not necessary to use the installation service for MediaSite, which Sidwick tips as the hottest new AV application.
Installation services are increasingly popular in this market because distributors and vendors seem desperate to get more VARs involved in the business. Midwich, another IT distributor turned AV distributor, offers an installation service. It also offered a ‘match making’ service, where IT and AV VARs can look for a partner.
Darren Lewitt, divisional director at Midwich, said that for many years the IT and AV sectors functioned as entirely separate entities, with distinct channels and business models. Although this dichotomy still exists today, convergence has blurred the distinction between the two channels.
Should the two camps merge? “This may not be a bad shout,” he said. “The changing face of the channel is reflected in our own evolution: from an IT background into the margin-rich AV sector.” Lewitt claimed Midwich was instrumental in bringing AV products to the mainstream in 1995, and that it is still a pioneer.
“To be successful, IT VARs need expert support and insight,” he said. “This is why we decided to take our AV proposition to all our channel partners, irrespective of their core business. Convergence between the two parties is a natural progression, and we can help resellers to bridge the skills gap.”
Midwich claims to have helped hundreds of IT resellers make a successful transition into the AV sector. “We appreciate that AV can be a daunting market, because there are perceived barriers to entry,” Lewitt said. “Aside from the gaps in product knowledge, IT resellers do not have the installation skills to deliver AV.”
In theory, IT resellers can learn the fundamentals of AV, but it takes years of experience to develop a ‘specialist’ knowledge base. Distribution has emerged as a key provider of specialist AV support and advice for IT resellers. Outsourcing can cost £249 but VARs can add a mark up to this.
Convergence demands that AV specialists have a working knowledge of IT technology. Midwich offers a degree of IT support to AV specialists, but its primary area of expertise is in the AV and home entertainment arena.
In principle, there is no reason why an IT reseller could not collaborate with an AV specialist, and vice versa. However, it is important to maintain customer relationships. “This is why I would advise both parties to work with their suppliers,” Lewitt said. “Find a distributor that only sells to the trade.”
Computerlinks (formerly Unipalm) is regarded as much more of an IT distributor, and yet even it is bringing its VARs into the AV market. John Turner, head of the multimedia division at Computerlinks, said: “We’re an IP company, but this is now very much an IP market.”
He added that there is no point in IT resellers trying to learn the skills to wire up an office without upsetting the aesthetics of the room to sink a cable into a wall. “Collaboration is the key,” he said. “Electricians and engineers are the people that can do that work. VARs should concentrate on what they do well because they’ll be busy enough handling all the opportunities that come their way.”
The technology that is making most impression among the Computerlinks customer base is MirrorMedia. In short, this is a screen that looks like a mirror (since it has a reflective front). It helps to make AV equipment seem more easy on the eye and less intrusive. It also introduces the ‘Thunderbirds Effect’ where, once switched on, a mirror suddenly transforms itself into a video screen.
There are exceptions where organisations whose skills transcend the boundaries, according to Colin Farquhar, chief executive at AV vendor Exterity. “The area that presents the biggest implementation problem for video distribution systems over IP is the network, particularly configuring it for multicast support,” he said.
In this area there has been collaboration between AV and IT resellers. They have jointly delivered solutions on some big projects where video distribution has been added as an element of the solution and the IT reseller has subcontracted this work out to the AV reseller. But the challenge now, with the acceleration of network convergence technologies and applications, is for VARs to acquire the skills to deliver complete solutions for their clients.
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