Entering the IT Zone...

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Youve got to love the new wireless tablet PC touchpanels. We no longer have to pretend that we enjoy the portability of those big, bulky RF remotes now that there are five-way joystick controls to more closely duplicate factory-provided IR remotes. And, of course, there is the ability to surf the Web directly from the touchpanel screen itself. There is little doubt that these new panels are leaps forward in providing greater flexibility and home automation capabilities.

Certainly the larger screen size and resolution have been a boon to the user interface (UI) features that are available over smaller RF remote screens with the resultant ability to display entire floor plans proving a great improvement over past remote functionality. The fact that these wireless panels are connected via standard 802.11 ethernet has allowed the remote to become a whole-house controllerthe roving remotewith the freedom to wander anywhere with the property. With the physical limitations of a defined RF ID number and limited distance reception capabilities of the bygone RF remotes banished, we audio/video designers have the ability to heap feature after feature upon these newly liberated remotes.

Being connected via standard wireless ethernet has great advantages. Users can directly access the internal Web servers of most of their on-site home automation equipment for expanded capabilities. These include directly viewing CCTV security cameras as well as the Crestron and AMX Web panels, while a streaming video server in the installation allows for virtual full-motion viewing of any video source, including movies, cover art, cameras, and DVDs on the wireless screens. These are the great and glorious benefits of using the Local Area Network (LAN) to communicate with these devices.

But all is not perfect in paradise. There are many new factors to face with the deploying of LAN wireless panels, not the least of which is that AV installers have enjoyed a relatively safe position by having a separate RF world where our remotes communicated. There was no one else trying to break into that RF domain, it had limited distances with dedicated, known addresses that we limited access to, and when it didnt work it had to be our equipment because that was all there was on the wireless connection. Now that we are sharing and using standard 802.11 ethernet, everyone has access to it and securing access to this connection is a huge priority. We now have the ability to open up access to the clients internal LAN network where sensitive financial and personal information may reside. To ensure that such information isnt exposed, the panels need to be encryption enabled, often with upgraded WEP cards. Yes, we have inadvertently entered the IT Zone!

In addition to being experts in our field, we now have to be experts on all aspects of LAN. Great, just what we needed, another responsibility totally outside of our control and maybe our understanding. After the security issues, perhaps the biggest danger of using standard house-wide 802.11 ethernet is that a bad LAN network will look just like (and certainly produce) a bad AV installation. Take a simple finger press on a touchpanel screen. If the LAN is momentarily down or too busy, or attempting to reconnect or whatever, this button depression gets lost. A simple button press getting missed immediately looks to the user like a non-responsive A/V installation.

A correctly installed and properly functioning LAN network shouldnt have such problems, but, unfortunately, many do. I have seen totally flat LAN networks (installed five or six years ago using hubs instead of switches) that generate so much traffic that the collisions create lost button depressions; there have been multiple LAN connections on single Cat-5 cable connection (not allowed, of course) that take networks down momentarily and routinely; and the rate of connected/not-connected back and forth of some of the current generation of wireless touchpanels has been nothing short of frustrating to more than a few clients. So yes, a perfectly operating LAN would work fine, but whos to certify that it is running perfectly?

Much of the problem can be traced back to a simple architectural design flaw: our audio/video/control systems werent designed to tolerate a lack of connectivity and to try-try-try again until the connection gets through. PCs and the ethernet have been designed to assume that they probably wont get the message through on the first try. If they dont get an acknowledgement back, they resend their message until it does get through and an acknowledgement is sent back to the sender. The data world operates so quickly, that no one is really ever aware of retries, and so no one cares. But in the A/V world when a user presses a button they want to see action right away. In general, few current generation control system software implementations require acknowledgement of a command before moving on. It is required now!

It appears that the way A/V control code has been written all of these years has produced a dilemma: Either wireless 802.11 isnt ready for A/V primetime, or current A/V control coding isnt ready for 802.11 wireless. My bet is on the need for A/V coding to adapt to wireless 802.11, and it better do it soon! But no matter what, it should be clear that any A/V installation that hasnt had its LAN network checked and verified as up-to-date and fully functional is asking for disaster. Unless you happen to have a LAN expert on your staff, you should get the clients IT person or department involved from the very beginning. Let them know what you plan to do and keep them involved and engaged on the project. Let them handle and verify those wireless connections and give yourself a chance to succeed.