We Used To Be Heroes

When Exactly Did The AV Guy Become The Bad Guy?

By Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

Novato City Council
An audiovisual system can be a necessary evil, and an eyesore. Its no wonder Architects hate us!

I recently watched the movie White House Down and (spoiler alert) very early in the film, the audience is introduced to the audiovisual installers who are in the President’s residence to work on the home theater surround sound speakers.  The foreshadowing is thick and it doesn’t take long to realize that these six AV guys are actually the bad guys, part of a much larger terrorist plot.  I didn’t care much for the movie, except maybe the setting, but it did make me think about the general perceptions of audiovisual designers and installer, and how we are perceived as members of project teams.

Not long ago, we were heroes.  In 2002, everyone wanted a see-through touchscreen and wireless glove interface like Tom Cruise used in Minority Report.  In 1996, consumers watched Jeff Goldblum save the world from the aliens in Independence Day (spoiler alert) by using his Mac Powerbook to upload a computer virus to the Mothership’s mainframe.  Most computer geeks will agree that technically it makes no sense but my point here is that the geek was the good guy in this movie.

Even further back into the 70’s and 80s, R2-D2 had a built-in hologram projector, the nerds got their revenge, and the Jetsons were using video conferencing.  And who can forget the ending of War Games when Matthew Broderick saves the world by making the computer play chess against itself?  (Should I have said ‘spoiler alert’ again?  You would think after 20 years it’s officially spoiled, right?)

Back then, the AV guy was the good guy on the project team too.  The architect, general contractor, and user groups had no idea how to hang a projection screen, what equipment to purchase, or how to wire it all together.  When the AV designer was asked to work on a project, they were welcomed with open arms by the other members of the project team. “We are so glad you are here” was the general sentiment.

But now, the AV guys are the bad guys.  The media has replaced the once loved computer geek with the hack-tivist. Podium microphones feed back in every movie, and remote controls never seem to work correctly.  The same is true in corporate america, where users are forced to “deal with” antiquated projection systems in boardrooms and conference rooms, with low resolution touch screens that don’t work correctly, because they were not properly tested, or maybe HD components were added after the initial installation.

Nowadays, when the AV guy (or girl) joins a project team, eyebrows are immediately raised.  Architects are forced to consider the additional cost of a dedicated AV consultant versus an electrical engineer who says he or she can also “do the AV part” of the drawings and specs.  But AV design is not as simple as adding conduits and placing junction boxes based on previous designs.  I don’t blame the architects for hating the AV guys, we have been making their rooms ugly for years.  Thank God that projectors are now available in a white finish; whoever started doing that deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

Oftentimes, it’s not the AV guy’s fault for becoming the bad guy. In the early stages of a room design, the AV guy may not be present, and certain preliminary choices about ceiling heights or lighting may be made to start the architectural design.  But it’s those same ceilings and lighting fixtures that are so critical to the AV system!  Architects don’t like to hear “the projector has to go here” or ” the speakers need to go there” after they have already drawn up their rooms.  How many times have you had to say, “I need a place to put the AV rack” and gotten a blank stare in return?  Although we are only the bearers of the bad news, we are seen as being negative and difficult to the rest of the design team, because the supposed bad news is really just something they did not anticipate.

Another big reason we are the bad guys is tighter budgets.  The recent economy has put a lot of focus on cutting spending, so project budgets are usually too small to start with.  Architects, cost estimators, and/or end users will come up with some random number for an AV budget :

Them – We have set aside $10k for the new auditorium speakers

Me – Okay, but what about the rest of the AV system, the projector, the amplifiers, tie lines, the video switching and audio board?

Them – Yes, that’s included in the 10K

Me – Does that number including engineering and labor?

Them – We just figured that 10k would cover everything.

Me – My ROM (rough order of magnitude) estimate is $100,000 for the AV equipment and $50,000 for associated labor.  You will have to get the additional electrical conduits and outlets needed for the AV system priced when the AV design is completed.

Them – We don’t need much, just 2 speakers and a projector.  The electrician said he has the projector outlet in his budget already.   $10,000 should be enough to cover the AV equipment and labor.  We don’t need anything fancy.  $10,000 is a lot of money, after all.

Me – Yes, but unfortunately, it’s not enough money for what you want, or need.

And suddenly, the AV guy becomes the bad guy.  The naysayer.  The guy who is pushing the project beyond its budget, all because he needs to install some fancy schmancy HD system.  The client usually comes back the next day and asks if we could use smaller speakers to save money.  I do my best to make the design as simple as possible to minimize costs, while still covering the room properly in sound.   Then the architect tells me he doesn’t want to see the speakers. 

When the system finally gets installed, the users are mad because it doesn’t have all the features they requested like recording, because they were not part of the budget discussions when those features were cut.  They also want to play songs from their Ipod or Smartphone and the system as installed does not support that type of input.  The AV designer is blamed for not listening to the needs of the client.

So how do we as AV experts avoid getting pulled to the “dark side” and becoming the bad guy?  First off, its important to talk about the project AV budget up front, before you enter into contracts or make any design comments.  Set the expectations early and correctly so that all team members are not surprised later in the projects.  Tell the architect and engineers what rooms may have projection screens or wall mounted flatpanels so they can plan ahead as much as possible.  If displays are cut from the budget, its best practice to still put in the conduits and backing for future tenant improvements.

By designing a system that meets all of the user’s needs, then marking certain portions of the design as future, you can meet tight budgets and still maintain some level of future-proofing a system.  Get in as early as possible, attend any meetings you can even if they say that “AV doesn’t really need to be there yet”.  Being present at the earlier meetings, you can get to know the design team better, and pick up on some room details that would otherwise surprise you later in the project, like acoustics.  You can also put the kibosh on lighting or windows that may be problematic with your display system.

Ask the right questions, set proper expectations, and stay within budget; these three things you must do to stay on the good side of “The Force”.


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