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  • Ernie Beck, CTS-D

First Principles Thinking: Designing AV/IT Systems like Tesla

Recently, my son and I sat down to rewatch Elon Musk debut the Tesla Semi Truck on their YouTube channel. This truck is truly an amazing piece of engineering. Greater range, speed, efficiency then all standard diesel trucks on the market - without question. All while running on virtually zero emissions.

Tesla Semi Cabin Interior: Courtesy of Tesla

True to Tesla's MO, the company is all about focusing on creating cars with optimal performance combined with an unmatched driver experience, at a price point that is cost-competitive in the market. And it's starting to pay off. BMW CEO Harald Kruger recently resigned many speculate in-part due to the disruption Tesla is causing in the marketplace.

During the Tesla Semi unveiling, Musk began talking about the cabin design. He outlined the current state of diesel truck interiors today...

It's a clutter of third-party devices, it's difficult to use, the integration and installation...these things don't talk to each other...there's significant add-on costs. ~ Elon Musk

Yikes, that sounded familiar. AV/IT systems are notorious for being a hodgepodge of vendors, which in-turn requires highly-skilled specialists to install and program, which leads to added costs for upgrades.

However, there is some good news. AV/IT systems are edging closer to SDAV models (software-defined AV), for example Dante As Software, and away from purpose-built hardware boxes. Companies like Zoom are reshaping the video conferencing market by taking historically proprietary, and expensive communication tools and making them more simple, scalable and open to a variety of devices. But how do we as an industry apply the logic and spirit of Tesla in our every day designs?

The best solution is not where everyone is already looking.

To understand how Musk has managed to achieve massive disruption in the automobile, space travel, solar power and battery storage industries, you should first understand the First Principles way of design thinking. The First Principles theory essentially boils an idea down to its most fundamental truths and re-builds up from there. This is opposed to design reasoning by analogy or anecdotes. That is to say, much (not all) of the AV industry has been historically replicating what other manufacturers, integrators, and consultants do with slight variations and incremental improvements. Just go to Infocomm and you'll see iterations of the same product in several different categories. Variety is certainly great, but true innovation is the exception in the market, whereas most are just trying to play catch up with the next booth.

Often times this means how to make an AV system simpler. Most client's don't care about technical terminology like visual acuity, speech intelligibility, pixel pitch, resolution, etc. The vast majority of AV/IT end-user care about the same core things:

Is it easy to use?

How easy is it to maintain?

How much does it cost?

Is it secure?

To apply First Principles to designing AV systems, I usually find myself starting with some straight forward questions. One can then reiterate certain questions again moving through different stages of the design process. What applications is a space used for 90% of the time? How can AV/IT technology support 100% of that 90%? What functions are essential vs. nice-to-have? How difficult is upgrading to the auxiliary features later? How much can be automated to allow the focus to be on collaboration, not getting a system running?

I suspect however that much of the change will need to happen at the manufacturing level. For example the DisplayTEN D7 Zoom Board. Its is an IT appliance, with all aspects of AV system pre-integrated. It may not play Blu-ray discs, but it covers 90% of the applications 100% of the time, with less infrastructure and installation costs.

As Musk describes it, First Principles is a physics way of solving problems. Challenging conventional thinking and finding more efficient methods of doing things. He didn't invent the Semi-Truck, he's making it more efficient. He didn't invent space travel, he's making making it cheaper.

You're not going to re-engineer a new way to brew coffee every morning, but applying some First Principles thinking to your AV/IT product or system design methodology may be the secret sauce to innovation.