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Extron Adventures and DDMC Session Recap

By: Richard Mitchell

Last month, I had the fortune of attending Extron’s Control Professional Certification Program. The three-day course, which Extron recommends for “advanced users or control system programmers” was painless enough to pass with my meager programming background. The class was taught in a way that built on concepts, where at the end of the session, I felt comfortable programming a basic AV system… granted, there is still plenty to learn. This experience was in stark contrast to some of the non-Extron AV programming classes I’ve taken in the past. In a word, the class was enjoyable.

My five key takeaways from the Extron Control Professional Certification Program class are:

  • The Graphical User Interface (GUI) Designer is Surprisingly User-Friendly
    GUI Designer, the application used to design graphical user interfaces for Extron TouchLink Pro Touchpanels, is intuitive enough to quickly design basic user interfaces. Better yet, Extron offers a range of full-featured themes that allows a novice AV technician to piece together a nice looking interface in a short period of time. While I’m no artist, I built a custom user interface with a few pages, popups, etc. with ease. Is GUI Builder the most advanced GUI builder in the industry, no… but for University environments… perhaps “reasonably advanced” is advanced enough?
  • Programming… Also Easy
    Before taking the class, Extron’s programming environment (Global Configurator Plus and Professional) was explained to me as “fine for basic things, small rooms, etc., but for more sophisticated classroom environments, you really need a different platform.” That may have been true in the past, but in 2019, nothing could be further from the truth. The application’s feature-rich design allows a user to rapidly develop a functioning AV system in a short period of time. Technically, this isn’t “programming,” but rather scripting or configuring (that’s probably why it’s called Global Configurator). There were a few minor instances where the environment couldn’t magically do exactly what I wanted… but as Yoda once said… “No. There is another.” For considerably more demanding environments, Extron also offers Global Scripter, a Python-based programming environment for Extron’s Pro processors. With Python’s text-based programming, if you can dream it… Extron’s hardware should be able to do it.
  • A File Structure that Makes Sense
    If you’ve ever asked an external AV integrator to, “send me the final control system files,” only to receive 10-20 files, many looking confusingly similar, you aren’t along. You may receive the GUI, program file(s), IR driver(s), modules, config files, etc. etc. It’s a mess and can be unnecessarily confusing for novice programmers… not to mention the issue of properly versioning your programs. With Extron, a similar request for a program could result in a single file! That single file contains all of the above-mentioned components but in a nice and neat package. Sure, groups seem to be fine managing dozens of files… but should they need to?
  • Access to the Program/GUI
    One nice feature of Extron’s environment is that if you have physical access to the processor and assuming the device is functional, you can download the program and GUI. So, if you have an AV system installed by an external AV integrator… and three years later you want to change or remove something as small as a button (aka, you finally get rid of that VCR)… BUT, the external AV integrator has gone out of business, no worries… you can download, modify and re-upload the program or GUI with ease or source that out to another programmer. This isn’t the case with many AV manufacturers… and stories of AV integrators holding programs or modules “hostage” aren’t uncommon. This feature benefits the owner of the hardware over the installer, and that makes me happy.
  • Rapid Development and Innovation Made Easy
    One striking takeaway from the session was how easy it is to rapidly develop a unique AV control system. Making minor, and not so minor, adjustments to both the GUI and program takes just minutes to implement… allowing true innovation with the platform. This is start contract to being dependant upon external AV integrators. To truly innovate in an AV environment, you must have low-level access to the programming environment. This is something Extron allows any reasonably-experienced AV technician to implement.
  • An Alternative Approach to Hardware
    One interesting observation I have is that Extron seems to lag slightly behind other AV manufacturers when it comes to the bleeding edge of AV. For example, their AV over IP solutions have only recently started shipping, where others have been shipping for 2-3 years or longer. You can see this in a few different ways… one, that they are playing catch-up (this seems unrealistic), two, that Extron has a bit more of a “wait and see” approach before throwing resources into a flawed trend. A third alternative is that they want to get it right the first time in contrast to being first to market (and first to force a half-dozen firmware updates on early adopters – AKA free-beta tester). While it can be fun to be on the bleeding edge, but it’s called “the bleeding edge” for a reason.

The Extron DDMC session we hosted at Duke mirrored many of the topics covered above. While I’m in no way saying “throw out all of your AV systems and go 100% Extron!” My key takeaway is that Extron has some compelling hardware/software solutions worthy of note. Also, your perception of Extron’s offerings may be somewhat out-of-date if you haven’t given them a serious deep-dive over the past three years. Finally, I’ve found their sales folks to be wonderful to work with… in the highly competitive industry of AV, it’s refreshing.

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