23.05.17

Conference & Congress: Mobile Meetings

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The meeting room is changing, forcing conferencing systems to evolve. Paul Milligan finds out how the technology is adapting to new demands.

It feels like conference systems have been around forever, from a time long before Skype and FaceTime.  The technology has moved at a steady pace, introducing new improvements such as wireless, biometrics, touchscreens, video camera control, RFiD, built-in DSPs and others over the years.  Over the last decade and beyond it has carved out a niche for itself in the AV world, and was the recipient of a boost when the UC&C boom took off in the last five years. 

One consequence of that boom is now proving to be one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced, the rise of mobile working, and what that is doing to the makeup of the modern meeting rooms.

Has the growth of a more mobile workforce and BYOD in recent years changed how conference system manufacturers design products?  “The technology has influenced people’s mindset, but not necessarily the design of the products,” says Kevin Beazley, conference systems manager for Shure Distribution UK. 

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It’s influence isn’t quite there yet agrees Sandra Kellermann, conference business development manager EMEA for Audio-Technica Europe.  “It has definitely had an impact, but not yet as far as it will.  End users cannot be told how to work and how to behave, they are very strong minded, much more than 25 years ago.” She feels the impact of BYOD will be felt much more as the next decade unfolds. 

There are still unresolved issues around supplying BYOD capabilities in the corporate market, and that is stopping manufacturers and end users from combining it with conferencing products, as Didier Rosez, product manager for Televic Conference illustrates, “We are not getting any requests for mobile in the projects we are involved in, there is still a worry around the certainty it will work, as often they are in critical applications like the EU Commission.”  The sheer variety of devices in BYOD is another hurdle slowing its adoption with conferencing systems adds Jack De Keyser, VP of sales, Europe for Media Vision, “Software, firmware and hardware must be compliant at the same time for sometimes what is a very large group of people.  Authorising employee-owned devices in a corporate or institutional environment is still a big challenge.”

Huddle rooms

The rise of the huddle room has been much discussed in the last 18 months, both in the media and in the industry.  Where huddle rooms cross the path of conferencing systems is something that has drawn the attention of all manufacturers in the market.  Where we are right now can best be summed up by Andy Niemann, director business communications, Sennheiser, “Huddle rooms can be a nightmare, but they are also an opportunity.”  For all audio manufacturers huddle rooms, boardrooms, meeting rooms are very challenging because as Beazley points out, ‘space is money’.  “Before you had a dedicated meeting room, you no longer have that dedicated room, that space is now being used by multiple people on multiple occasions for multiple applications.” 

To help it meet the needs of huddle rooms, which at the moment are still undefined, Shure has launched the Microflex Advance ceiling and table array, built to be moved around a small meeting room for eight people or less, its not alone, Sennheiser has launched TeamConnect Ceiling system which features a ceiling microphone and automatic beamforming technology and DSP for echo cancellation and auto mixing.  As discussed in our Integrators Roundtable (InAVate Nov 2016 p36), huddle rooms often represent a decrease in AV spend over traditional meetings rooms, but the sector is addressing that too.  Taiden has produced the HCS-3900 system, an entry-level conference system that allows users to record a session on a USB stick or on a smart card, and can be connected to a PC via USB to the main conference unit for use with a gooseneck mic for a Skype call.

Huddle rooms present far more of a challenge for audio vendors than they do for video, Kellermann explains why, “For optimal audio you need to know the space and make adjustments, and fiddle with parameters, and that’s not easy to do with ad-hoc meetings.”  Kellermann also makes another valid point about conferencing, does the nature of the meeting dictate the type of room you will use? “We have to understand what is a meeting, and was is a discussion.  Somebody usually manages a meeting and let’s people talk, so conferences will still be part of a closed environment.  If you work for Saudi Aramco I don’t think there will be many open meeting spaces, you need a level of secrecy.  End users will dictate the levels of openness, or lack of it.”

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The networking of all things AV has been going on for a decade, but are conferencing systems immune to this? “Integration is probably the biggest growth in the conferencing market in the last couple of years, some of that is down to rooms being multi-functional and a lack of technicians around.   Your equipment has to work with other manufacturer’s equipment, and that room has to be more flexible to meet a variety of needs, which means a variety of technologies all working together, and talking together,” says Beazley. 

With integration high on the agenda, does this mean conferencing manufacturers are having to work more closely with the links of Crestron, AMX etc than they have before? “You can’t call yourself serious in this business if your products don’t work with Crestron, AMX, Extron etc,” says Kellermann. The level of integration now demanded by integrators and end users is being reflected in the new conferencing products hitting the market says Beazley.  “One way to meet this (integrate systems) is to have a pre-configured layout using AMX or Crestron control, so the client can walk in the room and press preset1, which caters for a standard four people around a table meeting, press preset2 and it caters for eight people, with some added sound reinforcement, then that ticks the box for the customer, because its like flicking a light switch.”

One growing trend right now, triggered by the current political climate but aided by AV/IT convergence, is conference systems being used for web streaming.  “There is a huge push for transparency in local government, so we are seeing requests for on-demand video and web streaming,” says Rosez. “This is changing the whole architecture of conference rooms as well, some councils in the past would have chosen a simple audio discussion system, now they want to have the voting integrated and camera tracking, in order to make it possible to offer transparency towards the public.” 

Conferencing systems can now feature camera control, voice activation (vox) and even facial recognition is being developed, so how will these elements evolve over time? “We are experimenting with voice activation, because we see a need for intelligent microphones to distinguish between voice and noise,” says Niemann.  He has hit on the current stumbling block for vox system, as Kellermann illustrates, “If you are not careful with the sensitivity settings even coughing or blowing your nose can set it off.  It works best when given to one person, a VIP or someone elderly for example, who isn’t familiar with ‘push to talk’ technology, then it comes in very handy.” 

Clearly vox is still in development, but progress is being made, Televic for example has a feature in its D-Cercno system called ‘pencil drop’, which aims to eliminate small noises in vox systems.   Camera control has been around for a while, Polycom introduced its Eagle Eye system in 20XX, but it has come to prominence recently with the rise in demand for web streaming, and the availability of low cost systems like YouTube, Skype for Business or BlueJeans.  Facial recognition is still on the horizon, but because improved components are hitting the market every week it isn’t too far away, Taiden for example has confirmed its working on facial recognition using the 8megapixel camera built in to its new G3 congress terminal.

One area where the industry is split is the use of a DSP in conferencing, is it necessary? If one is used, it is better for it to be integrated within a conferencing system or is it more effective as a separate unit? “The problem with a DSP is you are introducing latency, and latency is delay.  If you start having multiple pieces of equipment with DSP in, you are introducing quite a big delay to the process,” says Beazley.  “It depends who you talk to,” says Kellermann, “I would always say a conference system could substitute any DSP system for a meeting.  If you talk to a microphone engineer they would say use a DSP.”

Where there was agreement was that the best approach to include a DSP or not was done on a project to project basis.  A huddle room shouldn’t need one, but a large conference room with sound reinforcement or sound uplift or video conferencing capabilities should use one.  Televic is one company keen to keep the technologies separate, “We don’t have any ambitions to become a DSP manufacturer, its better we provide the means to easily connect to those systems, rather than do it ourselves,” says Rosez. 

Whereas Audio-Technica goes the other way, “The two things have to be merged, because the DSP, when it comes to the microphone part, has one characteristic, plus the audio features, but the conference system has other features the DSP will never have.  But that’s not true any longer, because we now have conference systems with all the parameters in terms of conference modes, in terms of open microphones, in terms of priorities, triggering microphones etc built together in the system. Some manufacturers have been rather tentative in bringing these features together so far.”

Others, like Andy Niemann from Sennheiser are keen to look at DSP, and vox etc in the wider context of promoting ease of use, “People like us and DSP manufacturers are all forming alliances to ensure interoperability is spreading, so the end user doesn’t have to consider how the system works every time they walk in the room, because it’s the same everywhere.  That’s what people want to see, they don’t care about technology, they just want to use it."