Congress systems - Time to vote
From touchscreen terminals to opinion voting, congress systems are more sophisticated than ever before. Adrian Pennington explores the options available to integrators.
When delegates fly in from all over the world for a high profile meeting they expect to get the most out of their precious time. The meeting environment must be of the highest standards: intelligibility must be optimal, confidentiality should be guaranteed and the conference equipment is expected to perform without a glitch. The goal of having any congress system is to improve the meeting experience.
The end-users of a congress system are most likely delegates of local or governmental institutions tiering up to delegates from national/international summits.
Since delegates have to concentrate and focus on the discussion, the first function of a delegate conference system unit has to be usability. “A typical unit should have an intuitive interface, where no IT knowledge is necessary and be a simple to handle tool for speech intelligibility and structured discussion,” says Robert Pekar, facility management director at Munich-based CS Congress-Services. Jubilee Bao, engineer from Taiden agrees, “End users of conference systems are not usually highly skilled, but almost all of them have the experience of operating a PC or smartphone. Conference system terminals are designed to be simple so normally users wouldn’t have too much trouble.”
Within local government skill levels can vary dramatically, reports Simon Druce of CUK Audio, which represents Televic in the UK and Ireland. “Primarily this is because the variety of users across departments bring different requirements to the room so being able to offer training is paramount to successfully helping a client adopt it. It’s not necessarily a user having zero experience, it’s more a case of them understanding how the technology benefits them.”
“The user of congress systems doesn’t care at all about IT,” is the no-nonsense message from Kain Audio’s Franz Werner. “The skills level for the equipment is most of the time quite limited, therefore the congress system should be as easy as possible to use,” he suggests. “The user quite rightly just expects it to function properly.”
For special conferences where additional information/materials are required, content there are high-end delegate units, such as the Bosch Dicentis, which enables participants to collect all meeting related documents on one device and in any format including JPG, PPT, MP4 and XLS.
“It is possible with such devices to show actual speaker images by automatic camera control on the devices, to enable media-sharing from the presenter on the device or to have special apps which helps support conference information,” explains Pekar.
Yes to voting
More and more users are looking to utilise voting to ease the democratic process and aid transparency to the outside world; “Some venues like it sophisticated, some are still voting by raising their hands,” notes Werner.
“A simple yes/no/abstain will usually be suitable but those systems that can customise the voting process and really tailor the user experience will always be the chosen solution,” says Druce. “Customisation can mean anything from polling delegates on which food they want for lunch or adding in ad hoc votes. Assigning the right total congress solution always means working from the end user needs back up the chain.”
Aside from the required voting options - YES/NO/Abstain - opinion polling can be introduced with ++/+/0/-/-- or special country-specific voting functions and demands. Modern conference systems feature touch-screen delegate units where voting can be set-up for individual topics on the agenda.
“This has the advantage that no dedicated hardware per type of voting is needed,” says Pekar. “It can be simply configured by software.”
The prevalence of BYOD has increased dramatically over the last 12-18 months, even down to local government level. This method of working can give the user the ability to have a singular workspace yet take part in all major collaborative aspects. The rise of BYOD hasn’t gone unnoticed by manufacturers of congress systems. “Integrated systems are becoming more and more popular. Products should be compatible to third party equipment and all products should comply with a public protocol or standard. By so doing, they should be able to work together.” says Mike Gu, engineer, Taiden.
Televic has a range of ways of bringing BYOD into its products, as Druce outlines, “With PLIXUS in/out boxes, any video is injected onto the Plixus Core and then becomes one of the six available HD streams. Using our own encoding process, we ensure all the streams use minimal bandwidth yet retain the integrity and quality that is required to view the finer details - of Excel or Powerpoints, for example. This can then be selected from any connected device as a source to view. Individuals can choose the source they want making the user experience totally tailored.”
With the Bosch Dicentis conference system it is possible, via a simple link to the main conference server, to show content management on BYOD. It is also possible to connect applications like Barco Click-Share to share the presentation of a delegate from their laptop with a simple click.
“The trend to BYOD is increasing and might become standard in the future,” suggests Pekar. “For this to happen, however, a lot of data security and safety restrictions have to be obeyed as the content of a conference is really sensitive.”
Ensuring secure communications is paramount especially at high-profile government / United Nations level where delegates must be assured of confidentiality and security: what goes on in the room stays in the room.
Professional conference systems can encrypt the audio protocol as protection against tampering. Wireless conference systems can also comply with WPA2 encryption.
Televic use a closed network in which the Plixus core can stand alone and offer fully secure communications. “When networking and integration of other tools are introduced, the individual security of those is managed separately before they enter the Plixus core thereby maintaining the simplicity and strength of Plixus,” says Druce.
Taiden’s security measures include offering a full system backup, dual main unit hot spare backup, dual power unit backup, dual PC server backup and also a daisy chain connection between microphones which can be circled back to main unit. If it’s a paperless multimedia congress system, Tadien offers GMC-STREAM technology which ensures the transmission of important data such as voice, voting and control information. Paperless multimedia congress system is also based on Taiden's own proprietary platform, so it is free of virus attacks.
If the congress system is to improve intelligibility and reduce fatigue, there cannot be any compromise on audio quality. Yet, the whole quality of speech intelligibility is only as good as the weakest element in the sound creation chain. This starts at the microphone of the delegate unit, goes through the electronics of the conference system with its limiters and compressors as well as its DSP-functionalities and ends at the loudspeaker of the units and/or the sound reinforcement installed in the venue.
“Intelligibility is always the goal… why would anyone settle for ‘good enough’?” asks Druce.
Microphone arrays can allow more freedom to speak as they have more speech distance (up to 60cm) to the speaker and are not as visible (as goosenecks) in the conference.
According to Druce, “people have tried array mics now for several years and they certainly have their place in the congress market but the common problem is that of pick up. They are designed to pick up from wide and far which, in many congress environments, isn’t what is required. Closely whispered comments and private conversations can often be transmitted into the system. In addition, due to the pick-up pattern, these system draw in more background noise and this is not ideal for the hearing assistance solution. Hearing aid users rely on intelligibility and when too much background noise is introduced, the ability to distinguish between speech and noise becomes harder. The old law of physics doesn’t change – place the source as close to the mouth as possible – intelligibility wins every time over design.”
Pekar advises that choice of microphone is also dependent on the acoustics of the individual room or hall. “Modern conference systems have pluggable mics to ensure flexibility in mic selection,” he says. “Nonetheless, for acoustical challenging rooms the gooseneck is preferred.”
When it comes to audio networking, Dante/AVB is by far and away the market leader as it is a robust, reliable, time-sensitive and industrial standard for Audio-over-IP communication.
That said, any form of networking makes a congress system more flexible in the installation space. “Being able to pull off independent mic streams via Dante, for example, makes multi track recording more simple and maintains a higher level of audio quality,” explains Druce. “It also enables routing of the external audio to breakout areas while debating chambers become flexible and more manageable.”
“In conference applications the timing of a signal is important as it has to be lip-synched with the video image of the speaker,” informs Pekar. “This is important for the interpreters as, in order to deliver simultaneous translation, they need to see the image of the speaker to ‘translate’ their words and gestures and mimic the correct interpretation of the words
Professional conference systems work with audio bandwidth which exceeds 4-6KHz which is necessary for speech only. For better sound quality bandwidth from 20Hz up to 20KHz is needed – this is also important for any outside broadcaster distributing the conference to the public.
For video, HD is important and standard. AV signals have to be lip-synched (possible with the Bosch HD Conference Dome for example, which has a special HD-SDI output to enable this). Televic’s Plixus Core can run up to six full HD streams down a single network cable.
What is often overlooked is the huge incurred cost when a meeting is delayed or when it simply can’t continue because of a system failure. It is clear that conference venues are mission-critical environments requiring equipment that offers performance, security and reliability.
Testing is “mandatory” for any rental company, states Pekar. This includes off-site factory tests as well as in the conference venue itself to test against additional challenges thrown up by the individual environment.
The more complex installs are generally worked on for several years with prototypes and ideas sent back and forth several times. Once an agreement has been reached, a small test system will always be built so that all parties involved in the project from end user, designer and integrator can understand the build and usage pattern of the overall system.
“The idea of a ‘proof of concept’ is nothing new,” suggests Druce. “Integrators and consultants have been using it for years. But with the onset of networking and especially Dante (where potentially multiple manufacturers will be pulled together to form the perfect solution) it becomes imperative to plot a smaller working model.
Without these working models, he adds, “onsite time which is probably one of the most costly aspects of any project, would increase and problems that occur would not be resolved as fast. Any opportunity to test off-site reveals the potential pitfalls, pitfalls that can be extinguished and dealt with prior to attending.”
Conference systems based on standard TCP/IP architecture are simple enough to understand by IT teams and can be connected straightforwardly to a venue’s existing network. In this case the conference system works in a kind of VLAN and has the advantage that content can be simply connected to the existing conference servers for exchange of information. Pre-meeting functions like setting up a conference meeting with all delegates, permissions and prepared voting can also be realized. What’s more, all post-meeting functions like customized presentations of voting results (as PDF or Powerpoint) can be done.
“In house IT teams are often reluctant to allow the congress system to have external access into the network, although a good percentage of our clients are happy to allow Televic products onto the network,” reports Druce.
Televic’s Plixus network is a closed network: no third party devices or connections are allowed on that part of the network that interconnects delegates and chairmen with the central equipment or Plixus Engine. Also, no device or system outside of the conference system has direct access to the mission critical part of the conference network. In this way, the vendor says not only performance and reliability of the system is maximized, but also the security is guaranteed.
The vendor further explains that the Dante interface on the Plixus Engine ensures an open communication to third party Dante enabled systems creating a wealth of possibilities for signal routing and signal processing. In this way, it claims, Plixus offers more bandwidth, better quality and less latency than any other commercial network technology.
Most legacy equipment isn’t wholly compatible with the newer congress system technology although manufacturers do work with end users to ensure that all the features and benefits of legacy equipment is integrated into their solutions. This may be via software or the ability to network legacy equipment (via Dante) into the solution.
“The obvious challenge is one of cost,” notes Druce. “Everything is possible for a price.”