The digital discussion debate

AUTHOR: Inavate

Congress systems are advancing apace, and are becoming one of the prime examples of the phenomenon of IT and AV convergence. What is now available, and what next ? These are the questions asked in this month’s technology insight.

The congress and discussion systems market remains one of the strongest in the world. Demand for these products spans the great debating chambers of world politics, multipurpose venues hosting corporate or scientific congresses and small council chambers in local government catering for as few as 30 individuals.
Whatever the application these days the feature set expected of congress systems is ever expanding. At the very top end of the market simultaneous translation in 30 languages, fully digital audio distribution and processing are taken for granted, with advanced features such as voting, agenda programming and camera control becoming more and more common.
At the mid- to low-end features that were once the preserve of only the largest and most expensive systems are becoming expected. The ever-increasing need for accountability in local government and corporate governance mean that such things as automatic minuting are more and more in demand.
To top it all, as usual, end users and rental companies want this expanded functionality at better and better prices.
Amongst all the talk of the digital, wireless, simultaneous, singing and dancing congress systems it would be easy to lose sight of what they were designed to do in the first place. That is to allow delegates to understand what the speaker is saying.
However, this is something that Italian audio company RCF kept firmly at the top of the agenda when re-entering the market with a new congress offering, as the company’s Fabio Capella and Fausto Incerti explained.
Fabio Capello, product specialist for Forum began: “Whatever other features there are, RCF is an audio company first and foremost so the sound quality is our first priority.”
“We started with the most difficult product, the most complete product; Forum 9000. In a few months we will have Forum 6000, which is a reduced system, more of a discussion system,” said Fausto Incerti.
Forum 9000 is RCF’s flagship product a fixed installation congress system with card readers, built in voting and sophisticated software control. Two central control units, when combined, can operate up to 240 delegate units, of which any one can be made into a chairman unit. The control software can be run from any PC connected to the system and opens up Forum to far more rich and user-friendly configuration options. However, 9000 is just the beginning for RCF. Over the next twelve to eighteen months the company will introduce first the 6000 series, followed by a digital simultaneous translation system and finally a digital wireless system.
Ruud Michiels, who is Bosch Security System’s product marketing specialist for the flagship DCN Next Generation system, spoke of the latest technical developments as well as possible future plans.
“The main feature is still the quality of the audio. Our customers are always looking for the best possible quality of sound from conference systems, to this point we’ve got up to 20 kHz of bandwidth for the system. The previous generation only had 14 kHz. Even the backbone of all our systems is digital by making use of optical fibre, which guarantees no loss of audio.”
Bosch has also recently announced a wireless version of the Next Generation DCN. Ruud Michiels explained the advantages: “With the wireless systems, the main advantage is the quick set-up. The other big potential application is where it’s either undesirable or illegal to damage an historical building by drilling holes for wiring.
“Our wireless system is based on 2.4GHz 802.11g technology, but using that it’s impossible to have streaming audio, so we had to build our own shell around that to enable it. This is also digitally protected to fulfil privacy requirements. Within our additional layer we have also managed to build in robustness to cell-phone, bluetooth and microwave frequencies.
“In the future I think end users would like to see more information and to retrieve data. So, for instance web browsing would allow delegates to find more information about the issues being discussed. I think the delegate unit will become more like the PC, but with additional high audio quality, interpretation and voting included.

For Danish Interpretation Systems (DIS), the future has already arrived. The company’s latest product DC 6990P was shown for the first time at InfoComm 2006 and the first shipments are expected in the autumn. The unit features a fully customisable, colour touch screen and only one unit is needed for chairman, delegate or VIP speaker. Finn Halken, CEO of DIS said; “We believe the conference market, its customers and in particular the delegates are ready to see a totally new way of interfacing with their conferencing unit.”
Unbound by the restrictions of older systems such as a limited number of soft keys on the unit, with their touch screen system, DIS will be able to introduce new functionality simply by upgrading the system’s firm- and software. Already delegates can browse the day’s agenda, see vote results in a variety of forms, find out information on other delegates and send messages.
Complementing this open approach to delegate unit functionality, is DIS’s commitment to using existing, open standards in their products wherever possible. “We’re not out to reinvent the congress wheel. The use of accepted, reliable, international standards mean that our products are much more easily integrated with other systems,” adds Halken. It’s therefore unsurprising that the company’s wired systems all run over Cat-5 type cable, and the congress management system is based on Microsoft’s SQL database.
Matt Nettlefold is Beyerdynamic’s conference and presentation manager for the UK market and he explained that the company’s key solution has been digital wireless conferencing for some time now.
The system operates in the 2.4GHz range, and the flagship MCWD 200 system has been running in it’s latest iteration since 2004, following a series of upgrades since its initial release in 2002. The system can cope with an unlimited number of participants, and can operate with a maximum of eight microphones open at once.

Newly introduced in 2005 was the MCWD 50 system, a more economical offering in the wireless space.
On the wired side, the key developments have come from the company’s recent acquisition of Interkom: “The current development, the main thing, is what we call MCS digital, which is the digital conference system they had at Interkom. It has standard push pull connectors and software interfacing. It’s a proprietary cable system aimed at the prestige, fixed install market. Once again, you can have voting on board, you can have it running as a translation system as well. MCS digital translation units can be plugged into the network.”
“One of the key features is the way it can be run as a network. Because of the way it's designed, you can have one central control unit running up to three completely different meetings in different rooms. Per control unit you can run 1400 microphone units. The next thing is the Revoluto, which we took to Frankfurt. It has the unique microphone unit, which gives you more freedom of movement to the left and right with regards to pickup.”
One man who remains distinctly sceptical about the wireless market is Thomas Verstraten marketing manager of Televic.
“There are three main issues surrounding wireless technology for congress systems: battery life, cost and robustness from interference in the 2.4GHz band. I do see opportunity in this area because I do not believe that any of the products on the market at the moment successfully resolve all three problems at once.
Televic’s work-horse system is its TCS5500. It features simultaneous interpretation for up to 60 languages.

However, not every situation calls for such complex systems as the ones described above, and indeed, a considerable portion of the installed base of congress systems remains analogue, rather than digital.
Gerhard Bauer, marketing and sales manager for Brähler ICS: “I think analogue systems will still be around for the next five or eight years. Our Infracom system for simultaneous interpretation is still available as analogue. This is because it remains compatible with all the existing installed analogue systems. Sometimes, our competitors with only their digital offerings can have difficulty pitching for retrofit work on legacy systems.”
“Of course we have a high end digital system, which is wired, and this is the CDSVAN. It has microphone voting, interpretation, facility for delegate ID cards and a protocol system for taking minutes.”
However, Brahler has yet to enter the digital wireless field. Bauer cites issues surrounding the use of RF technologies and the development cost of truly robust systems in the 2.4GHz area. For the moment Brahler are content to leave this market space to others: “For Bosch and others to have done something with this, they must have done some market research and found there to be a demand. But, we think that the demand will not be that high.”
Bauer and Verstraten are no alone in their scepticism of wireless technologies. Ziad Loufti is sales director of Auditel. In echoing previous concerns about the battery life, robustness and price of wireless congress systems, Loufti also contends that no matter what anyone says, digital wireless systems, such as those offered by Bosch or Beyerdynamic, simply are not completely secure. He goes on to say that their much greater costs prohibits rental companies from wanting to use them, and therefore the only real application is the niche market of historical buildings.
Ziad also casts doubt on the need for digital audio in congress systems. “The only place you really need digital audio is in Europe where it is now mandatory to be able to translate 25 or 30 languages if you want to supply to the EU. Digital is only required then to keep the amount of cabling sensible. We believe that today a lot of the hype surrounding digital audio is really marketing talk. It’s not needed at all in the majority of situations. Our current system is fully digital except for the audio, and we believe that the customer really can’t tell the difference between digital and analogue sound.”

TOA also offer a product down the lower end of the market. Their TS 800 and TS 900 systems are infrared wireless products. Ian Bridgewater explained the rationale: “What we’re finding more and more is that conference rooms and council chambers are becoming multipurpose and they don’t want to plug things in and out all the time. Cables get lost or connectors broken. With this, you put the unit on the table, charge up the batteries, and off you go.”
“The TS 900 allows for up to 96 delegates and on board voting functionality. That’s more than adequate for a council chamber in local government. It even offers an extra audio channel for a second language.
“Another advantage of IR over other wireless technologies is security. You have to have the base station to get any audio out of the system, there’s no way you can hack it by listening in on the radio frequency.”
So, it seems clear that the full range of congress systems are becoming more feature rich. Features that were once available at the very high end are slowly moving down the price scale. Things that were once additional options, such as voting, are now standard features. At the very high end, delegate units are heading more and more in the direction of information terminals. PIN card identification, flexible delegate units and software based conference control are now becoming the norm for high specification solutions.
Given some of the comments both on and off the record that were gleaned for this article, it’s definitely worth taking the time to think about what is the most appropriate solution to a congress requirement, rather than picking the latest and greatest. How many languages need translation, how secure must your system be, and, above all, what is the budget? In the land of digital audio, the sky is the limit where price is concerned.
It is perhaps unsurprising that those who offer a wireless system rave about its security, reliability and ease of use, whilst those that do not are more cautious.
Overall the congress systems are starting to look more and more like an IT network than an audio system. Convergence it seems is everywhere.