Equity of experience: How IDNS delivered a conferencing masterpiece

When it comes to meetings, nothing but the best should suffice. Reece Webb discovers a conferencing revolution at The Manchester College.

The importance of the meeting experience has reached new heights, as hybrid and remote working becomes the norm in the post-pandemic workspace. This is certainly the case for The Manchester College in the UK and other members of the education-centric LTE Group, which shares the Executive Office space at the Manchester College’s Openshaw campus.

New ways of working require new solutions, which has triggered a complete refurbishment of the Manchester College’s meeting spaces to bring them up to spec for a new era of meetings. The College turned to long term partner IDNS to carry out this dramatic overhaul, turning its aging, divisible meeting spaces into an executive boardroom and multiple smaller meeting spaces that offer a familiar feel no matter where participants choose to meet.

Stephen Massey, project manager, IDNS, explains: “We’ve been AV partners to The Manchester College since 2013 and we have delivered specialist AV spaces with them before, including lecture theatres and, of course, the original executive offices refurbishment back in 2013. The boardroom system at that time was a segmented room that could be opened or divided.

“LTE group operations have moved into this office, so that was why the refurbishment needed to take place. When the redesign came around, they came to us and said ‘We’re going to refresh this, what do you think? What shall we do?”

 IDNS was given the task of redefining the aging executive office space into a location fit for modern videoconferencing. Crucially, offering an equitable experience for remote and in-room participants. The objective was clear – create a system that is simple for participants from different organisations to use while meeting the exacting standards of a modern, high-definition meeting experience, as demanded by the college SLT and the LTE Group.

Above board 

The redesigned executive boardroom called for a radical re-imagining of the space, removing the segmented room concept in favour of an all-encompassing AV system comprising multiple screens throughout and high-quality audio in a glass-enclosed room.

Massey explains: “The design that we created in late 2023 was envisioned to be as intuitive to use as possible. Providing maximum flexibility for people that want to present with their own equipment, while keeping connectivity as simple as we could manage. The client insisted on a single connection solution with one cable for each function and easy to understand control buttons, that’s all it had to be.”

Working with the client’s chosen building contractor, IDNS truly transformed this space. The partitions have been removed to create an accessible and modern boardroom for the College SLT and the LTE Group. “Equity of experience is the name of the game”, says Massey, “You could have a full team of 26 people in here, plus numerous remote attendees. Meetings are run from the Lenovo ThinkSmart Core Microsoft Teams Room input panel, with multiple HDMI ports for content ingress content and sharing, plus a port for BYOD that allows you to run a meeting from a laptop just with the panel. People are happy to book the room and use the MTR. HDMI ingress is included so that anybody can take over; if you want to use the room gear, you just use this, but most visitors just want to use the MTR capabilities.”

Two Aver auto-tracking cameras are used, supported by a Panasonic ultra-wide, fixed angle model. IDNS designed this setup to complement the client’s vision of a large, elegant wishbone table; custom-made by Quadra AV Furniture, this is a bold statement piece that brings the experience to life.

“We worked alongside Quadra and the client to create this bespoke wishbone table. The angles of the furniture mean we can group each [two-person] section that comprises the desk with two-person framing from the cameras. When somebody starts talking, the system voicetracks, locks, and zooms in, always showing the two active seats. The ceiling was designed with voice-tracking in mind. We have Shure beamforming mic arrays and ceiling tile speakers; we implemented a full voice-lift system, and it is frequently mentioned by the SLT and directors how good it is. If you are sat at the front, looking at somebody on the screen, even the people at the back can hear as clearly as if they were sat next to them.”

For audio processing, IDNS specified a QSC Core 8 processor DSP, with the touchpanel running both Extron LinkLicense and a Q-SYS front-end. “The rack and hardware are not on the wall so it isn't visible,” says Massey, “There’s not lots of input plates everywhere, but there’s also not a complete lack of ports. It is designed to be simple – the touchscreens will say commence meeting, or you hit the options button, tap present mode, you then share/present by plugging in one HDMI cable. It’s all about that easily accessible functionality.”

The boardroom presented its own unique challenges, especially where cabling is concerned thanks to a hefty amount of kit and a discreetly hidden rack located in an adjoining room. Massey says: “We had some challenges extending the cabling. It’s all USB, and a mix of current standards. A lot of MTRs are designed to be set up in the corner within certain distance and cable lengths, so we did have to get creative with extension to keep it all hidden. If you go below the desk, you’ll see a hole through the concrete floor into the ceiling below, with cabling running into the archive room where the rack is located, routing the cabling bundles through there.

“Nothing is on the floor or can be seen, it’s all masked within or under the desk, keeping it all neat, tidy, and tamperproof. Within the boardroom table, there are HDMI switches, cables, and space for the kit to be installed, then accessed for maintenance. It’s all about the synergy between the AV, the furniture, and the building itself. The three have been considered together, and that’s what has led to this project being so successful.”

This setup, though subject to a rigorous and comprehensive design process, was not without its challenges. An unorthodox solution to meet the switching needs of the room’s triple-camera layout was required. Massey explains: “We had to go for a broadcast switcher in the end, which is quite unusual. The switcher we initially specified and fitted had a triple-camera layout, but it just didn’t feel quite fast or snappy enough, even allowing for a partial transition between feeds. The lag was an issue for us, despite working fine on paper, and functioning with a minimal transition period that the client accepted.

“When we tested it, it was in time, but it just didn’t feel right. It was a late decision from us, and I’m proud that we went for it. We thought that it could be better for the client, so we made it happen, and they were very happy with it. We supplied several broadcast switchers, each requiring integration in a different way. Eventually, we paired the Inogeni Cam300 switcher and Inogeni Toggle to switch between the BYOD USB connection and the MTR usage. It was tricky to program, but it makes a huge difference to the switching time and experience.”

Minimised meeting 

IDNS was also responsible for outfitting smaller videoconferencing spaces designed for a maximum capacity of seven people. These identical rooms orbit the executive boardroom, allowing teams from the College or LTE Group to pick a space that matches their size and needs. For IDNS, it was crucial that equity of experience was emphasised here too, bringing a unified approach to the AV systems in the spaces, which would allow meeting participants to access familiar and dependable conferencing systems no matter where they are in the office.

“There's three smaller meeting rooms in a row”, adds Massey, “It’s a lot simpler here, Polycom X30 videobar with a TC8 touchpanel. There’s BYOD functionality built into the table, offering charging and HDMI inputs. It’s the same experience as the executive room, but minimised. This is used for face-to-face meetings and presentations with occasional hybrid use.”

Samsung 43-in QB series displays with MagicInfo signage and remote management are used with Quadra’s Alliance range of collaborative tables to create an intimate feel for smaller meetings.

Massey explains: “Quadra supplied all the furniture and chairs in every room. You can cluster around this table when it’s used for a Teams meeting. The wide-angle lens of the X30 picks everybody up at the head of the table, creating that huddle feel.

“Every single piece of furniture is custom made, even the chairs were custom made for us. The client wanted the chairs made in the LTE Group colours with a chrome base to tie into the building’s aesthetics. Even the AV kit matches the furniture!”

The meeting spaces are topped off by a 12-seater meeting room, offering a larger alternative to the smaller meeting place with a setup that users will find instantly familiar.

“It’s a step below the boardroom in that we didn't need a full wishbone-shaped table, but we still wanted that equity of experience for participants” explains Massey. IDNS provided a Poly X50 videobar for this space, as well as 55-in Samsung Q series touch displays and a Quadra tapered table. “The screens are interactive”, says Massey, “so the meeting can be controlled by either the displays or from the desk via the TC8 control panel.”

Today, The Manchester College and LTE Group proudly boasts a modern videoconferencing system for its executive teams, catering for any size of meeting with the same level of flexibility and familiarity throughout.

Massey closes: “The project was a complex but satisfying one, it is rare to have the audio-visual experience, the building design and the furniture all so carefully considered together. It made a real difference in the creation of the environment and minimised compromise. It helped that the client knew firmly what experience they wanted, and I feel we certainly delivered. “We’re looking to do campuswide digital signage at The Manchester College across the reception areas in the future. I was very proud of the IDNS team, our reaction times to the challenges that we faced and that we were able to come together to counter them, allowing us to fully deliver on this focal point of a project.”

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