Research redefined: Efficient AV at the PEARL institute

Cutting edge research requires first class technology. Reece Webb discovers how flexibility combines with intelligent design for a unique research environment.

University College London’s PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity-Research-Laboratory) is a unique space where experiments are conducted in realistic, controlled environments without using a real-life public space.

Clocking in at 4,000 sq metres wide and 10 metres high, the Groove, PEARL, allows researchers to create life-sized environments such as a railway station, high street or town square to examine how people interact with the environment and other people in these spaces for the purpose of research.

Such an installation required immense flexibility, and an adaptable space is what was delivered by AV integrator IDNS.

IDNS has previously worked with the client before, having operated as a preferred supplier for UCL for more than six years. The company won the tender and liaised directly with the university as Sebastian Stanciu, senior project manager, IDNS explained: “UCL do a lot of their own designs, with their own in-house design team. We looked at their designs, made some comments and made clarifications to adjust the designs for the space.”

The PEARL was envisioned as an innovation project, requiring flexible spaces for its staff and students. The facility boasts a variety of multipurpose spaces that can be adapted at a moment’s notice to the needs of its users.

Moving into the building, visitors are greeted by the reception area, serving as a community space as well as a traditional reception environment. A Dante-enabled Ampetronic hearing loop driver is present for hard of hearing visitors and staff, and the area can also act as an overspill for the first seminar room located next door when numbers require.

The induction loop is also present in the facility’s seminar room and lecture space.

A small PA system is used for announcements, using Cornered Audio loudspeakers and AKG paging microphones alongside a NEC digital signage screen deployed in the space for observation of the main hall via a feed from the in-room cameras.

Moving next door, we come to ‘the Base’, a flexible, hybrid seminar/meeting space which features an NEC ShadowSense touch display mounted on a balance box. This screen can be moved easily up and down despite its 150kg weight, enabling rapid configuration of the room and the display to suit the needs of the room’s occupants.

Shure bodypacks and microphones are provided as additional voice reinforcement is required for when the reception area is used as an overspill.

The room is supported by a Crestron control system and includes a Dante-enabled Sennheiser ceiling microphone.

"Flexibility is the key while still paying attention to the cost of the project." - Sebastian Stanciu, IDNS

QSC PTZ cameras also provide a comprehensive videoconferencing experience, merged through a QSC Core processor to the DSP. This controls both the audio and video signals travelling in and out, offering a high level of flexibility within the room.

Stanciu: “A traditional learning environment will offer the means to view content, share content and perhaps voice reinforcement. We offer much more than that, as we have two local PCs within the rack and auxiliary input plates for BYOD functionality. One of these PCs serves as the videoconferencing element to allow remote participants to engage, alongside the local PC to access UCL’s networks on BYOD devices. We have all of this, plus the QSC Flex system and full hybrid element.”

Located in the PEARL’s corridors are five NEC Multisync 40-in professional LFDs. IDNS took the initiative to enable these screens to work as ‘windows’ into ongoing experiments that are happening on site.

Stanciu: “The four PTZ cameras deployed in the main experimentation hall have their feeds pushed on to the digital signage screens. This enables the users to see what’s going on before jumping into the experiment.”

In addition to IDNS’ work on the project, the main experimentation hall is home to a panLab 2 spatial sound design and mixing tool, installed by the UCL PEARL team.

The 4,000 sq m space is also equipped with a large L-Acoustics L-Isa immersive sound installation, enabling researchers to reproduce sonic environments, from the tiniest bird song to massive explosions.

Further on, there is a laboratory space, called ‘the maker space’. This is a lab space where students work, incorporating a Crestron videoconferencing soundbar and a Huddly conference camera.

“The Huddly camera automatically maps the image to the participants of the room, capturing sound from eight metres away and offering reasonable sound power for the space.”

A 75-in NEC touchscreen is also available for users to access the facilities within the room. This display is mounted on Unicol pull-out brackets, offering easy access for future engineers working or troubleshooting the system.”

Approaching the main control room for the space, visitors will find a Crestron touchscreen panel serving as a booking panel to see if and when the room is in use. The touchscreen incorporates custom LED lighting to indicate visually whether the room is in use or not.

The facility’s IT cabinet is home to a Crestron RMC4, working as a processor to intertwine the AV system with the fire alarm interface.

Stanciu says: “As soon as that processor is triggered, all of the AV systems are muted and shut down and all of the touch panels within the building display a red image instructing occupants of the building to leave.”

Going up the stairs, occupants reach room 105. Envisioned as a mirror image to the flexible seminar/meeting space. This space includes an 86-in NEC display with a Crestron RMC4 and Q-Sys Core 8 Flex processors. This space also includes Shure ceiling microphones to capture audio.

The open lecture space located further along is a massive open space, incorporating an electric drop-down screen and a NEC PA804UL 10,000 lumens laser projector to compensate for the sunlight coming through the building. The projector is suspended via a Unicol universal mount. Four QSC PTZ cameras are present in the space, featuring a x30 optical zoom to cover each quadrant of the space should it be divided into four independent spaces.

Additionally, Shure handheld and lapel microphones are present in the open space.

These microphones are Dante enabled, allowing users to configure the whole area as one, with audio routed anywhere the user requires. Shure pendant speakers are also hanging from the ceiling for presenting training sessions and other requirements.

Acoustic dividers are used to ensure that the pickup of the Shure ceiling speakers in the space are not leaking into quieter areas or picking up the conversations of people outside the room.

The camera at the rear of the room required a Unicol pole to achieve an adequate viewpoint, which presented a unique challenge due to the wooden structure of the building.

Stanciu: “As the building is built of hard wood, every single system had to have its cables run from the walls all the way to the ceiling and drop down into the position that they need to be in.”

The PEARL is also home to small huddle pods, incorporating two screens, a small control panel and a cable cubby with USB-C and HDMI, offering a simple workspace that anybody and everybody can use within the facility.

Moving on to the Tell huddle space, a minimalistic version of the other seminar rooms within the facility, it includes an input plate with a Logitech rally bar for videoconferencing.

The final six-person meeting room includes an NEC 75-in display on standard brackets, with a Crestron UC-SB1 VC soundbar as well as an input plate and PC for access.

Finally, to emphasise the importance of flexibility in the space, IDNS supplied a mobile AV system which can be transported anywhere around the building for impromptu meetings, events and activities.

Stanciu adds: “The system consists of 65-in screens with a soundbar and Huddly camera incorporated, as well as an input plate on the side and a six-button panel/PC. The computer is housed within the base of the unit itself.

“That was a bit of a challenge as it involved a lot of returns. The system was developed to be mobile, but the problem was the design of the furniture - if you unplugged the unit, then the PC would disconnect; you had to physically take the top off and power it manually. This has now been fixed and the position of the PC has been changed.”

All the room setups, with the exception of the mobile system and the huddle pods, use Crestron 7-in touchpanels, offering full integration with VC software for maximum flexibility.

Stanciu says: “The Crestron touchpanels can integrate with Zoom. UCL usually uses Microsoft Teams, but the PEARL staff opted for Zoom based on its additional level of flexibility, enabling grouping of people, overlaying images etc. The touchpanels connect to the PC directly, and we have also developed a custom interface to enable users to choose the mode of operation that they intend to use.”

IDNS also worked in a consultancy role as requested by the client, providing supervision to the principal contractor to deliver the fixed elements as requested. IDNS worked with the contractor to deliver room hardware which would house the AV equipment, assisting with specification of the depth of back boxes for kit housing and the elevation required to avoid obscuring products or wiring.

IDNS is currently in negotiations with UCL for a maintenance contract for PEARL and another UCL site. Stanciu closes: “It’s not something that we would normally do for UCL, as they keep it in house, but due to the complexity of this project, they would like to keep with us.

“We are very proud of the level of flexibility that we were able to achieve without using NVX, Extron NAV or AVoIP products out there. Flexibility is the key while still paying attention to the cost of the project. It wasn’t an easy project, but that’s the interesting bit! It’s what we love and why we do what we do.”

Kit list

Video 

Chief display mount 

Draper Premier electric projection screen

Huddly IQ conference camera

NEC V554 large format displays, V404 Multisync displays, ShadowSense displays, SB-07BC HDBaseT receiver, C651Q SST touch displays, PA804UL projector 

Top Tec Jupiter screen mounts 

Unicol CP1 ceiling plate, 1500C camera mount pole, VR300 rack mount

Audio 

AKG CGN321 STS tabletop microphone sets

Ampertronic D7-2N Dante hearing loop driver 

QSC AD-P4T pendant mount loudspeaker, AD-S6T surface mount loudspeaker, Core 8 FLEX I/O processor, Q-SYS PTZ cameras

Shure MXA710B-2FT linear array microphones, MXW1 bodypack transmitter, MXW2/SM58 handheld transmitter, MXA910B ceiling tile loudspeakers, 

Control 

Crestron DM series wall plates, TSW series wall mount touchscreen, RMC4 control system, HD-DA2 amplifiers, 

Extron DTP HDMI 4K receiver/extender, MVC 121  stereo mixers, XPA series amplifiers, AXI 22 AT Dante audio interface, Extron DXP 44 matrix switchers, RSF 123 rack shelf kits

Magewell USB Capture HDMI Gen 2 capture device 

Onelan NTB series digital signage media players 

Article Categories