Audio tech helps businesses navigate the changing face of collaboration

Expectations, requirements and demands are changing on how we collaborate in work and education environments. But while video conferencing and display technologies often take centre stage, is audio in danger of being left out of the equation?

Dedicated videoconferencing rooms are giving way to huddle spaces; boardrooms are losing ground to relaxed and flexible meeting spaces. The change is driven by culture and technology: different workstyles demand different spaces and more intelligent technology with higher levels of automation allows greater freedom. Add to that a greater adoption of technology in our day-to- day life and the expectations from users rocket. 

Videoconferencing is just as likely to take place now ad-hoc between floors in a single building as it is to be used for a scheduled group conferences across the world. When we’re in the office, many of us are more likely to spend that time working with colleagues in shared spaces. And, when we’re not, we’re more often than not connected to them in some way. 

In the past, a new boardroom and meeting room would require an AV professional to fit out. Hiring in that professional team would mean bringing in a skillset that encompassed a high level of audio expertise. 
“The basic basis of every single meeting is audio and people sometimes overlook that.”

But when videoconferencing products are advertised to commuters and smart TVs offer consumers a wealth of connectivity options, things are changing with commoditisation and DIY trends on the up. One of the implications of organisations handling these deployments internally is you can lose that audio expertise so vitally needed for comfortable, effective communication. 

But when manufacturers are developing intelligent audio tools and systems that can be deployed to transform the comfort and effectiveness of meeting spaces, then it’s up to AV professionals to promote that and make sure audio isn’t being overlooked. 

But, when audio isn’t deployed effectively in meeting rooms it’s usually not because it’s overlooked, according to Zach Snook, product manager at Biamp. 

“Even a person who comes into a conference room and sets a phone in the middle of the table knows that audio is important,” he argues. “They don’t maybe realise the scale or what they can do with audio, but they know they need audio. “Putting a phone in the middle of the table is a choice, so I think really what people need to think about is the importance of audio. The basic basis of every single meeting is audio and people sometimes overlook that. 

“When people go into a room they should be thinking ‘how can we make sure the audio is covered in the best way and the easiest way’. Everybody in the room should be heard clearly and heard easily on the far end and the local end. Meeting participants should be able to move around the meeting without worrying about audio.” 

Or as James Hill, director of the Systems Group at Shure, says: “An audio system should enable free and intelligible conversations between participants in a room and at remote locations.” 

Analysing the space is an important first step with Snook saying that reverberation time is a key parameter to measure to understand what you’re dealing with. “There’s a number of tools available to measure RT60 time,” he says. “It’s one of the advantages of hiring an integrator is they get used to hearing what a reverb time of x milliseconds is. What does that sound like? Is it bad or good?

“Noise floor is easily measured now. You can get apps for smart phones with SPL meters. But the question then, is what do you do with that? Audio is complex and you need to look at the data and consider all the aspects that would make audio sound great in a room.” 

So, while there are tools and calculators readily available to help people ascertain a lot about a space, it still comes down to a professional to interpret all of that into the best system for the room. 

Trent Wagner, product manager at QSC, argues: “It is important for the consultant, system designer, and/or VAR to convey the importance of audio in a meeting space to their client from the beginning of the design and sales cycle. The thing about audio is that ‘quality’ is very subjective. 

“Most people will accept ‘good enough’ and cannot differentiate between that andBiamp_Devio Collaboration-BYOD some over the top ‘audiophile’ level of design. However, everyone knows when the audio quality is poor. Poor audio quality, whether it is poor gain structure, wildly varying dynamics, poor frequency response, echo, intermittent or dropped audio, is an absolute preventer of successful collaboration. The primary concern is intelligibility. If either party cannot understand what the other is saying, frustration ensues and productivity is lost.” 

He continues: “The first, and often overlooked, step to minimise distractions and improve intelligibility is acoustic design and treatment. A poorly designed space will reflect and even amplify distraction noise. Everything from the layout and materials down to the presence of plants can make a difference.” 

Hill agrees: “The two biggest factors which contribute to poor intelligibility are high levels of background noise and very reverberant spaces. There is a trend for designing rooms with glass walls which look good but sound poor and directly affect audio system performance, contributing to fatigue. Acoustically absorbent materials and furniture can be deployed to reduce levels of reverb from hard reflective surfaces and improve the performance of audio systems.” 

He adds: “High quality microphones and processing can also greatly improve the experience.” Wagner offers some advice on microphone selection: “[It’s] a careful balance of applications, use cases, aesthetics and user preferences. The best coverage and intelligibility is realised by 1-to-1 close micing – for example a lavaliere or headset mic on a roaming presenter, or a gooseneck mic on a podium or table directly in front of the presenter. 

“While these microphone configurations are well suited for a dedicated presenter or a discussion system typical of a government chambers or courtroom, they are not the most practical or natural for casual meetings and dynamic spaces with varying numbers of participants in different seating positions. 
“The challenges of intelligibility apply to huddle spaces just as much as the larger meeting rooms.”

“Table mounted boundary, omnidirectional, and array mics can cover more participants affectively without intimidation or distraction; however, they are susceptible to being covered up by papers, obstructed by laptop screens and can pick up table noise such as finger tapping. 

“Ceiling mics are the least obtrusive and are often favoured by architects and interior designers for that reason. However, they are farthest from the participants, often on the same plane as the loudspeakers and much closer to them which can create gain structure, echo cancellation performance, and feedback issues, thus requiring much more careful system design.” 

Beamtracking technology deployed in products such as Biamp’s Devio microphones, harnesses powerful processing to actively track and intelligently mix conversations from around the table. 

Snook argues that, whilst the technology is powerful, when it comes to the people sitting in the room, they don’t care. “Ultimately the room should be completely transparent to the user. The technology should not matter. I shouldn’t have to worry about where I talk, I should be able to talk to somebody across the table in a normal voice without having to think about ‘can the far end hear me?’. People tend to raise their voice when they talk to the far end, they feel like they need to project themselves. 

“The primary concern is intelligibility. If either party cannot understand what the other is saying, frustration ensues and productivity is lost.”

“The more we can get that experience where people think the far end is just another person in the room, they will talk naturally. It’s all going to be beneficial to the end user. 

“So how do you comfortably and naturally mic people? You don’t! You don’t physically mic them.” 

But, with statistics showing a dramatic rise in the deployment of huddle spaces across the world, is any of this really relevant for the fastest growing area of the market? Surely audio technologies aren’t required at all in these small spaces designed for ad hoc meetings often between two or three participants? 

Quite the opposite, says Hill. “The challenges of intelligibility apply to huddle spaces just as much as the larger meeting rooms. In order to have a productive meeting of any size you need high quality microphone pickup and audio processing to ensure everyone can be heard without thinking of the technology in use.” 

Joshua Beltran, a product manager at Biamp, outlines further: “Organisations want the huddle room experience to essentially be an extension of your work station. So when you’re at your desk you most likely have more than one monitor, you have a headphone jack and you have a jack that connects your laptop and your workstation to your peripherals. 

“Ideally you walk into a room and your laptop docks or connects to that room. At that point the room has exploded so you can use all the peripherals in the room. But the user themselves doesn’t have to connect with what’s happening in the space. 

“So even in a huddle room there most certainly is a need to have AV technology, be it speakers, be it a microphone. The struggle is making sure there’s no learning curve to be able to use the technology. You don’t want a huddle room to take five minutes to get up and running. It should be like your work station.” 

Audio analysis and technology implementation is a crucial reason why AV professionals need to be involved in the design and installation of meeting spaces. But – as this article demonstrates – the best audio should be unnoticeable and that can be a harder initial sell than display or videoconferencing technologies. But, to create dynamic, flexible, comfortable and productive spaces it’s absolutely crucial that installers get this right.