For successful Microsoft Teams Rooms we need less speed and more haste

There has been a rush to install Microsoft Teams Rooms, but it has often been at the expense of delivering the right solution. Paul Milligan looks at what can be changed in the future.

Microsoft Teams has emerged from the Covid pandemic as the front runner for video meetings in the corporate environment, charging ahead of Zoom and the long-term incumbent Cisco. Teams was always the likely winner because Microsoft is already so ingrained inside every IT department from Bangalore to Berlin. Teams has become fundamental to the post-Covid hybrid working office, and this has led to a gold rush of Microsoft Teams Rooms for system integrators.

The term (MTRs for short) has become a catch-all phrase for everything from small huddle areas to large conference rooms, the only common denominator is the inclusion of video. Microsoft has traditionally sat back when offering guidance, its primary concern has always been selling licences, but this summer it published a list of recommended manufacturers and products, alongside suggestions for future concepts of MTRs (we’ll take a look at those later in this article). This is a good start because this ‘freedom’ in MTR design is where part of the problem lies. With no clear guidelines for system integrators, and clients demanding MTRs ASAP, it has left a mish-mash of MTRs out there in the corporate world, not always with huge success.

“What consultants are saying is there are a now a whole lot of systems out there not fit for purpose. It’s not a blame game, these systems were put in before the workflows and the use cases were established. It was a case of install first and design afterwards because they just had to get that functionality in place,” says Greg Jeffreys, director of Visual Displays. Jeffreys has been a long time exponent of a stricter adherence to UX principles in the AV world, and his is not a lone voice in that regard. “It's no longer a case of let’s just go into a boardroom, there’s going to be a screen at one end and everybody is straining so they can all see the screen. The UX of meeting rooms does need to be looked at,” says Matt Makan, channel partner manager, Space Connect. This lack of UX know-how, especially within the MTR space, has led Jeffreys to launch his own self-titled consultancy firm to advise on such projects. “It might be the case that if you go through the UX process, that what you need is just a flip chart or whiteboard, you might not need a big screen. You have to be very careful you don’t just work off the assumption that whatever the question is, it’s going to be the usual bunch of kit - a computer, a camera, a panel on the wall, a VC system and away you go,” he adds.

 

What are the problems in some of the MTR systems in place, can they be fixed or do we need to start again? And do these teething problems hint at future designs of new MTRs? “A commonly held belief that’s mutually held between the integrator and the client is what they need to do is make the call on the technology, whether it’s Neat, or Logitech or Poly etc. What they’re doing is missing out a huge step, which is to actually think about how the room needs to be,” says Jeffreys.

Installing MTRs and bypassing an examination of your user’s needs is causing a myriad of issues. “Not all rooms are being configured properly by IT, they’re not setting up coordinated meetings, proximity join isn’t being set up properly. People are just pushing the normal licence onto it just to get it activated, rather than a room licence which is what Microsoft recommends. People often aren’t aware of technology, such as intelligent cameras and the use of multiple cameras, that they could use to provide a better user experience moving forward. I think Microsoft and the channel have a job to do to inform people about those features being available now,” says Simon Kitson, smart meetings director, Maverick Visual Solutions.

It’s a case of less speed more haste, and much more consideration needs to be put into MTR design adds Kitson. “It’s not good enough anymore to just hang a camera on the top of the display and have it pointing down. Everyone needs to move on from that. But people just want to get something in there and working and fulfilled now, so they’re making do.” We need to go back to the start and think again says Jeffreys, “When you’re setting a room up you have to regard the VC camera as being the VIP presence in the room. What you have to do is make sure that the camera is set up correctly, that it’s in the right position, the viewing angles are right, the lighting and background are good. Room design 101 now is that the video camera has to send out good, clean, well composed video signals to be able to be read and understood at the other end.”

A fundamental part of MTR design is getting the display size right. The dominant technology so far has been interactive flat panels, and that’s not set to change soon, although it may adapt, as this example from Kitson highlights: “I don’t think enough people are using dual displays, you can have one for the video content and one for the content that’s being shared.” Luckily there is a mathematical equation on hand to help get the display size right for your MTRs and was set out in AVIXA’s DISCAS standard (Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems). It should be six times the height of the content window. Typically the content window at the moment is 60% of the overall image height, so the furthest viewer should be 3.6 times the image height away. Getting the display at the right size and distance for each viewer to see it without squinting or leaning to one side should be the bare minimum for all MTRs.

What could potentially change everything on the display side is a move towards using the Front Row feature within Teams. Front Row (released in February this year) was designed to address the fundamental flaw in hybrid working ie that meetings between virtual and in-the-room meeting participants don’t feel as natural as they do when everyone is in the same room. In Front Row the video gallery has been moved to the bottom of the screen, so remote participants are face-to-face with people in the room all the time. In order to fit more people onto the screen Teams now supports 21:9 ratio. Microsoft guidance so far for Front Row says the minimum size should be 46-in screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio (in HD resolution) or 21:9 (in 2,560 x 1,080 resolution). The Front Row screen layout places the primary meeting content in a smaller window, making a re-calibration of the viewing distance necessary and further complicating things.

Eyebrows were certainly raised in the AV world in March when Microsoft published its vision for enhanced MTRs, because one option it was suggesting was for blended projection to meet the wide nature of the display needed. The Epson EB-PU1007 model was suggested as a suitable unit, and the fact that it’s listed as a large venue projector tells you the sort of sizes of display MTRs will resemble in the future ie it’s going to be 100-in and above.

Simon Kitson is sceptical about the level of adoption of Front Row: “We need to be careful about getting carried away (about Front Row) because it’s just one layout option, it’s not going to be right for every meeting room. In Teams there is gallery view and other layouts you can select. I don’t think it’s going to be mass adopted.” He also thinks any potential move to 21:9 ratio won’t take off unless major manufacturers embrace it. “Unless we start to see the LFD brands bringing out 21:9 in multiple sizes from Samsung, Sony, LG, NEC, until they start to really push that as a widely adopted format I don’t think it’ll be a huge thing.”

If display sizes in MTRs are going to rise, and that seems inevitable, could LED play a part? Kitson admits to knowing one major manufacturer currently putting together different packages to make it easier for integrators to deploy LED within MTRs. But cost is a barrier at the moment adds Jeffreys: “dvLED for MTRs at the moment is really a case of watch this space, because the problem with dvLED is that they don’t have pixels per se, they’ve got these tiny little spots of light in the centre of a notional pixel area. What that means is the metric for the closest viewer it needs to be halfway back down the room for people who want to use 1.2mm pixel pitch. LED is also too bright, so far it’s been based entirely around the signage industry and some poor soul that has to sit in a meeting room for two to three hours a day doesn’t want to have sunglasses on all day. They’ve got to make 0.9mm pixel pitch cheaper because it’s too expensive and 2mm tiles are no good for MTRs.”

One final aspect that MTRs need to address is the immediate environment, ie the furniture and lighting within a room. Both play a major part in creating successful MTRs. “If you want the meeting to be as productive as possible you need the right lux levels, and you can influence that when you can have sensors linked into the bulbs directly so that you can automatically adjust the lighting to optimal levels. I think furniture is a big thing as well, especially with some multi-use points. You need your furniture to be able to lend itself to be easily configurable into different configurations,” says Makan. One interesting aspect of the Enhanced Teams Rooms specification from Microsoft was the use of curved seating to improve visibility.

Traditionally meeting rooms were optimised to fit as many people in as possible, which meant the display was fitted after the seating had been allocated, often resembling a school classroom with everyone ‘facing the front’. As mentioned above, because of hybrid working the camera should take precedent rather than the seating, so its likely we will see the growth of V- or U-shaped MTRs going forward, with cameras and screen installed on the widest walls.

Lighting is another aspect that cannot be ignored. “The important thing to understand about lighting in a room is most of the light is indirect and is reflected off the surfaces and the people in the room, and the display is one part of that.

Unfortunately, very often eyestrain is actually inadvertently designed into a room,” explains Jeffreys. It’s vital that integrators consider the metrics of contrast and luminance to avoid eyestrain in any MTR he adds.

They say the first step to recovery is to acknowledge you have a problem, and this is the process that is now currently going on with regards to MTRs. It’s not all doom and gloom says Kitson, things are looking up, “We’re starting to get more people asking for better audio capabilities, better microphone pickups, better lighting as well.” Designs will get better adds Jeffreys, it just takes time: “We’re not going to design the perfect room in one go, you revisit it every three to six months, you talk to the users. The best analogy is with elite sports like in cycling, they’ll break everything down into granular detail to see how they can make a 1% improvement. If you break a space down into all the granular elements, of which there could be 10 or 15, that could be really significant."