LIMITED PROGRESS - Covid has paused innovation in the pro-AV world

What effect has the pandemic had on new product launches? Is AV technology headed in a different direction now because of Covid? Paul Milligan rounds up the important product news

The last 18 months have been like no other in the AV world. New build or refurb projects have been put on hold or cancelled altogether. Trade shows have ceased to exist as physical events. An ongoing supply chain crisis, caused by a host of factors (see Inavate June 2021), has slowed product development dramatically and products that were on the books to be released have been delayed and delayed. It is fair to say 2020 and 2021 won’t be remembered as a period bursting with industry-defining new products, but there are some interesting things being released into the market, a few of which you’ll find below.

The obvious place to start is with the products that have defined Covid for many people; Teams and Zoom. Having seen both user databases quadruple over the last 18 months, to keep their ever growing list of new customers happy, R&D money is now being pumped into both platforms with new features being added all the time.

In April, Zoom added immersive view, it gives up to 25 attendees much more realistic-looking backgrounds resembling spaces such as classrooms, boardrooms and auditoriums. Zoom is also rolling out new features to Zoom Rooms, its conference room display system, to meet new demands for hybrid working i.e. trying to make the experience the same whether you are at home or in the office. One example is Zoom Rooms Kiosk Mode, which allows a receptionist (who can be based remotely) to greet visitors to a building using a Zoom Rooms for Touch device. Users can also pair an iOS or Android device to join meetings in a Zoom Room, and the mobile client will automatically be placed in companion mode during the meeting. In May, the Zoom Events platform for virtual experiences was announced (and is coming later this summer), this could prove to be a very significant release because it allows businesses of any size to build an event hub to manage and share virtual events and offers customisable ticketing and registration on a platform most of us are already familiar with.

Not to be outdone, webinars were introduced in Microsoft Teams in May too. Available for up to 1,000 participants, the clever part is PowerPoint Live, which integrates its decades-old industry standard presentation software into a modern webinar platform. In June, Microsoft also announced details of Front Row, a new UI to help hybrid working. To boost collaboration the agenda, tasks, and notes are all updated in real time, and the meeting chat is also more prominent in this format, again designed to give everyone equal footing to participate in a meeting.

Alongside Front Row, Microsoft is also changing how it manages video calls in Teams; a new design is optimised for the larger screens commonly found in meeting rooms to highlight remote participants more clearly.

One trend yet to take off but with huge potential is voice control for meeting spaces. One of the first to embrace it has been Poly, which has announced Alexa for Business for Zoom Rooms, to provide customers with a hands-free, voice-activated, control experience for collaboration. Once enabled, Zoom Rooms’ users can ask Alexa to join meetings and book rooms, without having to purchase additional Alexa-enabled devices, and offers users the ability to start a Zoom Rooms meeting using voice commands.

Outside of Zoom and Teams, a few other companies are looking at doing interesting things with video meeting software. The workspace provider WeWork is beaming life size ‘holograms’ of speakers across the world. It intends to roll out technology from ARHT Media to 16 locations by the end of this year. In those locations ARHT will host a capture studio for users to record and stream events where they can appear live on one of three types of displays: HoloPresence for in-person holographic events, HoloPod for in-person permanent holographic display, or online as a Virtual Global Stage presentation – or a combination of all three.

Another company trying to create life size video meetings is Google with Project Starline. In the developmental stage at present, it includes spatial audio and a light field display system that aims to ‘create a sense of volume and depth that can be experienced without the need for additional glasses or headsets’. The technology may not be as far away as you would think as Google has already conducted demos with clients in healthcare and is planning trial deployments with corporate partners later this year.

Further afield Chinese electronics manufacturer TCL is on the verge of launching its NxtWear G wearable display. Resembling a normal pair of sunglasses, the device features dual 1080p Sony FHD micro-OLED panels that together offers a 140-in display (in 16:9 aspect ratio). According to TCL, the wearable also supports 3D 4K content and features integrated stereo speakers. Attaching the NxtWear G to a compatible device is done via USB-C cable and the device enables wearers to get a mirrored image of their desktop PC or laptop into the glasses.

Looking Glass, who have been doing interesting things for years with holographic technology, unveiled its latest ‘holographic’ display, the Portrait, at the end of 2020. It allows users to view, create and experience 3D ‘holographic’ images, video and applications via a desktop PC. Crucially this time around no programming experience is needed, for content creation a simple PC or phone will suffice. While the ability is not there at present, it is likely the device will be able to handle 3D video calls
in the near future on the 7.9-in screen.

Announced in May, HTC Vive’s latest business offering, The Vive Focus 3 VR headset is aimed at usage in the corporate market. VIVE Focus 3 has 5K resolution with dual 2.5K displays, 90Hz refresh rate and a 120-degree field of view. With the use of VR growing for meetings and conferences (see Inavate Dec 2020) it will be interesting to see what take up of devices like this in the corporate world will actually be. There is no doubt VR companies like HTC are listening to the specific demands of this market, for example the Vive Focus 3 has a special audio privacy setting to dramatically reduce the risk of sound being overheard by people nearby when you are in a VR meeting.

Outside of evolving and emerging technology, there are still more conventional pro-AV products being launched that are worthy of attention too. Sharp has laid claim to the largest 8K display currently available with the release of the 8M-B120C, a 120-in 8K UV²A LCD panel for use in broadcast, design, medicine, and data-intensive environments such as air traffic control and trading floors.

It achieves a resolution four times more than UHD and 16 times full HD. A product perfectly suited for the current times is Roland’s latest in its line of video switching products, the V-160HD. Crucially this is Roland's first with built-in streaming capabilities, and allows users to connect with live audiences in full HD with HDMI and SDI I/O and simultaneously stream to any web platform via USB-C. The V-160HD also features an eight-layer video effects engine, a 40-channel digital audio mixer, and integrated PTZ camera control, plus cue management and live show automation tools. It’s a clever box that can do almost everything.

One product launched earlier this year that could well outlast all others launched this year in terms of longevity is the Aetria platform from Datapath. Aetria is purposely designed for control rooms and the clever aspect is how it brings all the elements of control room design, management, control and monitoring into a single system, allowing integrators and end users to design connectivity, videowalls, workstations and source management. The potential time savings for integrators will ensure this product’s success.

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