Need to enforce social distancing? Maybe AV pros can help!

The pandemic has spurred a market for social distancing tools. Tim Kridel investigates how AV firms are capitalising on this opportunity.

AV stands for “audiovisual.” But lately the acronym has expanded to mean “antivirus” too – as in Covid-19. 

Take social distancing. Floor decals, bollards and ropes are among the physical objects for implementing and enforcing social distancing. But AV offers alternatives with more flexibility. 

For instance, projectors can achieve the same goals by putting icons and words on the floor or wall – and with no damage to those surfaces. And like projectors, digital signage also gives organisations the ability to change messaging quickly and inexpensively as events and policies change. 

It’s also more important than ever to refresh content so people don’t tune out – and thus miss important social distancing information.

“The pandemic reinforces the need to create content that metaphorically hits an audience between the eyes,” says Mark Stanborough, MediaStar Systems EMEA and APAC sales director. “Organisations should think about sound and visual effects, and use what they have at their disposal. 
MediaStar Digital Signage

“If their digital signage tool allows them to craft full HD images, feature zones, crawls, live video and graphics, these can be deployed to good effect very easily. One of the zones could include live video captured from a government source or regularly updated Twitter feeds from city mayors.”

AV helped enable the October 1 reopening of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, whose foyer features 24 airport-style registration desks.

“Technology often makes a difference with physical distancing where routes and queues change daily as clients change overnight,” says Deborah Jones, QEII Live AV/IT sales manager. “We use our HD digital signage system (Onelan), NEC screens and Exterity for any IPTV content to brand and message our delegates. So [they’re] not specifically for physical distancing, but we are going to encourage queues to stay separate using every other registration desk and screen.” 

Spreading out

Wayfinding takes on new value by helping people quickly get where they need to go. The less time spent wandering or asking for directions, the fewer transmission opportunities the virus has. It’s not a social distancing application per se, but it has a similar effect by unclogging hallways and other common areas.  

“Digital signage and wayfinding using an Extron TLSI wayfinding interface, in conjunction with Extron OCS 100 occupancy sensors, can direct people to areas of lower personnel concentration,” says Rainer Stiehl, Extron EMEA vice president of marketing. “Meeting room occupancy limits will make it challenging to find a suitable space to meet. The Extron TLSI 201 connects directly with our room scheduling panels and provides real-time meeting space availability, status and location information using a centralised display.” 

Lots of other types of AV systems can help maximise use of existing space while meeting distancing guidelines. Displays and projection screens with wide viewing angles ensure that every participant can see well even when distanced into positions outside the room’s original design. Ceiling mics can help people sitting in unplanned positions be heard by remote participants.

“They’re not going to want to jam a bunch of people in [conference rooms],” says Kristin Roubie, Elo Touch national channel sales manager for interactive solutions. “We’re going to see more huddle spaces: maybe three to five people at most in a room. I think when you get to five people, it’s going to be [in] open-air meeting areas with video collaboration capability.”

Tight budgets made even tighter by plummeting tax and sales revenue mean schools and businesses can’t lease additional space to spread out. The alternative is to let some of those students and employees stay home. In that respect, the social distancing market opportunity includes AV systems that make it easy and affordable to pivot.

“To aid schools in the shift to online learning, our Streaming Media Processors are robust, worry-free recording and streaming appliances that fit easily into any workflow for both ad-hoc and scheduled activities,” Stiehl says. “StudioStation is a quick, simple and convenient system for one-touch recording of high-quality video and audio presentations that takes the guesswork out of designing, installing, and programming a studio recording system.”

Another example is visualisation systems.

“We use 3D Studio Max to show clients how intimate the space can be with various layouts and various furniture settings, both on stage and in the audience,” says QEII Live’s Jones. “[Then] they can decide what further distancing strategies they should incorporate.”
Fleming stage set design SD test v02_Fleming_Camera_001 web
QEII's Fleming Room modelled in 3D Studio Max to show social distancing

Fever pitch

Many organisations are checking temperatures as employees, guests and other people enter a building. This gauntlet can create social distancing headaches if most of those people arrive at the same time, such as the start of the school day. 

Aurora Multimedia aims to limit those bottlenecks with its new Thermal Audiovisual Integrated Solution (TAVIS). 

“We can measure two people’s temperatures at the same time,” says Paul Harris, CEO. “Say you’ve got a couple. Obviously it’s fine that they’re not social distancing, but you don’t have to measure them one at a time. So you can double the throughput.” 

Temperature taking is an example of the kinds of non-traditional applications AV firms can expand into while traditional ones languish in limbo. Many of them will remain opportunities long after the pandemic is over. For example, businesses can use social distancing and temperature taking to reduce sick time during flu season. 

“We’re treating it as a pivot market,” says Harris, whose product can also double as digital signage, a two-way video platform and more. “It’s the new way of life. It has to be more than a temperature tablet. 

“It’s not just this one-time purchase that’s going to waste away once the pandemic is over. This has value going forward if you take advantage of its capabilities. You can remove the [temperature] sensor and control an entire conference room with it. It’s a full-blown control system.” 

Many AV firms already target the healthcare market. In theory, that experience could be helpful for selling coronavirus-inspired products. In reality, some vendors say relationships with enterprise IT departments are more valuable. 

“There is a lot of appetite from AV integrators that do corporate because they’re set up to sell those,” says Elo Touch’s Roubie. “We’ve seen a lot of questions come through that vertical and that type of reseller regarding temperature sensing.

“Some of the first to market were Staples, CDW, HP and Ingram Micro. They jumped really quick and got temperature-sensing products out there. Those are all business-related companies.”

Keep your distance

Virtually everyone carries a smartphone these days. That ubiquity is why many governments, employers and universities see them as an ideal tool for implementing social distancing, as well as contact tracing.

The big caveat is that most of those initiatives are voluntary, so their effectiveness largely depends on how many people participate. This limitation helps create a market for alternatives, some of which could be offered by AV integrators.

One example is Riedel Communications’ DisTag, whose distance-monitoring sensors are worn or pocketed. Get closer than guidelines allow, and DisTag immediately alerts its wearer via haptic, visual and acoustic signals.

“Rules, signs and stickers are part of our everyday lives since the outbreak of Covid-19,” says Matthias Leister, head of project management. “Still, old habits – especially when it comes to keeping distance – are hard to break. 

“DisTag gives immediate feedback to its users to correct their distance intuitively without discussion. In addition, nobody has to become ‘the inspector,’ always reminding somebody else about distancing.” 

Another example is Kinexon’s SmartZone, which the German Basketball League used as part of its bubble format. 

“When they approached the local municipality in terms of their hygiene and security concept, we were very surprised to hear that they were offered to either wear a face mask or use our sensor,” says Philipp Möhring, Kinexon head of media and sponsoring. “Players were happy that they didn’t have to wear face masks in their bubble hotel.”

Rental and staging firms could use SmartZone to enforce distancing between their employees. They also could add it to their product portfolio so event organisers can enforce distancing between staff or even between attendees, too.

“For the other events we’ve done so far, it always was in addition to masks and the whole safety concept that they already had in place,” says Julia Lohbeck, sales operation manager for the trade show and congress markets. “SafeZone is mostly used with the aspect of contact tracing.”

The QEII doesn’t use SafeZone but is seeing demand for similar products. 

“There are a number of social distancing products targeted at organisers for their delegates,” Jones says.  “These are typically lanyards or smart wristbands, which glow green at the right distance but turn red if participants get too close. They work on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and can be re-programmed depending on whether it’s a 2m or 1m+ ruling.  

“They are principally designed for workplace colleagues rather than delegates at an event though, as using these runs the risk of publicly embarrassing delegates who accidentally contravene the rules. However, where our clients demand it, we can recommend these systems.”

SafeZone is another example of how pandemic-prompted products can retain their value in the long term.
“There’s a whole lot of ideas going around in regards to maybe digitalising the whole networking experience at events,” Lohbeck says. “Maybe create some kind of zoning for who went where so you can focus on targeting next time.”

SmartZone sensors use ultrawideband (UWB), a wireless technology that supports data transfers just like Bluetooth does. Unlike Bluetooth, which smartphone apps often use, UWB can pinpoint a device’s location within about 20cm. That granularity is particularly handy for calculating exposure risk.

“Bluetooth is focusing on signal strength [for proximity] rather than the position,” Möhring says. 

This precision already enables other, more traditional AV applications.

“With additional infrastructure, we’d be able to add the location component [for event applications],” Lohbeck says. “Currently we use that on stages, for example, with automated lighting or for immersive audio experiences. So when someone walks on stage, the spotlights will always follow. There are all kinds of possibilities.”

Don’t touch

Even when people are metres apart, they still can pass the virus via intermediaries such as touchpanels. Crestron’s One app, launched October 1, minimises that risk by enabling people to control Crestron systems from their mobile device. It’s a use case that emerged over a decade ago with the launch of the iPad but is now getting a boost from Covid-19.

“It’s something people have talked about for a long time, but now there’s the momentum to actually pull it off,” says Dan Jackson, Crestron senior director, product management, for digital workplace. “I don’t think it’s going to kill the touchpanel. You still want that as a backup. You’ll still have it in some places. It’s the same reason why BYOD didn’t take over everything.”

Vendors also can add antimicrobial surfaces to their touchpanels and interactive digital signage—a plus for battling the flu and the common cold.  

“It’s not a magic wand that you can wave so it doesn’t transmit a disease, but it makes it better,” Jackson says. “Our plan is to put it on our touchscreens because it makes people comfortable with touching communal surfaces again.”

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