Video conferencing in large spaces is evolving

The requirement for video conferencing in large spaces is evolving. Paul Milligan speaks to Ben Spurgeon from Audiologic to see how the challenges of VC in auditoriums and lecture theatres can be met.

The use of video conferencing has exploded in the last two years. The technology has transformed from occasional use to everyday reliance. Its adoption has been aided by its reliability, its ease of use, and during a time of supply chain problems holding product deliveries up, it’s easy to obtain. The perception is that video meetings are only made from laptop to laptop, in boardrooms or small meeting rooms. But that’s not strictly the case says Ben Spurgeon, senior technical manager for AV distributor Audiologic, it’s not just its use that is growing, it’s the size of the venues it’s being used in too. “We’ve moved beyond the boardroom and meeting room. These days, we’re designing everything from spaces within football stadiums to medical operating theatres, there’s very few places that we haven’t had a request to create a video conferencing environment for.”

As far as users of VC systems are concerned, they want it to always look and feel exactly the same as the systems they use on an everyday basis. “They expect to be able to walk up to a device and start a cohesive meeting with a single press of a button, and absolutely we can achieve that,” says Spurgeon. “There’s a lot more steps involved than plugging in a webcam and microphone, and that’s where the AV system comes in.”

What does he see as the growth areas for large scale video conferencing? “When it comes to lecture theatres in particular, that’s been a great market for us. We’ve been preaching for years that AV plays a huge part in higher education, but budgets have always been fairly limited. Because of the circumstances of the past couple of years, universities are realising how important the technology is in supporting lectures so that remote participants can view and take part.”

Creating video conferencing environments in larger spaces brings its own challenges admits Spurgeon, "Keeping people engaged in video meetings can be difficult and that only rises when you introduce more people into the meeting. The audio and the video quality expected is always compared to a single laptop experience and trying to replicate that in large spaces has its challenges. In lecture theatres, the most valuable content might not be from the lecture itself, rather the discussions had between participants. When live streaming a lecture, typically you wouldn’t get to hear the audience participation, you just see a static presentation and lecturer capture. With remote teaching, it’s much more of a two-way conversation. The level of engagement required for both everyone in the room and the remote participants is high, so clear understanding and capture of all parties is key.”

Do clients looking for video conferencing in large spaces such as auditoriums and lecturers generally know what they want in the space or is it still such a new concept that it’s a case of designing from a clean slate? “Users are very good at knowing what they want because now there is that expectation for communication, obviously helped by the hybrid working approach. Everyone needs to have access to cohesive meetings. What the users don’t consider is the complexities in creating that on a large scale.

As with most AV designs, there’s no ‘one-for-all’ approach to fall back on, we create unique designs for every project, whether that’s the acoustics, the loudspeaker placement, microphone positioning, or any other element to the design.”

Audio can often be overlooked when designing a video conferencing experience, which is strange considering if the video feed fails you can still continue the meeting, which is most definitely not the case if the audio feed goes down. What challenges does the audio treatment of a larger space present? “The expectations from end users in regard to audio and video quality are much higher, simply look at the capabilities of modern mobile handsets. For us to replicate that experience in a large space, without individually mic’ing up every participant, has its challenges. Thankfully, the advancements we’ve seen in microphone technology in recent years makes both our job easier and a slicker experience for the end user,” explains Spurgeon. “The introduction of beamforming array technology has played a huge part, we’re now able to cover entire spaces with as little as a single microphone whilst achieving fantastic intelligibility.”

One example of such a project is the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (top image) in the UK. Audiologic worked with integrator GVAV to install streaming via Teams or Zoom in a large space while also offering auto-tracking too. A QSC Core 110f digital processor running a custom script, controls three QSC PTZ cameras to track participants within the room using speech picked up from four Shure MXA 910 ceiling microphones and an MX418 gooseneck microphone. Using the microphones’ eight lobes, the system is able to trigger a range of camera locations to be shown based on the position of the active participant. The diversity of this room, with many different layouts and retractable seating, meant that the system had to adapt to any use. Fine-tuned for an array of seating arrangements and speaker heights, the system ensures both the audience and presenters can be picked up accurately, while keeping background noise to a minimum.

What other tips does Spurgeon have for successful video meetings in larger spaces? “Camera tracking is definitely on the rise and gives us a great way to retain a level of engagement within larger spaces. Rather than watching a static image of a large space, we can now isolate individual camera frames around the room to give a much more personal and dynamic experience for the far-end.”

Voice lift comes up fairly often too in planning conversations admits Spurgeon and can be a real aid to intelligibility; “By reinforcing the natural level of speech, especially when you’re in a large room, it makes communication much easier. In a well-designed system, the users shouldn’t even notice it’s happening.”

The platform leading the way for video conferencing is undoubtedly Microsoft Teams, and that is reflected in the number of pro-AV manufacturers who are pushing to have their products sit officially within that ecosystem. “We’re seeing more and more AV brands coming on board with Microsoft. If we look at our own product portfolio over the last three years, the amount of Microsoft Teams certified devices just keeps on growing, and that’s fantastic for us because it gives us more flexibility, and means we can create larger systems,” says Spurgeon.

How does he see Teams evolving over time? “I think we will try and get closer to that in-person meeting scenario. These types of environments are here to stay, Teams is definitely here to stay, the need for people to be able to meet remotely is here to stay. I think we’re going to see further consolidation with the IT world, and the introduction of AI technology in both the audio and the video domains, whether that’s down to framing or microphone pickup, to get that level of performance that’s one step further towards the in-person experience. We’ve already seen massive progress in noise reduction and echo cancellation DSP. Without us even knowing, complex DSP algorithms are working hard to remove any noise that isn’t speech, whether it be keyboard clicking or air conditioning. Again, this all takes us ever closer to the perfect meeting scenario.”

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