Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the IMCCA, the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.
What’s the best way to choose the right display for your conference room? Easy peasy! Just measure the farthest viewer distance, throw a little AVIXA DISCAS at it, make sure there’s enough brightness to account for the architect’s 75 windows, and then select vendors that bid the lowest and give the best rebate back. Done! Wow…this is the shortest article I’ve ever written! Or, maybe things are a bit more complicated than that….
In the post-pandemic era, the conference room has taken on a new identity. It was previously the dreaded room where team members would gather hour after hour (after hour) to listen to whichever talking head had the longest title preach about sales numbers, lack of company culture and how to build lead pipelines — while simultaneously attempting to win the “Death by PowerPoint” world record. Today, however, the conference room is an integral part of successful business continuity in the hybrid workplace.
Videoconferencing No Longer an Afterthought
Formerly, when video teleconferencing (VTC) systems were installed, they were treated as afterthoughts. If someone called in for a meeting, they were blocked out by the PowerPoint presentation and ignored at the table discussion, while the onsite participants focused on the attendees in the room and cross-table interaction. Likewise, installed collaboration units, often perceived as a premium supplement to the space, were difficult to justify the additional budget for. Now, conference-room collaboration is a central focus and priority, and it’s affordable. Therefore, our display technology choices are more important than ever, as they directly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting. PowerPoint is no longer the “be all end all.” Especially in our new hybrid-first world, communication and connection are.
“Bigger is better” is not necessarily true. However, it does become more important as we attempt to squeeze more onto the digital canvas. Traditionally, we would tie together display size and text height. However, that is no longer a proper way to determine the appropriate size. PowerPoint presentations are no longer “full screen”; often, they’re just one part of the content displayed, which might also include the video windows of far-end participants, the meeting chat and whiteboard notes.
Assuming that we’re already accounting for proper resolution, required brightness, room size and any architectural anomalies, what, then, really is important if we cannot count on our old calculation methods?
Three Key Characteristics
In the new hybrid reality, I contend that we must account for three additional characteristics: intelligibility, engagement and interactivity.
Intelligibility refers to the ability to be understood…to be comprehended. We often think of this in terms of audio, but, in a hybrid world, this is equally important for video, as well. Pre-pandemic, it was popular for wireless-sharing-device manufacturers to “sell” the benefit of being able to present multiple screens at the same time from different users. Although it sounded like a valuable feature, it was impractical in reality because sharing more than one piece of content on a display that was installed based on standard calculations made the content too small to be intelligible from a distance.
As mentioned, we now must share canvas space not with additional content sharers but, rather, with other applications and windows (e.g., PowerPoint and remote participants). And having multiple displays is not always an option in a standard conference-room space, so just adding more screens is not the solution. Therefore, when calculating the proper screen size, we must account for the entire digital canvas, including ensuring the smallest content is viewable for the farthest viewer. Does that mean bigger? Likely so, but not necessarily. The 21:9 aspect ratio, which users of Microsoft Teams are pushing, is a promising solution to allow additional real estate without necessarily having to go bigger.
Nonverbal communication is as important in effective meetings as verbal communication is. Being able to read faces and body language makes conversations more engaging. Formerly, when making display choices, we never accounted for bidirectional communication; the displays were glorified presentation monitors. Today, the ability to have human connection is just as important as — if not more important than — the information being shared.
After all, in a hybrid world, we must justify why that meeting wasn’t just an email. All-in-one displays, point-source audio coming from the direction of the far-end participant and line-of-site camera angles all make communication more human. Camera shots from across a room produce disengagement. New AI camera technology, along with display positioning that places far-end participants “at the table” and not on a side wall, provides something as close to meeting equity as possible. It’s a promising development in AV.
Along with needing to place multiple content types on the same digital canvas, we often must refer to them simultaneously and seamlessly. In a digital-first, application-first workplace, we are reliant upon interactivity. That could mean switching from doing presentations, to note-taking, to internal chat, to annotating a PDF on OneDrive, to working with Salesforce dashboards, to brainstorming on a digital whiteboard.
Does this mean it’s time for the corporate workplace to finally embrace interactive displays, which have been a staple of K-12 for decades? Ideally so, but not necessarily. The feature set must at least be there digitally, if not physically. That said, digital writing and annotation require higher resolutions, higher refresh rates and a stable network infrastructure for cloud sharing in order to foster an immersive and cooperative experience.
Comparing and Contrasting
Part of my remit for this article is comparing and contrasting when DVLED, projection and LCD might be the most appropriate technology. I’ve yet to discuss these. So, is it an important conversation? Absolutely! But I would argue that, in our new reality, it’s secondary. Only after we account for the top three intangibles should we decide which modality to choose.
DVLED has a wow factor and price point that can make a boardroom a “signature space.” However, the resolution-versus-size issue might arise, as well as the difficulty of achieving quality interactivity without other cloud tools to add digital collaboration. Projection is the default choice when LCD displays are not sufficient due to the room’s size. As with DVLED, additional tools would be required for interactivity, and it can be difficult to achieve line-of-site camera and audio. Yet, projection can make intelligibility easier, offering the ability to scale size at a low cost. LCDs are the go-to for most conference rooms, with all-in-one displays becoming the most popular due to the ease of installation and price point, as well as the self-contained collaboration and whiteboarding tools. However, onscreen annotation and whiteboarding requires participants to be mobile in the room. This is not always possible but does create stronger engagement for remote participants.
Considering Room Design
Lastly, what about room design? Should we change the traditional practice of sitting around a conference table, with far-end participants relegated to being an afterthought at the end of the table? What about the recent push toward Microsoft Teams Rooms setups that resemble an “us vs. them” Senate hearing, with in-person participant seating curved to face a wall of displays? (This is enough of a throwback to the days of immersive telepresence to show that we, as an industry, have learned little.) I believe that we’re due for a happy medium. Flexibility is key. The extreme of sitting around a conference room disenfranchises remote participants, while the other extreme of everyone facing the display technology makes in-room collaboration difficult if no far-end participants are present.
I encourage us to be creative, thinking about true digital equity and true meeting-room equality. This means that there’s no “right answer” when it comes to display technology — there’s only what is appropriate. We know the old ways are not effective, but the new ways are not developed enough. Effective video presentation choices must start with ensuring that intelligibility, engagement and interactivity are priorities in the conference-room experience. Having these three requirements inform our design decisions will ensure that we achieve effective user experiences for all.
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Joe Way, PhD, CTS, is the chair of the Higher Education Technology Managers Alliance (HETMA).
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