Seven Tips for Great Conferencing Spaces

Author: Meghan Kennelly

Anyone who has been part of the business world for any length of time has likely experienced an organizationwide project program that was developed with considerable expense and effort, kicked off with great fanfare, and followed by . . . steadily decreasing returns on the initial investment and eventual abandonment. Such efforts can fail for any number of reasons, including unrealistic or unclear objectives, under-funding, poor planning, lack of stakeholder buy-in, or simply inadequate follow-through. Choosing and implementing an organization’s teleor video-conferencing solution is no different. Without clearly stated objectives that make sense for the whole organization, a commitment to spend the funds necessary to meet them, and a plan that encompasses both near-term milestones and the flexibility to incorporate future technologies as they evolve, a conferencing solution can fail to provide ongoing return on the initial investment.

How can your organization avoid these traps? These tips can help ensure your conferencing system will continue to provide good value over time.

1. To ensure good sound quality (and prevent participant frustration), resist the urge to pinch pennies.

“Economizing” by settling for speakers or microphones with lower audio quality is a very false economy. The goal should be to provide natural-sounding speech that is clean and clear, ample in volume, and readily intelligible. If conference participants must constantly repeat themselves to be understood, must lean into the microphone to be heard, or must focus intently to decipher the sounds coming from the speaker, productivity suffers and collaboration becomes far more difficult. Be certain the system you choose offers the flexibility to locate multiple microphones as close to the sound sources as possible and to place speakers where they’ll provide even coverage for all participants.

2. Ensure the conferencing technology and the acoustics work together, not against each other. 

When designing new conferencing spaces, take maximum advantage of the flexibility to create “kinder” acoustic spaces so audio technology works more easily. Noise builds up easily and quickly, especially in spaces where there are a lot of dense and reflective surfaces. In recent years, striving for minimalism and clean lines have become increasingly dominant in interior design. That means there is less “stuff” in the space and on the walls that would otherwise help to absorb sound. High budget commercial spaces have a lot of reflective surfaces like floor to ceiling windows, large and dense tabletop surfaces, and stone countertops. All that highly reflective surface area reflects and reinforces the unwanted noise of the room. These spaces are referred to as “live” rooms because they are easily excited or energized by sound energy. In this type of space, sound will linger longer than an absorptive room because the energy continues to reflect rather than absorb. This is a harsh acoustic environment for speech intelligibility and is unfortunately far too common in conferencing spaces today.

Yes, glass-walled conference rooms look extremely high tech and impressive, but they are often audiovisual nightmares. Glass reflects both sound and light. If you’re stuck in an existing glass-walled conferencing space, consider blackout blinds, curtains or even canvas or prints on walls to limit reverberations and block ambient noise from outside, such as passing conversations and traffic noise. Maybe even consider installing acoustic paneling or hiring an acoustic consultant.

3. Keep your friends close and your microphones closer. 

Poor microphone selection and/or placement in conferencing spaces will destroy intelligibility. Omnidirectional ceiling microphones typically provide a subjectively inferior experience because they are located much closer to common noise sources, such as HVAC vents and returns, projector fans, and light ballasts. This noise enters the audio signal with the speech, it decreases the signal to noise ratio and decreases intelligibility due to sound masking. Fortunately, these types of microphones are giving way to systems that employ wearable or tabletop microphones, which produce speech that sounds cleaner, louder, more natural, and more readily intelligible. Here’s a good rule of thumb for placement of tabletop microphones: the furthest a conference participant should be from the microphone is an arm’s length away. Wearable wireless microphones offer the added convenience of allowing greater mobility for those who prefer not to be tied to a tabletop unit, such as when working at a whiteboard.

4. Don’t overdo the corrective audio processing.

Digital signal processors (DSPs) are used as the source of the corrective audio processing. They are designed to mix and send sources to their proper destinations, as well as provide acoustic echo cancellation and other advanced sound processing elements. DSPs are vital to the successful tuning of any modern conferencing room and system. The ideal sound design scenario is that the microphone design yields the best signal to noise ratio and strongest speech level possible prior to the signal entering the DSP. If the audio is the cleanest and strongest signal possible prior to entering the DSP, any corrective processing that is needed will be fairly simple and minimal. This puts the sound engineer in the best position at the start, which is to have many tools to use in order to make a good signal sound great. Applying the least amount of processing needed will ensure that the speech stays natural sounding.

5. Don’t let yourself get locked into yesterday’s technologies.

The watchwords for today’s conferencing strategies are Unified Communications (UC) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). UC is a very broad term; at the highest level, it means the ability to combine data, audio, and video within a single application and to share it among a variety of users in different locations using multiple technologies. On the technology side, the core of the infrastructure is the collaboration manager or the web-based server that enables everybody to connect. Unified Communications requires a seamless, consistent experience across multiple devices, applications, and environments – from audio and video conferencing to real-time desktop communications such as Skype™ and IBM Sametime, and even non-real-time communications including podcasting and lecture capture. BYOD is a relatively new trend in corporate conferencing and higher education that describes the policy of allowing employees and students to use their own computing devices – such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets –to access secure networks. Despite the inevitable security concerns, acceptance of BYOD has been rapid. Organizations that support BYOD accommodate participants’ growing need and desire to work anywhere, at any time. This can lead to higher productivity and user satisfaction and creates more opportunities to collaborate.

6. Make sure IT and UC are working together, not against each other.

There is increasing overlap between information technology (IT) and UC roles in projects and events. To avoid building systems that will limit future expansion, it is essential for UC professionals to work effectively with IT professionals. Establishing a good working relationship means understanding each other’s point of view and speaking each other’s language. Where possible, UC should use technology that is most compatible with systems already in use in IT. UC’s collaboration with IT on projects will be most successful if, whether they request it or not, the UC team can give the IT pros an overview of how the UC system works and what it needs to accomplish. UC requirements need to be discussed early in the design cycle and it’s important for UC and IT team members to communicate regularly to resolve any open issues and keep things moving forward. 

7. Don’t settle for half measures (or half duplex).

One of the biggest complaints with older conferencing technology is that only one person can talk at a time. This makes it difficult to handle interruptions gracefully and keep conversations flowing. These so-called half duplex systems allow only one end of the conversation to communicate at a time while the other side is completely cut off from communicating. Unless a user needs transmission of information without a break-in or has very regular processes for speech, this isn’t sufficient, particularly not in a collaborative setting.

In contrast, full duplex systems support simultaneous communications from both ends of the conversation. This is based on the codec used for audio and how a system implements digital signal processing or DSP. For example, the Revolabs’ FLX UC 500 supports full duplex audio at all times, and allows for simultaneous audio playback and audio capture. This drastically improves PC communication application performance for meetings and online collaboration in particular. The FLX UC 500 is designed to connect to a PC’s USB port for greater location flexibility and also helps to overcome common human, environmental and technical issues by employing two sets of tweeter and mid-woofer speaker elements to enhance audio quality, clarity, and volume, as well as four embedded microphones to provide full 360° audio coverage. This makes it well suited for use in smaller conference rooms and huddle rooms.

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