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Tech-tonic Shifts in Meeting Room Design

Nov 27, 2023
The cameras used in the modern hybrid workplace are the windows connecting otherwise separated parties.

Guest Post by John Doyle, Senior AV Consultant at ESD

While early adopters were already integrating new technologies to transform the traditional workplace, the evolution of the modern office was put into hyperdrive by the unexpected catalyst of a worldwide pandemic. It’s time to embrace a new reality.

Today, building owners, operators, and developers are looking for ways to attract and retain tenants with better layouts and more helpful features. Expectations for new work environments are shifting from being strictly about productivity and practicality, to places that promote sustainability, community, user experience, collaboration, and creativity.

The common denominator to all these features? Technology.

Where to focus on office technology?

From the digital workplace to health and wellness initiatives, businesses today face market demands to provide modern and engaging experiences for employees while also addressing calls for more sustainability. The transformative role of technology in the built environment and its impact on real estate strategies and positioning to align office features with tenant needs is at the forefront of the thoughts of many building owners and operators. But where is their money best invested?

As previously noted, the shutdowns of 2020 ushered in a new paradigm for working and the definition of office. Working remotely became a necessity. For many, it became the norm even as offices began to reopen, and workers returned. A phrase once more commonly referenced in biology or energy efficient cars was now being applied to the new work environment: Hybrid offices.

This is where our focus on the evolution of the modern office should be: Making the hybrid work environment as seamless, productive, and natural for those working together whether in the office or connecting from remote locations.

The focus (pun intended) should be placed on the cameras used in the modern workplace. They are the windows connecting otherwise separated parties. A smooth, easy, and natural connection brings people together facilitating successful meetings and team building. Selecting the appropriate hardware is key.

Gone are the days of poor video provided by “insert your flavor of the month teleconferencing software here.” Worker and customer expectations are high. Fortunately, end user experiences have been elevated dramatically through improved home office experiences and the continued advances being made to software. Improvements are further spurred by a race for dominance among the likes of Microsoft, Zoom, and Google.

Options in software-based conferencing and camera image management

Zoom:

Zoom’s answer to this call to action is their “Smart Gallery” feature which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create separate video feeds of in-room participants. At the risk of dating myself, let’s imagine a “Hollywood squares” or “Brady Bunch” style of remote participants spread across your user interface. Smart Gallery works in conjunction with the hardware you select for your meeting space, so it is crucial that you choose a camera or appliance that supports multiple camera streams. Currently, Smart Gallery is supported by Neat Bar, Neat Board, Poly Studio Xseries devices, Yeahlink A20 and A30 meeting bars, DTEN D7 and Logitech Rally Bar and Rally Bar mini. We fully expect this list to grow exponentially in the coming months. To enable the multi-camera stream feature, “Multi-Stream” must be selected from the account settings of your Zoom Room controller.

The Multi-Camera and Smart Gallery features in Zoom have the capacity of enabling a maximum of four simultaneous camera feeds from a single Zoom Room. This means that Remote attendees will be able to view all the enabled cameras if they use Gallery view, Side-by-Side view, or Thumbnail views in their Zoom software. Each Zoom Room camera video feed can be displayed as a distinct meeting participant and are labeled based on the Zoom room name. Each camera video feed can be pinned by attendees or spotlighted by the meeting host.

Microsoft Teams:

Microsoft Teams has ventured into this arena with a multi-camera feature that can be used in “together mode” through custom layout modifications. Cloud IntelliFrame is a feature that can be opted-in on any Microsoft Teams Room with a pro license and specifically supported cameras.

This will reportedly enhance the focus and framing of in-room meeting attendees, providing an individual frame in the video gallery. Much like Zoom’s GalleryView, Cloud IntelliFrame will rely heavily on the compatibility of intelligent camera hardware deployed in the Teams Room. Poly, Logitech, Jabra, and Neat are currently partners with this technology. According to Microsoft, Cloud IntelliFrame will also be available to rooms outfitted with cameras capable of running advance OEM AI features as well.

Some municipalities have taken up the mantel to address artificial intelligence (AI) enabled camera systems. In Illinois, the recent passing of 820 ILCS 42 / Artficial Intelligence Video interview Act has already impacted Microsoft’s stance on the use of Cloud Intelliframe within the state of Illinois. According to Microsoft, Cloud IntelliFrame is “not intended for use in Illinois.” The act itself addresses the requirement for employers to disclose the use of artificial intelligence analysis when recording video interviews or using demographic data in a video interview.

So where is the hardware?

The approach Zoom and Microsoft are taking towards compatibility and software illustrates how the industry is leaning heavily on the hardware manufacturers to provide features to interface with software capabilities. For many years, the options for video collaboration were limited to low-cost, static web cameras or high-fidelity pan/tilt/zoom cameras. This has changed dramatically.

The new talk of the town is cameras with network device interface (NDI) streaming capability. This is a network transmission standard that allows multiple video streams on a shared network. Many of the newer cameras being manufactured feature NDI streaming capability and both Zoom and Microsoft Teams now allow interfacing with NDI streaming cameras / devices.

Framing, tracking and grid view

Most of the key players in the market for meetings spaces have landed on some semblance of camera automation to improve the meeting experience. We are generally seeing some flavor of either framing, tracking, or gridding of the camera shots.

With framing, the approach is to either frame the active talker or a group of participants with a zoomed-in view which crops out the excess video content. This is accomplished through camera intelligence that detects the number and location of people in a shot.

Tracking is a feature where the camera uses dual lens technology, facial, and motion detection to track the active talker and follow them as they move about a room. This feature is ideal for scenarios where you may have a presenter or lecturer such as in a training room, auditorium, or town hall.

The grid scenario is a more recent introduction to the market, where some cameras are capable of first identifying the participants in a room, zooming in on each individual participant as an individual video stream, and then combining these video streams in a single grid view. The single grid view is sent to the chosen video conferencing software as a single stream.

How and when to use each feature depends on the given application and some manufacturers are more sophisticated at determining the appropriate camera shot.

This does raise some of the concerns in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion with respect to technology that uses algorithms created by humans to determine who should be given greater priority in a camera shot. As it stands, the manufacturers of this technology are quick to point out their systems do not make camera shot decisions based on skin tone or vocal timbre.

It should be considered, however, when evaluating this technology, whether or not a truly equitable experience is being achieved. The technology buyer needs to understand the manufacturer’s approach in how they are achieving the given camera intelligence as this will speak to how much they value a truly equitable meeting experience or if they are just trying to capitalize on the latest trends.

Key vendors shaking up the market with their hardware

Logitech’s RightSight”, RightSense, RightLight and RightSound leverage a combination of advanced technologies to enable a more fluid meeting experience. Their automated camera control features include Group View, Speaker View and Grid View.

The Poly X-Series offers group framing , presenter tracking, speaker framing and people framing as Poly’s flagship features which allow their camera systems to switch between the active speaker and a group shot based on the audio pickup in the room.

Crestron’s acquisition of 1Beyond during the pandemic took the AV industry by storm, introducing automated broadcast-quality intelligent camera tracking and switching.  Utilizing a combination of auto-tracking and auto-framing cameras with a sophisticated camera head-end (AutomateVX) and microphone array technology, this system is able to determine the ideal camera shot for a meeting.

Aver has its eyes firmly set on competing against Crestron 1Beyond, having introduced two new auto-tracking cameras (TR333V2 and TR323NV2) optical zoom and a multi-camera switching apparatus (Mt300n). The multi-camera switching device allows for automated switching between a maximum of four active inputs at any given time to capture a given participants.

Huddly Crew’s long-anticipated “Crew” technology employs three networked Huddly cameras and a head-end device with artificial intelligence that uses a custom algorithm to determine the active talker. Although this made a big splash at Infocomm this year, much remains to be seen about how well this technology will be received in actual conference rooms.

Final focus

I expect the industry will continue to push the boundaries of camera intelligence further towards a more broadcast-quality experience for the meeting room. Meeting spaces will be held to a higher level to deliver an experience that elevates every voice in (and out of) the room in an equitable manner. Cameras with the capacity to achieve this experience indiscriminately will drive more collaboration and foster a new era of hybrid working.

Banner image: BMO Tower, Tom Harris Photography


John Doyle is Senior AV Consultant at ESD

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