Urgent AV and Collaboration Advice Almost Everyone Ignores, Part 1

Business people on a video conferenceCoauthored with my colleague Bryan Hellard, Director of Engineering at Array Telepresence.

Personal and/or room-based collaboration systems are powerful tools that allow people who are separated by vast distances to work together as well as if they were in the same room. Unfortunately, when some basic rules of design and/or operation are not followed, the user experience is poor.  We’ve come up with a list of the top 10 most ignored (yet very important) pieces of advice for professionals when designing, installing and/or using these systems. In this part, we offer commonly neglected advice for setting up collaboration systems. In part 2, we’ll tackle the most unheeded advice for users.

We know many of you will read these and continue to ignore them, but for those of you who don’t, you’re welcome.

1. The room video camera needs to be at eye level of the participants.

Best practices for effective videoconferencing requires placing the camera as close to eye level of the participant as possible. In a typical videoconference room, the participants are seated, making an ideal camera placement 132 cm off the floor. Field conditions sometime require a room designer to cheat a little higher or lower to make a system layout work, but the drastically high placement of the cameras in some videoconference rooms is appalling.

Anyone with any experience in visual communications understands that a camera placed at a high angle “looks down” at the subjects, “making the figure or object seem vulnerable or powerless” (see what Wikipedia says). One can’t trivialize the human mind and the way subconscious perceptions can influence the content and outcome of a videoconference.

2. Webcams don’t and will never make good room cameras.

A number of manufacturers have ported their perfectly fine desktop PC software apps to conference rooms, slapped a webcam on them, and called them videoconference room systems. Maybe they are using good webcams. Maybe they are the best webcams money can buy. Heck, maybe they even decide to include two of them for their device. But whatever the case, it is just not an appropriate solution for a videoconference room. The simple reason is that a webcam does a great job of capturing the face of one person sitting about 10 to 18 inches away, but a really lousy job pretending to be a room camera.

Webcams

The whole point of visual collaboration is to convey the 55 percent of communications that noted scholar Albert Mehrabian documented comes from facial expressions and body language. If that doesn’t get accomplished, then there’s really no point in just having video for video’s sake. Regrettably though, that is exactly what some of these new UC room products are doing today. (For more details read David’s blog here.)

3. Conference rooms need to have simple, sequential names, not ones that represent local attractions or honor people or places.

The right answer for conference room names — regardless of traditional office layouts or modern open-plan ones — is the simplest. Start in one corner with the floor number and the letter A, then go clockwise through the alphabet. When a user finds themselves at room 12D they know 12C is somewhere to the left and 12E is somewhere to the right. No map or memorization skills are needed. (If you have more than 26 conference rooms on a floor your organization is having too many meetings — get outside and enjoy the sunshine once in a while.)

4. Room control system panels don’t need to show a firm’s logo or have any other custom programming.

Think for a minute about the typical room UI. Compare the situation to operating an elevator. Can you imagine what it would be like if we needed to provide training to every new hire so they understood how to use the elevator? What would it be like if each elevator control panel showed the firm’s logo on it, and needed to be completely reprogrammed if the firm’s logo changed? In the real world, people walk up to an elevator they’ve never used and figure it out the first time. The same goes for airline passengers using a seatback entertainment system, or consumers using an iPad for the first time. Yet we’ve maintained the custom, complicated, expensive-to-program UI for over 30 years as an industry standard. Our industry needs to move past the era of UI customization.

5. They’re microphones, not miracles. They will pick up the closest source of sound.

We can’t begin to tell you how many AV rooms we’ve visited where the owner complains of poor audio on the remote side. Most of the time, the reason is the microphone placement is ridiculous. In one of the worst examples (below), the integrator glued the microphone to a side wall of a large conference room. More common (but just as ridiculous, if you do the math) is seeing ceiling microphones closer to loud air vents than to the people speaking. Not sure if this work is being done by people who don’t know better, or people who don’t care, but either way the experience gives everyone a black eye. Conference room microphones need to be close to the people speaking if you want them to work as designed.

You Put the mic where

That’s five pieces of actionable advice down, five more to go. Stay tuned. If you’ve got pointers for setting up collaboration systems, add them to the Comments section below.

 [Editor’s note: David will be expounding on his views during an InfoComm webinar and at InfoComm Connections in San Jose, Calif., March 4-5.]

About David Danto

David Danto has over 30 years of experience providing problem-solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds, including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology.

6 Responses to “Urgent AV and Collaboration Advice Almost Everyone Ignores, Part 1”

  1. An experience from early experiments in face-to-face video conferencing …

    At Bellcore we had built a system, once called Video Window, where the screen was _BIG_ so the people on it looked like they were seated about 10 feet away. They sat on couches.

    We tried having the camera both above and below the screen. In both cases there was no sense of eye contract.

    People sitting in the room where the camera was below the screen appeared to the people at the other end as if they were looking over their heads.

    People sitting in the room where the camera was above the screen appeared to the people at the other end as if they were looking at their chests. In fact, I heard a woman coming out of a Video Window session complaining that the guy at the other location spent the entire meeting staring at her chest. She was _very_ upset.

    We did experiments where we tried to put the cameras sort-of mid-screen, but at the time cameras where just too big. I do recall one setup where both rooms had a floral arrangement in front of the screen, at both ends, with the camera hidden within.

  2. Bravo! Point #4 is exactly right! Remove complexity in UI design and focus on what the users need to do. Get the technology out of the way of productivity.

  3. Thanks David –
    That’s why I created our camera, after installing over 3,000 standard vtc rooms I saw the change coming, and knew what the endusers were looking for. You spend enough time teaching someone how to use a new tool, such as a vtc system, and you start to understand the frustration from the users point of view.

  4. Let’s not forget
    1) Dont point the camera at someone in front of a window (backlit).
    Windows in a videoconference room are never an advantage.
    2) Lighting should be diffuse, not top down cans. Unless you want to look evil.
    3) Clean your screens, people!

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