In ‘The Zone’: Conferencing Design

Nov. 18, 2004


A gleaming aluminum cylinder with stainless steel bands highlights the new, $23-million FedEx Institute of Technology on the campus of the University of Memphis (Tenn.). The windowless tower, housing a steeply tiered, 193-seat forum – bristling with high-tech communications – symbolizes the University’s commitment to new technology, interactive learning, and public-private collaboration.

“We really pushed the envelope as far as we could,” said Richard Kiss of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, which designed the 95,000-sq.-ft. building in a joint venture with The Crump Firm. Besides the auditorium, the seismic-protected structure houses an 85-seat presentation theater, computer labs, dozens of training and “collaboration” rooms, research areas, an exhibit space, and a “cyber café.” “We knew that the building, because of what it was trying to demonstrate, was an opportunity. Using more refined finishes,” Kiss said, enabled the structure “to express the technology that it embodies.”

The FedEx Institute represents an overt private-public partnership with Memphis-based FedEx Corp. to serve the corporate world as well as the academic and educational needs of the University. Its mission includes helping to “produce a digitally savvy workforce and be an evolving, dynamic resource for businesses at large,” notes publicist Curt Guenther, as well as “conducting world-class interdisciplinary research.”

The showcase $5 million auditorium was named “the Zone” by Memphis-based AutoZone, one of more than a dozen “high-profile” companies providing the new Institute with funding, technology sharing, and other resources. “Actually, it was initially called the Forum,” notes Kiss, “because it is such a throwback to Latin orators and the Roman Senate. And it does have that feel and scale, because it’s a very vertical space in terms of seating. It’s quite steep.”

The architects worked closely with technology consultant Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW) of Dallas, Tex., in designing the two-and-a-half-story space. Southern Business Communications (SBC) of Norcross, Ga., was the audio/video integrator, working out of a new regional office in Memphis. Together, they fashioned a dramatic working environment that, among other things, adapts a voting/translation system used in the UN General Assembly to provide full-featured audience/speaker interactivity.

“The Zone is the most visible space and serves as a clear example of the creative integration of state-of-the-art technology with architectural design and client need,” says SBC’s Matthew Kosel. “The seating layout uses modern display technology, sound reinforcement, and advanced control capabilities to give participants — both presenter and audience – a ‘close encounter’ experience.”

A giant, 9-1/2-ft.-tall by 17-ft.-wide 16:9 rear-projection screen dominates the front of the room, behind the speaker’s lectern, fed by multiple digital video processors. “The default display configuration is one large image, with three smaller images along the right side,” notes Kosel. “Image locations may be swapped or any image may become a full-screen display. Space is available along the bottom for text/graphic information.”

Two 42-inch plasma units face front for the benefit of the speaker, who controls the displays via a touchscreen embedded in the lectern. One of the two screens mimics the large display, while the other can be used to view various inputs including DVD and VCR sources, television signals, computer programs (e.g., PowerPoint), and local and remote video cameras. A second, portable touchscreen is available for technical assistance by Institute staff.

Each seat in the Zone is equipped with an LCD screen, keypad, and two-way audio, including a gooseneck microphone. The “mini-stations” were designed by Looney Ricks Kiss, accompanied by Modus seating from industry partner Steelcase. “Part of the idea here, in keeping with the spirit of the building, is that it becomes a sort of living laboratory,” explains LRK assistant principal Rebecca Courtney, fostered by a “connection between research and the furnishings world (Steelcase) and the Institute and even the interior design and architecture programs at the University of Memphis.”

The Zone’s audio system is carefully conceived to balance the sound reinforcement of the room’s line-array left-center-right speakers and the special “conference” speakers at every seat. “The shape and the size of the seating area and the distances from the back row to the podium made it imperative that we come up with a technological solution that would allow one-to-one exchanges,” explains WJHW project designer Bill Kistler, whose firm also consulted on acoustical treatment for the room.

“The Zone’s shape, in plan, is a series of concentric ellipses to bring the participants in close to the presenter and to the multimedia images,” he relates. “Ellipses can exhibit undesirable focusing effects, similar to circular shapes. Fabric-faced acoustical wall panels were applied liberally to vertical surfaces throughout the seating space to help control focused reflections, plus reduce general reverberation in the space.”

The use of sound-absorbing materials keeps the voluminous, otherwise hard-surfaced room from turning into what Courtney describes as “a big echo chamber.” “With mic’s at each seat and sound coming in through speakers,” she adds, “people aren’t having to shout.” As a space for interaction, however, “the form itself is very dramatic,” Courtney observes, “like the Colosseum. It is not a small personality that could command that room.”

Within the Zone, an access-floor system incorporates both wiring and HVAC. Four sunken floor boxes accommodate different placements of the lectern, all wired to a control unit behind the front wall where the rear-screen projector is situated, as well as other A/V equipment such as DVD and VCR players. The convenience of a rear equipment room also allowed the audio system’s speaker stacks to be recessed into the facing metal wall panels. “It’s a subtle but very nice detail to the building,” says Kosel.

Lighting in the Zone consists of several levels of task lighting plus dimmable ambient light, which Courtney notes is “all controlled along with the audio/video systems.” Kosel says the raised-floor distribution system for cooling and heating is “the second of its kind to be installed in Memphis and the first in a state-owned building. Eliminating the overhead duct system allowed the building to be reduced in height by three feet.”The ductless underfloor system also contributed to the acoustical program by helping to keep air delivery and return noise from the HVAC system to a noise criterion of NC-30 or less, according to Kistler. Exterior sound intrusion, including aircraft noise from one of the approach routes to the Memphis airport, was mitigated by means of heavy roof and ceiling construction with a deep air cavity.  Partitions and entrances to the Zone were also designed to minimize lateral noise intrusion.  The Zone’s custom conference system represents the second largest installation of the Philips Digital Congress Network (DCN) in the world. As in its role at the United Nations, “the DCN is used throughout Europe mainly for its primary function, simultaneous language translation,” says Kistler. “But we knew it was capable of more and, frankly, we had been looking for an application where we could take advantage of these capabilities. The Zone seemed the right place to do this.”

By integrating the DCN with the Zone’s Crestron control system, engineers developed an enhanced network capable of profiling participants, conducting real-time exams, and producing “seamless” audio/videoconferencing. “It’s the core for the interactivity in the Zone,” declares Kosel, where “interactivity is enhanced by the audio and video systems.”

All participants at Zone events are recognized by an ID number, which is assigned to U of M students on a yearly basis and to any visitors prior to their sessions. The number refers to information about them that has been entered into the system and can be viewed by the presenter, who may then share it with the gathering on the large screen. This “ability of the system to give the presenter more than simple contact information makes it potentially much more interesting,” says technology analyst Mahathi Kondapati, who maintains the Institute database.

The exam or “pop quiz” function is an extension of the DCN’s “audience response” voting system. It allows questions to be displayed by the presenter, along with a clock indicating how much time participants have to respond. “When time has expired, the information is passed from the conference system’s main processing unit to the control system for display on the main screen,” explains Kosel. “The results are also written back to the original disk, which the presenter may take away.”

Conferencing in the Zone is enhanced by a multi-camera setup with “look-ahead” capability. “Four cameras, mounted on the projection screen wall, are trained on the Zone seating area,” describes Kosel. “When a participant requests to speak (by pressing a button at the mini-station), the speaker’s microphone becomes active and one of the wall-mounted cameras locates the speaker and sends his/her image to an assigned window on the large screen and one of the plasma monitors.”

“As speakers change, we can immediately switch to the next speaker without the distraction of the camera panning and zooming to that speaker,” he observes. “On the presenter’s monitor, the system displays all the additional database information, as well.” In fact, “the whole room – lights, cameras, sound presentations, displays — can be controlled from the lectern,” notes Eric Mathews, associate director of the Institute, adding that “the Zone captivates the imagination and has people believing they are in a starship destined for the future of innovation and thinking.”

The control interface itself “is very user-friendly,” says Kondapati, “but understandably, many presenters do not want to touch it at all, preferring to concentrate on their material and delivery. In these instances, I often assist the presenter, taking over system control with the portable touchscreen.”

Live feeds from the Zone may be simulcast via an RF broadband system and displayed on 50-inch plasma units located throughout the building. The Institute also features wireless fidelity (WiFi) capability and a voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) network. And it includes a high-speed 2.5 gigabit Internet2 connection to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, allowing researchers to tap the largest supercomputer in the country and the largest microscope in the world for quantum experiments.

Among the ten research centers housed at the Institute is the Center for Intelligent Systems, taking up the entire fourth floor, where faculty are engaged in an artificial intelligence (AI) “Auto Tutor” project in which a computer is being equipped to “think” like a human. Other centers range in research from transportation to RFID (radio frequency identification) to multimedia arts. The emphasis, according to FedEx CEO and chairman Frederick W. Smith, is on “technological options to problem-solving.”

“Collaboration chambers” located in the building are intended to be informal rooms equipped with interactive voice, data, and video for “global collaboration.” Laboratories feature “flexible physical space for the design, building, and testing of network and hardware/software configurations,” notes Kosel. “The research spaces, offices, and common areas allow for formal and chance interactions of individuals from different disciplines, with the expectation that the quality and pace of research on campus will ultimately benefit.”

The Institute’s Presentation Theater is an 85-seat surround-sound theater with a 7 by 21-1/2-foot rear-projection screen “designed to introduce new technology and product/system releases by businesses and corporations,” reports Kosel. Participation by the private sector is in keeping with the Institute’s plan for “leading-edge companies to bring their ideas to broader audiences,” proclaims U of M president Dr. Shirley Raines. “The lines between industrial and university laboratories will be blurred, artists will venture into new media, and civil society will use data and communications to better serve our citizens.” 

Elsewhere in the building is a four-cube media wall near Café Wired that shows a variety of programs, such as business cable TV, during the day. A multi-zone system distributes audio from various audio and video sources routed to any of eight output zones in the area, each with local control. An extension of Café Wired, a video messaging system feeds the building-wide plasma displays on every floor with university events, news, or a live feed from the Zone.

The fully “wired” Institute represents a major investment by the U of M to become a leading research university. James Phillips, executive director and chairman of the Institute, declares, “We will use the most technologically advanced facilities and the most sophisticated IT tools available to train the workforce of the future.”

“As the digital epicenter of the Mid-South,” concludes publicist Guenther, “the Institute will change the face of business, education, government, healthcare, entertainment, and the arts, causing the digital re-architecture of every industry it touches.”


Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!