Video Conferencing: It’s All About Location

June 10, 2009

It’s been said that a good meeting room makes an okay video-conferencing room, but that a good video-conferencing room makes a great meeting room.

By now, we’ve all been part of a video conference, and we’ve found that it’s really just bad television. The signal breaks up, there are dropouts, and sometimes you have to call back two or three times. The good news is that such things aren’t the fault of the room design or its architecture – they’re due to limitations posed by the network that the client installs. The push to HD video conferencing will help improve the experience from bad television to okay television, but it won’t fix issues with the network.

The goal for a good video-conferencing room is really quite straightforward. It’s all about location, location, location – for cameras, microphones, and displays, supported by uniform indirect lighting and acoustical treatments.

To make the leap to a great video-conferencing/meeting room, you need to understand what types of meetings will be held in the room – talk to your client and find out what their needs are. The key to those specially designed rooms from HP, Cisco, Polycom, and others is that they’re packages built around a really good network, with a great deal of attention paid to how the camera is placed relative to the display.

Good video conferencing delivers good eye-to-eye contact. Good eye-to-eye contact is dependent on camera placement. In Figure 1, the subject is looking you in the eye; in Figure 2, she’s staring off into space. The difference is the location of the camera to the display and how far back the participant is from the display. Just take a look at the prevalence of “up-the-nose” images on YouTube and you’ll understand how important the inclusion angle is to a well-designed video-conferencing room.

For cameras to work, they need light. The type of light doesn’t matter as long as it’s all the same (this is what white balance on your camera is for), uniform, and doesn’t cast shadows on the meeting participants. The new HD cameras need more light; we used to be able to ask for 50 vertical footcandles – now it’s back up to 75 or more. That’s bright, but take your light meter out on a cloudy day and you’ll likely find well over 75 footcandles and very few shadows – good, indirect lighting.

The next important item is the display – let’s hope it’s direct view (either flat panel or rear projection). If it’s front projection, then we have more issues about light control. Here, we need to figure out how big the image should be. The best rule of thumb is to get an image of the head and torso roughly life-sized. There are canned systems that simply size the image to the display, but why would you want to see a talking head the size of the mighty Oz in a meeting? If you can size the far-end image so that the participants’ heads and torsos appear the same size as those in the room, then you’ll feel more comfortable. This allows a much larger display for graphs and other items, but put properly sized pips in the display for the talker.

Next comes sound. If you have to choose, would you rather sacrifice your sight or your hearing? Obviously, you have to select in favor of audio for the sake of communication. You have to pick up what is said and make sure it’s heard at the far end – that means loudspeakers and microphones, like it or not. Loudspeakers are a little easier: you can place them around the display, or even make them part of the display. The microphone is a little trickier because it’s ever-present. If there’s a noise or a sound in the room, the microphone will pick it up. This includes drumming or tapping fingers on the table, wind noise from the HVAC diffuser, and even noise from the fan that cools the projector. Microphone selection and placement are critical. You have to think about where the talker will be and how they will be facing during the meeting. A single microphone in the center of the table with everyone facing it is good for audio conferencing, but when some people have their backs turned, they’ll be hard to hear.

The two acoustical issues that need to be addressed are HVAC noise and room acoustics. HVAC noise, as mentioned above, will create havoc with your microphone systems. If the room is full of hard surfaces, then the sound from the talker will bounce around and create problems for the echo-cancellation system within the video-conferencing equipment.

This is a very basic list of what’s needed for a good video-conferencing room – we’ve only skimmed the surface. But, it’s enough for you to start to knowledgeably assess what’s being offered by turnkey room providers, and to begin to identify what you can do to improve the rooms that you’re currently working on. And, remember: location, location, location.

To learn more about this subject, check out our sessions at InfoComm:

  • Space Planning for Videoconferencing Systems – Designing a Total Environment (Session #IW6), presented by Lance Sturdevant CTS-D, Thorburn Associates, June 19, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • AV System Integration Issues for Owners and Facility Managers (Session #IS09), presented by Steve Thorburn, June 17, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Steven J. Thorburn, PE, LEED-AP, CTS-D, CTS-I, is principal and director of engineering at Thorburn Associates. Thorburn cofounded Thorburn Associates Inc. He is also a member of the steering committee of ICIA's PETC (Professional Education and Training Committee), and is president of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). He is active in the design and development of projects around the world, and can be reached at [email protected] or (510) 886-7826.

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