Originally published in the February 1996 issue of:

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Exploring the Face-Time Continuum...

By Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

Despite the rapid evolution of video conference technology, shared application software and hardware systems, and the myriad offspring technologies like computer interfaced whiteboards and magic mice, the role of face-to-face communications is not about to be supplanted by hardware. This up-close-and-personal contact (or to steal a term from the music industry, "unplugged" meetings) has become known as Face Time amongst the technical cogniscenti. Whatever the jargon you prefer, the value of spending time in the same room as the other people you are in contact with has been recognized as having extra value over remote connections. It's not that the Luddites are winning, it's just that people have recognized that some interaction is best left unmediated, but not unsupported. The growth of remote conferencing technology does not mean that meeting or convention facilities are about to disappear, any more than the advent of VCR's and laserdiscs had eliminated movie theatres. People may go out to a movie theatre less often than they used to, but it still provides an experience that has unique properties. Face-time offers a similar unique value.

The exposure to the technology that is used for large meetings or conferences and for multi-user remote conferencing will inevitably have some impact on the expectations of people attending face to face meetings. In much the same way that better home audio systems drove the expectations for everything from car audio systems to movie theatre and concert sound systems, hi-tech meeting support technology can be expected to influence the expectations of people in meetings of any scale, from 6 people in a corporate conference room, to 1600 people in a convention hall. face to face

Many systems contractors are introduced to the A/V elements of facilities through their efforts in selling other types of systems, like sound systems, school systems, CATV or telecommunications products. I've noticed that many contractors know how to source A/V products when responding to tenders, or client inquiries, and can understand how the technology would be applied, but are often too wrapped up in the hardware details to grasp the user's intent or application. This often results in over, or under selling of system components, or misapplication of technology, especially in the area of visual support systems. Often times they will have help in the form of architects, administrators or managers who have been impressed by some particular device at a meeting or trade show and try to apply it everywhere. (As consultants, this of course never happens, we always examine every system component in the cold light of objective appraisal and never over-specify any product.)

No matter what type of gathering we will consider, the one common element is sound in general, and speech in particular. Because the basic criteria of good speech intelligibility is a common component of any face-time event, I'm going to skip right over that for the moment and assume that any facility that hosts a gathering of people will have an adequate measure of speech intelligibility, with or without reinforcement. We will talk about the visual support systems first and then about sound in the discussion of technological lifetime of systems.

There are many elements of visual systems for meeting facilities and convention centres that will be of interest to systems contractors, and their selection is influenced by the user's application and technological lifespan of the A/V support systems. We'll look at both of these aspects, starting with the different purposes people have when they get together, and how those purposes influence the resources required to support the meeting.

A common reason to get people together is to discuss the current status and/or future of a group, organization or project. This may be a regularly scheduled meeting or may be called due to extraordinary circumstances. No matter how many people are involved, there will likely be the need to show some graphic representation of the status of the item under discussion. This can range from paper handouts, overhead projection, slides, videos, or computer presentations (often spreadsheets and charts). There are usually two elements to this type of meeting, the first being a presentation of the current status and forecast or projection which is most often prepared in advance. The second part typically being a discussion of the presentation with assignments of duty and responsibilies, and this requires a more spontaneous medium, allowing comments or diagrams to be shown as they are developed. Because the material generated in the discussion will often be distributed afterwords, it is best done using a medium that allows easy copying and distribution, hence the popularity of fax whiteboards, overhead transparenices and pads of paper.

Another reason to get people together is for training or educational sessions. This can be as broad as describing a new corporate policy, new technical or administrative procedures or applications, computer hardware or software use training, or even training sessions for use of Audio-Visual equipment. These applications will almost certainly require some support materials, ranging from printed handouts to computer multimedia presentations. Because there is usually a curriculum or agenda that is followed in a training session, a visual display system will be built around a group of elements that are preassembled on any number of possible media. In addition to the materials prepared in advance, any visual support system needs to be able to allow an instructor to respond to questions, providing at least some measure of spontaneous input, which may mean markers on the overhead, or something as hi-tech as an electric pen device that can "write" over a video image. The need to respond to unplanned or divergent ideas has to be supported if the support system is going to truly support the instructor. The system also has to be unobtrusive in order to stay out of the way of the instructor.

Design team meetings are heavy consumers of visual materials. Whether it is the design of software, aircraft, buildings, accounting systems, lesson plans or administrative systems, the use of graphic aids to help clarify concepts and ideas as they are presented is ubiquitous. The type of graphic medium chosen is dependent upon the subject being discussed. High tech hardware has been sketched out on anything from napkins to white boards. Most design discussions require a visual display medium that is very spontaneous and interactive, something that can be scribbled on, erased, written over and easily discarded in favor of a better idea. Whiteboards, pads of paper and a roll of tracing paper excel in this application, even though the technology level is quite low. The other important element here is transportability of the results, being able to take the material generated in a design session and allow it to be carried away for further development or inclusion in existing drawings or documents. Again, the great value of paper or whiteboards that can provide a hard copy.

Sales presentations are a major part of the corporate face time world. In most cases the visual materials are intended as visual anchors for a spoken presentation. In most presentations the visual elements do not repeat what is being said, but augment or puncuate it. Pictures, diagrams, and other visual materials are usually prepared in advance and delivered in a planned sequence to support the intended progression of the presentation. The medium needs to be robust, attention getting, and offer high intelligibility to the viewers. From the presenter's point of view, it has to offer little or no distraction from the presentation at hand, and it needs to happen smoothly and reliably.

The actual technical widgetry is less of an issue in the selection of visual support systems and materials than is the understanding of how people will need to use the systems. It is much too easy for the client or the contractor to get really excited about a product without actually thinking about how it would be used effectively, especially around the end of the budget year where the budgets must be consumed or lost (this never happens with a consultant, mostly because we get paid just as much to recommend people not buy things). There is probably more dust covered A/V hardware sitting in storage rooms and closets for that reason than any other. The equipment reached technological old age before ever being used. Which brings to the topic of technological lifetime of A/V support systems.

The technological lifetime of the equipment required for A/V support systems in meeting facilities is a major consideration for the facility owner and manager. Take the audio systems for instance, except for more capable control and combining systems, the audio systems in meeting and convention facilities haven't really changed significantly. Most facilities still use conventional distributed ceiling speaker loudspeaker systems (of varying quality) because it offers the most flexibility over the floor plan layout of an event. Electronics are now generally better quality, speakers generally sound a bit better for a given dollar spent, but you can expect a capable sound system to last for its service lifetime before it needs to be replaced or upgraded. A facility owner can easily justify the investment in something that gets regular use and can be amortized over a five or ten year period.

The bulk of the change in the technology of visual support systems has happened over the past ten years. Slides, overhead, and film projectors where used along with chalkboards and pads of paper on easels for most of the past thirty years (I don't know when felt pens were invented, but I bet that was a significant advance on the visual system timeline). It was possible to keep the A/V inventory in good repair, and ensure that a good supply of lamps were on hand, plus a few extra rolls of acetate for the overheads. The video cassette and the TV cart were the next big investments, and signaled the start of a more rigorous maintenance requirement along with more in-depth expertise needed in house to keep the things running. The introduction of the early video projectors was the start of the technical shaman, the A/V expert who could actually align a projector and keep it running. These video devices were the scouting party of a new technological invasion, a harbinger of a never ending upward spiral of technological complication and obsolesence. meeting room

The increase in use of video based display technology was probably the key element in switching most commercial meeting facilities to a reliance on outside A/V rental houses. It became much less expensive to hire experts as needed rather than try to keep an experienced A/V shaman on staff, even though most of the A/V service fees went outside the facility. The additional benefit was off-loading both the capital cost investment, and ongoing service costs associated with display equipment that was getting more exotic and specialized all the time. As the equipment was getting more hi-tech, the production values of the meeting and conference market was growing, and the catering staff was less capable of (or interested in) handling the elaborate technical productions, so using outside specialists became the standard practice for commercial meeting facilities and convention centers.

The corporate markets have tended to be more willing to buy A/V technology, largely because most corporate meeting and training facilities are more single purpose. Because more production planning is done in-house, the production or presentation tends to be built around the system capabilities rather than the limitless dreams of a production manager or technical director. Where the sales market for large scale visual display systems has been lost to rental companies in the commercial meeting facility sector, the corporate A/V market has seen a good period of growth while companies catch up to the ninties and install nifty video technology to go with their new computer systems.

The corporate sector is bound to notice that their video display technology is becoming obsolete as fast as the computers they bought. Because the computer systems are driving much of the presentation and multimedia development in the corporate sector, including video conferencing and shared application computing, the A/V systems can be expected to follow a similar trend to the corporate computer systems, and that is the lease. The lease offers the same advantage to the corporate A/V user that the outside A/V company does to the meeting facility or convention center; lower capital cost investment for equipment with a short technological lifetime. The corporate economic climate is such that trimming capital expense is an important aspect of corporate survival.

Where many systems contractors have done well with regular sales to corporate clients who have been interested in staying at the edge, that business pattern is likely going to change. Like computer vendors, systems contractors will need to make arrangements with leasing companies that are not afraid of short life time technology. The change in marketing strategy will be key in keeping up with the change in the corporate (and commercial meeting market for that matter).

It is apparent that there are still more low-tech support systems needed than hi-tech. Any meeting facility client will still be willing to purchase the low-tech support products, after all the pads of paper, markers and transparencies aren't about to be obsolete. But the relentless drive to keep up with hi-tech display and presentation systems is likely going to push the end users (and some of the rental companies too for that matter) into leasing arrangements. Because leased equipment doesn't go away, it just gets dumped back onto the market when the lease is up, this will also affect the other low end markets. Only a market-wide desire to own the latest and greatest will keep up the low end of the display market.

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