Designing Effective Multi-Purpose Spaces for Solid AV Performance

Anyone who has ever tried to please everyone knows that it’s impossible to be all things to all people. And yet, when it comes to inanimate objects—or inanimate spaces—we’re not shy about trying to get as much out of them as we possibly can. But in today’s enterprise environment, can multi-purpose rooms truly meet multiple purposes? Yes—but only if you design them right. And, if you’re willing to recognize that while the term “multi-purpose” suggests the ability to accommodate many different use cases, there are limits.

  • “Spaces are sometimes designed for too many purposes,” said Tim Troast, director of product management at AV support and protection products manufacturer Middle Atlantic Products Inc. in Fairfield, NJ. “You have to have a core purpose or a core objective for the space so that you can design and optimize it to work for one or two things very well, and then perform the functions for everything else.”

Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure

Troast is emphatic about this because it’s these core use cases that will serve to define infrastructure requirements—especially as they pertain to power and connectivity. “Those are the two services that you’re going to want to integrate during the design/build process—they’re not easily retrofitable,” he said. He says this requires tech managers to address both immediate technology needs as well as those that may come into play in the future. “Being able to locate things like floor boxes—which is typically how you get service to the middle of a larger multi-purpose space—and the number of them is pretty critical to the success of that space.”

Nail Down Your Seating Plan(s)

Mark Brown is senior multimedia technician and assistant vice president of corporate real estate and logistics at the reinsurance company Swiss Re Holding Corp. in Armonk, NY. He explains that the organization has reconfigurable spaces in several of its offices across the Americas; his responsibilities include AV design, integration, and operation of these rooms, which are used for a number of gatherings, special activities such as philanthropic events and blood drives, and town hall meetings requiring videoconferencing and live streaming.

While AV infrastructure is something that should be addressed early on, Brown strives to strike a balance between it and the rest of the elements involved. “In my experience, I have found that sometimes AV design needs to take the lead, and sometimes the AV design needs to take a back seat to the other design considerations,” he said. He points to furniture placement as an example: “Architects will often not design a furniture plan because they feel the furniture configurations are infinite. This is a very risky approach to design.” Instead, Brown prefers to define the most common use cases for the space, and then create furniture layouts accordingly.

“Once this is done, the AV systems can be aligned with the space’s intended use. I have often asked an AV consultant or AV integrator to create furniture layouts for the project team, simply so we can start with the AV design.”

Video = Lighting = Video = Lighting ...

What display technology you choose and how you configure it is based on a number of factors, lighting being one of the most important. Brown favors flat panel displays whenever possible, but when the space requires a larger display, he’ll “default” to rear projection. “By their nature, multi-use spaces can be configured in a way that you lose the ability to control ambient light on your displays, and a well-designed rear projection system will provide an image on par with a flat panel, but at nearly any size.” But rear projection isn’t always possible: he cites one of his most recent projects, which would have required elaborate rigging systems to hang rear projection screens. “[In these cases], I have found the DNP Supernova screen with Digital Projection projectors [work well]. Even for a front-projection solution, the image quality is fantastic. I have had several inquiries [as to] if the screens were flat panels.”

Audio: To Wire or Not to Wire?

Holger Stoltze, senior product manager at Revolabs Inc. in Sudbury, MA admits he’s biased in his preference for wireless audio systems. Makes sense—Revolabs manufactures wireless microphones. His argument for the flexibility wireless offers, however, is compelling—especially if you’re talking about using this technology in spaces that are intended for regular reconfiguration. “It allows you to put your microphone here today, there tomorrow,” he said.Stoltze acknowledges that many times, multipurpose room designers prefer ceiling microphones because they don’t get in the way. “The problem with that is today I may have my table sitting one way and the microphone may be two feet from the [presenters]. Tomorrow, the room is set up in a different way, and now suddenly the microphone might be in the [presenter ’s] back, or five feet away.” A wired ceiling solution can’t be easily reconfigured. “People try to put in something that’s wired and it’s not flexible enough to cover this flexible room, and that is where the audio breaks down.”

Think About Acoustics

“Acoustic problems can’t be fixed by even the best DSP,” said Justin O’Connor, product manager for audio products at professional audio solutions developer Biamp Systems in Beaverton, OR. “They can be mitigated, but acoustic problems require acoustic solutions.” And, if your multipurpose room is a large, wide-open space with hard surfaces and parallel walls, you will have acoustic problems. He urges tech managers to seek out the expertise required to address acoustical issues. “Consulting a professional costs money, but it’s going to save money.”

Be Prepared for BYOD

While Brown confesses that BYOD hasn’t played a major role in his design considerations, he notes that Swiss Re has a growing population of iPhone and tablet users, “and we are starting to deploy technologies such as the Barco ClickShare to allow these devices to project, so we are prepared,” he said. For now, the BYOD-related requests his team receives have more to do with external clients, or vendors who arrive with laptops that aren’t the company standard, but yet must be supported in the multi-use space.

BYOD also dictates the need for power, Troast notes: “Typically multipurpose spaces are used for longer meetings, and therefore, people have technology with them—there’s an element of multitasking going on, whether or not people want to admit it,” he said. Eventually, these devices need to be recharged.

Divide, But Don’t Be Conquered

If your multipurpose space incorporates movable walls, you must ensure that these “breakout” spaces have everything they need to operate autonomously. O’Connor points to Biamp’s room combining technology, which automates the switching for sources and outputs. “If you’ve got contact closures in your movable walls, it will send a signal to [Biamp] Tesira to change the routing, the gain, and it will kick off any other presets that fit,” he explains, adding that because it’s automated, it doesn’t require an expert to operate the system. The trick is in predicting use cases for this subset of multipurpose spaces: “If you’re going to have a divisible room, you have to envision it in all of its possible combinations, and make sure that every one of them can stand alone.”

“Multi-Use” Means “Usable”—To the Users

Like anything else, defining use case for a multipurpose space means that you must identify the technical capabilities of its users. Is your staff capable of running the gear that you’re specifying? “If not, this should be addressed at the same time a specific functionality is requested,” Brown warned. “There is no point in designing a jumbo jet if you do not have a pilot.” As for support, as of press time, Swiss Re was piloting a shared help desk arrangement that incorporated both corporate real estate and IT tickets; depending on the nature of the request, the first-tier responders will route the ticket to the correct team.

Ultimately, however, in order for multi-use spaces to work, their designs should focus on their operators, Brown counseled. “At the end of the project you will have to operate the space, so if you do not have a vision for how this will happen, you will regret it sooner rather than later,” he said. And as for predicting all of the use cases the multipurpose space will accommodate?“The first use of the room will always include a request for at least one functionality you did not consider. Guaranteed.”

Carolyn Heinze is a regular contributor to AV Technology.

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.