Most of you have probably watched an episode or two of NCIS. I always laugh a little when I see Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, standing in the middle of the MTAC (Multiple Threat Alert Center) doing a video call on the large screen. It’s not that the technology isn’t available to provide a great visual communications experience; it’s that he is standing in the middle of what is supposed to be a functioning operations center that is relatively dark and has zero background noise. As they say, “only in the movies,” or in this case only in made-for-television. Video communications in call centers, operation centers, and command and control environments is a reality and it’s growing, but with its growth comes a unique set of challenges.
Operation centers of all types are embracing a growing variety of data and communication formats including traditional voice, video, text, IM , and other collaborative media. A great example are the current upgrades to 911 services in Vermont, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee that will allow dispatchers to utilize text, data, and video in addition to traditional voice to gain more information about each emergency. Another great example is in Emergency Medical Dispatch Centers (EM D) where they are performing research studies and trials on the utilization of video communications during medical emergencies from the general public as well as between regional trauma centers and rural hospitals.
As you begin to think about deployment of visual communication into these environments, you immediately identify some potential needs and associated challenges. For example, a video call could begin with only one person in the operations center. At some point it might need to be transferred to another person or to a group of people. The received audio and video might need to move from an individual’s desktop display to a dedicated conference room or to a large graphic display at the front of the operations center. The transmit audio and video signals to the remote site might need to be from a single person or a group of people. Each of these scenarios presents key audio and lighting challenges.
Let’s think about audio first. Unlike the NCIS operation center, we could be dealing with a fairly noisy environment. With video communications we are concerned with transmit audio, received audio, and any media audio. Additionally, depending upon the size of the space, we may need some level of speech reinforcement. All of these are obstacles that can be overcome through proper design and technology utilization.
Likewise, proper lighting design and implementation can also work in a multi-scenario environment. Key areas of attention for good visual communications include correct lighting levels at the subject and consistent color temperature throughout the space. Shadows and glare also create problems, so avoid down lighting and shiny millwork. Improve the scene for the far-end by using backlighting to create separation between the foreground subject and the background. Quality lighting control system programming will allow recall of lighting presets for the multiple scenarios.
Above all, understand the function and needs of the specific operations center you are dealing with. Research how they will interact, understand individual tasks, and how they integrate into the overall workflow. Understand other space requirements; do they need space for contracts, managers, and visitors? Do they need dedicated rooms for strategy meetings? Will visual communications be required in these spaces? After your exhaustive search make sure that you set correct expectations for your customer.
The good news is each of these scenarios requires knowledge and skills that are unique to our industry. Yes, other industries may understand networks, communications equipment, and perhaps even display technologies. But achieving a repeatable and reliable solution that improves efficiencies, reduces operator fatigue, is easy to operate, and provides accurate visual representation, and intelligible audio is what we do best.
R. Randal Riebe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of AV integrator business development at Polycom.
A Look Into the Future
No one can predict the future with 100-percent certainty, but by keeping an eye on new research and development it is fairly easy to identify specific applications where some of the developing technologies could gravitate.
A few areas come to mind regarding applicable technologies that will find a home in command and control environments. The first is around collaboration. In the adjacent column, I talked about a variety of technologies that support collaborative working within operation centers including IM, voice, and visual communications. These are only the beginning and many additional collaborative applications will find their way to this environment.
Another developing technology that will go hand-in-hand with these applications will be wall-sized, interactive multi-touch displays. What techie could forget the touch screens in Minority Report? Imagine the applications in operation center environments.
Augmented reality is another interesting technology for operation centers. There are current augmented reality products being sold for military field reconnaissance applications. Imagine having this technology in a 911 call center and being able to see and send blueprints or a satellite view directly to police officers, firefighters, and paramedics.
Staying aware of these newer technologies allows the system integrator to bring additional value to their client by anticipating premature obsolescence and to some extent “future proofing” a client’s design. Make yourself valuable to your clients and never worry about where your next project is coming from.