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Why 2021 Will Be the Year of Touchless Audio

2020 was a tough year. Just about everyone lived with a constant sense of unease interrupted periodically by sudden, significant, and unexpected changes in the fabric of everyday life. And it wasn’t just individuals—businesses and institutions of higher education had to learn to function remotely, overhauling how they have operated for decades and embracing remote collaboration with no virtually  no warning or preparation. 

As this incomparable year comes to a close, the question on the mind of many AV and IT leaders is, What will 2021 look like, and how can I future-proof my conferencing strategy?

[The Integration Guide to Conferencing & Collaboration]

If 2020 was a cautionary tale, it taught the AV industry to always expect the unexpected. With this transformed mindset, AV/IT teams in 2021 are more prepared than ever to pivot and adapt to new circumstances quickly, empowered by rapid innovations in conferencing technology like touchless audio, hybrid devices, and cloud-first collaboration tools.

Classrooms and meeting spaces will continue to support remote users in 2021, but there are a few solutions and strategies to keep in mind to prepare for the coming months.

Hybrid Is the New Normal

In the business world, even the most skeptical managers have had to learn how to manage a remote workforce, and many found that remote work was not only feasible, but in many cases led to an increase in their team’s productivity. In 2021, I hope we will start to see a bit of normality thanks to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, but even after this health crisis has passed, a large contingent of the workforce will remain at home. A hybrid environment, driven by mostly virtual meetings with some in-person exchanges, will be the norm.

In higher education, the hybrid classroom will continue to be the most common and successful arrangement, with some students tuning in from home and some attending in person.

In both instances of hybrid collaboration, touchless audio has emerged as not only an effective collaboration solution, but also an enabler of social distancing and improved hygiene.

Cleanliness and social distancing protocols have been a fixture for businesses and educational facilities since last spring and will remain a concern well into 2021. As classrooms and meeting rooms have always been high-touch, close-contact environments where equipment like speakerphones, and lapel and handheld microphones are innocuously shared among participants, AV and IT pros must deploy touchless audio as a key component of their collaboration strategy in the post-COVID-19 world.

Watch the video below to learn more about microphone hygiene.

Beamforming microphone technology is one of the latest touchless audio innovations that will prove increasingly valuable in 2021. The technology is beneficial for capturing audio from multiple socially-distanced in-room participants in a meeting that also includes remote attendees. Beamforming microphones automatically track whoever is speaking within the meeting space, no matter their distance from others, to effectively capture the speech on a conference call or virtual classroom. With this technology, there is no need to “pass the mic,” audio is crystal clear for remote participants, and in-person participants can remain at least 6 feet apart.

The Convergence of Work and Home

This last year proved that unified communications technology, and the new ways of working that accompany it, work well. The lines between home and office or classroom spaces have inevitably been blurred, aided by IT-ready solutions and personal devices that have gone professional. The trend toward bring-your-own-device (BYOD) at work is now more apparent than ever, as personal tech is continuing to become an indispensable part of hybrid working and learning.

In 2021, AV and IT teams should continue to embrace the BYOD trend to allow collaboration over Wi-Fi. With BYOD, touchless audio can be achieved quite easily without implementation of any new hardware; instead, it’s enabled by way of connected apps on the mobile device. Secure, enterprise-grade mobile applications are a great way to facilitate remote conferencing, maintain social distancing, and ensure reliable audio. To minimize the sharing of devices and encourage social distancing during classes in large lecture halls, schools in particular can benefit from high-quality audio streaming via secure apps on students’ personal smartphones.

Cloud Becomes Commonplace

Cloud-based infrastructures will become increasingly prevalent at work and school, becoming the primary interface for collaboration as students and employees remain at home. Cloud-based platforms will continue proliferating across the enterprise and higher education sectors by becoming more intuitive and streamlined for users, and easier to manage on the back end for IT. At the same time, they’ll add interoperability with other software and hardware solutions.

[The Technology Manager's Guide to Videoconferencing and Streaming]

Accordingly, AV and IT professionals should make certain that their audio equipment is compatible across various popular cloud-based videoconferencing and collaboration platforms—whether that is Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or something else that is regularly used at their organization or school. For productivity’s sake, it is crucial to enable unified conferencing by ensuring hardware and software interoperability early on.

Don’t Skimp on Security

For both classrooms and conferencing, the many benefits of having multiple software solutions, cloud-based infrastructures and a mix of personal devices for collaboration comes with an important trade-off. Remote collaboration unavoidably increases an organization’s surface area, opening the network up to new vulnerabilities and avenues of attack. With this in mind, network security will be a top priority for AV and IT pros in 2021.

An increasing part of the role of AV and IT within an organization will be to assess security and manage risks on their networks. This is in response to a need for tighter security for end users, as organizations look to protect their infrastructure from malicious actors while still allowing remote access for employees and students. At Sennheiser, we have made it a point to implement the IEEE 802.1X standard for port-based network authentication into many of our products, and we expect the industry to follow suit with other security measures in order to safeguard end users at every level of a network.

2021 Is the Year to Put Audio First

Unfortunately, audio is not always prioritized during AV installs. It tends to play second fiddle to other conferencing elements. As COVID-19 fundamentally dismantled the ways schools and businesses have operated until 2020, one thing is certain for 2021: audio can no longer be an afterthought. A recent report found that professionals lose almost half an hour on average each week to audio issues, dealing with conference call drop-outs, troubleshooting technical difficulties, or focusing on other distractions. This everyday nuisance can add up to a lot of wasted productivity, missed educational opportunities, and even lost revenue for corporations. Especially in these times, high-quality audio can make or break an end user’s experience. It may be the factor that decides whether a student achieves a good grade or a business pitch is successful.

As businesses and schools continue to adapt in the pandemic and post-pandemic world, audio will remain the primary interface for hybrid classes and socially distanced meetings. If AV and IT pros take anything away from 2020, it is that they must continuously embrace new innovations and technologies to ensure their organizations can benefit from high-quality, touchless audio solutions.

David Missall is 30-year veteran of the professional audio industry who is currently insights manager consultant and technical application engineer manager in his 15th year with Sennheiser. Missall consults for prominent news and sports broadcasters, theaters, live music stages, integrators and consultants, corporations, and universities on multichannel wireless installations, meeting space and classroom technology, and assistive listening solutions.

David Missall is technical application engineer manager, Business Communication, at Sennheiser.