As organizations across the board grapple with reconfiguring their physical spaces in line with new health and safety best practices, the AV industry is poised to help. And while many professionals and students will continue to work and learn from home well into the near future, the need for in-person collaboration hasn’t gone away, pandemic or not. The question is: what should—or will—the in-room post-COVID AV UX look like?
Much of the discussion centers on how to create touchless environments by deploying voice-activated systems, or by leveraging personal mobile devices to interact with the space via tools such as QR codes, apps, or browser-based software. Michael Judeh, senior director of AV technology at Convene, an event facilities and flexible workspace provider, noted that while these are great tools, many users aren’t necessarily willing to take the time to interact with them. “This affects the user experience in terms of: how do we automate the spaces and tailor them specifically for users? How do we tie room scheduling and functions down to a specific user and what they need? How can they pre-populate those requests so that the rooms are ready for the user when they walk in?” In theory, he said, these spaces should be plug-and-play.
The challenge, however, comes down to funding: while many organizations wish to upgrade their systems in response to COVID, the current economic climate has mandated budget cuts. “We’re actively assisting many different types of environments—primarily in commercial office spaces and higher ed—to enable part-time use of their spaces, and there’s a tremendous amount of creativity being woven into that,” said Howard Nunes, CEO at enterprise AV solutions provider PepperDash Technology. “But as it settles out, we’re seeing a lot more folks moving into a cleaning regime rather than making a big spend on touchless, or voice-driven control. They want to make changes—they want to do the right thing for their people—but they’re financially hamstrung.”
“I don’t think much will change,” said Gladys Marroquin, audiovisual consultant at consulting and engineering firm Newcomb & Boyd LLP. Marroquin recounted that the higher education institutions in her region are offering a hybrid of in-room classes, remote learning, and even outdoor sessions. “If anything, [there may be] masks and the required PPE, but [I think] the professors will go back in and use these rooms as they’ve been using them for the past several years.” Students, she said, will utilize their own personal devices to limit their exposure to shared surfaces.
Another issue universities are grappling with are tuition fees for remote learning, Marroquin pointed out. “There’s a pushback from students not wanting to go back and not feeling like they should, but they don’t feel like they should be paying full tuition if they’re just going to have Zoom classes all day,” she said. If schools must decrease tuition fees for those participating in remote learning only, “it’s making an impact on [how much] capital is available to these higher ed institutions.”
At Convene, Judeh explained that one of the main goals continues to be providing a smooth videoconferencing experience that accommodates all the different platforms out there. “Every customer has their own specific platform they want to use,” he said. “I even see this in large enterprises now: they’re providing their teams the ability to choose whatever system they want to use that works best for the team and helps them achieve their goals, in both the UC and VC space.” To support this, systems now must be flexible and, once again, plug-and-play. “Historically, the AV UX has been fairly rigid in architecture, so this is unexplored territory, I think, for a lot of manufacturers, end users, and the technology managers who manage those systems.”
To address present-day health and safety concerns, Judeh and his team have temporarily removed touchpoints such as HDMI cables in Convene’s workspace and meeting facilities, which forces clients into a wireless screen-share workflow. He noted that while wireless screen-sharing tech has advanced significantly, “the redundancy of an HDMI cable and the stability of HDMI cables is not something we would necessarily want to do away with [forever]—especially with specific customer devices that might not have the ability to load an application, or with IT restrictions that prevent them from wireless screen sharing,” he said. He added that Convene has also temporarily removed interactive touchpanels, again to provide as much of a touchless environment as possible. “[But] unless you can automate all of those things, or provide that experience on a user’s device, we’re still going to need [touchpanels] at some point.”
Back in 2017, PepperDash launched Mobile Control, a control platform that enables users to interact with in-room systems via their mobile devices through QR codes. Nunes explained that his organization’s choice to leverage QR technology was based on the desire to provide an intuitive user experience—users aren’t obligated to download an app, for example. “[It’s an] excellent user experience, but the infrastructure has to support that to make sure that you’re not controlling a room you shouldn’t be controlling,” he said. “Getting the infrastructure together to enable somebody to walk in with their own cellular connection, get on to the network, and get access to that control, it’s a pretty significant lift.” Significant enough that, with current economic conditions, it’s an upgrade some organizations are unable to deploy, he said.
Nunes also said that a number of his clients are pondering the placement of smart speakers in their conference rooms—another way to minimize touchpoints. While the concept may be valid, “the idea of having a device like that and AI behind it listening to every word still means that it’s listening to and processing every word,” he said. There is also the social element to consider: interrupting a conversation between humans to speak with a device can compromise the flow of a meeting.
While reduced budgets are forcing AV/IT departments to work with what they already have on hand, Sumanth Rayancha, CTO at PepperDash, noted that the current circumstances present tech managers with the opportunity to resolve issues they’ve been trying to address for a while. “We’ve seen organizations forever trying to get on one meeting platform; they end up having this mishmash of Zoom, Teams, and WebEx,” he said. “This [situation] is forcing that need for one platform, [and] it can’t matter where you are.” The technology to make this happen exists; for tech managers, the challenge is getting their organizations on board. “Use this as an opportunity and pitch it as: we want to fix these things for COVID. It should help loosen some purse strings to get it done, and the effect is going to be lasting—you’ll solve a problem that you’ve been trying to solve for years.”
For Judeh, the in-room AV UX is made up of two experiences, one being “customer-facing” and the other being that of the administrator. Post-COVID, he is interested to see how both will evolve, “especially now, [where] there’s probably a diminished on-site presence to help with troubleshooting,” he said. “How does this user experience support troubleshooting? How does that affect our device choices? What are the things that we’re willing to deploy to make UX simpler to reduce the number of issues, but then also maybe reduce functionality and seeing that trade-off as a result?” There is also the question of how many of these modifications will continue to be adopted into the future. “What are the innovations that come out as a result of COVID? I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen that yet because we haven’t had the opportunity to get enough people back into the office and measure that. But again, I think it will impact things like automation and reducing touchpoints, and making things smarter as a result.”
Back to BYOD
In the early days of BYOD, many tech managers were hesitant to allow people to connect to corporate networks with their personal devices—it just wasn’t that secure. Post-pandemic, many believe that a BYOD-based in-room AV UX is one of the safest options out there.
Still, BYOD continues to present its challenges, acknowledges Michael Judeh, senior director of AV technology at Convene (which has historically leveraged BYOD to provide clients with a flexible workspace). “Every time you bring a new device into the room, it has a different operating system, a different device type, and a different connection type that presents a challenge—especially across larger enterprises that might have a range of infrastructure from older to newer,” he said. “Being able to provide the same experience to everyone in a BYOD environment might be very challenging, plus the inherent issues that are going to happen with BYOD, whether they be human error, or compatibility errors, or system errors or failures.”
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.