By Christy Miller,
As more building systems converge over low-voltage Internet Protocol (IP)-based infrastructure, many information and communications technology (ICT) professionals are taking advantage of the opportunity to design and deploy audio visual (AV) systems traditionally handled by industry-specific integrators. Similarly, AV integrators are finding the need to embrace the concept of designing, deploying and testing standards-based structured cabling systems. The complexity of today’s AV systems, with a wide range of components, features and functionality, can be overwhelming to both ICT and AV professionals alike. Unfortunately end users can be swayed by high-end systems with fancy features and often don’t fully understand their own AV needs and expertise, which can result in unnecessary expense, underutilization, inadequate performance and/or the inability of their investment to meet immediate and long-term needs.
ICT designers and installers adding AV systems to their portfolio of services have a crucial need to provide a simple design on time and within budget that allows clients to efficiently meet their needs. This means fully leveraging features and streamlining AV across multiple spaces—from the classroom and collaboration space, to the boardroom. In offering AV design and deployment, here are five “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) principles to help you succeed and ensure customer satisfaction.
1: Ask straightforward questions
The first step in embarking on an AV deployment is to understand the client’s vision and priorities. What is the intended audience and how are they planning to use the system? Many may not know how they plan to use the space or the type of system it will require, but you can guide them by educating them on capabilities and what makes the most sense for their specific use. During this process, it is important to understand who within the organization will utilize the system. It is important to keep in mind that most users do not want to become AV experts—they need a system that is simple to learn and operate.
For any type of space, whether a classroom, huddle space or conference room, it is important to identify the expected level of audience collaboration. For example, does a single person need to present video only, video and audio, or only audio? Is there a need for a more collaborative environment that promotes audience participation? Do they need interactive touch displays that allow users to write, draw, annotate or move items around on the screen?
In today’s classrooms and training facilities, educators are shifting away from a “sage on the stage” approach, preferring to walk around the space and allow small groups of students to display content wirelessly from laptops, tablets or other devices. If the system should allow the audience to display, it’s important to find out any additional information such as how students connect, if there is a need for lecture capture, and if the educator needs the ability to monitor content from participants before displaying it for the rest of the group.
Depending on the client and application, there may also be the need to multicast content to several locations rather than having the system self-contained in one space or room. Educational facilities often require the ability to broadcast information to multiple classrooms or campus buildings.
It’s not just the collaboration and content that needs to be considered, but also who will be presenting, how they want to present, and to whom they will be presenting. For example, do presenters need a confidence monitor to see what the audience sees or the ability to zoom in on other locations and objects within the space? Especially with recent events creating the need for distance learning and remote collaboration, you should also determine if the client is planning to live stream to off-site external users, and if those users also need to participate and collaborate.
Gathering as much detailed information as possible up front will ultimately help determine the type of components and functionality to propose. To boil it down, following are the top five questions that should be asked for each space you’re designing.
- Who are the intended users of the system?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What type of collaboration is required?
- What type of content will be presented?
- What type of presentation capabilities are required?
2: Get familiar with features and functions
While asking straightforward questions will give you an understanding of the client’s basic needs, having broad knowledge of available features and functions from multiple vendors is critical to guiding clients towards a user-friendly solution. For example, your client may indicate they want to accommodate distance learning via video but also want the educator to be able to move freely around the room. This may be the time to suggested advanced pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras and microphones with advanced beamforming capabilities that utilize sensors and sound localization technology to steer cameras and microphones in the direction of the teacher, or in layman’s terms, lecture capture.
Everyone gets excited by high-tech AV systems and gadgets, but rather than the shiny new solutions that clients don’t technically need, and features and functions they will hardly ever touch, try to steer the client towards practical solutions that meet their needs. For example, many schools have deployed playback systems in music rooms at a cost of $30k or higher, and teachers would only use one or two of the features. Even in corporate offices, clients may want a high-end commercial 100-inch display that comes down out of the ceiling for a conference room where basic documents will be displayed, but perhaps the same can be achieved at a lower cost with two affordable standard 50-inch displays. In the commercial enterprise environment, 90% of what you will be designing will be conference rooms and/or small huddle spaces, and they should be designed and deployed as efficiently as possible—especially considering most of these spaces are updated about every 5 years.
Shifting AV systems to the network means more software-centric solutions that make systems easier to control, manage and configure multiple environments from one interface. Many of these systems are vendor-neutral, eliminating the need for expensive custom hardware and allowing for off-the-shelf displays, speakers, cameras and other components. You will need to ensure that the software is user friendly, offers the required functionality and includes routine maintenance, warranties and troubleshooting.
AV-as-a-service (AVaaS) solutions can help mitigate the cost and complexity of traditional in-house AV equipment through an all-in-one deployment, which includes equipment and monthly fees. This shifts much of the capex budget to opex, which may be more appealing for some clients. Referring to the example of a complex $30k+ playback deployment at a school, AVaaS is available to allow the same functionality using audio-mixing software, a laptop and a quality microphone, thereby potentially saving a school contingency for instrument microphones, acoustical panels or amplifiers. AVaaS solutions like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are also getting a lot of attention due to global pandemic stay-at-home initiatives, and few experts believe we will ever go back to every employee physically located in the building. These AVaaS solutions have proven very effective for online meetings, video conferencing, screensharing and webinars.
The top five questions to consider when selecting features and functionality are as follows.
- Which features and functions will meet the need?
- Will advanced features/components really be utilized?
- Can the need be met with a more efficient solution?
- What level of complexity can your client handle?
- Is there a software-based or AVaaS solution that can more efficiently meet the requirements?
3: Know your spaces
When designing AV systems, maintaining end-user experience conformity across spaces is critical to delivering a standard user experience. Having all conference rooms, collaboration spaces and classrooms deployed with similar interfaces will make it much easier for users to know how to use the AV system in each space and enable easier operational changes. Educational facilities, for example, are typically built to last 50 to 100 years, and room assignments can change over time. If math and English teachers need different functionality on Day 1, classrooms should be designed the same to combine end user experience.
Sizing up each space in terms of number of users, size of the space and external factors like ambient noise levels will play a role in designing and selecting the system. How many times have you been on a conference call where you can only hear the people sitting next to the microphone? For conference rooms that accommodate more than 10 people, you may want to consider having multiple microphones or a ceiling-mounted audio capture solution designed to cover all talkers within the space. For a collaboration space that accommodates about five or six people, it will typically make sense to have an all-in-one system. There are several conference cameras with integrated audio designed specifically for huddle spaces, such as the HuddleSHOT from Legrand or the Poly Studio from Polycom.
The overall size and features of a room will also dictate the solution. Deploying too large of a screen for a space can make it difficult for users to focus on the content, while too small of a screen can make it difficult to read content. Screen resolution is also a consideration—the higher the resolution, the closer the viewer can be. This means you may be able to select a smaller higher-resolution display. Industry standards and guidelines from associations like AVIXA provide easy-to-use calculations for screen size and mounting height based on the size of the room, distance to the closest and farthest viewer, ambient light, content and other factors. A good rule of thumb is that the viewing audience should be seated between 2 to 8 times the screen height, where the closest viewer is located at a distance 2 times the screen height and the farthest viewer is located at 8 times the screen height.
Retrofit projects can especially be challenging with the need to consider structural conditions. You’ll need to know the location of the existing HVAC, windows and doors, and you will need to make sure that walls are structurally adequate to accommodate displays. Controllable shades may be required to eliminate daylight interference, and you’ll need to be aware of all other items in the room, even exit signs. Identifying the type and location of both electrical and low-voltage connectivity will also be critical to the project. The last thing you want to do is realize that you didn’t include a budget for running new cable in your bid. Wireless implementations may therefore be a consideration for many retrofit spaces, if the bandwidth is there to support it.
Ambient noise levels can be a significant factor in the performance of an AV system. It’s important to test noise levels during normal operations and take measurements during various times. This can be achieved using a sound level meter or noise level analyzer and following noise criteria for various spaces as identified by available industry standards and best practices. In a pinch, there are seven sound level meter apps available for your smartphone, including one from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Collaboration spaces that are out in the open may need sound masking to reduce distracting ambient noise and to maintain privacy. Conference rooms where an HVAC system could interfere with noise levels may need noise-cancelling microphones.
Following are the top five spatial considerations to have in mind.
- Maintain consistent components and functionality throughout the building.
- Ensure that the AV system can adequately accommodate the number of users in each space.
- Leverage existing industry best practices and calculators to determine screen size, mounting height and resolution.
- Identify any and all existing obstacles of a space in a retrofit installation.
- Consider ambient noise levels and privacy needs for each space.
4: Don’t forget about the network infrastructure
For the ICT professional, you wouldn’t think that considering the capabilities of the client’s network would be a concern. However, just because their LAN comprises Category 6A cabling, that doesn’t mean that they have the storage, space and bandwidth in place to meet their needs.
If there is a need to record and edit AV content for training sessions, meetings, or new employee orientation, the client will need the ability to store that content and have editing software. If the client wants to multicast to several locations, telecommunications rooms will need the space and required power and cooling to accommodate equipment.
Video can take up a lot of bandwidth, and with AV riding on the network, the bandwidth and capacity of the internal network needs to be reviewed. If you’re planning to deploy any wireless AV solutions, does the existing WiFi network have the capacity to support it? The type of content can be a factor, such as in a medical facility where high-resolution X-rays need to be accessed and displayed, and buffering issues are not tolerated. It’s also critical to ensure that IT has a handle on how the network is segmented via VLANs.
It’s not uncommon for clients to encounter problems where someone couldn’t wirelessly display their content because the display and the table they were using were not on the same virtual network.
One of the biggest complaints is that videos from external sources are having buffering issues and coming through with stuttering frame rates or out-of-sync audio. Regardless of how robust the LAN, if the system is being used to stream video from external sources like YouTube, lack of bandwidth coming in from the external service provider is always going to be a problem.
It is critical to look at all the ways your client is going to use their AV system with external sources and evaluate if the bandwidth is there to support it. With more people than ever before working from home, video conferencing is on the rise and your clients need to be able to hold effective meetings where everyone—both internally and externally—can share their video content without the fear of lagging or buffering every five minutes.
Those embarking on a new AV deployment or upgrade do not often consider if they have the bandwidth to support it.
Primarily, this issue stems from silos within an organization that divide IT and AV. That is why it is important for the designer to interface with IT and bring all stakeholders together to make that determination.
Deploying an AV system should always require a review of the network capabilities—wirelessly, internally and externally. Following are the five keys questions.
- Can the network support transmitting, accessing and storing large amounts of video content?
- Do existing telecom spaces have the room, power and cooling to accommodate additional equipment?
- Does the internal LAN—both wired and wireless—have the bandwidth to support the needs?
- Are all components of the system riding on the same virtual network?
- Is there enough bandwidth coming into the facility to support video streaming, distance learning, remote collaboration and other external needs?
5: Leverage the resources and offer support
ICT professionals who are looking to add AV design and deployment to their portfolio can deliver more to customers. They also have the benefit of a distribution model that eliminates single-source inventory and risk of project delay, which is especially critical with the strain that current events are placing on the supply chain.
Participating in AV webinars, staying on top of trends in technology and reviewing available solutions—both software and hardware—is critical to knowing what solutions to propose and how to deploy them. Getting involved with associations like AVIXA is highly recommended. Their standards are free to members, and they offer easy-to-use guidelines and checklists.
These tools will help get you started and ensure you get the answers you need to deliver an efficient, reliable AV system with the right features and functions. AV may seem complex and overwhelming, but armed with the right information, it does not have to be.
As with other IP-based systems you’re designing and deploying, it’s important to consider documentation, warranties, labeling and other support and service offerings. Documenting all serial numbers, warranties and MAC addresses for all components and determining a labeling scheme with asset tags will go a long way to ensuring customer satisfaction.
In closing, the following top five pillars of excellence will never steer you wrong.
- Understand what the client wants and needs.
- Be the solution, not the problem.
- Look at the big picture.
- Stay educated and informed. And finally,
- Keep it simple, stupid.
Christy Miller is president and chief executive officer at BCL IT Consulting, an Ohio-based strategic consulting, design and project management firm specializing in structured cabling, audio visual, acoustics, immersive environments and security for healthcare, education, recreation, government and commercial industries. She has more than 25 years of experience and is an active BICSI and AVIXA member and volunteer, serving on several committees and as a BICSI board member from 2011-2018. She can be reached at [email protected].