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Making it Easy: What is New and Cool in Room Control

August 18, 2014 | Telepresence Options


"New York is on the line," the secretary called.

"Do you have to put them on the contraption?"

That cringing response came from slimy ad man Pete Campbell on a recent episode of Mad Men that brilliantly portrayed the early struggles of conferencing technology in 1969. Communicating between bicoastal offices has surely come a long way since the days of Sterling Cooper and Partners. America's favorite television office team would be amazed at the simplicity and clarity of today's conferencing capability. It's a far cry from huddling around a phone and yelling over each other amid constant gripes about the bad audio from across the line. People now share pitch-perfect audio and crystal-clear video from pole to pole with the click of a mouse, tap of a finger or swipe of a hand.

Conference rooms are where a great deal of this magic is made, making conference room control systems essential to business communications. These systems used to be limited to more basic automation features. But with the convergence of AV and IT technology, room control has led visual collaboration to a golden age of collaborative, unified communications. "When it comes to the technology itself, the control system is there to provide a high level of automation programming," says David Thorson, senior manager, programming and architecture for AVI-SPL's Technology Solutions Group.

All in the GUI
Control systems design places top priority on providing an intuitive experience for the end user, creating a clean, uncluttered and consistent look and feel. "Far too many visual collaboration environments are complicated to operate, which leads to a 'tax' at the beginning of each meeting in setup and connection time," says Sean Goldstein, vice president of marketing at Crestron. "A control system can eliminate that complexity, making a room that is incredibly easy to use."

Ease of use can make or break a conference room control system. Joe da Silva, director of product marketing for Extron, says such systems should have a low-impact, consistent and intuitive user interface--technology that's as transparent as possible. "The control system needs to allow users to concentrate on their meetings instead of being distracted by the technology," he says. "Just as a quality telepresence provides consistent meeting experience, control system designs and user interfaces should present a comfortable and familiar experience for users from room to room, across the enterprise."


One of the features common to all the major control system manufactures is variety. Small, medium, large, wired or wireless, on the table or on the wall, portrait or landscape. Here is Extron's line up.

AVI-SPL uses extensive standards for defining usage parameters, including graphic design guidelines to make users comfortable with a system's interface at first glance. Often, their interfaces are designed like popular consumer interfaces and websites. AVI-SPL employs five different GUI themes, from a flat design common on mobile devices to a more photorealistic theme. The company has also developed a program called AIR (automation interactive ranges) to help define the type of user a system will be engaged with. AIR identifies three types of user based on experience level: autopilot, copilot and pilot. Copilots may want to select what technology they wish to receive a call on. Pilots, running the presentation or meeting, are typically hands-on enough to run a highly technical room. "We're talking about the end user before we're talking about what the system should do, or what technology is in the room," explains Thorson.


When AVI-SPL built their Cameleon Telepresence solution, one of the features that drew the most praise was the custom designed control system.

No matter what type of user, sometimes less is more, and a key panel with 10 buttons will suffice. Thorson describes the concept as don't clutter the user with what they don't need, "but don't limit them either." He says a good control system should be very customizable. A dashboard solution founded off an InfoComm standard is the most adaptable option AVI-SPL offers users, ideal for both copilots and pilots.

A bad interface can put the whole success of this major technology investment at risk, says Frank Pellkofer, co-founder and CEO of Utelogy, an open-standards cloud-based AV control and management platform. "Making it easy to use and ubiquitous throughout your enterprise not only ensures success, but invites new value for the enterprise, encourages innovation and different thinking on collaboration and using the technology behind it," he says.


The cloud-based Utelogy platform provides room control on commodity tablets with rapid changes that can easily be pushed out to every room.

Pellkofer believes control system GUIs are headed for global standardization. "You can carry your presentations, your unified communications platform, or whatever with you on your control interface as you go into a telepresence room, regardless of where in the world that room is located," he explains. "You still have the same interface in San Francisco as you have in your London and Shanghai offices. Gone are the days of many different user interfaces around the world within the same organization. Today, a standard UI delivered in moments to any corner of the world is real, easy and affordable. Total control of not only the telepresence system, but all of the AV, all of the room environment and all of the software-based things that I, as a user, may want with me on a given day is possible.


Expanding out from the Control Panel - Crestron RL - the company's Lync Room System brings Lync and control into the conference room.

You could think of this functionality as a high-end concierge technology. "It's now possible to deliver a white glove video operator/concierge button to a GUI for a given meeting with the button and then going away after the meeting is over and regular room use resumes," says Pellkofer. "Basically, if you can think of a service, it can be pushed to a user instantly. And with an enterprise platform for control, those solutions can be pushed globally in an instant.

Top Tier Capabilities
For Chris Neto, a consultant at AV design and engineering firm AV Helpdesk, high-quality video equipment and data capabilities are essential, but that managed white glove service differentiates these spaces from traditional videoconference rooms. These are the most high-end, posh rooms, where, "users expect to walk in and not touch anything," says Neto. "Everything is driven by this white glove service that sits in the background and makes everything run. It's not a Honda, it's a Ferrari."

When it comes to advanced capabilities, control manufacturers all have their own bundles of features to wow users. For AMX, one of the most important advanced features is for the system to be IT-friendly. "A modern room control system cannot stand as an island outside of the corporate IT network--it must by fully integrated, secure, and be maintainable by IT staff," says Mark Wilson, AMX senior product marketing manager. "Furthermore, AV assets like control panels need to be web-capable, giving meeting attendees the ability to access and share information from virtually anywhere, and securely."

AMX has also made security a major component of its Enzo platform, which purges all downloaded files and cached data when a meeting session concludes. This lets users enjoy "bring your own device" freedom without worry of repercussions.


The AMX Modero X Series G5 can be mounted portrait or landscape depending on the application and/or available space.

The BYOD trend has been changing room control on a broad scale, says Extron's da Silva. "For years, we've dealt with dedicated, fixed-location control interfaces," he says. "Then designated iPads or tablets that could be misplaced or left uncharged." Extron's LinkLicense lets participants use their own device as a primary control interface within a visual collaboration application without having to customize or program the device any further.

Crestron offers a range of solutions for BYOD to a meeting. AirMedia provides wireless presentation of PowerPoint, Excel, Word and PDF documents, in addition to personal images from an iOS or Android device, as well as PCs and Macbooks. Other presentation interfaces from Crestron include the Connect It and FlipTop, to provide wired connectivity for HDMI and VGA ouputs.

Full integration of Microsoft's Lync with Crestron's RL room control solutions brings IM, voice, video and desktop presentations straight into the conference room. Crestron has also recently worked with Cisco to develop Smart Space, an open architecture conferencing and infrastructure solution that includs AV switching, touchscreens, codec, cameras, DSP, as well as a built-in program for system configuration and control. It also automates room acoustics for remote videoconferencing and local meetings.

SMART Technologies has built a reputation on interactive whiteboard solutions, yet its SMART Room System for Microsoft Lync is noteworthy for the way it brings in local presentations, adhoc whiteboards, phone calls and videoconferencing capabilities. It also comes with its own touch-sensitive control panel. The SMART Lync Room Systems are comprised of an HD videoconferencing camera, an embedded appliance, either one or two large format SMART Board interactive displays, tabletop microphones, speakers and the control panel. "Customers have told us that this all-in-one approach creates compelling and productive meeting, while not compromising on consistency and reliability," says Frazer Couzens, director of SMART Room Systems. "However, SMART acknowledges that not all meeting spaces have the same needs; therefore, SMART offers the ability to extend its platform to further room control.

SMART offers the Microsoft Lync Room System Administrative Web Portal to manage room equipment remotely, along with its System Center integration for setting up automatic alerts. As an example, the system has a proximity detection feature, which senses if a room is occupied or not. SMART exposes this knowledge, via the standards-based RS232 protocol, to let system integrators control other elements of the room, such as lighting, temperature and shades. Additionally, SMART has released a new feature called Room View, which lets administrators configure what video sources are eligible to be shared in the Lync Room System, like Apple TV, document cameras, permanent computers, etc.

Gesture technology brings the "wow" factor in the most advanced telepresence rooms that AVI-SPL installs, Thorson says. Mobile devices have created the expectation among users that any touchpanel should be gesture-driven. Thorson also cites streaming video to the touchpanels and AMX's panoramic Modero X G5 as other advanced features.

Voice control is another feature starting to roll out in the newer control systems. Users will be able to walk into a room and say "Call Dubai," for example, and the control system will take care of the rest.

Truth in Action
The most effective means to establish how a room control system can make communications more successful is to take a look at a few of these environments. The Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL, has a total of 112 conference rooms in nine buildings across five campuses, holding more than 5,000 videoconferences every year. One of the most impressive features of this project is that just two people support all of these spaces.

The systems were designed and integrated by AVI-SPL, employing control hardware and software from Crestron, including DigitalMedia, Fusion software and the AirMedia presentation system.

Most of the rooms use a DMPS-300-C presentation system to combine AV controls, an audio amp, a six-channel microphone mixer, an audio processor, switcher, and Crestron touchscreens. Since they are all HDCP compatible, users can plug in a Blu-ray player or other media player. Crestron's Cisco Digital Media suite is the backbone for videoconferencing and streaming. Meeting participants can stay at their desks and log-in to the conference using Microsoft Lync.

As AV manager at the Moffitt Cancer Center, John Maass says he rarely trains a user for more than five minutes. "We do have individuals who need extra special care, but for the most part, we don't spend much time on training."

For beginners, the system is much like using an ATM machine, a comparison that "people warm up to," Maass says. "The Crestron systems take people step by step through each process, much like the ATM telling you to swipe your debit card. When we finish going over the control panel, we encourage them to go into an empty room and see what they can do."

Within the Ohio State system, the University of Toledo, College of Engineering, connects with a partner college electronically using telepresence. An instructor can lecture from either location, share slides or video content, and students can communicate and collaborate together in real-time.

"We knew we needed some kind of control interface, and we knew we needed to think about compatibility for the future and how to make it continue to work as technology changed," says Jonathan Rethorn, a high-performance computing specialist at University of Toledo. "Supporting the faculty in these rooms was a huge challenge because the control was not easy to use, nor was it easy to maintain. In fact, it was proprietary, which meant it was also expensive to maintain. Another hardware-based solution would leave the college in the same situation again in the future."

"We knew we needed some kind of control interface, and we knew we needed to think about compatibility for the future and how to make it continue to work as technology changed," says Jonathan Rethorn, a high-performance computing specialist at University of Toledo. "Supporting the faculty in these rooms was a huge challenge because the control was not easy to use, nor was it easy to maintain. In fact, it was proprietary, which meant it was also expensive to maintain. Another hardware-based solution would leave the college in the same situation again in the future."

The University of Toledo case illustrates one of the ways a room control system is well worth the investment. Quite simply, time savings is a meaningful metric in an education environment as much as in the corporate world. When meetings are more efficient, they start on time without technical hiccups to troubleshoot. "IT departments spend inordinate amounts of time chasing issues with older, non-networked AV systems; companies can save considerably by implementing more modern AV infrastructure that can be monitored and maintained over the IT network," says AMX's Wilson.

Wilson cites energy savings as well, from using sensors and other automation features that power the systems down when not in use. Between the energy, IT support costs, and time efficiency provided by a room control system, "we have seen payback calculations ranging from as quickly as six months up to two and a half years," says Wilson. "Regardless of the situation, the ROI on room control is always positive.

AV Helpdesk's Neto points to the robust nature of room control systems and their ability to provide many real metrics to companies, from occupancy sensors, to lights and shades and room usage information. It's easy to now see how a certain type of room is being used, all day, every day. "Even in small spaces, you can see how many times people check into those rooms," he says.

Neto sees Near Field Communications technology playing a big role in control and designing business spaces in the future, though he acknowledges the technology is not quite there yet.

The ROI ties into the end user experience for AVI-SPL's Thorson. "To me, the most important ROI is end user satisfaction. People are going to use the system because it's easy, and it does what they want."

Thorson also cited the big data effect in terms of ROI, providing real measurements in dollars and cents. Crestron's Fusion RV and AMX RMS are server applications that pump data in the background, so an administrator can see how many times videoconferencing was used in which room on a daily, monthly or annual basis. Businesses can also demonstrate how much a travel budget goes down as a result. "People that approve the budgets can say, 'this makes sense, we want to build more [of these systems],'" says Thorson.

Speaking from personal experience, Thorson says, "I use them seven or eight times a week. It keeps me out of the skies and my wife happy."

Now there's an ROI to write home about. TPO


Lindsey M. Adler is associate editor for Systems Contractor News, Residential Systems, and Healthcare AV. She frequently writes about new products in both commercial and residential AV, unified communications, home automation, and energy management, as well as efforts to engage a younger generation of AV professionals.

Making It Easy: What is New and Cool in Room Control by Telepresence Options

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