Rockleigh, NJ 07647
Crestron Electronics, Inc.
Feb. 15, 2022 - While the focus on videoconferencing is right there in the name, there's an argument to be made that audio might be a more important part of the equation. We've likely all been in a situation where the video was simply unavailable or unwanted, for reasons ranging from a lousy connection to the world's worst hair day. Actually turning off a camera for a portion of the meeting may result in a lessening of what's (unfairly) called "video fatigue" — a phenomenon that all platforms struggle with, and one of the issues with any unified communications package that companies like Crestron are looking to alleviate through advances in the technology.
As we mentioned in part one of this series, there's a tremendous amount of AI research being pumped into making the hybrid work environment as "equitable" as possible — giving everyone the same amount of real estate on the screen, ensuring no one's (literally) in the dark, and even figuring out ways how to make old-school, analog solutions like whiteboards completely visible in a virtual setting. But the need for quality audio is just as critical, and solutions — from microphones to speakers to software — are being developed in parallel with video technology.
"It's important that the devices you specify enable everyone to hear and be heard." – Lauren Simmen, Crestron
Different Spaces, Different Conversations
The "equality of presence" that's been discussed regarding video is equally important when considering audio. Crestron's Lauren Simmen notes for the upcoming "Guide to the Audio in Conferencing" from AV Technology, "It's important that the devices you specify enable everyone to hear and be heard – if you're a remote worker attending a meeting, and a sidebar conversation breaks out that's inaudible, that's ultimately damaging to the collaborative experience that these kinds of gatherings should provide." When you're picking a microphone, factors such as a 360-degree array and enough coverage for a given space (e.g., don't put a mic with a range of 20 feet in a room 30 feet long) are critical.
Big boardrooms need mics that pick up conversations and amplify them without feedback to the rest of the room, and the right device can deliver that audio to virtual attendees. A hyper-reflective conference room that's essentially a "glass box" can make for an unpleasant listening experience, too, and analog solutions from custom absorption and diffusion panels to heavy drapes can be a help.
Attention to the mics used by remote workers is just as important. Walt Zerbe, who's senior director of technology and standards for the industry association CEDIA, notes in this post that "You ... want to be cognizant of microphone patterns. A cardioid pattern microphone rejects all the noise from the back, and a hypercardioid has a very tight little pattern that rejects all the noise from the sides of the mic as well."
"If you have lots of artifacts in audio, meaning reverberation, distortions, all kinds of unnatural things, that's vastly more tiring than any natural conversation." – Stein Ove Eriksen, Huddly
The Right Hardware Meets the Right Software
CEO Stein Ove Eriksen of Huddly, a Crestron partner in developing these technologies, notes that proper audio in and of itself reduces meeting fatigue: "If you have lots of artifacts in audio, meaning reverberation, distortions, all kinds of unnatural things, that's vastly more tiring than any natural conversation." It's why features such as echo-canceling software are so important, as is choosing speakers that won't be overdriven to the point of distortion — headroom is everything when it comes to amplification.
Of course, audio hardware has to be situation-specific. Is an employee hotdesking in an open office layout? Are they joining from an airport — or even from their home office right at the moment the kids are getting loud? Headsets are an answer. Another Crestron partner is Jabra, and that firm's Director of Global Alliances Travis Dusek notes that "You'll find as many as six or eight microphones on a single headset of ours. And what we're doing through the algorithm then is measuring the amount of time that it takes for that human voice to hit each one of those microphones." The right placement of those mics along with the proper measurements allows the device to determine what's likely background noise as opposed to human speech. It's a dance, however: "We realized that if we block out too much background noise and too much echo, then people sound very robotic," he adds.
Additionally, intelligent audio with the right AI features can identify speakers from their voiceprint — and the automated transcription options offered by platforms such as Zoom Rooms™ or Microsoft Teams® can be extraordinarily helpful. After all, it's tough for a task or a detail to fall through the cracks if an entire meeting's been documented.
The right prompts for great audio can be synced up with intelligent video to create better solutions. Dusek gives the example of a meeting attendee speaking while on mute — can the AV's AI note that a person's lips are moving silently? "I know people would appreciate something as simple as a text prompt on screen that says, ‘Hey, you know you're muted, right?'"
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