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Hybrid meeting technology helps AV teams address equity

AV teams are challenged in providing remote and in-room meeting attendees the same experience. Hybrid meeting technology for speaker framing is the first step to meeting equity.

The business video world has always had a problem with meeting equity, but the nature of this inequity has reversed over the last few years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the people at the office -- in the physical meeting room together -- always enjoyed the best experience. Remote workers generally felt like they were calling in to the meeting, rather than fully attending the meeting.

The most important people -- and the work product itself -- tended to be in the meeting room. As a result, video technology was mostly designed to improve the room experience. Meeting rooms had bigger screens, better speakers, higher-quality cameras and microphones than most home workers.

Today, things are much different. Most meetings are attended by remote workers, with fewer people in the physical meeting room. It no longer feels like meetings are happening in the office with remote participants calling in. Everyone can contribute on an even footing without regard to their physical location.

As a result, home workers have upped their game. At first, video meetings had terrible angles, bad backgrounds and horrible lighting. No one liked seeing themselves like that, and everyone quickly sought tips from the one home worker in the meeting who had a decent setup.

Over the last year, some home workers have upgraded their home offices into home studios, with improved lighting, high-end cameras and other gear to improve their appearance on business video. Without spending a lot of money, on-camera appearance can be vastly improved by proper framing and eliminating backlighting.

Today, remote workers generally don't just look good on video; they look great. Most people at least have a decent webcam, and everyone has figured out how to frame themselves properly so that everyone looks like a newscaster now. So, now, to achieve meeting equity, we need to make sure everyone appears this way.

Meeting room setups struggle with equity

Unfortunately, the people in traditional meeting rooms do not look like newscasters on camera. They look like a bunch of people sitting around a table, sharing one camera. This means, in a typical Microsoft Teams or Zoom gallery grid, each remote worker is easily visible, while the people in the meeting room are tiny because they are all sharing one window. Now, the people in the office meeting room are the least effective presenters over video.

Fortunately, the industry is stepping up to address this issue. From both a hardware and software perspective from camera vendors and video service providers, new products and features are improving the appearance of people in traditional meeting rooms. While vendors are taking different approaches, the end result is framing the active speaker in the meeting room to appear like remote attendees.

Think of how a broadcast news show works. There are four or five reporters in the same studio. But the entire broadcast isn't a wide shot showing the entire news desk. A producer switches between tight shots of the active speaker with multiple cameras or by moving around one camera. We want the same basic result in the meeting room, but we don't want to have a human producer in every meeting room.

These new capabilities designed to address meeting equity act as a computer-driven producer. Whether the intelligence is in the camera or cloud service, the technology acts as a virtual producer by framing the camera based on the activity in the room. The technology will improve over time with machine learning, but as long as it can give the active speaker in a meeting room that newscasterlike framing, we will achieve meeting equity.

It's up to AV teams to do their due diligence by testing out various cameras, services and configurations to find out what will work best for their meeting attendees.

A set-it-and-forget-it approach

As hybrid meeting technology is relatively new, there is not yet an established set of best practices for designing a meeting room to support equity. For example, if a room is equipped with a camera and software that both support active speaker framing, should the audiovisual (AV) team enable the feature in the camera or the software? Or should they both be enabled in hopes they work together?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. It depends on the camera, the service being used and the expectations of the people hosting meetings in the room. It's up to AV teams to do their due diligence by testing out various cameras, services and configurations to find out what will work best for their meeting attendees. As the technology matures, best practices for implementation will begin to emerge.

Once installed and configured, meetings should require minimal training for attendees. The old days of complicated remote controls and laminated cheat sheets explaining how to make a call are, thankfully, long gone. The current philosophy behind meeting rooms is they should require almost no training. When employees walk into a room, they should see a touchpad or screen displaying a calendar with the meeting schedule, and each meeting should either automatically start on time or be started with a single press on the touchpad.

This same approach should apply to meeting equity features. Meeting attendees should never have to adjust, configure or even enable these features. They should be set up beforehand by the AV team and should work automatically in every meeting afterwards. Meeting attendees should simply start their calls, sit wherever they want in the room and feel comfortable knowing the system is properly framing them on camera.

The only training needed would be to ensure employees are aware of these new features, so they aren't thrown off when they first join a meeting and see the camera angle changing by itself. This needs to be a set-it-and-forget-it technology. We've learned over the years that meeting attendees are not good camera operators. It's time to let the technology run the cameras and let people simply run their meetings.

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