‘Tech Toys’ Turn Conference Rooms Into Playgrounds
High-Tech Meeting Rooms Address Demand for Accessibility
BY BONNIE KUTCH AND SARAH DAOUST
Special to the Business Journal
Ten years ago, office conference rooms were considered boring, tedious places. Basically they served as a quiet spot to conduct meetings, presentations, and the occasional teleconference.
Times have changed. The technology explosion has transformed conference rooms into virtual playgrounds for today’s high-powered executives, enabling them to easily monitor and control every conceivable electronic and mechanical feature in the room.
“A typical conference room 10 years ago had an overhead projector and transparencies used for presentations, with maybe a camera on a tripod and a simple projection screen used for teleconferences,” said Jackie Jennings, president of Johnson & Jennings General Contracting. “Today’s meeting rooms have all the ‘bells and whistles.'”
According to Jennings, company executives are realizing the value of having meeting rooms with the latest technology.
An an example, the recently completed San Diego law offices of Cooley Godward LLP boast a state-of-the-art conference room with complete teleconferencing capabilities including rear projection screens, hidden cameras, and custom V-shaped tables with data and power outlets at each chair. Lighting and window blinds are controlled by the touch of one button.
Among the many other projects that feature cutting-edge meeting rooms is Downtown’s 225 Broadway building, home of NBC 7/39. The 225 Broadway building boasts an enterprise technology center, a completely “wired” media center with capabilities for videoconferencing, PowerPoint presentations and complete Internet access.
The technology center primarily encompasses four rooms: an exhibit area, a seminar room that holds 50 people, a global board room that holds 12 people, and a fully-equipped kitchen.
A control system is the “must have” for the ultimate, high-tech meeting room. Connected to a central, user-friendly touch panel, a control system can operate everything from videoconferencing and audio conferencing systems, to intricate lighting systems, HVAC system, computer and Internet programs, and even window blinds.
“We can even design the room with cutting-edge interior windows that eliminate the need for blinds,” says Roi Jossy, president of Jossy+Carrier Design Group, which has designed numerous meeting rooms. “Connected to the control system via low-voltage wiring, the windows have the capability to cloud over and become opaque, providing privacy between the conference room and the reception area,” said Jossy. “One push of a button on the touch panel, and the windows darken instantly.”
The touch panel eliminates the numerous remote controls ordinarily required to operate each individual system. The control system, which typically is housed in a nearby audio/visual room, utilizes network connections along the walls and under the floor of the meeting room to power the touch panel and operate individual systems.
Once installed, control systems are completely automated, requiring little or no setup time up prior to meetings.
Alternative to Flying
According to Clay Stelzer, president of Anderson Audio Visual, Inc., videoconferencing has nearly eliminated the need to travel for many companies. “Because many traveling corporate executives often book their flights only days in advance, airline tickets are more expensive,” he says. “Then add the cost of hotels, meals and car rentals, not to mention total time spent away from the office, and travel expenses really add up over time. Meanwhile, videoconferencing is becoming less expensive.”
Stelzer stressed that videoconferencing does not replace the value of a face-to-face meeting, but it’s the next best thing for many companies.
Videoconferencing capabilities can be accessed via two platforms: the Internet or integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines, which are similar to telephone lines. Each ISDN line operates at a speed of 128 kilobytes per second. Three ISDN lines, or 384 kilobytes, are ideal to ensure a fluid transmission during a conference.
“Charges for ISDN lines are on a per-minute basis, whereas the Internet is free,” says Stelzer. “ISDN is a direct link and more secure, but the Internet is becoming more common as bandwidth continues to expand. Companies should look at their available bandwidth to determine what would work best for them. The platform used by far-end participants needs to be taken into consideration.”
For many high-tech meeting rooms, gone are the “big, ugly triangles” that once sat on top of telephones in order to conduct audio conferences. In fact, control systems even have replaced the actual telephones.
“Built-in microphones in the tables allow anyone to have a ‘phone conversation’ from any location in the conference room,” said Jossy. “With a control system, the volume and clarity of the audio conference can be adjusted as needed.”
Audio conferencing has become so advanced that meetings now can be conducted with three, 30 or 300 people and/or sites, all talking with each other at the same time. Participants simply dial the same telephone number and enter a pass code, which automatically connects them to the same conference.
Furthermore, audio conferencing systems can be completely customized. Options include on-demand conference extensions, conference security, global access, lecture mode, broadcast fax, broadcast e-mail, digital playback, transcription services, conference tape recording, and operator-attended, toll-free dialing.
– Electronic vs. Computer-
Interactive White Boards
White boards used to write on during conferences now can be wired directly to computers and videoconferencing systems. There are two basic types of high-tech white boards: electronic and computer-interactive.
“With electronic white boards, you can stand and draw on the board, and that information is automatically saved to the computer,” said Jossy. “You can then archive the information, e-mail it, or print it out so everyone has notes of the meeting.”
“With computer-interactive white boards, a projector is used to project an image to the board, which becomes a touch screen,” said Stelzer. “Your finger becomes the ‘mouse,’ allowing you to point, draw, and flip through documents instantly.”
Stelzer says that white board capabilities for videoconferences have become so advanced that one party can take control of the other party’s board. “The information automatically is sent to the other party’s projection screen,” he says. “People on both ends can see exactly what has been written, and they can make changes if so desired.”
A small videoconferencing system can be installed into a meeting room for about $10,000. Costs for a fully outfitted room can reach as high as several hundred thousand dollars.
Kutch is principal and Daoust is an assistant account executive for the San Diego-based communications firm, Kutch & Co.