Your Conference Rooms Are So Trendy!

How Monitoring Your Conference Rooms Usage Can Help You Build Better Meeting Spaces In The Future

by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

Imagine you are the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at a pharmaceutical company, one that is growing rapidly, and you need dozens of new conference rooms and huddle spaces. It is your job to figure out how big the meeting rooms should be, and what sort of technology should be installed in them. Open areas promote collaboration, but there is also a need for privacy, and respect for others who are working nearby. Where should you begin?

You might start by looking at trends in the industry. For instance, sitting is trending down. Standing during meetings is becoming more common, so taller tables with stools should be considered for a portion of your rooms. This will also affect your display wall elevation and camera mounting height. Video collaboration is essential, whether it is a classic hardware codec from Cisco or Polycom, or a software codec like Zoom; you should plan to outfit at least 50% of your rooms with some form of video chat and/or or web conference capability. You can also budget to “scale into” these conference rooms.

The hard question is, how many small, how many medium, and how many large conference rooms do you need? No one wants a big boardroom that only gets used four or fives times a year. Divide/combine/divisible/dividable spaces look good on paper, but often fall short when it comes to day-to-day activities of various lines of business. Should you build two small conference rooms for every one larger conference room? That’s one approach, but…

Wouldn’t it be great to have real statistical data on your meeting rooms, and reports that showed exactly how often the rooms get used, and how much a given room’s technology was actually utilized? Wouldn’t that be great?

Like the Keystone commercials, “Bottled beer taste in a can, wouldn’t that be great!”

Well, just like Keystone utilizes a specially lined can, AV integration experts have the technology to provide these types of usage reports to clients. How they go about it can depend on the technology being installed, a discussion which I will save for future blog post; for this post, let’s keep the discussion to who, what, where, and why.

Who: Although one might think of monitoring and asset management in a corporate environment, there are other environments that can benefit. For instance, K-12 schools and higher education campuses can forecast projector bulb burnouts based on usage. Technology usage might vary from grade to grade, or from teacher to teacher.

What: Getting back to the corporate conference room example, the main piece of data you need to monitor is: when the rooms are occupied or not. This can be accomplished using motion detectors if other audiovisual technology is not available. If there is a touch panel in the room, it may have a motion detector built in, and you can harness that data through the control system using proprietary software.

You can also monitor how much the different components of the technology get used, but that is secondary to the rooms being occupied or not. If you base your room usage reports solely on the technology, your data will be incorrect from the start, because some groups use tech more than others. Its great to know what tech gets used and what does not, but its almost more important to know what rooms get used, and which do not. Then, compare the rooms’ technology, versus the size of the room, and the location.

Where: As you start to amass the data, you will notice trends in the conference rooms. Some of these trends will show up in the numbers, but it is also important to look at the location and physical characteristics of each meeting space. For example, you may have two equal 8-person conference rooms on the same floor, with the only difference between the rooms is that one has windows, the other is internal with no windows. You may notice that one of the two rooms gets used more often, and you might assume it is because of the sunlight. This is a good theory, but you should also consider acoustics. Or, one department may be utilizing the same conference room every day, while another department only meets once a week in the other conference room. So it is important to compare the numbers but also to look at the location within the building, the departments that are nearby, and then spend some time thinking about the why.

Why: You might notice that the smaller rooms are getting booked up for about 4 hours each day, while the larger conference room is booked all day, almost every day. This might suggest you need another large conference room. How you interpret the numbers depends on the situation, but it is always best to work with real data rather than verbal anecdotes like “that second video camera never gets used”. That is great feedback, but is that really true? What if the CTO uses it once a month? What if more training is needed? It is much easier to start the decision making process with real data, but like any metric, you need some time to establish a baseline, so for your first year, you might just collect the data, use it as a baseline, and then compare the following years to the first year.

In the end, you are looking for trends in your conference rooms. You might notice that the collaborative touch displays are getting used more this year than last year, and sub-sequentially, you might anticipate needing more touch displays next year. You will also see what is not so trendy, and you might be able to avoid buying things you don’t need. Over time, the monitoring of the rooms and technology will “pay for itself” because you will be more efficient and accurate in planning for your future meeting spaces.

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AVaaS = Audio/Video as a Service

By now, most readers have heard the term SaaS, or Software as a Service, a new trend in the business of software.  Instead of investing large sums every time you upgrade, you pay as you go, by the month. Some common examples include Dropbox or Amazon Web Services (AWS). Some readers may have heard of XaaS, which stands for everything as a service.  So what about AVaaS? Audio/Video or Audiovisual as a Service, delivering software (DSP, videoconferencing, collaboration, and control code), professional services, monitoring, for a monthly fee. That’s right, I said a monthly fee for AV.

I am not the first blogger to write about AV as a Service.  My online colleague Nermina Miller attacked the subject way back in July 2015 when she worked for Infocomm, in her article Redefining AV as a Service.  More recently, rAVepubs blog squad writer Mark Coxon defined three areas to start selling AV as a Service: video conferencing, engineering, and digital signage.  Gary Kayye suggested audiovisual integrators start selling digital signage content years ago.  Some followed his advice, and the money, while others stuck with the traditional model, sell the equipment and installation, and then watched their flat panel margins shrink as the displays got thinner and thinner.

rAVepubs also recently interviewed the CEO of ZOOM, who has quietly snuck into the AV industry under the guise of videoconferencing Software as a Service.  But ZOOM is more than just SaaS, ZOOM has a professional services department, providing engineering and installation services.  If you are worried about ZOOM taking your business clients, Gary Kayye of rAVepubs asked the CEO directly about their policy:

If an AV integrator has an existing client relationship, all they need to do is register that client and ZOOM will not go or talk directly to the client without the integrator’s assistance. But, if ZOOM establishes the relationship directly, they will potentially sell the ZOOM system directly….But customers will purchase hardware by themselves […]

But customers will purchase hardware by themselves?  You heard right, the leading collaboration software company will sell them the AV system, but minus the hardware. The clients purchase the hardware directly from CDW,  or Amazon, and ZOOM does the installation, commissioning, training, and then charges a monthly fee for the ZOOM software.  Boom, ZOOM! That is how AVaaS is done, people.  Readers, take notes.

AVaaS is the OPPOSITE of what most AV companies call “Service”.  Say the word “service” to most integrators, and they will think “some old client called, they must have broke something, or they are otherwise unhappy, now someone has to drive over there and see what needs to be repaired, replaced, or just rebooted”

I try to explain AV as a Service using the cell phone model.  The average American cell phone user often spends a few hundred dollars on their phone, plus a monthly fee for service. Ok, I know, they mean cell service, aka coverage, but it’s the same model.

You need cell service or wifi to use your mobile devices, right?  You need the calling or chatting software, plus the other apps, to run on your phone, or it is worthless, right?  Some of those apps are free, some are a one time fee, others you might pay monthly.  Some SaaS sales models will offer the first month free, then a monthly fee, or a discount if you pay annually.  This is how you need to structure you AVaaS business.

OLD WAY: Integrator sells client conference room hardware, installation, and one time programming fee for the DSP and Control System.  Annual service plan is optional.

NEW WAY: Integrator sells the client the hardware once, or leases it to them. For the hardware to work, the client pays the integrator a monthly fee, which includes all service calls and software upgrades.  The client pay a monthly fee per room, just like you pay a monthly fee for your cell phone.  In return, they get free reports because you are now monitoring their AV systems for bulb life, energy usage, and downtime.

Savvy programmers will figure out a way to lock the AV systems if the client misses payment, just imagine the touchscreen and wall-mounted flat panel display saying…

PLEASE ENTER YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION TO ENABLE AV SYSTEM

But most importantly, please remember that AV as a Service, is just that, a service! We are now in a service industry, not a sales industry. Customers can buy AV gear with a click of a mouse; what we offer our clients is our professional services. Keep that in mind the next time you get a “service call”. Instead of being annoyed, be glad your services are still needed. -pk

Like this post?  You also may enjoy “We Used To Be Heroes” by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

Cybersecurity In Audiovisual Systems

You Should Consider Cybersecurity During All Phases Of An Audiovisual Installation

By Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Bay Area was graced with the presence of President Barack Obama, who was here to participate in a Cybersecurity Summit at Stanford University.  *Side note*, I am still unsure if it’s spelled as one word or two, cyber security, or with a dash, cyber-security, and the online jury seems to be rather undecided. So for the sake of brevity, I am sticking with the one-word-version, cybersecurity. *End side note*. At the aforementioned summit of cybersecurity experts, students, and information technology managers in Palo Alto, Mr. Obama signed an executive order encouraging the private sector to share cybersecurity threat information with other companies and the U.S. government.

Rising stock prices of cybersecurity software firms like Palo Alto Networks (PANW), FireEye (FEYE), and CyberArk (CYBR) have also reflected this increased level of awareness. Why? Because unlike guns or nuclear warfare, cyber hacking can happen right under our noses, for years and years, without anyone even noticing. Larger firms have realized that they need the best of the best to combat these criminals, and investors have taken notice to the growth potential of these new age software “heroes” who will do battle for a price, much like the Routiers, the early mercenary soldiers of the Middle Ages.

As audiovisual experts we also need to become IT cybersecurity experts, at least to some degree. At minimum, we have to know what risk we are adding to the network before, during, and after the AV installation. Here is a list of ways you can protect your audio, video, and control systems against theft and hackers, in no particular order:

  • Have a frank and honest discussion with the project team about cybersecurity. Find out who is in charge of the network, and who will need access to the systems.
  • Use motorized projection screens that are fitted into the ceilings to discourage theft.
  • Mount projectors using security boxes, or scissor lifts to hide them up inside the ceilings.
  • AV touch panels and camera controllers often have passwords, but are they updated?
  • Portable TVs and poorly mounted speakers are easy targets; don’t “tempt” thieves
  • Ping all projectors and flat-panel television type displays once every minute. If the display does not respond, assume it is being stolen and automatically email security
  • Interactive whiteboards, mice, and keyboards are generally trustworthy, but who is really checking that USB stick that automatically downloads this or that app to the laptops?
  • Don’t assume that the person in charge of your computer network is the best one to test the AV installation for bugs or security breach points. Hire an expert to test it.
  • Backup all files at least once a day to a secure offsite and/or cloud storage facility.
  • Microphones and tableboxes should be periodically checked for James Bond type “bugs” that can listen to private meetings. It’s not always the newest technology that you need to worry about!
  • Videochat and audio conferencing suites should never be left unlocked while not in use
  • Make sure that end users know when a camera is on or when microphones are open.
  • Digital signage and way-finding kiosks are updated via website; use unique passwords.
  • Unfortunately, most AV equipment racks are made by just a few manufacturers, and each uses one or two different key codes in their door locks. Once you have a set of the common AV rack keys, you can open almost any locked AV equipment rack in the U.S.
  • “Security screws” can also limit the amateur thefts, but any real crook will have tools.

These are just a portion of the areas that the AV Design Engineer and Project Manager need to address during a project. The real problems are the bugs and “holes” that are accidentally left in a program, that nobody catches, mainly because, no one is looking for them. That is why it is critical that today’s AV integration firms hire a well-trained, experienced QA (quality assurance) department who will double-check the engineer’s design, the programmer’s code, and the completed installation.

We all make mistakes, its human nature. And even when we don’t make mistakes, we certainly overlook things that others might catch. Having someone else check your AV design, bug test your code, or evaluate your network or website for cybersecurity threats will always uncover more than checking it yourself.  If you are not putting up “constant vigilance” against the hackers, and paying an expert to test your systems, then you are just living in denial, thinking that your systems are working properly and secure. If these hackers can break into insurance companies and Target, you have to assume that they are trying to hack into your systems as well, (or that they already have!)

constant vigilance