Audio – The Invisible Elephant in the Video Conferencing Room

There is a common misconception that the success of a video conferencing call depends primarily on the quality of the video. After all, video is something that you can see. Audio, on the other hand, is invisible. While it might seem counter-intuitive, the truth is the success of your video conference technology actually rests more with the audio quality.

Video conferencing suites primarily have two significant elements: video (the display) and audio (speakers and microphones). Most first time video conferencing users often make the mistake of focusing too much on the video portion while failing to give proper consideration to the audio element.

We get it – it’s very easy to be charmed and impressed by an 80 inch video display. And while it’s important to give attention to that element of your system, believe it or not, audio is more important. Specifically, understanding the acoustic complexities of the room environment is of critical importance in order to get the overall user experience correct.

Practically speaking, if the video component in the room has some flaws (pixelated, grainy, out of focus, under-exposed, etc.) but the audio is clear and free of distractions, the video conference call can still continue and offer a degree of functionality that yield results.

In contrast, if the audio quality of the video is just average, participants are more likely to react negatively to the video content as a whole, no matter how good the video appears to be. There are many environmental factors that can influence the desired quality of the audio (microphone distance, background noise, equipment quality, etc.) and all need to be taken into account.

We have seen many mistakes – ceiling microphones installed next to the HVAC vent or sound absorption panels that were painted to match the décor of the wall, rendering them useless. Mistakes that are costly, but easily avoidable. Audio communications should be as clear and uninterrupted as possible, otherwise the purpose of video conferencing will be defeated because people will not experience natural communication.

Additionally, people tend to give preferential consideration to the latest architectural and interior design trends – elements that likely offer the most visually pleasing but too often come at the expense of sacrificing acoustical elements necessary for today’s workplace collaboration. There are a lot of boardrooms that look pretty, but sadly, are incompatible with today’s technology.

Video conferencing rooms should offer reasonable sound absorption and sound insulation. Hard, flat, reflective surfaces like glass and polished wood are elements that can challenge a room’s acoustical quality. To test a room’s sound absorption, clap your hands once. If the clap sound is crisp, clear and distinguishable, then the acoustics of the room are good enough for video conferencing. In contrast, if there’s an echo or if it sounds as though more people are clapping their hands all at once, then there are issues with the auditory quality of the room that need to be addressed.

Surprisingly, even the modest of adjustments can greatly improve the sound quality of any room. The introduction of sound absorbing materials such as a wall-to-wall carpet, upholstered furniture, absorption panels on the walls and ceiling, or even fabric curtains in front of windows, can all work to absorb and diffuse sound that can reduce the influence of flutter echo in a room.

Ultimately, each room is unique and has its own elements and characteristics. There is no cookie cutter approach. The design of a high quality, well-functioning video conferencing system is a process that requires some critical analysis in advance to overcome any potential impediments that can test the integrity and functionality of a well-intended system.

Whether it is adding or eliminating room treatments, using higher quality equipment, or programming the technology for better overall room dynamics, there are several ways a professional integrator can improve a room’s audio functionality and performance without compromising any of the visual design and aesthetics. Companies that want a return on their investment with their video conference technology would be wise to hire a professional technology integrator to guide them.

How Sound Masking Technology Boosts Workplace Productivity and Confidentiality

Let me paint an all too familiar scenario:

Bill works in an office environment. His co-worker next to him is on the phone. Bill has a report due but can’t concentrate because he hears every word of his neighbor’s conversation. On the other side of Bill is another co-worker who taps her foot constantly. These distractions are having a negative impact on Bill’s ability to be productive.

Here’s another one:

Susan waits in the reception area for an appointment with her doctor. She is within earshot of the reception desk where the staff are discussing the health record of a Mr. Jones. Susan wonders if Mr. Jones is aware that his private information has been shared with her.

In both scenarios, the unintended consequences are obvious – loss of productivity and confidentiality. Unfortunately, these situations are all too common.

Open office environments have been the norm for many years and now collaboration spaces are becoming a popular trend in the workplace too. And while both settings might offer better productivity for those participating, there are still those who need to work privately with noise reduced to a minimum in order to complete their work tasks.

University of Sydney researchers Dr. Jungsoo Kim and Dr. Richard de Dear discovered that noise privacy is the number one complaint among cubicle workers and open-plan employees. 60% and 50% respectively described it as a major issue.

As humans, we can’t ignore the conversations taking place nearby, even when we try. It’s just simply the way our mind works. Words are spoken – there is a sender and a receiver. And sometimes, we are the unintended and unwilling recipient. Our brain’s natural instinct is to attempt to comprehend these messages, whether they are intended for us, or not. We just simply can’t block them out, even if we wanted to.

Architectural and interior design trends contribute as well. Walls have come down, open spaces are now the norm. Carpeted rooms are gone in favour of hard surfaces in public spaces, like glass and concrete. They look great, but are not conducive to the negative unintended consequences of noise. Aesthetics always trump the invisible – sound.

There are some obvious common sense solutions on how to reduce noise distractions and preserve confidentiality in work spaces and public environments. Some people choose to work offsite, others will try turning a conference room into a quiet zone, and still, many others use noise canceling headphones.

Alternatively, we can put up walls to block sound, or use more carpet and fabric around the office to absorb it. But what if we didn’t have to make complicated and expensive changes to the environment? What if, instead, we covered or “masked” the conversation next to us by adding an additional element that makes the noise distraction unintelligible? We would still be able to tell that a conversation is taking place nearby, but we just wouldn’t be able to hear or discern the words spoken. It would be muffled instead. This is sound masking and it is a clever solution that deserves consideration.

So what exactly is sound masking? I admit, prior to joining Backman Vidcom, I had never heard of sound masking. I didn’t really understand how it worked until I actually saw it in action (as you can imagine, we have it throughout our office here). In essence, small speakers (called emitters) release an ambient noise into the office space. The noise is soft and sounds much like HVAC or air conditioning, but you don’t really notice it unless you’re specifically listening for it. The noise can be altered to various levels determined by the application required and the workplace dynamic involved. And there’s an entire science behind how it is deployed. We don’t just randomly install the emitters anywhere and everywhere. That wouldn’t make sense. Instead, there are design considerations based on the space configuration and behavioural patterns by those that use the environment. Our technicians use devices to measure and calculate the decibel level of the sound emitted in the masking process against the distraction noise, so that the application is optimized at specific locations. The emitter should produce a noise that is subtle, yet effective. The sound masking should never be a distraction on its own (if it is, then you have an incorrect design or solution; or possibly both).

Here is some feedback from a client who recently benefitted from a sound masking solution:

“I can still hear the people in the cubes around me (which is good, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to ask them questions) but the sounds and voices from other cubes are pretty faint now. You can hear them, but they’re not really loud enough to be distracting. Plus, you can’t really make out what people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity are saying – the sound masking makes it hard to make out individual words.”

That’s the key. While sound masking technology doesn’t eliminate noise distraction completely, it does reduce it to an acceptable level. Research shows that it ultimately boosts general acoustic comfort, productivity, as well as protect speech privacy. It also happens to be an affordable and pretty much invisible solution to help workers feel more comfortable in the office, without prohibiting collaboration or communications.

And, who knows? Sound masking just might help Bill meet his report deadline or prevent the staff at the doctor’s office from disclosing Mr. Jones’ private information to Susan.

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