Case Study: Transforming Unused Office Space into a Hybrid Conferencing Event Center

Displays and touch panel for one of the larger hybrid conference rooms.

There are three things everyone is after in a video conferencing system. First, they want it to be easy to use. Second, they want it to be adaptable to many different meeting situations, and third, they want it to look and sound amazing.

If you’re out looking at the features and functions of the various offerings on the market now, it may seem as though some of these requirements are at odds with each other. Today, we’re going to explore how to get the most of all 3, using a recent installation that Z Systems did as an example.

At this point, everyone knows the future of work is heavily invested in hybrid environments. Hybrid meetings are no longer the wave of the future, they are the way that we conduct business and stay productive in most offices and industries. There are countless self-contained systems that accommodate one or two people at a desk, or even 8 to 10 people gathered around a table in a standard conference room. But what do you do in a situation where you want to have a hybrid question and answer session with many people in one room, multiple virtual participants, and a presentation that is shared seamlessly among all of them? Or a situation where you need to have many virtual participants and 20 to 30 people in a live breakout room? Or if you are doing a lecture for 50 attendees on site, and hundreds more on a virtual platform?

Eight 98″ Sony displays in a row. In the reflection, you can see some of the columns and other impediments between the displays, audience, and cameras. You can also note the odd shape and large size of the room.

Recently, an administrator for one of the state agencies in Minnesota realized how much they were spending on renting hotel ballrooms and AV gear for these sorts of events. He decided to work with us on finding a way to streamline their meeting process and utilize a (mostly ignored) part of the office space they already had. It is a garden level space in a 19th century brownstone and wood building. The rooms are odd-sized and shaped. It has low ceilings, four large rooms with movable wall partitions to combine them into two rooms, and then three other medium sized conference rooms, a fitness center, a break lounge, and reception/waiting area.

The space itself is unique, and some of the requirements that they had for their meetings are also unique, but we found a way to make the most of the space, and how to meet their needs. One of the requests was for AI camera control for tracking speakers and presenters. We also needed the ability to disable cameras easily, differentiate between the presenter camera and a rear-facing camera to cover questions from the audience. We needed to be able to display video content both from local and remote sources. We also had restrictions on the meeting platforms they were using, and how the rooms were scheduled.

The solution for displays was obvious. In a large room with low ceilings (and support columns in some of them), we decided to use large displays that were duplicated, so no matter your line of sight, you could see both the virtual participants and the presentation material easily. For the large rooms, we used between 4 and 8 98” Sony Bravia displays. For the smaller rooms, we used either one or two of the 86” version of the same display.

One of the smaller conference rooms, with the 86″ displays and A30 Room Bar kit.

Next, let’s look at our audio system. We decided to use many small ceiling mounted speakers to get a wider dispersion of sound. This way, we won’t have to put a lot of juice into the system to make sure even the people in the back of the room can hear questions from the other end of the Zoom or Teams meeting. The important, and cool, part of the audio system is in the microphones. We used the Shure MXA920 ceiling microphone.

The feature that sold us on this microphone was the ability to use the Shure software to divide the capsules into 8 fully routable channels with unique volume and dynamic control for each channel. Thus, you can have your presenter in the front at a higher volume level, and a strong gate on all the other channels that do not cover the front of the room, so that room noise and ambient noise from the audience is limited out of the mix. The microphone also provides an unobtrusive aesthetic profile, as it mostly blends in with the other ceiling tiles. To fortify that microphone for events that have a higher number of people in the room, or a more complex sonic landscape, we also have the availability of a lavalier microphone and a handheld microphone for each of the big rooms, so that presenters have the option to use a dedicated microphone for themselves, while using the MXA920 to cover audience questions or crowd response.

We link microphones, speakers, and other audio accessories using a Symetrix Radius system. With this, we can set up auto mixes and route the audio signals, microphone inputs, and even set up a Bluetooth hot spot for use in the fitness area. This gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to adapt the system to future needs and allows these rooms to have a consistent sonic footprint in varied hybrid meeting situations.

In the common areas, there is also sound masking to ensure privacy between and among the meetings. For the fitness space, we added a Bluetooth panel and speakers that are available for connection. End users can connect to the fitness center wirelessly and employ the installed speakers in that area for their own music, or fitness class audio needs.

The fitness center, with a Symetrix BlueTooth wallplate, RCA input, and volume control.

Finally, let’s go over the camera and control solutions for this project. The client was excited about the Yealink line of cameras and room kits, so we decided to work with those. For the smaller rooms, we used their A30 roombar kit, for the larger (and combinable) rooms, we went for the ZVC S90 Room Kits (for the ZoomRooms platform). This provides two cameras, a touch screen, two wireless presentation pods (USB-A or USB-C), an AV Hub and a miniature PC to control the cameras and link to the zoom or teams platform user interface.

The features that worked the best for our application were to set the primary camera to presentation tracking and create a priority zone at the front of the room. All the presenter must do is stand there and start talking, and the camera will follow them as they move around the priority zone. Camera 2 is facing the audience, and set to speaker tracking, so if an audience member asks a question, that camera will zoom in on them and focus the shot on the speaker, using microphones in the camera. The framing of these shots is easily programmed in advance as the system is being integrated.

This rack holds the AV gear for all 4 of the large rooms. Conveniently located in an adjacent machine room and server closet.

The AV Hub also allows for the scalability of the system. You can add up to 9 cameras to each AV Hub, which gives you a plethora of options for expansion, as you can also combine two of the AV Hubs together under the control of one touch screen. Beyond that, you could also have every room in the system as a unique participant in a virtual meeting, making the options for growth quite massive, for lack of a better word.

To make the video, audio, and physical space work in conjunction with the meeting platform, we employed the Atlona Velocity system. This allowed us to build the whole space as a project with individual rooms and use TCP/IP control to make all the integrated systems communicate. In the Atlona programming that we designed custom for this site, the user can schedule their meeting on the room panel, combine or divide rooms, control volume, camera layout and control of individual cameras, all using the same touch panel that the user is employing to join or create their meeting.

Once the meeting is started, they can share content to the screens in the room and virtual participants, bring in other guests or present media just by connecting the wireless presentation pod to their laptop, tablet, or phone. And this is all done within the same application that you are using to make your calls and control the settings of your virtual meeting. That is flexibility and ease of use, all on one 8” touch screen. It’s a trade-off, really. You’re exchanging end user confusion for the pre-programming time and complexity. We take care of all that, so in the end, you have a system that looks and sounds great, is easily navigable whether you’re new to AV technology or an experienced user, and offers a phenomenal amount of flexibility.

Now that this system is complete, it will be used for classroom-style professional development sessions, community engagement meetings (with 50 to 100 people) in the large rooms, breakout meetings and small group meetings in the smaller rooms, and national meetings with their contemporaries from other states and tribal councils. There will also be applications where two or three work groups will inhabit their own rooms and use a zoom call between rooms for planning and brainstorming sessions. Not to mention the more common flavor of hybrid meeting that we have all become accustomed to. And they are doing all of this cutting-edge work in the basement of a 150-year-old brick and wood building in Minneapolis, that was functionally an unused space until now. Using existing technology and existing space to make a place for the future of hybrid conferencing.