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Head offices – A good reception

test 1 September 2009

Corporate headquarters continue to give designers, manufacturers and installers a chance to show off their talents and showcase the latest technology. Simon Duff files his report on the latest developments.

They say first impressions are vital and in the case of a company’s reception area this is definitely true. The decor, layout, lighting, even the room sound, all help to set the tone. Often visitors are welcomed into reception areas with digital signage showing a company presentation and other business information. They then might check a room booking system to confirm meeting space availability. In the meeting room itself, they’ll expect to see projection screens, projectors, LCDs, and videoconferencing and other
AV equipment.

At every stage of the process there are opportunities to use technology to create the best possible experience for visitors. Businesses today are defined by how well they can utilise information to engage with customers and stakeholders. Interactivity, collaboration and dynamic real-time content are therefore the key forces driving developments in corporate AV.

Despite the recession, confidence in and expectations of the marketplace remain high. Fraser McDonald, UK sales manager at Mitsubishi Electric’s Visual Information Systems division, comments: "The recession hasn’t really dulled the corporate customer’s preference for high-quality, professional-grade display equipment. Display systems are an investment on which corporate users want to see a good return in terms of performance and longevity. Build quality is also an important factor from the style perspective: our new 52in slim-bezel LCD monitor (MDT521S) is a good example of how we see the market for these kinds of displays developing."

Other companies are also beginning to share a feeling of optimism. Toby Jackson, business development executive at Crestron, says: "As the market recovers from the downturn we are expecting trends to accelerate as finances increase and companies embrace new technologies. Videoconferencing will continue to be popular, especially as we make way for high-definition systems."

Growth in digital signage
Digital signage networks running on IP continue to gain in popularity in reception areas. A desire for new ways in which businesses can differentiate themselves has increased interest in the medium. "The main drivers behind the growth of IP are the increased manageability of systems, lower cost of operation, and simplified maintenance – especially for larger systems, of which reception areas and boardrooms can be a part," says Wilfred de Nijs, director of product marketing Europe at Extron.

Further benefits from digital signage are based on longevity and practical alternatives to using paper. Chris Fulton, managing director of Future Software, which designs and manufactures digital signage systems, explains: "The environment is improved as unsightly posters and notice boards can be removed and replaced with better located screens that can highlight more relevant information."

LCD, plasma screens and projection technology all continue to have their individual merits. Derek Kuziw, managing director of Anders+Kern, comments: "It is still broadly the case that flat-panel displays and projection screens are suited to different environments. For example, digital signage applications predominantly use LCDs, whereas most larger meeting room screens will still use projection. Although there are some very large flat-panel displays available on the market, a front- or rear-projection screen system, such as Anders+Kern’s StarGlas, would still be the more cost-effective option in a boardroom or meeting room."

With screen price-per-inch coming down, a general trend is towards using larger screens. However, the size and type of screen is still dependent on the application. Kuziw remarks: "For example, at the Anders+Kern HQ a 2m-wide rear-projection StarGlas screen is the main feature in the showroom. There are then a number of 42in and 46in Mitsubishi LCDs used for videoconferencing and digital signage."

Paul Feenstra, vice president of Chief Manufacturing, which produces a range of mounts, lifts and accessories for flat-panel displays and projectors, believes that there is definitely an increased emphasis on digital signage solutions. He says: "More companies are discovering the returns on investment, and are investigating implementation. Manufacturers can add value by offering a wide range of high-quality solutions and accessories, such as rotation adapters, lateral shift, and adjustable columns."   

Multipurpose facilities
Traditionally the boardroom was reserved for use by company directors during board meetings. But these days it’s likely that it will be designed to allow use by the wider organisation. Possibly as a by-product of the fact that videoconferencing facilities are becoming an integral part of the boardroom, the rooms themselves are becoming multipurpose. Increasingly important aspects of design are easy alignment of multiple screens, clever camera and AV component placement, and the possibility to include hidden wall or ceiling speakers.

De Nijs says: "In many organisations, the boardroom is the most advanced area in the company in terms of AV system integration. No matter how the boardrooms are used, they tend to be architecturally sensitive environments that require sophisticated technology that is installed in an aesthetically pleasing way. Extron TouchLink touchpanels, AVTrac floor-mounted AV and cable raceway system, and hundreds of available power, control, and data communications connectivity options are all designed to meet those needs."

McDonald adds: "The needs of corporate users have diversified considerably in recent years, so our product range has evolved to suit. For example, rather than just being used to show linear presentations, today’s projectors are often used as interactive, shared workspaces, so we developed a range of widescreen business projectors to better fulfill that role. The recession has increased interest in telepresence systems, and we are seeing demand increasing for professional-grade LCD displays as a result. Outside of the boardroom, LCD displays are increasingly used in foyers and reception areas – we are also starting to see LED used in this role too."

One of the knock-on effects of the recession is that boardroom bids are becoming more competitive. Just as directors are trying to save their businesses money by economising on travel, it certainly doesn’t appear that they are writing blank cheques for installations either.

"It’s certainly not true that money is no object," says Feenstra. "Of course, during an economic downfall cost savings and lowest possible purchase prices become twice as important. People are looking for value for money via fast-to-install products, where it is easy to add additional components such as speakers, cameras and AV components. In addition, it is great if this package comes in an aesthetically pleasing design.

"A definite trend," he continues, "is that we’re seeing a move away from prestige for prestige’s sake. More important for our customers are performance, ease of use and flexibility."

Sounding good
Good sound quality in the boardroom is becoming highly regarded. However the loudspeaker is still seen by many as unsightly, creating demand for hidden systems. Armstrong’s i-ceilings NXT flat-panel speaker technology provides for speakers to be fitted to a ceiling panel without spoiling the existing aesthetic and passive acoustic qualities of a room.

Likewise, Finnish loudspeaker manufacturer Panaphonics makes a highly directional ceiling speaker. Other flat-panel speaker manufacturers include APart Audio’s ceiling and wall series, Artcoustic’s Spitfire Series, Genelec’s Architectural A/C25 In Ceiling Loudspeaker and Tannoy’s award-winning CMS 401DCe ‘eyeball’ speaker, which has a unique ability to swivel, offering directional audio dispersion.  

Mark Flanagan, communications manager at Tannoy, believes that another trend is towards higher-quality systems where reproduction is up to similar standards demanded by the high-end residential customer, particularly with multimedia presentation in mind. He says: "We’ve seen a number of recent boardroom and small conference facility installs where 5.1 surround systems have been requested. Our premium top-of-the-range Arena Highline home cinema speaker system has been used in a couple of these jobs – a completely unexpected application of the product."

In the case of larger boardrooms, where there is the requirement for voice reinforcement as well as programme sound, microphone options need to be considered. No one wants to notice the microphone, but everyone wants studio-quality sound. Consequently a growth area is the use of wireless microphone technology.

Companies such as Revolabs have come to market with simple-to-use wireless solutions that remove the need to drill holes in boardroom tables and that can be removed when not required. Revolabs HD Wireless Microphones are a high-definition mic impervious to radio frequency (RF) interference. They can be used in direct contact with all wireless electronic devices known to cause unwanted audio interference, such as GSM mobile phones and smart phones.  

Ones to watch
Looking to the future, it seems that technology will continue to focus on the need for interactivity and the seamless integration of AV products into the wider working environment. Kuziw comments: "We are likely to see greater use of 3D and videoconferencing in business; there will also be a greater reliance on distributed computing and SaaS (software as a service) architectures, all of which will rely heavily on AV technology."

It’s also worth noting that brand perceptions will always be important to a company, and so investment in corporate image and presentation facilities will continue to provide a revenue stream for the AV industry for the foreseeable future.

As flexibility in working practices increases, the boundaries of the office environment will continue to disappear. This all has to be good news in the long run for the installation community, as people remain positive about the prospects for business in the corporate market and the sector continues to grow. Even if economic pressures dampen its enthusiasm for new projects in the coming months, there will still be a need to maintain and upgrade existing facilities. It has never been more vital that an initial design and build embraces the versatility of today’s technology, thus ensuring that those first impressions maximise business potential.

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