The last couple of years have felt at times like doing the Hokey Cokey: working from home, back in the office, in out, in out, forgetting you’re on mute. The upshot is what AV automation and integration specialist Crestron – along with most of the AV industry! – call ‘hybrid working’, a combination of home and office operations that sees the workforce split between the two. Companies and universities need the tools to facilitate this new model, with its complex requirements for room scheduling, video conferencing and accessing classrooms, and Crestron has laid out the road ahead… literally. The company recently packed all its latest products into a truck and embarked upon a three-month road trip of 19 countries across Europe, stopping in 38 locations to invite customers on board to see its hybrid solutions up close and personal.
“Honestly, I got sick and tired of webinars,” admits Robin van Meeuwen, executive director EMEA sales for Crestron Europe, at the tour’s launch event just outside Brussels. Evidently two years of virtual meetings and cat-related interruptions left the Crestron team craving face-to-face interaction, a chance to meet their customers, integrators and end-users in real life. “There’s something you can’t quite replicate about in-person,” concurs Brad Hintze, EVP of global marketing. For him this event marks the first time he has actually met his colleagues who organised the tour. The Crestron Next Road Trip seems as much for the company itself as the clientele, a celebratory mood in the sunny Belgian air after months of isolation and travel restrictions.
During the pandemic the company learnt valuable lessons about changing work patterns, based on general trends and its own practices. “We had to have everyone work remotely,” says Annelies Kampert, general manager of Crestron Europe. “But then we learned very quickly that we have technology so let’s rethink, let’s see what we can turn around. So what we learned is that you can really work from any space. What we also learned is that completely remotely? We are not big fans. We think the hybrid solution is the way to go. Because we miss the interaction. The fact you are here today and we can see you again and not see you on a small screen makes a world of difference. We all know it, it’s different, it’s more personal, you feel certain things and that’s amazing. We missed that. So the combination of both, I think Crestron fits into the hybrid idea.”
More generally, Hintze quotes a Microsoft study that found 76% of employees want to retain the flexibility they discovered under Covid, while around 66% sought the kind of in-person engagement they had lived without for so long. He extrapolates that working habits born out of necessity during the pandemic will now become standardised. That means upgrading offices to house hybrid models of working, for instance 100% of meeting rooms now require video capability, up from 10% pre-pandemic. As such, Crestron has upgraded its solutions to meet those demands. “What you see inside the vehicle are the latest innovations and changes from the past two years,” Kampert explains. “Those are the latest developments from the past few years due to the pandemic. It forced us to rethink, to adapt and to be fast.”
These hybrid solutions line the walls of Crestron’s vast ‘mobile experience centre’, almost like walking into a high-street electronics retailer on wheels, containing all the kit required to turn a regular meeting room into a ‘smart’ or connected environment. The Flex series of video conferencing solutions runs the gamut from personal video phones to collaborative desktop devices, all running Microsoft Teams and boasting powerful microphone arrays. For small meeting rooms, the M-Series Mini Tabletop conferencing system accommodates up to five people. An HD camera with 150-degree viewing angle ensures everyone is in the picture, their voices all picked up by integrated quad mics with 10-foot range. For medium rooms, the M-Series serves up to 15 people with a 20-foot range microphone and intelligent camera with 5x virtual zoom. That capacity is doubled for large rooms, including an integrated 360-degree microphone array.
“Connecting people with the space starts before people arrive at the space,” states Stijn Ooms, director of technology at Crestron Europe. The company’s room scheduling solutions combine touch screens, occupancy sensors and cloud capabilities to manage the entire process on a single platform. If someone enters a room the proximity sensor turns everything on; if nobody does it releases the room back into the inventory. The use of space is therefore optimised automatically, eliminating wasted real estate. Crestron XIO Cloud also enables browser-based control of any touch screen, allowing an operator to start a meeting or lecture remotely. In addition, the system flags when a cable comes unplugged so support teams are aware of problems when they happen, not when they are noticed. Meanwhile Crestron AirMedia technology seamlessly connects to calendaring platforms, such as Office 365 or Google Calendar, supporting more than 25 scheduling providers.
These solutions are not only applicable to workplaces but also schools and universities, as Kampert remarks: “The schools and education market has evolved as well, because due to Covid they have the same situation. But not all families had laptops at home or had the technology to be able to follow a course at university. So for that Crestron can be a solution as well.” The company foresees hybrid classrooms as well as offices, with places of education optimised for hybrid learning; using video conferencing technology to simultaneously teach students online and in the classroom. For Crestron, ‘smart campuses’ are the future of education, using its technology to build touchless classrooms and data-driven curricula. As those plans become a reality, the company aims to keep refreshing the technology in the vehicle for future tours, conferences and events. “The road trip will take three months, ending in June in Rotterdam, but of course afterwards you can say: OK now we have new innovations, let’s upgrade again and let’s start in France or let’s start in the UK,” says Kampert. “It’s easy, it’s flexible.”
Turning cornersAdditionally there are sustainability advantages to the Road Trip, driven by the elimination of freight and air travel. “Normally you have to bring all the people from all those locations, everyone takes the aeroplane and all those kinds of things,” notes Kampert. “Now it’s one driver, it’s a truck, and we make the route make sense. You’re not first going to the north and then going all around; you do the north then you do all the stops down so it’s more eco-friendly.” That environmentalism is built into the company’s culture, whether recycling office equipment or providing green travel arrangements. “In Belgium I have four employees that are entitled to have a company car, but they chose an electric bicycle instead,” comments Kampert.
“We reuse our technology as well,” she continues. “The laptops we use in our office or old screens, when they are outdated – still work but outdated – during Covid we offered a lot of our laptops to hospitals to make sure we just don’t scrap them. That would be crazy! We have those laptops and for us after three years, it’s done. Three years, really? It’s still working. Let’s contact a school and make sure we reuse it. We don’t just scrap it. So Crestron is thinking in those ways as well, which is great. It becomes more and more important, finally the world is waking up and understanding how important it is.”
The truck itself is another example of this repurposing policy, with the company deciding whether to take the mobile experience centre to ISE and beyond. Described by Van Meeuwen as “a mini ISE devoted to Crestron,” the tour offers specialised opportunities harder to deliver at larger conferences. “We know ISE, it’s crowded, it’s great but it’s different,” adds Kampert. “Here you can really take time to discuss and look at the technology.” The idea then is not to replace the company’s presence at trade shows but to augment it. “It’s not either/or,” Kampert concludes, “it’s and.” That is Crestron in a nutshell: hybrid through and through.