Rethinking Microsoft Teams Rooms

Microsoft Teams Rooms are needed in numbers and they are needed now. But should we take some time to ascertain what an MTR really is?

Videoconferencing emerged as the big winner through and after the Covid-19 pandemic. VC became an invaluable tool to ensure businesses could continue to operate and function and remains pivotal to hybrid work.

The demand for VC meant that there was an opportunity for AV professionals to step up. Ben Sly, general manager for Merge Technologies, says: “Merge Technologies is a workplace integrator and managed services partnered focused tightly on the collaboration space. We specialise in the design, delivery, and support of videoconferencing technology.”

As we move firmly past the pandemic, Microsoft Teams has emerged as the de facto VC platform of choice for the workplace. Teams was always likely to be the winner because Microsoft is already so ingrained inside every IT department from Bangalore to Berlin.

Sly from Merge Technologies says: “As people have started to flood back into the office, we have seen a massive appetite for Microsoft Teams. The beauty of Teams is its power and simplicity. It might be complex at the back end, but the intuitive user experience or the front end can be exactly the same every time. At the heart of it, the way people book a room in terms of workflow, the way they join meetings, the way they share content, can be completely consistent across spaces creating a consistent experience.”

The ‘experience’ is important and Matt Makan, channel partner manager, Space Connect, adds: “It's no longer a case of let’s just go into a boardroom, there’s going to be a screen at one end and everybody is straining so they can all see the screen. The UX of meeting rooms does need to be looked at.”

So, how do we start delivering a consistent experience? Sly from Merge Technologies answers: “The design of meeting rooms has to be rethought. We can’t just continue with the practices that were in place from before the pandemic. The users have moved on, they’re not talking about outcomes anymore, they are looking at what they want to achieve, and how they want to achieve it. The focus is now on workflows. I think this is an opportunity for us to learn, to innovate and to create new and interesting spaces.”

Taking into account the popularity of Microsoft Teams, let’s narrow the focus of the conversation from meeting spaces to Microsoft Teams Rooms [MTRs].

Sly from Merge Technologies mentions that the Teams platform has a ‘strong certification process’. He details the impact this has: “The certification process is really important from the vendor perspective. Microsoft is pushing vendors to make sure that they get their products certified because it has implications for licensing and that carries on to managed services. The reality of the matter is that moving forward if your solutions and products are not certified then you are not going to get specified in as many projects. We’re seeing businesses and end users go to Microsoft certified products first and while there will always be exceptions, especially when it comes to bespoke spaces, certification provides tangible benefits and we try and design around the certified-product ecosystem.”

Certification might help in selecting products for MTRs but the right products have to be specified first. A very fundamental part of MTR design is getting the display size right. The dominant technology so far has been flat panels, and that’s not set to change soon, although it may evolve, as this example from Simon Kitson, smart meetings director, Maverick Visual Solutions, highlights: “I don’t think enough people are using dual displays, you can have one for the video content and one for the content that’s being shared.”

Luckily there is a mathematical equation on hand to help get the display size right for your MTRs and was set out in AVIXA’s DISCAS standard (Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems). It should be six times the height of the content window. Typically, the content window at the moment is 60% of the overall image height, so the furthest viewer should be 3.6 times the image height away. Getting the display at the right size and distance for each viewer to see it without squinting or leaning to one side should be the bare minimum for all MTRs.

Sly from Merge Technologies says: “We are seeing display sizes increase. Spaces that would traditionally have a 55-in display panel are going up to 65-in and Microsoft Teams is driving this with its focus on increasing meeting equity for remote participants. We are seeing the requirement for bigger canvases for inclusive layouts. Cameras are being placed at eye level. Projection is making a resurgence due to this because it offers a large display size and the flexibility of aspect ratio to go from 16:9 to 21:9 if needed.”

Microsoft Front Row, released in February 2022, could have a significant impact on what displays are selected and deployed in MTRs. In Front Row the video gallery has been moved to the bottom of the screen, so remote participants are face-to-face with people in the room all the time. To fit more people onto the screen Teams now supports 21:9 ratio. Microsoft’s guidance so far for Front Row says the minimum size should be 46-in screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio (in HD resolution) or 21:9 (in 2,560 x 1,080 resolution). The Front Row screen layout places the primary meeting content in a smaller window, making a re-calibration of the viewing distance necessary and further complicating things.

Eyebrows were certainly raised in the AV world in March when Microsoft published its vision for enhanced MTRs, because one option it was suggesting was for blended projection to meet the wide nature of the display needed. The Epson EB-PU1007 model was suggested as a suitable unit, and the fact that it’s listed as a large venue projector tells you the sort of sizes of display MTRs will resemble in the future i.e., it’s going to be 100-in and above.

Simon Kitson however is sceptical about the level of adoption of Front Row: “We need to be careful about getting carried away (about Front Row) because it’s just one layout option, it’s not going to be right for every meeting room. In Teams there is gallery view and other layouts you can select. I don’t think it’s going to be mass adopted."

If display sizes in MTRs are going to rise, and that seems inevitable, could LED play a part? Kitson from Maverick Visual Solutions admits to knowing one major manufacturer currently putting together different packages to make it easier for integrators to deploy LED within MTRs.

But cost is a barrier at the moment adds Greg Jeffreys, director of Visual Displays: “dvLED for MTRs at the moment is really a case of watch this space, because the problem with dvLED is that they don’t have pixels per se, they’ve got these tiny little spots of light in the centre of a notional pixel area. What that means is the metric for the closest viewer it needs to be halfway back down the room for people who want to use 1.2mm pixel pitch. LED is also too bright, so far it’s been based entirely around the signage industry and some poor soul that has to sit in a meeting room for two to three hours a day doesn’t want to have sunglasses on all day. They’ve got to make 0.9mm pixel pitch cheaper because it’s too expensive and 2mm tiles are no good for MTRs.”

On the side of audio, APAC is seeing a rise in popularity for the soundbar or the videobar.

Sly from Merge Technologies elaborates: “Normally, soundbars have the right-sized cameras and good microphones, but their effectiveness depends on the size of the room. If your room is less than 5m deep, then soundbars are excellent. They cover the space, they can be deployed in bulk which means that from an integrator’s perspective they can be commoditised. But physics always wins and if your room goes above 5m then you have to start moving away from soundbars.”

Additionally, the rethinking of design for MTRs is going beyond just technology. Sly says: “There are changes with how meeting rooms are configured and designed, the physical environment is being redesigned with the furniture being shifted around so that everyone is facing forward instead of facing across the table.”

Makan from Space Connect adds: “If you want the meeting to be as productive as possible you need the right lux levels, and you can influence that when you can have sensors linked into the bulbs directly so that you can automatically adjust the lighting to optimal levels. I think furniture is a big thing as well, especially with some multi-use points. You need your furniture to be able to lend itself to be easily configurable into different configurations.”

One interesting aspect of the Enhanced Teams Rooms specification from Microsoft was the use of curved seating to improve visibility. Traditionally meeting rooms were optimised to fit as many people in as possible, which meant the display was fitted after the seating had been allocated, often resembling a school classroom with everyone ‘facing the front’.

As mentioned above, because of hybrid working the camera should take precedence rather than the seating, so it’s likely we will see the growth of V- or U-shaped MTRs going forward, with cameras and screen installed on the widest walls.

One thing that is clear is that we are far from having a template for MTRs. There is a lot of iteration left to do on the design front. Sly from Merge Technologies says: “We have a managed services agreement offered to our clients and that means that we are getting constant feedback from the customers. We’re seeing the tickets come in and we are getting data that we need to act on, but it also allows us to analyse what the user needs. So, if we are seeing a lot of tickets about problems with content sharing that might point us towards maybe simplifying the workflow or perhaps implementing training. Access to user data makes our business more effective and we have a feedback loop because once a solution has been implemented, we can gauge whether it worked or not by seeing the change in tickets over time.”

Jeffreys from Visual Displays concludes: “We’re not going to design the perfect room in one go, you revisit it every three to six months, you talk to the users. The best analogy is with elite sports like in cycling, they’ll break everything down into granular detail to see how they can make a 1% improvement. If you break a space down into all the granular elements, of which there could be 10 or 15, that could be really significant.”

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