Planning Your Conferencing Room Solution for Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is really taking off now with organizations seriously considering how they can best take advantage of the technology offered by this product.

There is certainly a lot of activity around meeting experiences with various vendors coming to trade shows with their shiny new device for Teams meetings. But being a techie it is easy to get carried away with the technology rather than the functional use of it. That can lead to bad purchases and the technology not meeting the basic business requirements.

It is important that you first define your requirements before going to market and getting test units and involving vendors in pre-sales because you’ll find yourself getting inadvertently led towards a product(s) that might not be what you need.

Starting from the beginning, you need to perform an audit of your meeting rooms. Even if you think you know them, do it again. Yes this may be a large task with seemingly little in return on effort, but trust me you will learn a lot about how your users have been using meeting rooms. This seems a simple task, but the biggest issue you are going to face is gaining access to a room during business hours. After all you cannot walk into the senior executives financial results meeting and whip out your tape measure! But persevere because it is worth it!

As you walk around, you need to measure because you will need to measure the dimensions of the room. This is important because you need to consider how the room may be used. Yes the room may have 4 seats, but how many times have you gone to a meeting in a room too small to accommodate the attendees and it’s standing room only?   You need to account for the fact that the room maybe over subscribed, but from a user’s perspective they don’t understand and just expect perfect experience regardless.

You also need to consider what is in the room. A bare room with a table and chairs is going to be problematic where voice quality is concerned. What will happen is that your voice will bounce of all the walls and the microphone will pick that up. There will be a couple of milliseconds of delay between the microphone picking up your actual voice and your reflected voice. The end result is that the people on the other end of the line are going to hear an echo or hollow sound and this can be very distracting for them.

In order to reduce unwanted echo you need to consider the furniture in the room. A well insulated room or rooms with solid walls are more prone to voice reflection than rooms with hollow walls because with hollow walls a portion of sound can disperse through the wall, whereas brick is much denser and is a natural reflector. To combat this consider putting in some plants or other ornaments that can be used to absorb  / disperse sound before it is reflected. Ferns are a good plant because they are dense and provide lots of angles to reflect sound back on different vectors. The microphone is similar to radar in that in order to get a response the reflection must travel back on the same vector the sound was transmitted on. If this is disrupted then the microphone will find it harder to pick up the reflected sound. Think of your fern tree as Audio Conferencing Stealth technology! Of course, plants and ornaments are good absorbers, but you can do a little bit with the dedicated furniture as well, using cushioned chairs combined with how you position those chairs for people to sit at can play an important role in reducing echo.

As you go through the audit, you will notice that some devices that you have provided are disconnected, or appear that they haven’t been used in anger for some time. Obviously a key indicator that devices aren’t used are if they are disconnected on the floor, missing or shoved to once side in a pile of mess. If this is the case, then you may want to evaluate if it is worth the investment to replace that room with a Teams device or not. How you determine this is something that you will need to come up with, but perhaps surveying the users in the immediate office on their usage and if they are happy is a good start.

Now that you have completed your audit and you’ve gathered some intelligence on how the rooms are being actively used you need to define your upgrade strategy.

Are you replacing like for like as in the room has a device so therefore it is getting a new device. Or are you going to be more conservative?

To help you need to consider how your user’s habits will change from traditional use of a VoIP system to a unified communication system where their device is the phone and conferencing equipment. You will find that many 3 or 4 person conferences that used to take place in a meeting huddle room for instance will be reduce to almost zero in favour of “at-desk” conferencing where these users remain at their desks and use Teams meetings with their device.

You will also see an increase of unlikely meeting locations due to the fact that Microsoft Teams gives the user’s far more mobility, sitting on steps, grabbing a coffee in the canteen. sitting on the grass outside the office, standing in stairwells etc. you name it, you will find a person there at one stage on a Teams call. A portion of these conversations happening in transient and mobile space would have traditionally been room based conversations.

It could be that you decide small meeting rooms do not get a device, and simply provide users with the appropriate peripheral. It could be that you don’t provide anything at all and classify these rooms as physical meeting presence capability only. Or if you do need to provide a device then choose something that is budget friendly and adequate for the room.

Room types differ from customer to customer, site to site. Typically though you’ll classify them into one of 5 categories

  1. Pod
  2. Huddle
  3. Think Tank
  4. Board Room
  5. Executive Video Conferencing Suite

Pod

A pod is a classification we can give to communal areas where there may be screened seating with a desk. Pods typically accommodate 1 to 4 people. These meeting areas are usually in public places and offer limited privacy. As a result, these areas or logical rooms would not receive any telephony or meeting capability. They may include a TV screen for connectivity to a user’s laptop but generally wouldn’t be used for online meeting hosting. Another point to note is that due to no physical boundary like a wall, then it would be disrespectful to other workers in the area for a conference to be in progress in a booth next to them.

If a pod was used as a location to join a conference, then private peripherals (headset) should be used and encouraged.

Huddle

Huddle rooms are your typical small meeting rooms that contain usually a circular or square desk with limited seating of between 3 and 6 people.  The room dimensions may be small some, only 3 x 3m. These rooms are typically used for short duration focused meetings where physical participation is small but the online audience may be of any size.

There are many devices for this type of room, both audio and video devices. You need to decide what service you want to offer as a standard and if any location warrants an upgraded service e.g. huddle rooms close to executive offices for instance will probably need audio and video capability, while standard rooms may just need audio, or in some cases nothing at all.

Whatever device you choose, whether it be a conference device, a phone with speaker or a huddle integrated video system there is one thing that you need to pay particular attention to and that is the microphone capability of the devices you are choosing as a standard. It is often a mistake to assume any device will do but taking the time to understand microphone pickup and operation fields will help you choose the best device for the room and achieve optimum quality of experience.

In this example of a huddle room, we have a circular desk with a device located in the center. This device has an omnidirectional microphone with a 3m maximum pickup range. This microphone is perfect for this type of room because it has complete 360 degree range and that means anyone talking around the table will be equally heard. For huddle rooms seating 5 or 6 people in this configuration a cardioid microphone would not be suitable. The downside of an omnidirectional microphone is because it can pickup sound 3m away in any direction, it is not great at filtering out unwanted sound and this is why it is unsuitable for rooms larger than the huddle classification.

Think Tank

Think Tank is a classification that I give towards meeting rooms that accommodate 10-15 people and is a medium sized room somewhere between 7 x 5 meters. In this room classification we are more likely to find rectangular desking with a TV or smart room device installed at the head of the table.  Again thinking about the microphone capability, the configuration would look something like this

For this style of room an omnindirectional microphone would pick up far too much background noise. More people = more sound intentional or otherwise. Also Omnidirectional microphones have very limited range because typically the device can only carry one. Therefore the range is symmetric from that device. Instead we need cardioid microphones. These provide 180 degrees of coverage focused in a particular direction. These microphones allow the device to target specific areas of the room while reducing the background noise from other angles. It also means that the device can carry more than one microphone. Some devices have two, but the common denominator is three cardioid microphones positioned in a triangle for maximum coverage.

Microphones in these devices vary in technology, but the best ones use all three microphones to best represent the sound someone is making. One microphone will be active as the device intelligently works out the source direction where the sound is coming from and shuts off the other two microphones and they place a part in noise cancellation. By having three microphones, these devices can pickup sound from between 4 and 6m in each direction from the device which make it capable of supporting this type of room.

Board Room

Board rooms are large meeting rooms that can contain anywhere from 15 to 25 people. Typically a long rectangular desk. These rooms are just a bigger version of the think tank rooms so we need to look at extending the microphone capabilities.

In this case we would look at the same or similar device to the one deployed to the Think Tank rooms, but this device should support additional microphones to extend the reach of sound pickup capability. In the above picture we have a central device with 3 cardioid microphones and an extension microphone either side of it. These provide extended coverage and can often increase the reach of the device from 6m to 18m end to end in any direction.

Executive Video Conferencing Suites

These you don’t come across unless you work for a very large organization. These are dedicated rooms that have integrated video and sound capabilities. By this they will have multiple displays, a powerful HD camera and ceiling microphone booms or dedicated microphones per seat

These suites require dedicated equipment. Typically you would involve a vendor to install and then you would provide integration capability to Microsoft Teams through a video interop solution.

There are some curve balls as well. One of the biggest that challenge any refresh program and device selection is the layout of the room. Up to now we have spoken about one dimensional room configurations. They are easy to source devices for. However, for room layouts that are in an open square or U shaped desking, these configurations are a nightmare for conference device selection. Both these configurations by design almost demand a ceiling mounted microphone solution because there is no optimum placement of a ground device.

You could experiment with the configurations available to you with devices that support multiple microphones but this would be trial and error to some degree.

The best idea I can give you is to challenge the room layout to meet the capabilities of the device being installed. If this is not possible, then perhaps you evaluate the effectiveness of the device in that room vs the investment costs, therefore, exclude from any telephony requirement. In most cases layouts in open square or U shaped are geared towards meetings that are physical and have very little to no online requirement, The shape of the room is telling you that the people that use this tend to work together within the same room rather than talking to a bunch of people online.

I hope that this post helps you decide what devices you need and remember tech is brilliant, only when it is fit for purpose, otherwise it is just an expensive ornament.

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