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Meeting AV Takes Cues From Theater, Broadcast, Science

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Audio; AV Equipment; Conferencing; Display; Live Events; Video

Date: December 2012

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

After four years of gray economic skies, business in general is picking up, and with it, corporate events and conferences hosted largely by hotels. But many of these confabs look — and sound — different than before. Meeting planners are looking for ways to excite corporate clients and differentiate their spaces, and they’re looking at audio, video, lighting and projection systems to help them do that.

“Business is back but it’s not 100 percent yet, so meeting planners are looking for more bang for their buck and they want something that’s well beyond the pipe-and-drape backgrounds and stacked-box sound that they’ve been used to,” says Steve Dumond, divisional sales manager for Scottsdale, Ariz., systems supplier PSAV. “Before, you’d be looking at a $20,000 hard set that would just get thrown away at the end of the event. Now you can offer a more imaginative set that uses new materials and AV and projection and get a great result for less than half of what they used to pay.”

Video Mapping

These days, at many AV-supported events, video mapping, a form of high-tech trompe-l'œil, is replacing the static backdrop. Mapping software programs, from companies such as Coolux Media Systems, Dataton and Red Hen Systems, allow single and multiple projectors to create video backdrops (2D or 3D) on cycloramas or other surfaces that are dynamic and — in some cases — interactive. And they can be synched to music and other audio effects.

There are also more light-based solutions popping up that can achieve striking results in hotel ballrooms, such as the modular, lighted Pillows and Wafers from Atomic Design.

Dumond says that today’s corporate-event AV is borrowing heavily from theatrical methodologies.

“Clients are seeing visual effects on awards shows and they want to emulate those for their events,” he says. “At the same time, they need to keep costs down, so a $7,000 wafer wall versus a $20,000 hard set that’s only going to get trashed after it’s used is a no-brainer.”

In fact, the theatrical glitter that AV and lighting can create is, in many ways, trumping the higher-tech approaches that many thought would be the end-all be-all for corporate meetings just a few years ago. “We thought the high end of this business was headed towards videoconferencing, but that turned out not to be the case,” says Dumond. “They want technology to create more of a ‘wow’ factor.”

Darren Phalen, national director of integrated solutions at AVT Event Technologies, headquartered in Arlington Heights, Ill., says demand for more theatrics in staged backgrounds is pushing up brightness requirements, with projectors needing to be at least 15,000 lumens and deployed in multiples, particularly for outdoor environments. Front projection is often the best way to optimize video mapping, says Phalen, but many clients ask for rear projection in order to keep the projectors off the conference floor. AVT’s solution has been to fabricate furniture-style enclosures for projectors (pictured) that are aesthetically generic and can be placed in the room. “They become just another element in the space,” he says.

“But what really drives all this are the programs and how imaginative and creative they can look,” he says. “You can get far more out video mapping than you ever could from a static set — and for far less cost. So video mapping really is the future of staging design.”

Ironically, however, though projection mapping is taking off in the event ballroom, projectors and drop-down screens are becoming a casualty of new technology in the meeting’s breakout rooms. Rather than setting up tripod screens and ceiling-mounted projectors, many event venues are opting for big, bright LED-lit flat panels for showing PowerPoint presentations and other conference staples. “In the breakout room, the screen is being replaced with products like Sharp’s new 90-inch LED display,” says Phalen. “It’s about the same size as the old tripod screen and with far more brightness and contrast.”

Line Arrays

Sound has also taken on new trappings in the corporate event world. Line arrays are the new gold standard, based on their modular design and new iterations, which employ smaller enclosures to create mini line arrays. Suppliers such as JBL, K-Array and TOA have developed arrays that fit mid-sized and small ballrooms.

“The line array is another example of a technology that clients encounter in theatrical environments and concerts that they want to have at their meetings,” says Dumond.

The line array has a lot going for it. It’s designed to be flown from ceiling rigging, keeping stages clean. It has better dispersion and coverage characteristics, meaning you need less equipment to cover a given space because more of the energy the line array produces hits the audience and not the side walls. Finally, line arrays are designed to be integrated with subwoofers, adding a low-frequency component that audiences have come to expect in theaters, cinemas, sports venues and even churches.

“The days of the talking head onstage are dwindling,” says Phalen. “It’s increasingly rare that a speaker doesn’t have some multimedia elements in his presentation, such as music or effects. Corporate video needs some kind of dynamics, and the line array and subs are a way to achieve that. They have the concert-level sound the audience has come to expect.”

Of course, this avalanche of audio on stage has brought to light some other issues that need to be addressed. One of the most important ones, according to AV pros, is microphone noise. With all those higher-end sound systems, even a modest tap on a podium or lectern can result in a pretty substantial (and annoying) thump through the subwoofers. Phalen says he recommends moving away from typical installed podium microphones, whose screw-type bases mechanically couple with the podiums they’re attached to, to shock-mounted microphones.

Beyond AV

If AV technology is driving the next generation of meeting staging, it’s also impacting how those technologies are presented to clients. Many players in the event business, including AVT and PSAV, have developed smartphone and tablet apps that allow their sales personnel to lay out the look of an event site virtually. PSAV’s SwankDraw uses the iPad’s drag-and-drop capability to allow users to place icons for elements including pillow walls, spandex screens, truss accents, line-array hangs, intelligent lighting and video monitors into a virtual ballroom space. Dumond calls it a “high-tech cocktail napkin,” but its value is clear: As more new technology comes into the ballroom space, other types of new technology can help explain them to clients.

And that’s not all the geeky stuff. Phalen says event technology suppliers are looking to neuroscience to assist clients in getting their message across. For instance, he says, studies have shown that amber-tinted lighting during morning sessions helps attendees focus, while blue lighting in the afternoon seems to reduce snack cravings and minimize postprandial distractions.

Audio also plays into this: Phalen cites studies in charter schools that suggest that low-level instrumental (i.e., without vocals) background music has been shown to boost students’ test scores, an effect that could possibly be applied to helping attendees at conferences retain more of the marketers’ messages. “The thinking is that the background music occupies the subconscious mind, leaving the attendee more receptive to what’s in front of them,” he speculates.

If that’s the case, AV will be playing as much a subliminal as an overt role in event staging. Just make sure you’ve got a neurophysicist on retainer to pick your music.