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The Reid Report: How to safely distance while returning to work

Sean Reid offers practical ways to apply rules of AV integration to establish safer work environments for the many who will inevitably return to offices

Many of us have been caught in the upheaval of now — told to stay home then to come back to work; to pull our kids from school and then send them back, only to be told to take them out once more; to balance work, home life, education and a tumult of other pressures while bracing for a return to the way things were. Many AV companies have faced similar upheaval, fielding questions and concerns on how to transition some of their client’s workforce back into the office, safely and securely. Apps like Envoy and Robin provide scheduling and remote access for employees, allowing the staggering of entry into the building or facility, planned seating and social distancing and other related health-safety procedures. While these new apps are great steps forward, affordable for a company to try for a while, longer term solutions must be found.

Display Sizing
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Human vision hasn’t changed, so the common conventions on display size still apply. What we have seen change is room layout to accommodate six-foot social distancing guidelines, which comes with new challenges of its own. The rooms we must use now are longer or wider and the room capacity may change to adhere to these guidelines. If a room’s dimension is longer to accommodate a viewer further from the display, we will require a larger display in the room. This may impact the cost to outfit the room by using a larger display, or if the room is large enough switching to a projection system.

Thinking long term on new technology expenditures is always a wise thing, particularly in these uncertain times. (See my post about this here Using a projector will require creative placements for cameras instead of mounting directly above or below the TV on the wall. And a projector and screen, motorized or not, may require a specialized lens as well. However, these equipment choices do have a longer use-case and product life, so your ROI is much more certain.

A well-placed camera will avoid the light from the projector and capture the room’s occupants nicely. As a room gets wider and/or longer to accommodate the distancing guidelines, the viewing angles of the display are pushed further off axis. Typically, a 45-degree from the edge of the display is within a good viewing angle. However, pushing beyond the 45-degree arc weakens the view of the display. Choosing a display larger than what is required for the furthest on axis viewer may help mitigate this.

You can also choose to install two displays side by side. The content should ideally be mirrored on each display. The new width of the room should support multiple displays on the same wall. Alternatively installing wider displays may help, this can be done with ultra-wide aspect monitors, or direct view LED display technology. For a more immersive experience displays could be installed around the room mirroring the content on each display. Simply measure the distance from each display to its respective farthest viewer to size them appropriately. In this scenario it is advisable to use multiple cameras to best capture the users in their relative points of view. If you must have unique content on each display consider using an integrated control system, create auto-switchable default video routings and either provide a small control panel for each viewer or delegate a single person to command control of all displays from a single control panel.

Audio Coverage & Assisted Listening
We can, for the most part, stick to industry standard best practices when determining speaker layouts for a room. The same math applies, but now we may need to consider small changes to the placement of speakers based on new room layouts. Rooms may get wider or longer to accommodate more distance between occupants. If a room gets longer, you may find that speakers in the front of the room are adequate for the users in the rear. You can solve this by supplementing the audio reinforcement system with ceiling speakers or leveraging long throw speaker arrays in the front of the room. In wider rooms you can essentially do the same with ceiling speakers or wide-angle speaker systems. Ceiling speakers will cover the room evenly, uniformly and sometimes with less power, thus providing more options and allowing for some often-needed value-engineering.

Using ceiling speakers with a wide dispersion pattern can help reduce the total number of speakers in the ceiling improving aesthetics and staying on budget. Aimable Beam-Forming microphones like the Shure MXA910 and MXA710 or Biamp’s Parle beam-tracking mics can be used in the right space to cover vast amounts of seating from a single position. Having to limit the amount of direct contact with the microphone, whether that be by eliminating handhelds or not forcing people to yell over a crowd and spread germs, finding smart and efficient technology solutions keeps people safe. Speakers in the front of the room tend to draw the listener to face them but sometimes require more power, making them appear louder the closer the listener is. Taking into consideration the spacing required for social distancing, this could be problematic in some rooms. Having to now add acoustic treatments or retrofitting is yet another expense which may be cost preventative for some clients.

Per the rules set forth by the ADA, many of these spaces will require an assistive listening system (ALS). The terms dictate how many listening devices must be available based on a percentage of the maximum room occupancy. This means that you must provide and manage the ALS receivers and batteries, ensuring you have adequate available and secondary channels for the maximum room capacity. These items would be handled by multiple users and aren’t likely to be cleaned with increased frequency. To minimize touch points on shared devices, you can leverage new wireless-based ALS systems. The user in question simply installs an app on their smart phone to connect to the in-room ALS wireless transmitter and their own headset. If you standardize this across your whole enterprise the user only ever needs one app installed once and then can help themselves. No parts to lose or replacing batteries. Again, not as efficient or as touchless as an induction loop ALS, but much more cost effective and easier to deploy in these volatile times.

Social Distancing – Voice Lift Applications

The Reid Report: How to Safely Distance While Returning to Work

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The Reid Report: How to Safely Distance While Returning to Work

The graphic above shows a room where each person is six feet away from each other. This table would support six people seated around it while maintaining typical social distancing guidelines of six feet.  We are assuming a 10ft. ceiling height, 30in. table height, average seated person 4ft. from the floor to the center of their heads. This leaves approximately 18in. between the tabletop and person’s face. If we place a minimum 6in. gooseneck microphone we’re left with approximately 1ft. of space between the person’s mount and microphone. This is a good distance to minimize plosives while still being close the voice for adequate gain. In this system design we’re intending to keep only one microphone open at a time to best manage the system and background noise. The calculations above show how much gain to apply to the microphone to enable the furthest listener to hear well compared to how much acoustic gain is at the nearest listener. This shows a stable system that will be able to mitigate feedback issues.

The following graphic illustrates the minimum dimensions for voice lift applications within social distancing guidelines for ceiling microphones where a table microphone may not be an option. This could be because the room is a flexible workspace or the furniture and construction of the room do not allow for table microphones. This solution minimizes touch points in the room allowing a cleaner environment for meetings.

The Reid Report: How to Safely Distance While Returning to Work

The Reid Report: How to Safely Distance While Returning to Work

If voice lift is not required for the scope of your project, then your microphone choice and placement is less encumbered by dimensions and design of the physical space and feedback stability is not a mitigating factor in the design of your AV system.

The truth is we do not know what is coming next, what we can do is plan here and now for the future. Looking to next week, next month or even next quarter is not being proactive. You will end up burning more good money after all the bad, and who can afford that right now? What we can do is look at simple, cost effect and efficient ways to protect ourselves and co-workers and provide all industries a way of moving forward. Lest we never get back to working in our ‘outside clothes’ and are forever taking meetings in bed or at the dinner table, not showering for days on end and crushing our personal bests in Minecraft. While seemingly fun and functional for some, for the greater good we need to find ways to get back in touch with our work and each other. We too in the AV field are essential, let’s show them what we can do and how we can contribute to making this pandemic livable and functional.

Sean Reid is a consultant and owner of Astroman AV.  Reid’s friend, colleague and peer Kresimir Tokic at VERSA Integrated Solution and formerly of Electrosonic, contributed to this column.


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