Hybrid and remote work are here to stay. We have transitioned from debating whether this model is sustainable for the long-term, to accepting there is no going back to our old way of working. And, while today’s era of hybrid work opened the door to many opportunities, such as empowering us with the flexibility to work when and where suits us best, leaders face the new challenge of creating a work environment that equally serves a distributed workforce, whether at-home or in an office.

Room collaboration technology has come a long way since the era of piling into a difficult-to-operate conference room. If you’re like most people, you can reflect on the specially equipped conference rooms of the past.  They typically sported a long table and a screen at one end, and (if you could connect the call successfully – which would have been no small feat) would have shown you a bowling alley view of the far end of the room, with faces too tiny to make out. Today, our technology solutions are the most powerful collaboration systems ever made. They have gone from nice-to-have to critical tools for employee collaboration. Most importantly though, they ensure meeting equality among today’s distributed workforces.

The tools required to support virtual collaboration spaces and to provide superior meeting experiences have evolved, introducing new needs for acoustics, video, lighting, user interfaces and more. Some of the key collaboration technology solutions that business should be thinking about in the year ahead include:

  1. Solutions that mitigate unwanted noise – The first automatic room noise reduction systems were “gates.” When they heard noise they’d close the gate, and when they heard speech they’d open it back up. These helped keep noisy rooms from disrupting calls, as long as no one was speaking in them. Once someone started to speak, the gate would open and noise would flood in, blended with the speech. Today’s products now have AI enabled noise mitigation technology, making them smart enough to know the difference between a speaker’s voice and background noise, such as the crinkling of paper, keyboard clicking or a passing siren. They can let in the correct sound while simultaneously blocking out the unwanted sound. Rather than a gate, they’ve become smart, active filters. This is a critical tool in helping workers productively interact and communicate without the interruption of distracting background noise.
  2. Smart cameras that can invisibly and silently track action – Polycom’s Eagle Eye Director was the first camera device to hit the market that used two separate cameras to follow the people speaking in a room. One camera created a close-up of the person talking, and the second stood ready to show a different person or a wide-shot – whatever was needed. It was a breakthrough and eventually copied by many, but it had some problems. The Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) action of the cameras in the front of the room was often noisy and disconcerting to in-room participants. Today, these are being replaced by EPTZ (Electronic Pan-Tilt-Zoom) cameras that use high resolution static cameras, and switch shots with no moving parts. They look even better than the mechanical ones without the motors, noise or distraction. And, users are able to remotely control the actual orientation and optical zoom of the camera, helping them feel engaged and present.
  3. Multiple camera intelligence – As both in-room hardware manufacturers and collaboration platform providers introduce incremental advancements, the ability to virtually see more things in a meeting room is growing. We have gone from the “tiny face – bowling alley” view mentioned above, to tracking cameras, but now the industry is taking that a step further. Today’s collaboration experiences can composite superior images of participants in a room simultaneously. An example of this feature would include the current and last speaker seen in much of the screen and close-ups of all the other participants visible in a filmstrip view at the top of the bottom of the screen. These capabilities are still evolving and will be impacted by the number of camera views available. In larger rooms, multiple cameras may be placed around the space and tied together, ensuring that the AI in the system and platform always creates great views of everyone’s face and body language for meeting participants dialing in from home.
  4. Smart start meetings – Launching room-based video conferences has historically been a difficult thing to do. Nirvana used to be represented by an industry phrase “one button to push,” but that capability only worked in very narrow circumstances, when a meeting was pre-scheduled and on compatible platforms. If it was an ad-hoc meeting or across incompatible services, the pain of inputting multiple lines of data on a balky room touch panel was still present, and the process seemed to fail as often as it worked. Today, there are multiple technologies that can ease this pain. Modern room systems are beginning to use one of a combination of factors including voice recognition, facial recognition, connections to personal smart device calendars, and other methodologies to figure out the required connections for the meeting at hand, and enable its initiation with a verbal request or gesture.
  5. Room Insights – Room collaboration technology now supports more than just room collaboration. For instance, all-in-one collaboration devices, such as Poly’s StudioX series video bars, can sit in every meeting room and are aware of what is always going on to provide insights into the room’s usage. They can tell you how many people are present in the room and for how long, what they are generally looking for at any given time, what their general emotional state is (happy, sad, bored, etc.) and much more. Such solutions can also identify other items in the room such as expensive artwork, chairs, tabletop technology, etc. and provide notices or alarms if something is missing or not put back where it belongs. This information can be fed to an organization’s data lake or building management system on a constant basis – not just when the device is in a call. The capability of understanding ongoing room utilization in and of itself is a major leap ahead of what has existed for organizations in the past (which usually involved the installation of separate sensors).

Many of the features mentioned above make for not just a good remote experience, but a “better than being there” experience. For example, consider the advantages of watching a football game from your home versus being physically present. At home, you have access to superior experience features such as instant replay, on-screen yard markers and first-down indicators. It goes to say, the technology itself provides a next level experience in many different forms of interactions.

The rise in hybrid work has uncovered the unique collaboration experiences and valuable data that modern technology can offer a distributed workforce. These innovative tools are not only closing the gap between in-room and remote workers, but also empowering us to better understand room collaboration so that we can make smarter investments in today’s new era of work.