In the midst of the pandemic, we have all experienced, as one industry expert put it, “10 years’ worth of innovation in three months.” Part of all that progress saw every able-bodied man, woman, and child become instantly familiar with daily Zooming. As with most technology solutions, a huge swath of the world is fine with “good enough” or even “marginally crappy.” Thankfully there exists a wonderful slice of the population constantly demanding better quality, innovation, and cool-factor. Even better, this cohort turns out to be our customer base.
One pain point we kept hearing over and over again revolved around the lack of simple solutions enabling groups (families, colleagues, etc.) to videoconference without huddling around a laptop or getting tangled up in cables. There had to be a way to Zoom wire-free while enjoying killer sound. I embarked on a six-month journey to get to the bottom of this challenge. What follows is an account of my journey to solve the riddle and the amazing people who helped me bring it to life.
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As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve moved from tinkering to growing more impatient over time with the peculiarities of customer installation technology solutions and gravitating toward solutions that “just work.” In the case of Zoomification, most of these “just-work” solutions revolve around using onboard cameras, microphones, and speakers built into phones, tablets, or computers. What about when groups of people want to gather around and Zoom together? Most of the solutions out there are oriented at the conference room or huddle space world. How about attending virtual church or kids checking in with the grandparents? Gathering groups of people around a small screen is unsatisfactory for both sender and receiver.
What if there were solutions that could leverage the large screens and high-quality audio systems already installed in many family rooms? One would think those existed already, and I wouldn’t have needed to spend months collaborating with Barco, Shure, Leon, and others to build one from scratch. All I wanted to do was listen to video calls through my surround system and have the video autoframe the participants without being tethered by an umbilical cord. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Boy, was I wrong.
I began the project inspired by Barco’s “Bring Your Own Meeting” solutions. I loved the company’s agnosticism toward videoconferencing and thought it didn’t make any sense to buy hardware pegged to a single video platform. I sought out assistance from Barco with a little help from Tim Sinnaeve, managing director, Barco Residential. We hit it off and discovered Barco had been independently pursuing third-party audio solutions to help its theater customers Zoom on huge screens. Barco’s approach supports Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, and other major videoconferencing platforms via their ubiquitous ClickShare system. I didn’t want any wires between the participants and the TV, so this solution looked promising. I thought naively I could just plug in a high-quality videoconferencing camera/microphone and port the audio out to my AV receiver. This is where I ran into my first brick wall.
Because echo cancellation (the ability for a videoconferencing speakerphone to cancel out the speaker’s voice and eliminate feedback) can only be accomplished via what Barco considers a speakerphone, it becomes necessary to break out the camera, microphone, and speaker into separate elements. The only other option here is to use integrated camera, microphone, and speaker units, but the obvious downfall is just like shampoo and conditioner in one — these combination units don’t play any of three roles particularly well. After a few tests leveraging out-of-the-box solutions with Barco’s amazing technical team, Sinnaeve kindly introduced me to Shure’s Tim Cornish to help engineer a third-party audio solution.
Cornish had me go through a good bit of training on the Shure website to make sure I understood how their gear worked and then sent me a few pieces of shiny hardware to play around with, including a P300 audio processor and an MXA710 microphone, both communicating using the Dante network audio protocol. I plugged it all together, and one of Cornish’s engineers tunneled into my computer to get everything finalized. We ran into a snag as we realized the audio output from the P300 needed to be converted back into the SPDIF optical format feeding the Sonos PLAYBAR we had connected as the audio source (figuring third-party soundbars would be among the most commonly used speakers). I waited impatiently for an adapter to arrive from a third-party Amazon seller, which showed up three days later. I plugged in the new gadget, and everything started to work properly.
The MXA710 microphone did an amazing job of picking up audio from the farthest reaches of the room and making it sound crystal clear to anyone on the other end of the call. We chose a Jabra Panacast camera at Sinnave’s suggestion for its aesthetics and ability to cast and auto-frame meeting attendees in glorious 4K UHD. We held a few more video calls using Teams and Zoom before pronouncing the solution ready for prime time.
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With all the system components connected together and working properly it was time to make it look presentable. I placed a call to Leon’s Noah Kaplan and explained what we were up to. He got excited and started helping me think through solutions. I soon had a few shop drawings in hand from Leon’s talented engineering team that looked amazing. I signed off on one of their Edge MediaFrame designs, which promised to take all of the gear, hide it, and yield an amazing finished product.
I waited with bated breath as the Edge MediaFrame went into production and finally shipped to Livewire for final installation. Our team of talented installers at Livewire set to work mounting the Shure P300, MXA710 microphone, Sonos PLAYBAR, Sony 65-inch OLED TV, Barco ClickShare, and various other gadgets and gizmos to make it all work.
I walked into the conference room after everyone finished up and pressed the “Room On” button on the wall-mounted keypad. Everything hummed to life with a few low clicks and blinking lights. The moment of truth had arrived. Would it all work? I cracked open my laptop, plugged in a ClickShare Button, and started a Google Meet with a colleague. Could she hear me okay? How about the sound? Everything just worked as it should! The sound and video on my end was crystal clear as well. The months of hard work had at long last paid off.
I am tremendously grateful to the team of talented professionals who made this project possible, and it turned out better than I ever dreamed.
What are you doing to push the envelope in your business and battle against the temptation to accept mediocrity?