Science & Tech

Intelligence to Flex: A Better Approach to Collaboration Technology

It’s time we expect more than complicated and mediocre in conferencing.

Andrew Border

As we look at business today, we see a world that’s constantly evolving, moving to more varied, sophisticated, and challenging collaboration scenarios and environments. Video and audio conferencing, screen sharing, and mobile workforces are the norm. Our workplaces are distributed across a variety of environments including open floor workspaces, huddle rooms, traditional conference rooms, and mixed-use spaces. Add to that a number of different collaboration platforms, operating systems, and applications, and you’re left with a complex set of scenarios for today’s conferencing technology to address.

The conferencing dilemma

Many of the current solutions are being pushed quickly into market to meet growing demand. Take the current state of huddle rooms, for example. Small, informal work spaces designed for four to six people to meet and collaborate on an ad hoc basis, huddle rooms are all about interactive collaboration. This is a hot market for collaboration technologies. A recent report by Frost & Sullivan suggests that only 2% out of millions of huddle rooms globally are video enabled. As providers rush to meet the demands around powerful trends like huddle rooms, they often deliver solutions that accomplish the basic tasks but that deliver a mediocre experience through technology that is also extremely difficult for IT to manage and for participants to use. This means people are typically burdened with overcoming the deficiencies of the technology.

The burden begins with the IT team tasked to install the video and audio conferencing solutions themselves, which often requires cobbling together different components, integrating hardware and software systems, and working to accommodate spaces with difficult lighting and acoustics. Then IT has to manage the solution, which often involves manually overseeing and troubleshooting a huge range of different devices. If time is money, then all that time needlessly spent is ultimately a waste of valuable business resources.

Of course, meeting participants also feel the burden of technology that just isn’t cutting it. Everyone can relate to the difficulties that result from being unable to share screen content or launch a meeting efficiently. And once the meeting is underway, people have to overcome poor views by manually adjusting camera angles, accommodating for difficult lighting, and struggling to read washed out whiteboards. They also have to fight through audio issues that make it difficult to hear what’s being said, causing unnecessary fatigue and a loss of interest in meeting participation. All these accommodations people have to make for lackluster technology impact productivity — and, therefore, the business.

In short: technology today is getting in the way.

Challenging the status quo

At Dolby, we’ve been thinking about these conferencing issues for a long time, and we think it’s time to challenge the status quo. It’s time for everyone — designers and planners, IT leaders and managers, and meeting participants — to demand more, to stop shouldering the burden of poor conferencing technology.

We’re surrounded every day by technology that works for us — voice assistants that learn and adapt; vacuums that read a room and clean with no human assistance; wearables that not only track fitness but predict potential health risks. Why shouldn’t our conferencing technology work for us just as hard?

Imagine a world of work where the conferencing technology automatically responds, or flexes, to people and spaces to improve the human interaction, and make the meeting experience as natural and productive as possible. We call this the “intelligence to flex.”

We are creating ways to make conferencing technology more intelligent, so the hardware and software will automatically flex to different situations in order to provide a dramatically better experience in a way that is simple to use and easy to manage. We are already proving the value of this approach in audio conferencing and see that it would bring tremendous value to other forms of collaboration, such as video conferencing, screen sharing, and more.

It takes advanced skill sets in a number of areas to build collaboration technology that is capable of performing in all of these ways — skill sets that require expertise in human perception and interaction, sound and imaging, machine learning, and industrial and user interface design.

Human intelligence: The science of collaboration

A deep look at the perceptual and cognitive processes involved in collaboration can drive powerful innovation. At Dolby, for example, we first studied how participants absorb, retain, and share audio information in conferencing situations so we could help make it easier for people to communicate. Humans need to focus in order to process information, and we can do so relatively well in face-to-face meetings. Conversations flow and are easy to follow. Real-world conferencing scenarios, however, are different. Technology introduces challenges that result in less organic conversation flow and make it harder to understand what’s being said.

In traditional conferencing, everyone’s voice seems to come from a single place. Information heard from one voice can “mask” information heard from another, making our brains work harder to absorb less information. Background noises, people speaking too softly or loudly, and the choppy audio that results when different people try to talk at the same time also distract and interfere with conversation flow. Big, noisy robotic cameras that tightly zoom in on participants are just as distracting. Because they don’t show the expressions and body language of people around the talker, they remove much of the helpful context that remote participants would get when meeting in person.

When you have the goal of giving people as natural and productive a meeting experience as possible, insights such as these into how people really think and work together are critical. That said, cutting-edge engineering is needed to execute on these insights in the real world.

Engineering intelligence: Support for today’s work styles and environments

Working from human insights, organizations need the will and the ability to leverage engineering intelligence in novel ways to find solutions to some of the thorniest issues in the conferencing experience. That’s how we found a way to create spatial separation of voices, so each voice sounds like it comes from a different place. Doing so helps avoid information masking and makes it easier for people to absorb what’s actually being said. We’ve also engineered our conference phone to adjust dynamically to room acoustics, background noises, and the voices of different speakers, so that participants hear each voice with the same level of clarity.

Innovative engineering based on insights into how humans collaborate could be applied to other forms of conferencing. Many video conferencing solutions for huddle spaces, for example, are also lacking in ways that are crucial to productive collaboration. In these solutions, the camera is generally locked in what is often either too narrow or too wide a view for the space and the people in it. And current systems, outside of the very expensive offerings, don’t often adjust for the lighting of an environment. In huddle spaces, and in fact in every conferencing environment, more engineering intelligence could remove more obstacles to simple, natural, and productive conversation.

Machine intelligence: Adapting to what is important

One of the most exciting trends in our industry and beyond is the use of machine intelligence to drive better solutions. In particular, we see huge value in leveraging machine intelligence to make collaboration technologies more flexible to real-time human activities and environmental changes that infuse collaboration with so much complexity.

We have already proven the value of machine learning to make better audio technologies that flex to people and places. The Dolby® Conference Phone leverages machine intelligence to continuously map the surrounding audio scene, to accurately identify talkers versus other forms of noise, to better capture all voices — even overcoming the challenges of poor acoustic spaces — and to dynamically raise the volume of quiet or distant talkers to help everyone be heard. This is a huge advance but is only one example in our industry. Machine learning will bring powerful improvements for all areas of collaboration in the immediate future.

Design intelligence: Products that are easy to set up and use
If there is one experience we can all relate to, it’s the difficulty of trying to launch a video conference. Today’s video conferencing solutions generally come with a mass of cords and a number of different devices and user interfaces. Initiating a call almost always involves a confusing welter of instructions, access codes, system conflicts, and other setup difficulties.

The success of any conference depends on the knowledge and patience of an IT expert to first install the equipment, sync the various components needed for the conferencing scenario, and troubleshoot the complexity. It then depends on users to fight their way through overly complicated interfaces and flows.

According to the same Frost & Sullivan report I quoted earlier: “As user experience gains prominence, there are tremendous growth opportunities for vendors that can differentiate on better quality devices, robust cloud services, and managed services and support to ensure an optimal meeting room experience.” To do this in a seamless way, we’ve built a conference phone that is both a phone and a UI platform that supports an entire partner app framework. This allows our partners to bring their experiences natively into the conference room with minimal footprint. Again, this is just one example. Continued focus on the user experience for both IT and the end user will bring down complexity and drive up productivity.

It’s time to expect more from conferencing solutions

This is the central problem facing conferencing today: there are more scenarios to support, yet everyone wants a simpler and better experience. And rightly so, because, let’s face it — setting aside a few exceptions, today’s conferencing experience is either expensive, complicated and mediocre, or it’s inexpensive, complicated, and poor. Industry advertising and media reviews support this view with messages focused on a low bar: how to avoid terrible conferencing experiences. But we believe that with technology that intelligently flexes to various scenarios, the industry can get beyond just avoiding terrible. We can make the conferencing experience simple and amazing for everyone.

A simpler and better video conferencing experience

In a time of rapid innovation and in a world filled with intelligent, easy-to-use technology, the conferencing and collaboration market has struggled to keep up. As a result, IT teams, meeting participants, and workspace planners are forced to spend a lot of time and energy overcoming the faults in technologies meant to be helping them. Until now.

We’ve built a complete video conferencing solution with the “intelligence to flex.” That is it automatically responds, or flexes, to people and spaces, meaning you can now let the technology work for you.

This is Dolby Voice Room: an integrated software and hardware solution for huddle spaces and small conference rooms that eases installation, use and management, while driving much improved video and audio, to deliver a much more natural meeting experience.

Improving the audio and visual experience

Using sophisticated algorithms and cutting-edge engineering, we embedded into Dolby Voice Room a number of features that leverage the intelligence to flex to enhance the conferencing experience.

On the video side, our solution continuously adapts image framing to the scene and the people in the scene to give everyone a clear and context-rich perspective. It also flexes to overcome challenging lighting, and gives people the ability to show a standard whiteboard, even when it is at a 90 degree angle to the camera.

On the audio side, our conference phone makes real-time adjustments to audio to overcome challenging acoustics, capture all of the voices in the room, and boost the volume of distant or quiet talkers. The solution also represents different voices as coming from different points in space to make it easier for people to identify who is speaking and to absorb spoken information.

Improving the IT experience

Dolby Voice Room consists of just three components that can be installed by IT in as little as 15 minutes, and it offers flexible mounting options so it can easily adapt to different spaces. Powerful remote management tools help IT more quickly and easily manage the solution. And, because this one audio, video and screen sharing solution can flex to different huddle spaces and small conference rooms, it can reduce the overall number of solutions IT has to manage.

With Dolby Voice Room — available this spring through our partners at BlueJeans and Highfive — we have made the conferencing experience dramatically better and simpler, more natural, more productive, and flexible to an array of small conference rooms and huddle spaces. It offers a new choice for IT who today is being forced to choose between expensive and complicated solutions that still often deliver a mediocre experience, or inexpensive and hard to use solutions that deliver a poor experience. Instead, Dolby Voice Room brings many high-end features from expensive systems into a simple and surprisingly affordable solution that is easy to install, manage, and use.

To learn how Dolby Voice Room creates a dramatically better and simpler conferencing solution, watch this video. Product details are available here.