Biamp recently sent me the company’s relatively new Parlé conferencing bar; it’s arguably the best I’ve tested (and since it’s also one of the most expensive at $2,500, it should be). But in the post-pandemic, hybrid work world in which we live, it may be a hardware solution that answers the wrong question.
The world has changed, and conference room solutions need to change with it. Conferencing bars are great for someone who is making a presention remotely, but they’re less useful when most of the people in a meeting are remote. We need to consider a different approach to engage remote employees need, particularly Generation Z employees who have wholly different views of how work should be done are particularly at risk when they are remote.
First, a look at the Biamp Parlé
To be clear, the Biamp Parlé is an impressive conference bar. Its speakers and microphones are arguably market-leading in terms of quality and sound accuracy; its 4K resolution cameras auto-track and auto-frame and can delineate between people that are in the room or walking by outside; it doesn’t need a professionally set up since it is mostly plug-and-play (though wall mounting is more involved; it can be enhanced for larger rooms with remote microphones (a feature I didn’t test); and, from a design perspective, it looks good in a room.
If sound quality and ease of setup and use are priorities, it’s a solid option.
The problem with conference bars
In general, I don’t think conference bars are a good idea. They are a design concept that worked best when most people were in the office or classroom and were only occasionally used for a remote employee.
Today, many if not most people in a meeting join remote and not doing a presentation. So, placing them virtually at the head of the table (where the presenter normally is) is awkward because the folks in the room will be split between the person talking and what they are talking about.
As a result, the people not in the room are likely to feel more isolated and remote. And since the screen is controlled by the presenter, they remote workers won’t even get virtual face time with those in the room. The layout and technology isolate them.
Why the metaverse approach won’t work
Facebook and others have proposed a metaverse approach to this problem, but the current technology feels old, with cartoonish avatars and poor quality, making the experience less than ideal. For certain kinds of collaborative efforts, where people are remote but need to interact with physical or virtual objects, it might work — except for the fact that employees just don’t want to use the tools, even at Facebook
There is a fix for this, but the virtual reality technology to do it successfully is likely five to 10 years away.
A better idea?
I was thinking about the movie Demolition Man, which features a unique conference room solution where the speaker is in the room, and the attendees are remote. What’s portrayed are several swiveling monitors gathered around a narrow table, where remote attendees can control the direction of the display and camera. As the speaker moves around the room, each monitor can turn to follow his actions.
What if, instead, there was simply one seat at the table with one camera for remote employees? All remote attendees would get the same view and presence as those in the room. This kind of setup would supplement hardware like the Parlé conferencing bar. The display on the robotic seat could then either show images of everyone using it or allow a remote speaker to better engage those in the room (and others dialing in).
A display dedicated to those who are remote means they’re more likely to be seen and heard in the conference room.
I think we’ve forgotten that the reason for conference rooms is to engage employees, both in the room and remote. With more people working remotely, especially Gen Z employees, it’s important that everything feel they’re part of a meeting; otherwise, they won’t stay engaged and the time will be wasted.
So while I think a conferencing bar like Biamp’s excellent Parlé is part of a solution — and works well for a remote presenter — we need something that works for everyone else. While the movie Demolition Man points to one kind of solution, we haven’t seen anything on the market yet that’s ideal. It’s no surprise that videoconferencing appears to have dropped into decline yet again.