Oct 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Steven J. Orfield
Treating the conference room as a blend of technology and environment willinevitably enhance the quality of the presentations it houses.
The conference center is, most importantly, not an exercise in technologybut an exercise in human occupancy, often used under the pressure orboredom of a meeting. The tasks in a conference center are those ofrelaxing the attendee, stimulating him and assisting with the process ofcommunications in the most user-friendly ways. This does not describe mostconference centers today, but it clearly does describe some of the betterones.
Before the advent of current conference technology and current conferencepractices, meetings were often held in smaller, more personal venues with aless formal air. The meeting might be in a boardroom, but there wasdaylighting and lighting in most of these rooms before light in any formbecame offensive to the A-V community. Now, meetings tend to occur indarkened rooms, and the human side of the equation is subverted by thetechnical side. What used to be pleasant is now problematic, and what usedto be discussion and counterpoint is now a room full of occupants in apassive mode facing a PowerPoint presentation. A step up or a step down? Itis hardly arguable.
The conference facility, at its best, will support a meeting in astransparent a method as possible. Whether the meeting is media- orpresenter-intensive, the most important things to consider are the messageand its transmission, the interplay of attendee to presenter, and thepotential for this communication to emerge as the memorable event. Thearchitecture and technology, as in the concert hall, provide only anenvelope for that communication. As the best of architects know well, thebest of buildings provide a stimulating experience, not of the building,but of experiencing the environment and one's activity as a singleexperience. Rather than acting as a static design, good and badarchitectural spaces produce different associations, response and behavior.
Designing high-quality visual environments for presentation is highlycomplex, and it requires skills in visual perception, lighting anddaylighting, and A-V engineering and presentation development. It alsorequires the knowledge of occupant comfort and preference in this type ofprocess environment. Finally, it requires the ability to model theenvironment visually in 3-D. Although the technology of the conferencecenter is able to be upgraded, the room itself is the limit of the problemand must be carefully developed to operate well over the long term.
What is it that provides the opportunity for that type of experience, andhow can the design team provide that envelope of experience? There are anumber of issues that underpin good visual conference environments, andtheir understanding can be useful to all team members. Such issues arecontrolled daylighting, transparent visual technology, reasonable viewingand lighting conditions, visually balanced color choices and well-designedmedia.
Architectural research has shown repeatedly that the most positive ornegative aspect of most occupied environments is the presence or absence ofdaylighting. This is clearly evident in well-designed residential andcommercial architecture, with their emphasis on intensive daylighting use.There are, however, certain venues that tend to reject daylighting becauseof the need for use of video signals or controlled lighting. One of thesevenues is the conference center. Even the largest of architects have aproblem with this issue, and the A-V community, not generally understandingeither the importance of daylighting or the methods of using andcontrolling it, tends to reinforce this avoidance in many presentationvenues.
Daylighting can be used effectively in conference facilities if certainthings are understood clearly. Daylighting can always be designed to workin these venues, but its use must be controlled so that direct sunlightdoes not enter the facility and neither direct nor indirect daylightingcauses veiling reflections on presentation screens. Also, colors in theconference facility must be light and matte in finish so that daylightingdoes not appear too bright in contrast to these interior finishes. Heatfrom daylighting elements must be controlled, generally via the use oflow-E type glazing of high visual transmittance. Additionally, interiorlighting must be available not only for dark periods of the day, but alsoto increase interior illumination to control contrast between the interiorand daylighting. Often, the most effective method of daylighting isindirect - a clerestory or skylights - which are out of the occupant'sdirect view. Most daylighting elements can have adju!stable control or shut out fromdaylighting for those times when the presenter wants this isolation, butthese closures are rarely used in well-designed facilities.
Transparent visual technology
There is often a battle waged between the architect and the technicalconsultants with regard to technology used in conference centers. Somedesign firms want to feature the technology and make the conference centervisually high tech. Other firms are more interested in designing the roomas though the technology is not its prime definition, and we find oursympathies with the second group for a number of reasons. Presenters areseldom high-tech in their understanding or comfort with technology;technology is often a distraction to their presentation and a barrier toits smooth execution. Also, attendees at conferences generally findthemselves more relaxed if the conference space provides a comfortable,low-key environment. Self-consciously technical facilities seem imposing tomany participants.
If the conference center is to be visually transparent, a number of thingsmust be resolved. Presentation screens must be rear projected, so thatneither the appearance nor the sound of the projector impinges on themeeting space. Forward projected images have problems in being blocked bypresenters, affecting the ceiling height and design and being a dominantvisual aspect of the room. Video cameras should be concealed to the degreepossible by building them into the architecture. Mic technology should beconcealed in tables and podiums or selected for minimum visual profile.Control systems should be visually apparent only to the presenter andshould be visually simple and readable under low or no light The controlunits should also use standardized control metaphors that the presenterdoes not have to learn; a look at a human factors handbook would be inorder. Lastly, control rooms should be unobtrusive and carefully lit sothat attendees cannot view activity within them d!uring a presentation.
Reasonable viewing and lighting conditions
There are normally two different viewers - the presenter and the attendees.Each type has a set of unique visual problems that must be addressed inorder to provide a positive visual environment for a conference center.Both parties should be visually relaxed, and the environment should allowboth to stabilize visually within a reasonable adaptation range (averageluminance level). In contrast to common knowledge in lighting, illuminancein the room must provide minimum amounts of light for reading, but thelevel (foot-candles or lux) is essentially unimportant. Luminance values(values of room surfaces and fixtures seen by the occupant) are generallynot considered but arefar more important. These values, expressed infoot-lamberts, nits, candelas/m2), describe the viewers environment and itsbalance, contrast, and brightness.
Generally, the only luminance information sometimes available in conferencefacilities is the values of screen luminance provided by projectors, andthis is useful in determining ratios of viewing brightness in various typesof rooms. On the other hand, most rooms have only one lighting standard,and that is the illuminance or foot-candle level. The use of this solelighting standard is based on a lack of understanding of lighting design.Two rooms can have the same foot-candle values (light levels on the workingplane), but their luminance values can be in a ratio of 10:1 simply becauseof the reflection of the light from surfaces in the room. If there islittle or no surface illumination provided, these surfaces will be dark. Ifthe selections of finishes are low in reflectance (dark), the room will bedarker yet. If finishes are specular (glossy), the room will be evendarker. Thus, 100 foot-candles of horizontal illuminance can translate intoa range of visual luminance of! anywhere from 80 foot-lambertsto less than 1 foot-lambert. Luminance must be controlled in a rangesufficient for visual comfort, and the older the audience, the narrower therange (much like acoustics). It is the visual environment and not thelighting level that drives the quality of the experience.
Visually balanced color choices
The design of conference spaces suggests some limits on color choices,especially when daylighting is emphasized. In a room that is darkened forall presentations, color is not much of an issue because all colors shiftto a nominal gray-black in darkness. In more sophisticated environments,color has far more impact in both its reflectance and in its saturation.Viewing of media is influenced by the color adaptation of the eye, and if aspace is not chromatically neutral, the visual response shifts because ofthe chromatic stimulus. Thus, a room with red carpet would be a significantvisual stimulus if the room were not darkened, and a light reflectance,neutral room would provide less competition for the media presented. (Seethe photo of the Monona Terrace Lecture hall, a hall that is darkened forpresentation and has no daylighting)
Often, the most significant problem in the conference center (and inpresentation media in general) is the visual media being presented. Theprojector may be one of the more powerful systems, and the screen may beproperly selected and designed; the lighting and daylighting may be elegantand well-controlled, but the presentation itself may be a mess. It may below in legibility, small in character size, oversaturated in color, complexin color choices, visually complex and organized with no concept ofpresentation methods or normal reading processes. Many of the complaintslogged regarding the failure of conference facilities to perform are reallybased on the failure of the presentation itself. We have all seenpresentations that are put together by persons with no regard for thequality or utility of the visual experience. Unfortunately, as MarshallMcLuhan said years ago, "The media is the message," and he was, of course,right. A number of years ago, Orfield Labs started !to look at this in research sponsored by Sony, Barco, Sharp, Draper, DaLite and Optix. In developing theconcept of "visual intelligibility," Orfield Labs attempted to demonstratethat the ability to communicate was a far more important descriptor ofvisual quality than image brightness or resolution, which is similar tointelligibility in considering sound systems. This is a most important areaof research in the presentation field, and we believe that it willeventually be built into presentation technology and software.
When designing for the presentation facility, it is important to considerthe aforementioned factors - controlled daylighting, transparent visualtechnology, reasonable viewing and lighting conditions, visually balancedcolor choices, and well-designed media. Some factors, especially withrespect to equipment specification, will lie under your direct control. Toaddress other considerations, such as the room's painting scheme, you mayfind yourself working with architects or facility managers. Be prepared toexplain how their choices will influence your ability to meet yourultimate, mutual objective - providing an effective meeting andpresentation environment. Finally, there will be factors that lie outsideyour direct or indirect control, as is the case with the media chosen forpresentation. Taking a moment to explain to your client how his choices inpresentation media will influence a presentation's effectiveness, however,can go a long way toward avoiding his calling yo!u back to rectify a problem that lies beyond the scope of your responsibility.