New Microsoft Teams-powered hybrid meeting room technology is helping us design new experiences for our employees and vendors here at Microsoft and helping customers understand how to achieve these experiences for themselves.
“We want to create an environment that is halfway between the physical and virtual,” says Matt Hempey, a principal program manager with Microsoft Digital Employee Experience, the organization that powers, protects, and transforms the company. “These rooms represent the kind of hybrid experiences that we can deploy at scale around the world.”
By adjusting the AV and swapping out furniture, we have created a more inclusive and collaborative Microsoft Teams meeting experience that is optimized to interact with remote attendees and that is better for both our in-person and remote attendees. We've begun selectively deploying this experience in our medium-sized conference rooms.
“We've had to look at what technologies we can use to make our remote employees feel more included in a meeting, and vice versa,” says Scott Weiskopf, director of the Center of Innovation for Global Workplace Services. “We had to help the people who are physically present feel more connected to people who are remote.”
In the past, those calling into a meeting room may have felt ignored or less engaged with the conversation. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—where everyone needed to join remotely—leveled the field a bit, creating new expectations for what meetings should be like for virtual attendees. Now that many of our employees are back at the office for part of the time, there’s a need to reimagine the workplace.
Hempey, Weiskopf, and team have been transforming the company’s meeting room experience at The Hive, our experimental workshop where teams from across the company build and validate new physical and virtual experiences and technology.
“We dedicated this space to really rethink how the meeting room should be redesigned to optimize for hybrid,” Hempey says. “We cleared out all the tables and all the tech and just started with a blank slate.”
It was all about being creative within the meeting room space.
“We had to rethink things from the ground up,” says Sam Albert, a principal program manager on Hempey’s team and whose specialty is reimagining how meeting rooms can be built, often with a circular cutting saw in hand.
“The first thing we did was to rotate the room,” Albert says, explaining how seating configurations work to optimize the new front row layout in Microsoft Teams Rooms. “That allowed us to have the people in the room look at each other, but importantly, also look at the people who were calling in.”
This is done by re-orienting attention from the center of the room towards the display and camera. “This allows us to approximate face-to-face interaction,” Albert says. “Our front row alignment is a core part of our hybrid meeting room experience.”
But in order to implement this vision—whether it be to deploy a new meeting room optimized for a hybrid experience or to work with a traditional meeting room with a table at its center—new equipment and standards had to be developed.
Changing the guts of a meeting room—all the AV equipment and wiring—has always been challenging.
“We started off with a very large and complex assembly,” Albert says. “What we did is to take the projectors off the ceiling, the speakers off the walls, and we eliminated all those wiring runs. Then we invented a stand to hold everything together at the front of the room.”
After a few iterations, the result was a single enclosure that contains all the audio, video, projection, compute, and networking needs. This one piece of equipment, with its simplified design, can be brought into a room and plugged in.
Other technology added to the AV standard includes a wide-angle camera, which captures everything in the room. This same camera can use artificial intelligence to provide in-video close-up views of participants in the room, making it a better experience for remote attendees. Simultaneously, AI-powered audio devices reduce echo and howling, the kind of nuisances that used to haunt virtual attendees in the past.
Rooms designed for hybrid experiences are also being equipped with optimized furniture as part of the new AV standard.
For medium-sized spaces, a curved table encircles the AV equipment stack and faces a large 21:9 aspect ratio projector screen directly.
“That gives us a nice wide surface area to show all the remote attendees in the room,” Hempey says. “You’re seeing them at eye level and about human size, so they’re true life-sized folks. The camera can see everyone sitting around the table, so you’ve got that same great hybrid experience.”
These large screens also have space for content, including chat activity, raised hands, and other critical meeting items that might go unnoticed in traditional layouts.
For smaller rooms, a gumdrop or guitar pick-shaped table is installed to maintain that same degree of face-to-face engagement, while an equally camera-visible and taller table located at the back of the room maximizes the usability of the space. The addition of this second table increases occupancy to 10 seats and creates another working area, giving smaller rooms extra versatility. This back area can include a Microsoft Surface Hub to further support and promote collaboration. Smaller groups can utilize this space for digital whiteboarding, either in-person or as part of the hybrid experience.
The new AV standard for hybrid optimized meeting rooms can be adjusted to account for rooms that break the mold. Ultra-wide LED screens, for example, replace projectors in executive suites with large windows. These screens can handle the bright conditions without compromising the experience for in-person attendees.
While equipment, furniture, and arrangement of space drive a big part of the global AV standard that we’re developing, it’s Microsoft Teams that we use to bridge the physical and virtual divide.
“As we work across our rooms to make them optimized for hybrid, Microsoft Teams gives us the platform that allows us to be flexible, to deploy the right experience, with the right equipment, for each audience in each space,” Hempey says.
From an operations and engineering standpoint, Microsoft Teams enables Microsoft to plug components into the meeting rooms. Various technologies can be selected during setup, integrating seamlessly into the collaboration platform.
Microsoft Teams also gives users a familiar meeting experience, whether they’re remote or in-person. It’s also a flexible platform, one that has been easy to experiment with, Weiskopf says.
“We're literally real-time developing standards, for things that we would like to roll out quicker than our normal life cycle or refresh cycle, so that we can get those kind of enhanced hybrid and meeting experiences in the hands of our employees and guests, and customers much faster,” he says.
As Microsoft brings this new global AV standard to our meeting rooms, attendees—both remote and in-person—will benefit from a more inclusive engagement. The standards introduce simplicity and a unified design, creating an easy-to-utilize and consistent workspace for users. And for those who manage and operate meeting rooms, the new global standards make it straightforward to deploy and maintain.
Microsoft Teams gives attendees and operators a friendly and familiar platform to engage with. A variety of AV devices at a range of prices can be quickly added and onboarded into a Microsoft Teams Rooms-powered conference room.
“Our goal is to design fantastic meeting space experiences that deliver value across a variety of scenarios and price points," Hempey says. "And we want to show customers how we do it so they can do the same things at their companies.”
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