‘Taking part’ technology reaches out to users

Paul Bray finds that AV systems are reaching out. They want us to interact with them. And each other.

Pic credit: CTOUCH/ Exertis Medium

It’s lonely up there on the wall. Talking to people who don’t talk back. Showing endless videos without even knowing if anyone’s watching. So now AV systems are reaching out. They want us to interact with them. And each other. It’s all rather exciting.

“In the classroom, interactive touch screens encourage student engagement and collaborative working, and help teachers embrace new technologies and teaching methods,” says Keith Dutch, EMEA managing director of Peerless-AV. “In corporate boardrooms and meeting rooms, interactive displays offer a powerful tool for team communication and information sharing.”

And in retail, interactive kiosks allow shoppers to gain further information and place orders. They are used for interactive wayfinding and digital advertising, while interactive mirrors in dressing rooms let shoppers contact a stylist, change the lighting, and send items to the checkout.

In education and training settings interactive projection is still quite widely used. “Interactive solutions support finger-touch or dual pen interactivity, so users can display and edit a wide range of content,” says Paul Wilson, business manager at Epson. “Presentations and displays can be annotated in real time, and users can write, draw and add comments and answers directly on to the screen, as well as save and share collaborative work. Any standard software can be controlled through digital pen or touch.”

Projectors often have the edge on cost. But where budgets are more generous – such as in higher education – the trend is towards large format interactive flat panel displays (IFPDs).

“For formal presentation, teaching and training environments a large format interactive touch screen display is the most effective,” says Carl Sheen, head of training and development at Genee World. “The clarity far outstrips anything else, and 4K screens can be a massive benefit, particularly if you’re planning to display lots of information in a small space.”

However, Alistair Hayward, head of UK markets at Promethean, cautions against investing in 4K just for the sake of it.

“There’s been a slight trend for schools to want 4K resolution without the budget to upgrade laptops or content. It’s important to match the IFPD specification to what they actually need and not invest in features that won’t be fully exploited.”

The other thing that sorts the men from the boys is the accuracy of the touch technology.

“At the lower end mainly camera or infrared touch is used, accepting the wider (less accurate) touch tolerance for more cost-conscious pricing,” says Wolfgang Haunschild, product marketing manager at NEC Display Solutions Europe.

At the higher end ShadowSense or InGlass Touch technologies offer a minimum touch tolerance delivering a precise touch experience, perfectly matching the pixel-free resolution of UHD displays.

Passive pens

Modern interactive displays can be driven by finger touch or by special pens and erasers, automatically sensing which is being employed. ‘Passive’ pens are easier to manage because they don’t have batteries to recharge, as well as being cheaper to replace if they get lost, says Haunschild. Infrared touch overlays are now available for outdoor displays and kiosks, adds Dutch. The overlay can respond to 10 simultaneous points of touch and detect any kind of input, including gloved or bare finger, stylus or pen.

Gestural wands are a technology to watch. They allow you to pick up content on the display screens and move it around the room, rescale it, snapshot it, and give another wow-factor to a presentation. Participants can use their natural body movements to manipulate data, and it’s very different from what we’re used to seeing, which makes it fun and engaging.

Gesture controls

Gestural interfaces can also be very empowering for disabled people, adds Eliot Fulton-Langley, solutions architect at CDEC.

Interactivity can have more profound effects, such as enabling lesson content to develop on the fly. “Solutions can add a new dimension that wouldn’t be possible with regular presentation tools, for instance being able to annotate a document on screen, save the annotated document and then send it to the students in realtime,” says David Zrihen, EMEA sales director at Vivitek.

Technology can also make it much easier for students to participate in the lesson. “Interactive voting systems and feedback technologies have migrated from clickers and cards to mobile device applications, where participation can be measured in a much more granular way, along with sentiment analyses and post-session feedback,” says Fulton-Langley.

“The advancements in Android devices have taken interactivity to a new level by extending it beyond the front of the classroom and into wider collaborative learning opportunities,” adds Hayward. “As a result schools are increasingly demanding that systems support mirroring content from the IFPD to student devices and vice versa. Teachers want to be able to create a truly connected classroom which brings all their edtech solutions into a more cohesive and seamless teaching and learning experience.”

Shift to fully integrated tech

Increasingly the hub of this is the IFPD. “There’s been a distinct shift from interactive technology functioning as a front-of-class display solution to becoming a fully integrated and networkable system,” says Hayward. “More than a display device, some interactive flat panels are now essentially the hub of a connected classroom.”

Peter Dosanjh, director at Exertis Medium, commented: “In Enterprise and some SME organisations we have seen a clear appetite for fully integrated IFPD solutions which not only facilitate better collaboration, but also allow for room bookings, Skype for Business meetings or multiple device sharing from anywhere. Manufacturers such as CTOUCH have recognised this and released some exciting corporate IFPD offerings.”

In retail and other customer-facing applications, familiar and (from the retailer’s point of view) free personal mobile devices are also an attractive way of enabling interactivity.

“Dedicated interfaces to interactive technologies are starting to become extinct and are migrating to the customer’s mobile device, where by scanning a QR code, NFC tag or hardware beacon, a connection can be made to the AV control system, so the customer can become the controller and presenter,” says Fulton-Langley. “There’s far less of a learning curve when users control AV devices from their own phones, and their existing assistive access software can make it easy for people with disabilities.”

Control products from Extron and Wyrestorm already have options for display on customer devices, and the rest of the sector is following.

“Creating a clear link between the mobile phone and more traditional AV installations is the future,” agrees Martyn Barnett, managing director of RMG. “Content should be able to flow between all different types of endpoints, from large publicity billboards to in-store digital kiosks and smartphones. Interactive touch screen technology in the form of kiosks, tablets or even video walls allows businesses to search for any information the person is looking for and send it straight to their email or smartphone.”

Proximity based content is on the rise, says Jeff Hastings, BrightSign’s ceo. “Bluetooth and beacon technology is enabling a new level of audience participation, delivering a two-screen experience whereby the customer can interact with both the screen in front of them and the screen on their hand-held device.”

RFID is often used in retail to trigger signage content when an item is picked up, Hastings adds.

“The power and capabilities of signage players mean that modern totems and kiosks can be much more feature packed for customers who walk up to access information, with live data feeds, intelligent wayfinding and hand-off to mobile devices,” says Fulton-Langley.

Kiosk and totem products

The market is awash with kiosk and totem products, and the real leaders are providing solutions with open programming standards and documented APIs (application programming interfaces).

“Fully-integrated interactive indoor kiosks are now available that come pre-assembled for quick plug-and-play set-up,” adds Dutch.

They may offer camera and speaker options for 40-65in interactive displays. Speakers add ambience to an environment and assist the visually impaired.

Cameras can detect and measure audience behaviour but though an attractive notion, it’s about to open up a can of worms.

Stiffer data protection laws in the UK from May 2018 mean that businesses will have to be more careful about how they retain and handle customer information, warns Tom Murray, IT manager at UX Global. “If collecting data that could be used to identify an individual, you’ll be required to ask for explicit permission – even for an email address. Then if customers exercise their right to be forgotten, you’ll need to prove you’ve removed any information linked to them from your systems.”

“Facial recognition and biometrics are still controversial, and the new data protection regulations will make processing difficult legally,” says Fulton-Langley.

Much more common and well supported are proximity cards (MIFARE, NFC and contactless) and phone proximity sensors such as iBeacons or Bluetooth Low Energy devices, because they require the user to proactively identify themselves.

More general business settings can also benefit from many of these technologies.

“Huddle rooms benefit from interactive displays for digital whiteboard applications, offering the possibility to create ideas on the digital whiteboard app, communicate with other locations using the video conferencing app and therefore facilitate collaboration,” says Haunschild.

“Interactive kiosks are also a very professional and popular way to communicate efficiently with staff, and can help meet business objectives such as creating a more informed and engaged workforce,” adds Barnett.

Even visitors can join in the fun. “Interactive visitor management systems – with a small touch screen, thermal badge printer, barcode scanner and HD camera – present a very slick image of your company,” says Sheen. “They assist a visitor compared to other unmanned reception alternatives, and free up staff time in manned receptions.”

Digital interactivity

Although we tend to think of interactivity in physical terms – touch-screens, gesture, beacons, cameras etc – a lot can be achieved with software alone.

“Interactivity can live in the digital as well as the physical space,” says Barnett. “For example, incorporating social media content (customer- or employee-generated) into visuals and allowing people to interact with it through social media platforms in real time provides an easy yet priceless type of interaction that many companies would benefit from, especially in retail and for internal communications.”

Whatever solutions you choose you will need something to tie them all together. “It’s key to have a central content management system (CMS) that acts as the link between all these different technologies, systems, platforms and end points, managing all interactive content,” says Barnett.

“Software and support technologies need to provide open access so that the central CMS can interact with all elements, blending different pieces and types of content and data together in one smart, interactive and immersive front-end AV visual comms interface or installation.”

And finally, just in case you were getting over-excited about the prospects of a truly interactive world, a couple of caveats.

“A proactive response to security is needed when inviting guests to connect to your network,” cautions Zrihen. “While you want them to be able to share their content, you don’t want them to have unrestricted access to your company’s more sensitive or confidential data.”

And there’s no point investing in the latest and greatest new kit if the users don’t know how to use it properly, says Hayward. “Many teachers don’t fully appreciate that an IFPD is not just an interactive whiteboard without a projector, so orientation training is key to helping them unlock the full benefits.”

COMMENT

MARTIN PRICE, CTOUCH Business Manager for Exertis Medium, discusses its latest solutions providing true walk-up-and-use collaboration from enterprises to higher and further education.

“Technology shouldn’t dictate how we collaborate. CTOUCH makes the collaborative experience very flexible and natural. For instance, CTOUCH has simplified and improved the Skype for Business interface, which can be confusing and limited at times.

You can now do things not possible in Skype – the participant at either end of the call may take control and anything written or drawn can be seen on all participants’ device screens.”

Any wirelessly connected device screen can also be shared during a Skype call, such as an Apple laptop or Android tablet – in fact, any tablet or phone.

Both solutions also enable users to interact with the screen with a pen or finger touch. Users simply walk up and use whichever feels most natural to them; they don’t have to choose in advance.

Other impressive features include the ability to book meeting rooms in Outlook straight from the initial interface. The sound from the built-in 80W JBL speakers is mind-blowing and fills the room, negating the need for additional speakers. To top it off, an onsite swap-out warranty is standard.”

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