InfoComm: Bring Us Your Huddled Masses — to Collaborate

huddleroom-1013By Dan Daley
Special to InfoComm International

Like “punt” and “Hail Mary pass,” the huddle room draws its name from football terminology embedded deep in the lexicon of American business. It’s also the outcome of a long-term trend in corporate architecture by which traditional, closed-off offices have faded from favor, while wide-open workspaces pioneered by high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and SoHo have grown popular.

Intended to encourage collaboration, these spaces eventually became so wide and so open that workers began to feel the primal pangs for someplace to get together and shelter themselves from the office environment buzzing around them. That space became the huddle room, or huddle space, a concept that’s been around longer than we’ve had a moniker for it (although NewVista Advisors, a New York City IT management consulting company, staked a claim to it in 2003).

If the need for a huddle room is clear, its definition, particularly in terms of audio and video technology, is less so. One of its defining characteristics is its ad hoc availability, free from rigid automated scheduling systems. Yet a huddle room or space still has to contain some basic AV and IT components to be useful. What those components are exactly server to underscore how the technical definition of a huddle room is a moving target.

‘Not a Downsized Boardroom’

“A huddle room is a formalization of something that’s supposed to be informal, which is pretty ironic,” says Bruce Kaufman president and CEO of Human Circuit, an AV design and integration company based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Kaufman says there’s a tendency to look at huddle rooms as simply smaller versions of boardrooms or even video teleconferencing suites. That, he believes, is a problem that cuts more than one way. When it comes to those larger, conference room-style spaces, Kaufman warns against the perception that huddle rooms could simply replace them. And when it comes to huddle rooms themselves, he says such spaces would lose the immediacy and intimacy that spawned them in the first place if they were to be too elaborately outfitted with technology.

“A huddle room is not a downsized boardroom,” Kaufman says. “But with shrinking office-space budgets, people sometimes look at it that way. I’m hoping that integrators and their clients see the huddle room for what it is: an adjunct space to boardrooms and meeting rooms, not a replacement for them.”

AV manufacturers have certainly noticed the huddle-room trend. Companies such as AMX, Barco, Christie, and Crestron used the most recent InfoComm show to demonstrate solutions, some of which are scaled for the huddle-room concept, such as Barco’s ClickShare, and others developed especially for it, like Crestron’s AirMedia wireless HD presentation solution, which was designed for small conference rooms and spaces that don’t have an AV system.

These solutions specialize at getting documents and other media from BYOD users’ laptops and smartphones to shared displays. For instance, using AirMedia, users can enter the huddle room, connect to the existing display over Wi-Fi and wirelessly present HD content from their own device. Content from up to four devices can be shown simultaneously on one room display, and up to 32 users can connect at once. Barco’s ClickShare now works via Apple and Android apps, which support JPEG images and PDF documents; iPads can share video content from the tablet to a shared screen via Apple’s AirPlay using ClickShare Link.

Keep in mind, however, that integrators and technology managers should pay attention to solution costs and how they affect the huddle room’s identity. Derek Holbrook is principal sales engineer at Verrex Corp., a New Jersey integrator that specializes in high-end corporate meeting spaces. Recently, Verrex has also integrated scores of huddle spaces to go along with its corporate projects. He says the AV budget for an average huddle space is around $6,000, with a few approaching $10,000. Depending on the huddle-friendly presentation solution and related AV equipment, you can eat up that budget in a hurry.

“Some of the products being marketed to this segment have pretty high costs, but they’re targeting a segment that is emphasizing quantity over quality,” says Holbrook. Customers often don’t want a few huddle rooms—they want several, which add up.  Verrex recently installed a dozen huddle rooms in the Global Services Center of law firm Bingham McCutchen in Lexington, Ky., where it also also built three conventional meeting rooms.

“Most of these spaces are pretty basic, with a 42-inch LCD display mounted on the wall and some cable for connecting laptops,” Holbrook says. “There are a couple speakers mounted next to the screen and maybe a webcam on top of it. And for many of these kinds of huddle rooms, that’s really all they need. There are workplace strategists who believe that the audio and video don’t really have to be much better than the iPhones we also use for work.” Holbrook says in certain situations, he’s found that Extron’s TeamWork collaborative system fits both the cost and functionality requirements of huddle spaces.

Continual Development

The proliferation of huddle rooms has prompted changes in the way companies think of presentation solutions. David Silberstein, director of commercial marketing at Crestron, whose AirMedia platform was priced with the huddle room in mind, says that although the huddle room concept has been around a while, a drop in the costs of displays and broadband is what precipitated manufacturers’ rush into the market with flexible, easy-to-install solutions. “It’s become affordable to the point that you can no longer do your job without that kind of technology being available throughout your workplace,” he says.

AMX introduced its app-and-cloud-based Enzo system at InfoComm 2013, a content-sharing and meeting-scheduling system that will ship in December. AMX Vice President for Global Marketing Joe Andrulis says Enzo grew out of the realization that even as traditional AV meeting products and systems have grown more affordable over time, they would not be able to reach a price point that the huddle concept demanded. Huddle spaces require new designs.

“What we’re seeing, from a work-style point of view, is transitioning from a structured model of collaboration to one of continuous collaboration,” he explains. “That changes the relationship between the space and the technology.”

Huddle-room systems aimed at impromptu meetings must still take into account the fact that not all of the participants may be physically present, even for quick huddles. Christie’s Brio presentation system, also introduced at InfoComm 2013, uses wired or wireless connections to share up to five simultaneous audio and video presentations on one or two meeting-room displays. All users, even those not physically present in the room, can collaborate on and annotate the material.

Ultimately, the definition of a huddle space will differ by user. Some want only the most basic solutions, including no AV at all, but just a conference phone and access to the building’s Wi-Fi cloud for presenting on a laptop screen. While others will want huddle rooms that resemble mini conference rooms, with multiple screens and short-throw projectors.

Either way, huddle rooms won’t be going away any time soon. Businesses operating smarter since the recession, plus the exponential growth of mobile devices, have led to the current dynamic — AV integrators report that office designs increasingly have huddle spaces included in the architects’ blueprints. In other words, the huddle room has quickly become an institution of American office culture — like the water cooler, and Monday morning quarterbacks.

This article was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

Image via bakokojp