Learning From the Past

unlock lessons from your past

Way back in my high school social studies class, we had a number of lessons that hammered home one of the key reasons for being in school. It was something like, “Learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes.” I’m not quite sure when the history repeats itself stuff stopped being taught in school (or when students stopped paying attention to it) but it’s clearly a lost art.

I mention this because the AV, collaboration and general technology worlds have had a series of “new product launches” that are really old products in disguise. Maybe they have shiny new lipstick and a fancy new name, but underneath the sparkly covers, they are the same limited or failed solutions that we should have learned from the first time.

Some examples you ask? Sure.

Our society and culture have just about universally rejected technology solutions that require us to wear glasses on our heads, which remove or limit our ability to see normally and engage in other activities. We can point to 3DTVs, Google Glass, Snap Glasses and maybe a half dozen other technologies that have not come close to the promised mass adoption. In fact, that crashing sound you heard during the pandemic was consumer VR technologies missing its exit. If hundreds of millions of people locked-down at home couldn’t drive adoption of VR technology, clearly nothing ever will. The class lesson: People won’t wear things over their eyes unless they have to. The most recent flop is/will be the Apple Vision Pro new “spatial computers.” Forget that they’re way too expensive, that their battery lives are an abysmal 2+ hours, that they’re actually starting to crack from use, and that these and other reasons are causing buyers to return them — forget all of it. It is simply just one more example of a thing that people won’t put over their eyes because it interferes with the rest of life (eating, talking, walking … living.) Many of us are, apparently, unable to learn from history in this case.

Our industry is also not immune from this lack of learning from the past. I just about fell over when people started talking about “spatial audio” in conference rooms again. Does no one remember the immersive telepresence years of 2006-2010?

During those years, the idea of building these telepresence rooms was the up-to-date version of enterprises fawning over the Emperor’s New Clothes. These were very expensive collaboration rooms with life-size images, spatial audio and curved tables that faced a wall with multiple screens. They were expensive, reliable, simple to use and … did I mention expensive? For about five years enterprise leaders (not the actual AV and IT technicians, but rather their CIOs and executives) bought into this concept. The problem was that these telepresence systems were difficult to install and very limited in their abilities — and did I mention expensive? (I took on the role of the child that said the emperor was naked back then in this article from early 2008.) By 2015, the same firms that were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to install these rooms were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove them. Building a conference room and system that could only be used for a very narrow purpose, with a table that was only facing a wall of displays instead of the other people in the room, ultimately was an idea that showed itself to be a poor use of precious space.

So, what are we doing today? Companies are telling us that building narrow-use rooms with curved tables that face walls of screens (or, in this case, one huge 21:9 screen) and the very same spatial audio we rejected ten years earlier is a good thing … and people with very short memories are actually listening!

We learned over a decade ago that narrow use rooms don’t work for most applications. Using an analogy that I often did back then, think of these spaces like the hammer in your toolbox. It’s an awesome tool that I’d never want to be without, but if the job is to cut glass you’re out of luck. Enterprise rooms generally need to be built to support all sorts of meetings — ones with 100% of the participants in the room, ones with most of the participants in the rooms and ones with most of the participants connecting remotely. Curved tables facing immersive screen(s) only work when the need is for a few people in the room working with mostly remote participants. It’s just as wrong today as it was back then to build a general-use room system that only fits one narrow scenario.

We also recently saw a furniture and a collaboration firm announce a “great new system” that allows users to have one-on-one conversations with true eye contact using the same technology that allows TV teleprompters to work — shooting the camera through a half-silvered, angled piece of glass. The “Pepper’s ghost” phenomenon allows participants to look at a video image that is directly in front of the camera. The technology press generally fawned over this new thing — which would have been fine if it was actually new or actually great. It is actually neither.

Systems using this method have been around for over a decade (and the reporters and analysts that covered the announcement should have known that.) Just check out DVE Holographics for a firm that has been doing this for over a decade (and doing it better — because they likely hold all the needed patents.) However, here again, this solution is just one tool. If you need to add a second or third remote participant — or heaven forbid need to share a document — the illusion falls apart and the user needs are not met.

In a larger sense, learning from the past and learning from others are the most valuable results of attending all the industry conferences that we attend. Manufacturer and service provider announcements happen at many times — not just at conferences, as do contests for best person and/or best product. But the ability to chat with peers and hear what has worked (or not worked) for them is now the primary reason many attend these get-togethers. If one can hear about the pothole someone else drove into, one can learn to go around it and save themselves and/or their firm from repeating the negative experience. If we choose to stop learning from the past, as my high school teacher drummed into us, we’re all doomed to repeat it.