Inclusion in Technology: Catering to the Market's Needs

In the dynamic landscape of technological advancements, the central objective must always be to meet the user's needs.

In the dynamic landscape of technological advancements, the central objective must always be to meet the user's needs, akin to how a DJ tailors music selections to the audience's preferences rather than their own. My name is Daniel Sobkowski, and with over ten years of expertise in the corporate AV sector, coupled with a scholarly background marked by distinction, I have observed a tendency for tech manufacturers to dictate the conduct of technology-enhanced meetings. This often leads to the introduction of novel features intended to spark excitement, such as the text animations in Microsoft PowerPoint. Yet, despite their potential, these features are frequently underutilized or ineffectively implemented.

The true barometer for success in digital presentations is set by the market. Steve Jobs' iconic minimalist style serves as a testament to this, where he championed a clean and straightforward design philosophy. His approach, reminiscent of the clarity found in traditional presentations with a speaker before a board, ensured that the audience's attention remained undivided on the content rather than being distracted by the technology. It is a poignant reminder that the essence of technological inclusion lies in its ability to enhance the message, not overshadow it.

Embracing Collaboration Through Technology

The evolution of video conferencing technology offers a compelling case study in listening to the audience's needs. Initially, these systems were designed to bridge the distance between far-flung teams, encapsulating the vision of seamless collaboration without geographical constraints. The fundamental aim of such technology is to enable a level playing field for all participants, regardless of location. Take, for instance, two equally sized conference rooms connected virtually; the goal is to have an equal stake in the conversation. Yet, historically, there has been a skewed sense of presence, with remote participants often feeling secondary to those in the room, their contributions relegated to images on a screen and voices from above.

As audio-visual technicians, we've long held the role of unsung heroes in these scenarios, guiding our clients through the maze of technological possibilities to meet their event needs best. Our expertise has been indispensable, notably when clients lacked the knowledge of what technology could achieve.

However, the landscape shifted dramatically in 2020. Sydney and countless other cities experienced stringent lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, propelling technology from a facilitative tool to the lifeline of business continuity. As working from home became the norm, people became adept at using technology to conduct their daily work. This rapid acclimatisation to technology has persisted beyond the return to office life, resulting in a paradigm shift, especially among executive teams. There's been a notable democratisation of technology, with individuals feeling more confident in dictating their technological needs for meetings. Importantly, the concept of 'inclusion' has gained prominence in the lexicon of corporate meetings, signalling a deeper understanding that effective use of technology is key in creating truly inclusive spaces for all participants.

Advancing Inclusivity Through Technological Adaptation

The rise in technological literacy within the workforce has increased awareness of individual preferences in meeting engagements. This trend was exemplified by an executive I work with, who had clear expectations for her hybrid meetings upon returning to the office. In the past, our standard protocol involved connecting the boardroom's video conferencing system to a bridge, amalgamating various locations and personal devices. However, this setup often resulted in a visual disconnect; attendees in the boardroom were faced with an oversized representation of remote participants on a 65-inch screen, disrupting the meeting's visual and communicative balance.

After a period of adjustment and understanding, a novel solution emerged: having each boardroom participant join the meeting via their laptop, with their webcam on. Despite the initial oddity, which sometimes caused audio echoes, this method was a game-changer, fostering a sense of equality in the virtual space. No longer did a giant face loom over the boardroom, nor did remote participants feel isolated, trying to interpret the nuances of discussions from afar. This approach levelled the visual field and ensured that every attendee, whether remote or in the boardroom, had an equal presence, thereby enhancing the overall collaborative experience.

This leads me to a conversation I had with an Office Managing Partner (OMP) who shed light on the need for a more inclusive approach to hybrid event setups. Traditionally, our configuration aimed to optimise the experience for virtual participants, equipped with:

  • A live audience in view of an all-in-one VC camera focused on the speaker.
  • A portable LCD screen displaying the virtual attendees or the online presenter.
  • A projector screen presenting laptop content.

This setup was initially deemed “the gold standard”. However, the OMP highlighted a significant oversight: while remote participants enjoyed a comprehensive experience, those in the live venue were missing out on vital interactive elements, such as the chat or Q&A functions.

In response to this feedback, we introduced an additional large screen to the stage area dedicated to displaying the meeting's non-verbal communications. This integration ensures that attendees in the physical venue are equally engaged in all facets of the event, mirroring the virtual experience.

Moreover, to balance the allure of virtual and physical attendance, we implemented multiple cameras to capture the live audience, enriching the visual experience for remote attendees. This gives them a view of the on-site dynamics and invokes a sense of F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out), potentially encouraging a return to in-person participation. Through these thoughtful additions, we strive to achieve an egalitarian hybrid event environment where each remote or on-site participant feels equally valued and included.

"Augmented reality (AR) holds the key to revolutionising future meetings and events, with its potential to ensure all participants are treated equally, whether they join from within the meeting room or across the globe."

Embracing an Inclusive Future

While we await the widespread implementation of AR, the current technological advancements are making significant strides towards promoting inclusivity.

Our existing technological solutions are already bridging the gap, empowering virtual attendees with a sense of presence and equality. As we look forward to new innovations, we continue to leverage our present tools to ensure every participant's voice is heard and valued equally.

For on-site AV technicians, the ability to listen and adapt to a client's needs is paramount, akin to a DJ fine-tuning their set to the audience's rhythm. Great AV technicians not only provide expert advice but also collaborate with clients to tailor events that meet their vision. They craft experiences that celebrate equality and inclusivity in virtual and hybrid settings. Their expertise turns concepts into reality, and their creativity is not just beneficial but essential. It is this skill set that will continue to play a crucial role as we navigate the evolving landscape of meetings and events, ensuring inclusivity remains at the forefront.