Feb. 8, 2023 - In 2020, the people designing unified communications devices and services saw their work face a sudden stress test. The pandemic triggered an instant demand for videoconferencing and virtual solutions that extended into business, educational, government, and even social applications.
The good news: The systems weren't overwhelmed. Despite a few glitches and hiccups, things generally worked, and people were able to communicate digitally.
There are still shortcomings. Videoconferencing fatigue, for example. A sense of isolation for full-time remote workers. The "mission creep" of work nibbling away at personal time as home and office became interchangeable.
And the challenges of accessibility.
Those challenges became glaringly apparent for Crestron's Joe Grassani, a senior email marketing manager who has significant hearing loss. "When I'm in a meeting remotely, and the other participants are in a meeting room, I sometimes struggle to follow the flow of the conversation," says Grassani. "When a person is working remotely with their camera facing them, I can pick up on who is speaking, their facial expressions, body language — and I'm able to read their lips, too. This is much more difficult in a meeting room-style layout with one camera facing everyone." The figures on the screen become distant for the viewer, which is problematic for every remote attendee, but especially so for Grassani. "Even though enabling captions has helped significantly, there is still a disconnect with WHO is speaking."
Grassani's situation is an excellent argument for the mass adoption of what's called "inclusive design" —"[A] design process in which a product, service, or environment is designed to be usable for as many people as possible, particularly groups who are traditionally excluded from being able to use an interface or navigate an environment." One technology that has been leaning into that concept — with accelerating success — is intelligent video.
Achieving Meeting Equity
The technology behind intelligent video — a means of automatically framing and tracking meeting collaborators so that everyone has "equal pixel real estate" — has benefits beyond its appeal for most users. A recent research report from Crestron and Reworked notes:
Another key usage for intelligent video could be to improve accessibility. Those who are hard-of-hearing, in particular, have been met with new challenges in the hybrid office. According to the National Institute for Deafness and Communication Disorders, approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 or older report some trouble hearing. The return to meeting rooms has made it harder for these individuals to lip-read due to the limitations of single front-of-room cameras. Utilizing Intelligent video and multiple in-room cameras help capture participants properly and pick up non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.
A holistic solution such as Crestron's Sightline system, with its multiple cameras and automatic switching solutions that can "cut" from speaker to speaker without the need for camera operators, could be extremely beneficial for those with needs similar to Grassani's: "A solution such as Sightline has the potential to remove those pain points entirely. With the cameras focusing on the speaker, I'm able to see who is speaking and follow along with the captions, read their facial expressions and body language, and even lip-read if need be." Captions for prerecorded video presentations are also a must if those elements are part of a presentation.
A big help in designing truly inclusive systems is understanding the needs of the end-user — and what's really meant by "disability." It's presented in this article from the US government's guidance on digital services as "a mismatch between a person and their environment." The article delves into hearing issues to illustrate the three categories of disability: permanent (say, someone who was deaf from birth), temporary (someone who has been recently exposed to a high decibel environment and is feeling residual aftereffects), or situational (someone struggling to hear a conversation in a very loud restaurant). Once we begin to understand that everyone experiences this mismatch at some point in their lives, there's an empathy that enters into system and device design.
There's also the value of including ideas and perspectives of everyone and anyone. "The value of meetings is to bring diverse ideas and perspectives to the table in an effort to drive innovation; any advancement that lowers barriers of involvement for persons with disabilities and invites all to the table allows true innovation to occur," says Crestron's Manager of University Relations and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Chris Fitzpatrick. When we're not aware of the challenges others face, we can't begin to address them with technology.
Fitzpatrick's extremely moved by the evolving nature of AI to drive inclusive technologies. "I can think of no greater representation of technological evolution than technology that reduces or eliminates barriers and bias and empowers more individuals to contribute to their chosen path," he says.
"A diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible workforce is a tide that raises all ships," Fitzpatrick adds. "We become more agile, more empathetic, and more strategic through inclusion. This is not limited to one definition of diversity, either. Any barrier broken, any bridge to inclusivity, is a step in the right direction."