Electronic Media and Presentation Systems; Writing an Equipment Expectation
by Barry McKinnon
of Mc2Systems Design Group
One of the most difficult technical systems to design is a comprehensive audio-video-multimedia presentation and display package. The hardware itself is quite straightforward, the interface between bits of equipment can be quirky at times, but is generally not too difficult. The most difficult aspect of designing a presentation system is the mapping of hardware and control systems to the expectations and capabilities of the end users. Hardware and software details may be documented in the product literature, but the code used in the "wetware" of the end users is a somewhat ephemeral and fuzzy instruction set. The task of designing a system that will perform exactly as expected (rather than as specified) is remarkably difficult.
Client expectations are built on the shifting sands of personal experience. This experience may have resulted in anything from a complete distrust and fear of technology, to a blind faith in the ability of technology to defy the boundaries of this physical universe. The client's visual, aural and tactile experience is often a combination of many disparate types of technology, in different settings, fused together in the rosy glow of memory. The client's memories of a very bright, crisp 35mm slide image on a six foot screen in a dark room, the last dinosaur movie with digital surround sound they watched in a big theatre, a big dollar home theatre system demonstration, and a trip to a World Expo, are all rolled together with the memories of trying to program their VCR clock. Controlling a presentation system requires a substantial amount of microprocessor based equipment, and when that is mentioned to a client, it sets off alarm bells. Most people have had some level experience with PC type computer systems, the attendant software and hardware setup headaches, the seemingly endless learning curve and the permanent 'Beta release' status of most software. Client skepticism is not unfounded, and the lack of it is usually a sign that the client hasn't thought much about how they will actually use their system.
The fact is; any presentation system more elaborate than an overhead projector with acetate overlays, or even a LCD panel, is a complicated thing. If the system is to be very flexible in its media and display capabilities, it is very difficult to make it simple to use. Simplicity and flexibility are always at opposite ends of the design spectrum. If the system has a great deal of flexibility, the control system has to have a great deal of depth to provide the access to choices that are required. Most people have had experience with nested pulldown menus that are several layers deep, and a system setup like this can become very slow and tedious to operate. Not everyone relates in the same way to a function and its categorization (how many times have you looked for a function in your word processor that is always under some other menu than the one you expect?). If it is necessary to have a large number of people, with a wide range of backgrounds, be able to operate the system, it becomes more difficult to design an interface that will be universally "user friendly".
If an effort is made to simplify the selection and operation by reducing the choices to those most commonly used, the flexibility is being truncated. The control system can be developed with different paths, one level being for common use scenarios, and another deeper level for users prepared to understand and embrace the flexibility. In those situations the control system quickly becomes like an interactive video game with the outcome being dependent upon the path selection. This increases the likelihood of invalid or "non-optimum" configurations being selected, and the difficulty of diagnosing client complaints increases proportionately. The programming complexity also adds expense to the system. The more control functions that are required to be interrelated, and interlocked, the greater the program complexity, and the greater the likelihood that conflicts or sequencing errors may result in problems.
Control system programming is not unlike designing a document for hypermedia, all possible or necessary branches and interrelations must be accounted for, and the links provided. Where hypermedia materials are designed to provide enhanced entertainment or educational qualities with the variable paths, a control system must always be able to deliver the required functions with a minimum length critical command path. If it seems like increased complexity is the antithesis of productivity, that would be an accurate observation. That is not only true in control and computer systems, but in most any system where the operator wants to minimize the critical command path. Imagine driving your car by computer control: select steering menu, select left or right turn, select 90o turn from macro file, double click, wait for macro to load and go....crash!, and not just a general protection fault, but metal and glass. It would be much better to use a game type controller with some sort of analog human interface, like a steering wheel, that converts intuitive inputs into a form that the computer or control system can accommodate.
If we look at where the current control system approach came from, we would find that it was a slow evolution of moving more and more of the standard front panel controls into a portable handheld form, and then combining all the remote functions in an integrated form. The control systems combined the efforts of two or three people ("Hey Ed, get the lights, Bill you pull the curtains while I turn this slide projector on."), and made it possible to operate an elaborate presentation system without the continuous presence of a skilled A/V technician. It has become a matter of hiring A/V expertise, or buying it as part of the system. As we increase the complexity of the systems, we eventually reach a point where we should be reviewing the paradigm we use to design a control interface.
Control system transparency is a key issue in meeting client expectations for a presentation system. The question is a good one: What should a transparent control interface really look like, feel like and act like when it has to control something that has always been a rather clunky linear process. We need to be able to break away from thinking in a purely linear logical manner, and think of how people would prefer to work with presentation systems and materials if they were not tied to standard concepts of control systems. Gadgetry is not ergonomics. If you asked most people if they were happy with the remote control on their home VCR, and its ease of use, most people would probably say it seems more complicated than it has to be. This is usually related to the number of choices that have to be made before initiating (or finding) a function. Most human action is the distillation of a decision tree that comes down to a final binary choice: A or B, Yes or No, this one or that one, and anything that complicates the decision path is seen as a distraction. The level of distraction depends on the stress related to the decision, and the intolerance for distraction goes up drastically as the time available to make the decision is shortened.
Short of developing a thought control interface, or having the presenter wear a VR helmet and a control glove interface, we need to think about developing an interface that relates better to how the presentation system should be used. The ideal system would be as transparent as having a one-on-one discussion with a person, and showing them the support materials that went with your presentation. The problem with a lot of technology is that it requires the user to adapt to a non-intuitive interface, rather than having an interface designed to work with the human animal that we have evolved into over thousands of years. If we look at an automobile interface, it is not as transparent as walking, but it does divide the control functions amongst hands and feet in a manner that does not present too many physical or mental conflicts. Most importantly it frees the eyes and mind to concentrate on important things like navigation and not running into things. A presentation system interface, on the other hand, requires the user to think about what they are presenting and about the process of prresentation as well. The largest complaints come from people that have their mind on the content and delivery of their presentation, and they don't have a lot of processing power left over to figure out the nuances of the things intended to support (not frustrate) their presentation. The same person who asks for control of a variety of functions or aspects of their presentation system is invariably the same person who will say the system is too complicated, even though it does exactly what they asked for. Complex control systems can end up being a touch screen equivalent of voice mail, and have the same extreme polarization of user opinion.
Another critical aspect of client expectations in a media presentation system relates to fidelity of presentation. Visual fidelity tends to be much more important than audio fidelity in a presentation environment. We are in a technological transition period now, the slow move away from conventional, and familiar, optical projection as video technology pushes its resolution toward the capabilities of optical. In most applications where the information being presented is more important than the image, video is perfectly adequate for the task. In many presentation systems, video provides the system designer the freedom to accommodate the limitations of the presentation space placed upon them by the architect or interior designer. Slide-to-video converters, video copystands, computer graphics, laser disc, and video tape sources have helped eliminate the conflicts between source placement and screen position that slide, overhead and film projectors often presented. The catch is that these sources do not have the visual resolution of their optical counterparts.
The problem with discussing visual resolution with a client is the lack of a verbal frame of reference. You can talk all you like about pixel count and size, horizontal resolution, color purity, and contrast ratio, but there is no effective verbal way to relate the issues to a non-technical client. The worst scenario occurs when the information content has been identified by the client as being the critical issue, but when the system is installed, they are dissatisfied with the image quality when photographic material is presented. If someone is expecting to see the equivalent image quality of a 35mm slide seen in a small dark room, they will be disappointed by a single chip camera slide to video converter. When developing a conceptual design for a presentation system, demonstrations of visual systems are very valuable. For the system designer, it is helpful to have good working relationships with suppliers or contractors so that equipment demonstrations can be set up in familiar environments. The comparison of a variety of image systems, with the range of resolution under consideration, will do more to clarify the client's expectations of visual fidelity than any amount of discussion. Literally, a picture is worth a thousand words (and thousands of dollars). The cost implications of greater visual resolution tend to color a discussion of equipment selection, whereas a demonstration provides a concrete relation between cost and image quality.
The visual presentation media has to be well matched to the intended material. Video has difficulty in reproducing the correct color of reddish-brown typical of internal organs, as well as the subtle variations in color that are caused by trauma or disease. In some instances, such as medical teaching or presentation facilities, this can render a video based visual presentation system virtually useless to the end user. Human beings are very visual animals, we are sensitive to visual fidelity to a degree that we are not with audio. We all see objects, and we know when a reproduction of an image is not the same as seeing the object (of course this doesn't explain why so many people have the color level turned up so high on their TV at home). With audio, people often have less experience with critical listening, and have a wider latitude of acceptable quality. People recognize a voice over a phone line much more readily than a person's image in a B&W surveillance camera picture.
The client also has an expectation of technical longevity for a system that will require significant capital outlay. The rapid rate of change of the presentation technology makes it especially difficult to design a system fitting that parameter. A project with a long time line ( one to two years from concept to construction) will often have major changes in the equipment selection as newer and better products become available. Even fast track projects will likely have equipment installed that has been superseded by the time it is mounted. The visual display technology is changing so fast that is virtually impossible to keep up with new product introductions, let alone ensure that the client will have state-of-the-art on the day their facility opens. This is especially crucial where image quality is important. Improvements in image quality of video display technology are often dramatic, not just incremental, and the client can be left with equipment that is not capable of what they require, and has dropped significantly in its resale value due to the new product introductions (what's your 286 computer worth today?). It is important to ensure that the client has reasonable expectations for the rate of technology turnover, and the expected life of the system they are purchasing. This is not an easy bit of prognostication to do, and it usually requires that the system be overdesigned at the outset to accommodate forseeable applications and uses.
Another expectation issue relates to the presentation space itself, and the fundamental lack of understanding that the architect or interior designer often have of the constraints on this technology when they layout a presentation room.
The client will have a certain level of expectation for the presentation space itself. The client and interior designer are often operating under the false assumption that presentation systems are like elaborate home theatre systems, and they can be purchased and installed anywhere at anytime. Often the room footprint and layout will be 75% complete by the time they realize they need to talk to a designer or a contractor about the equipment details. There are often substantial problems designed into the room in the form of bad sight lines, poor projection lines and locations, bad viewing angles, lack of ambient light control, and poorly located presentation positions. The client will often have expectations that are not possible to accommodate, such as providing full surround sound in a round room where the people sit against the wall. This can be an area where an explanation of the impact of problems will not necessarily be understood. When the effect of ambient light shining on the screen is described as a problem, the client may not relate to the phrase "critical issue" in the same way as the system designer or installer. In instances where the client or interior designer say that they can live with a problem, it is often because they have no idea what the magnitude of the problem is.
It will often not be possible to define the limitations in terms that will be understood by the client and the interior design people. Concerted efforts to define the limitations of the presenation system within the confines of the room design will often have the system designer seen as being obstructionist, or just hard-nosed and inflexible. It can be difficult to overcome client expectations of being able to achieve the impossible, but this is one area where client expectations must be re-calibrated. A demonstration is the most effective way of communicating the effect of a serious problem.
This is usually the point where the system designer or the system contractor is in jeopardy of being bounced off a project, since they can be seen as not being "on-side" with the client, and not being able to accomplish the impossible. Presentation systems represent one category of customer relations where the client is often not right. If push comes to shove, it is almost always better to be bounced off the project rather than dragged along behind it with one foot in the stirrup when the client's expectations and physical reality cannot be brought together.
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