Okay – my readers are probably tired of predictions related to the pandemic disruption (I’m on the 3rd panel of the week today to discuss that very topic), but I wanted to share some specific thoughts around the future of video cameras in our environment. Of course, one of the most obvious technological impacts of 2020 is the sudden awareness of video conferencing. There are plenty of people who didn’t really care about that tiny camera built into their laptops, or maybe didn’t even know what it was for, until around April of this year when conferencing became the way we meet.
So sure, we all know more about the video conferencing camera than ever before. My friends at Logitech lament the fact they keep selling out of their devices, while at the same time, they are excited that their products have been a help to the community. I think it’s important to look deeper at the impact of 2020 on how we will utilize cameras going forward in our work environment, campuses, and other shared spaces. I think we are going to see a proliferation of cameras into those spaces like never before. If done correctly, with sensitivity to the privacy and security issues that such an influx can create, it will be a very positive development for everyone.
Why is that? I believe that cameras will play a critical role in understanding the new workplace. Cameras will help us “see” and understand the hybrid workplace emerge in 2021.
Here are three reasons cameras will play an important role in our futures, well past the obvious reasons around the need for video conferencing:
- The number of our video-enabled rooms needs to at least double/triple. This arises from some fairly simple math. If a classroom used to hold 60 students, but in the return to work era and beyond – that classroom may only hold 20 students dispersed throughout the same space – the other 40 students now need to join from overflow rooms, at least 2 others. This means that each of these rooms needs to be equipped with a wide field of view camera/audio system to support room-to-room interaction.
Wouldn’t those students just go to their dorms to learn? Well, that ignores the value of group learning, engagement, and flipped learning models that have all been proven to be indispensable to learners (see research here and here, for starters). This is why The Hybrid model of learning and collaboration is such a big deal – rather than just give up and isolate people in peer-to-peer conferencing – the hybrid model focuses on supporting a safe mix of in-person, room-to-room collaboration as well as fully remote individuals – and this means a lot more cameras are needed. The same math holds for corporate enterprise as well.
- Cameras support workplace wellness. Throughout the early 2000s, the AV and building management communities were busy deploying “occupancy sensors” in conference rooms, huddle spaces, offices, and even hallways. The thinking was that if a sensor could know when a space was occupied, then it could trigger the lights on/off, it could drive a more efficient HVAC setting, and it could even provide insight into room utilization.
It turns out that in the intervening 20 years, computer vision technology surpassed even a dedicated sensor in its ability to detect people and know if a room is occupied. So all those cameras that will be deployed for video conferencing can now do double-duty as very accurate occupancy sensors. Because a camera has a geometric view of the space, those occupancy sensors can be quite sophisticated.
Camera-based occupancy can not only know if someone is in the room, but how many people. It can also know, in real-time, the dispersion of those individuals. Imagine a system, then, that in a completely de-identified, secure way can monitor if a room is compliant with workplace wellness policies. That room could trigger a warning message on the in-room display if too many people are present: “Hey, my apologies, but this room only supports 6 people, can 2 of you please move to a different space for this meeting?”
These systems are already being developed (I know because Mersive is building one right now). That same camera can go even further and detect wellness issues like how clustered users are, or if a coffee cup was left on the table at the end of the meeting and the room now needs special attention before it should be made available to the next group. Is this big brother? – Certainly not. In this case, a sensor that doesn’t need to “recognize” a particular person – just know any person is in the room – is providing direct value to users in the space. Pretty cool.
- Cameras help drive analytics in the return to work era. The importance of understanding how the next 12 months will unfold in our shared workspaces comes up in almost every discussion I have. Some of the world’s most important companies and universities are looking for ways to better understand room utilization, effective meeting culture, and better ways to make use of the space they have invested in.
A camera provides all the data I described above (user counts over time, etc.), but can go beyond that. Data like how often users are sitting versus standing? What’s the traffic level that flows into/out of the room over time? How does the value of a meeting correlate with the number of attendees? Is this metric different in small huddle rooms versus large conference rooms? What’s the ratio of meetings that are in-person versus ones that involve remote users? Room-to-room versus room-to-remote? All of this will help these companies better understand how to position their work culture for the new hybrid workplace.
Of course, in the new hybrid workplace, personal choice will allow users to work from home more often and the effect of that will be the need to enable more campus rooms with video. However, the value that cameras can provide beyond that first-order need is really interesting. I’ve already met with some companies that plan on deploying cameras in spaces where they expect very little video conferencing to take place. The benefit of an intelligent room, that can “see” a new hybrid workplace emerge, is enough to deploy a camera. Of course, this will take a new level of attention to security and privacy – and there are technical approaches I’m thinking about that can help – but when our spaces are equipped with cameras, a new level of automation, ease-of-use, and understanding will emerge. That’s good for all of us.