On Complexity, and Why We Don’t get Conference (and Classroom) A/V Right

I’m inspired today by an offhand comment by the famous (in our circles) Bryan Alexander, who is a frequent keynote and guest speaker at conferences all over the world, and has a lot of stunning and evocative things to say about not just higher education information technology, but the state and future of higher education in general.  If you’re not familiar with his work go check out his blogs and articles.  Even if you don’t agree with them he will get your brain moving.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that an offhand comment on his Facebook got me thinking:

“I’m fascinated by how conference A/V is still flawed and failure-prone, everywhere.

I’m sure he was referring to the ritual of setting up your presentation at a conference:  Plugging in your laptop (HDMI? VGA?  Do you have the right cables?  The right adapters?) , getting the sound right (HDMI, 3.5mm audio jack? Lay a microphone really close to the laptop speakers when you want sound?)–oh, wait, you have an AppleTV?  Great, here’s my ThinkPad!  Okay, it’s actually a Wi-Fi projector?  Great!  My laptop has Wi-Fi!  Wait, you mean I have to be on an ad-hoc network?  Okay, maybe it works with the conference SSID, but now I’ve got to try and pump a computer screen to the projector wirelessly while a few hundred people are (ideally) tweeting along informatively in the backchannel and researching content in real time to bring to the Q&A session or (worst case) aimlessly Facebooking, YouTubing, or Netflixing?  (I’ve not actually witnessed the last one, but I’m very confident at large conference keynotes there’s a few people in the audience doing this while the speaker is talking–it’s just the odds.)

Oh, and the projector?  What?  It’s 1024×768 resolution?  What is this, 2002?  And I see you have one of those fancy control systems, it even has a brand I know on the front–but wait, this is nothing like the one I’m used to from my home institution–you moved all the menus around!  Can I just unplug the cables and plug straight into the projector?

You get the point.  Anyone who’s presented at a conference more than once knows to have multiple layers of backups–multiple presentation devices, multiple display technologies, extra cables/adapters, and a backup plan for when, despite all of that, it still goes wrong.

Bryan’s lamentation is one of searching for simplicity.  Wouldn’t it be great if things “just worked”?  I would argue we were starting to get there 5-10 years ago–XGA projectors, VGA cables, simple control systems.

Then everyone went nuts.  Mini DisplayPort-VGA adapters.  Multiple, different wireless mirroring, presentation loading, or document sharing standards.  HDMI (which in my opinion should be the choice moving forward, but Apple doesn’t even consistently provide it on its laptops, and you need an adapter with an iPad as well).  Control systems, when they exist, can be configured in myriad ways.

You go to the trade shows or vendor demos and everyone’s telling you about their touchscreen displays, their collaboration technologies, and it all sounds great, until you think about even scaling it out to your classroom users, must less itinerant speakers from other institutions or other countries.  We have at least 4 different touchscreen technologies at our institution at the moment, and each faculty member who teaches in each room will have to learn each system, and while the concepts are similar, the specific techniques of interaction are different–how you pull up menus, how you do virtual markers and whiteboard, whether you actually write on a physical whiteboard or just virtually, whether it’s projection or an LCD display.

It really is a question of complexity.  Everyone’s trying to outwit everyone in the marketplace, instead of coming up with scalable, trainable, supportable solutions.  Computer vendors have no standardization on how to do things like have your laptop display one thing and the projector another.  (Okay, Windows 8 is better at this, but then each hardware vendor comes up with their own “special” display management software, with “special” custom features, which might even be nice, but just further gum up the works.  And of course Apple does it totally differently.  You can buy multivendor wireless display technologies, but the multivendor supported solutions are likely to be lowest common denominator (they don’t support mirroring from mobile devices, for instance).  Sure a Chromecast only costs $35 but it’s still basically a beta test.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an easy solution for this anytime soon.  The market will continue to insist on driving differentiation instead of standardization (oh, and by the way, of course presentation/display equipment will be one of the most expensive things you can buy for a classroom.)  Enough of us will continue to want the latest and greatest things, but we won’t have the money to do a complete fleet upgrade of our classrooms or presentation rooms, so we’ll be stuck with different levels of systems throughout.  Even our lowest common denominator of a VGA connector is being squeezed on the laptop/mobile side by devices that don’t have the easy option for VGA connectivity.

So, Bryan, I wish you luck on your quest.  I fear it may be Quixotic, but perhaps it’s based in something more tangible than battling windmills.

Meanwhile, a few pointers for those having to march through the jungle:

  • Plan and rehearse your presentation.  The better prepared you are the better prepared you will be for changes.
  • Plan redundancy.  Maybe not two of everything, but make sure you can, say, do HDMI and VGA.   Maybe you can do the presentation from your tablet instead of your laptop.  Maybe you can have a set of transparencies (I’m not kidding.)
  • Imagine what you would do instead if  “x” part of your event doesn’t work?  No slides?  No Internet to pull down video clips?  No sound?  Could you give a passable presentation with no technology if necessary?
  • Ask for as much information as you can about what technology will be available.  Things like the resolution of the projector might matter for your content.  If you’re going to be using audio ask if you can patch into the room audio system, or if you’ll perhaps need to bring speakers.
  • Get to the room as early as the schedule allows.  Run through things enough to know your content will work on the technology provided.
  • Make sure you have water readily available in arm’s length of your speaking position.  If you walk around make sure the water is someplace you can easily grab and sip it.
  • Perhaps as a corollary to the item above, make sure you go to the bathroom a few minutes before you start your presentation.  This is also a good time to make sure your hair’s the way you want and you don’t have any embarrassing stains or things stuck to you.
  • Tell the audience what your expectations are for interactivity (questions inline or at the end, whether and how you’ll be soliciting input) and your expectations for their use of social media.  If you want them liveblogging, give them a hashtag to use.  It might be the conference or session one provided for you, but if one isn’t provided just make it up.  Perhaps write it on the board, make a small poster or put it in your slide headers, so it can stay up the whole time.
  • If you’re running a conference try and make sure you have people (professionals or volunteers, or both) to help with media issues.  If it’s a multitrack conference, make sure you have enough to deal with multiple incidents at the same time (which will be when each session starts.)

I would like to hear if people have long-term solutions for dealing with the problems of A/V and media display technology.

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Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.