I have had the pleasure of designing audio, video, and technology for a handful of County or City Chambers over the years. There are a number of unique challenges in the facility type and several technologies that can make for a much better experience. Here are some of the big items:
Audio digital signal processing has made huge leaps over the past decade. This is critical to the success of a Council Chambers facility, where we have to balance the requirement for having several microphones open and sometimes poor acoustics with a need for everyone in the audience, including the elderly to hear clearly.
Tools like noise gating, automatic gain compensation, compression, and gain sharing are invaluable tools for these applications. Todays DSP processors can handle all of the audio requirements as a stand alone system. It’s a matter of workflow whether an actual mixing console is even employed. One other option is to mix all of the audio inside the DSP and control those gain levels using a MIDI fader bank. This provides the same tactile experience for the operator with all the advantages of a DSP based system.
Most traditional projection screens get washed out under high ambient light. Because of the requirements for these facilities, it isn’t usually practical to lower the lighting levels to the point that they don’t reduce the image quality of the projection (by lowering contrast ratio).
One solution is to employ flat panel displays, but above a certain size, this becomes cost prohibitive. In order to allow everyone to see clearly, if we’re unable to increase screen size within budget, the next best alternative is to provide a larger quantities of displays closer to the viewers.
This is undesirable from an aesthetic standpoint, as you end up with a civic facility that looks more like a Sports Bar. There is one other solution. In the past few years, two manufacturers have developed optical solutions that allow you to deploy projection in high ambient light environments. These are more expensive than traditional screens, but much less expensive than LED solutions and without the bezels of video wall products, which create a crosshair dead center of 2×2 arrays which would be appropriately sized for a typical Council Chambers.
Pan/tilt/zoom cameras are the norm for these facilities. Typically, these are only for on air broadcast / recording and not for IMAG (image magnification for those in the rear of a large room). There are great options available today. Be careful in the placement of these cameras. You ideally want to be no more as close as possible to eye level and about 40’ back from the dais. The further you push the cameras back, the more you will experience vibration at tight zooms.
If you’re going to spend money on good quality cameras, it is largely wasted without appropriate broadcast lighting. This can be a challenge, due to aesthetics. No one wants a Council Chambers to look like a broadcast studio. There are one or two manufacturers of lighting for videoconferencing applications that typically fit the bill here. The fixtures look exactly like conventional ceiling fixtures, but can be designed to achieve proper broadcast lighting.
Once you have the video looking great, you need to get it out. Typically there will be a distribution amplifier that feeds signal to all of the local networks. I always include a connection at the front and rear of the room for Press to connect. Sometimes this is just audio.
Aside from these feeds, a growing number of people are watching these proceedings online, so you will almost certainly need to plan for encoding. This will have to be coordinated with the IT department for the particular branch of government.
Matrix Video Switching
In a presentation based system, you need a way for everyone to present. A video matrix is the typical way that this is accomplished. Years ago, this meant huge runs of thick coaxial cable for computer VGA connections. Today, almost all of the these connections are over standard network cabling. Over the next 2-3 years, I have predicted that this will move to optical cabling to leverage the falling cost of off-the-shelf 10Gb network switching. Here’s an article I wrote explaining how and why this is coming.
To my mind, this is the most essential element of Council Chambers Technology. These facilities typically have limited staffing. If you’re in charge of AV for a Council Chambers, you likely have your hands full. Add to that the fact that you are typically overlapping two AV systems. You have a small broadcast systems for the on-air and web streaming. In addition, you have a presentation system with some pretty demanding users. This means that everything must be designed with as much automation in mind as possible, without limiting the flexibility of the system.
There are several ways that this can be accomplished. Most of them revolve around the principals of Delegate Conference systems and depend on the workflow of the commission. Depending on the workflow, one popular trick is to link the PTZ cameras to the conference microphone system.
For this technique, the conference system will have knowledge of who is speaking. We will already have preset positions for everyone at the dais. Using the control system, we can allow these two systems to communicate so that when the next speakers takes over the microphone, the cameras have already panned to his location, setting up the shot automatically. Additionally, lower thirds can be preprogrammed with every committee members name and these linked to the presets on the PTZ switcher. This means that all of the shots are automatically set for you, with proper lower thirds triggered automagically. This saves a lot of jostling around and helps overworked staff focus on other concerns so that they stay one step ahead of the meeting, anticipating needs.
Despite the fact that most don’t have very significant budgets, Commission Chamber audio and video design can be very unique and intensive, due to the demanding workflow of each facility. Get an AV design consultant engaged early in the design process, if possible. Sightlines are a major concern for these facilities. I have been engaged on several builds where changes to the shape or layout of the room could have been a much better solution to a problem than the technology band-aids that are the only option after the room footprint has been locked down.