Meetings go high tech

If you thought Elmo was a little red Muppet who likes to be tickled, think again.

When it comes to producing interactive events and meetings, the Elmo sets PowerPoint presentations on their collective ears.

“PowerPoint is still the most widely used presentation tool,” said Michael Haver, national sales manager for Image Audiovisuals Inc. in Denver. “Most people who speak at conferences and meetings are not professional presenters. They usually arrive at the event the day of, with their presentation on a thumb drive in their pockets.”

Every special event — be it a large conference or trade show, a smaller meeting with fewer than 100 in attendance or an arena show — is created with a specific purpose or end goal in mind. Knowing what the client wants to achieve and how the event needs to look determines the budget and whichever high-tech gizmos and doohickeys will bring it about. That can be as simple and low-tech as a big pad of paper or as advanced as Smart boards, sound-board mixers controlled by iPad applications and LED lighting systems that can save hundreds or thousands of event-budget dollars.

But back to Elmo.

The device looks very much like an old-school overhead projector. Instead of simply projecting images from transparencies to a screen through a periscope-like lens, however, the Elmo can project whatever is placed on the base onto high-quality digital television or plasma screens, as well as huge screens in front of large audiences. It uses two cameras: one to capture the image and another to project it.

With a powerful zoom lens and swing-arm camera, the Elmo can view objects from many different angles and magnifications. It also plugs into computers and tablets and can present content directly from them.

Apple uses Elmo when introducing new products. It allows for real-time demonstrations with the actual equipment or applications.

Renting a higher-end Elmo will cost approximately $300 per day. The manufacturer’s suggested retail pricing runs from $399 for the MO-1, which is a no-frills model that still has remarkable image quality, weighs less than 1 1/2 pounds and is the size of a business envelope, to the full-featured P30HD, which retails for $2,900.

Smart boards increasingly are being used as well, although less for formal presentations, According to Haver, many trade shows and large multi-roomed conferences use these highly interactive devices to direct attendees to various locations at the conference or show and to keep them updated on events — all in real time.

Smart boards primarily are found in classrooms or other static locations. They don’t lend themselves to use as presentation tools as much because of the back-end preparation that is required. A graphic interface must be designed; it’s not a simple plug-and-play operation.

“That’s one of the reasons PowerPoint is still so popular,” Haver said. “There’s an ease of use, and people are very familiar with it.”

However, he insisted, don’t dismiss the Smart board for certain applications, such as multiple information boards. From a single computer, they can be updated as needed instead of scurrying across the trade show floor to make changes with a Sharpie on preprinted foam-core mounted posters.

It’s easier being green

Haver pointed to new developments to light-emitting diode, or LED, technology.

“Lighting is an important element to conferences and events,” he said. “It used to be we would use incandescent bulbs and colored gels or filters placed over the light to create special effects. It could get very complicated: if the bulbs (which get very hot) aren’t handled properly, they could start fires. You need a lot of them to create certain effects, because they run so hot, they use a lot of electricity and require a lot of cabling.”

LED light bulbs, on the other hand, are not as hot as incandescents, and greatly lessen the fire hazard.

“This is really a green technology,” Haver said. “I can design and execute dynamic lighting displays with LEDs and only use one wall outlet, whereas in the past I needed 20.”

Wireless technology now allows him to walk into a room, hook up to the Wi-Fi system and control the entire lighting package from a tablet or smart phone.

LEDs require about 90 percent less electricity to run and don’t burn out nearly as quickly as their incandescent predecessors. More LED manufacturers are coming into the marketplace, so what was once an expensive bulb purchase is now becoming more affordable. According to Lux Research, an independent research and advisory firm that works with emerging technologies, costs are expected to drop even further: they predict LED prices to fall by 70 percent in the next decade.

Event planners are using short message service, or SMS, technology to engage an audience. A text messaging service component of phone, web or mobile communication systems, SMS uses standard communications protocols that allow the exchange of short text messages between fixed-line and mobile devices. For instance, attendees at an event can be surveyed by texting their votes to a certain number and having the results tabulated by the SMS system.

Can you hear me now?

What really has Haver excited is the ability to run elaborate, complicated soundboard mixers from his iPad. Newer mixers now have iPad docks that allow the user to download an app and control the mixer.

Haver recently produced an event in New York. “It was huge,” he said. “We had multiple bands, multiple keynote speakers and over 20,000 people in attendance. I mixed that entire show from my iPad. Now, my crew knew this, but not one person in the arena did. And I could mix the sound from any seat and hear exactly how it came across to that section of the venue.

“The reason this is important is that I can hear exactly what my attendees are listening to. I’m not down in the center of the floor, only hearing one audio image in one spot.”

What does the combination of LED and mobile interface technologies provide?

“That’s simple,” Haver said. “It brings exactly the same experience to everybody in the room.”

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