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The Quality of Perception

In an ever-changing sea of technology, how's a designer to counsel church clients on AVL gear upgrades? Some food for thought.

By Christian Doering   •  May 11, 2017 2:57 pm EDT

Tags: architecture, avl, business, philosophy, technology,

Technology: it just gets more amazing every year. In fact, it seems to get more amazing more quickly. Every tradeshow season, those quantum-leap product marketers like to boast about getting bigger and bigger. Of course, product teams believe that technical progress alone, whether its incremental or revolutionary, is sufficient reason to upgrade. Why settle for second best, now that someone’s made the best even better?

Innovation can create real value, even after the hype has been fully discounted. Growing congregations and their designers often see cutting-edge media systems as a sign of energy, strength and momentum. The critical question is: “How often do we need to update and upgrade in order to remain ‘modern?’”

When it comes to new products, “next generation” is probably even more over-used than “quantum leap.” But what is a generation anyway? Granted, the accelerating pace of change makes each new generation shorter than the one before. But there is a difference between incremental improvements in performance and new platforms that bring rapid, widespread, disruptive change to a market.

Using Hindsight to Forecast

Looking back, it’s so clear that digital projectors were a breakthrough technology platform. Video walls and large-screen LEDs have had a similar impact. The performance jumps from horizontal arrays of loudspeakers to vertical “line arrays” and digitally controlled linear arrays obviously qualify as quantum leaps.

Technology suppliers are always looking for the next wave of market disruption: they have to, to stay in business. But neither you nor your clients have much to gain from change for change’s sake. A technology doesn’t become interesting unless and until its price/performance curve starts to approach those of existing offerings. At or near the crossover point, it becomes attractive in new buildings, since both you and the owner probably want these to be as future-proof as possible. Eventually, a new technology can become so much more efficient and effective that it compels acceptance. That’s when replacement investments can pay off.

How can you best help your clients make smart decisions about technology upgrades? Existing AVL systems are “doing the job,” and they could almost always be doing that job better. Perhaps they could also be doing the job with lower energy costs, so better technical performance can “pay for itself” if the life of the system is long enough. But replacement costs include not only the capital cost of new equipment, those costs also include disruption of worship schedules during installation,the time and effort required to train professionals and volunteers on the new system, and the teething pains inevitably associated with switching over to new-and-better-but-strange gear.

Point of Introspection

The typical decision circle for a major AVL system upgrade includes technical staff, who would love to get their hands on the latest and greatest tools, and ministry, who are probably excited about the idea of delivering their message through a bigger, brighter, clearer medium. Then there’s the building committee, who have to figure out a way to pay for the new gear.

Before you can really evaluate how well technology is doing its job, you have to decide what that job is. Technical specifications are obviously a valid method of comparison. But they define technology’s job very narrowly: project a clearer image, deliver cleaner, more intelligible sound. Those are all good things, and it is part of a technical staff’s role to understand them. But are they the only important things?

On the receiving end, congregations may notice a better quality of experience with new and improved systems. Let’s hope so, otherwise, what was the point of all that innovation? Quality of perception is important to any worship service. This aspect is individual, personal and private. But group worship is by definition communal, shared and social. Technical specifications address the quality of individual perception. They make little reference to the cohesiveness of a group.

Superior technical performance—louder sound, brighter screens—can deliver a message to a larger audience. It can make the service more inclusive: when some people can’t hear or see clearly, they miss part of the experience that ought to be shared by the whole group. But the congregational presence is itself central to the experience of worship. Within one of those dinosaur-sized stone cathedrals, when the congregation lifted its voice in song, each singer can be aware of the other singers. The spare wooden chambers of Protestant New England foster group cohesion in a similar way. In a modern auditorium, everyone can hear the lead singer as clearly, and perhaps more loudly, as if they were sitting right up on stage. But if they can’t hear the people around them, hasn’t something been lost? If we [want to] see really high-contrast images we almost have to sit in a darkened room. But if we can no longer see each other’s faces, are we really sitting together? The pursuit of realistic, immersive production and reproduction has given us 3D glasses and virtual-reality headsets. Tools like these can deliver extremely high quality individual experiences with flawless reproduction. But they demand that each audience member completely disengages from fellow human beings.

Balance may be the key here. If screens are brighter, perhaps we can let some daylight into the space so that we know who we’re sitting with. If sound is more evenly distributed, we may be able to keep the SPLs down and allow the sounds our neighbors make to become part of the experience. Properly used, advanced technologies can enhance personal experience without making it overly private. But again, this requires that you and your client understand what its purpose is. Better is only better if you know what you’re measuring, and why.

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