Category Update: Seeing is believing

There's continuing good news from the visual communications sector as vendors report strong growth and exciting technological developments.

It’s been another excellent year for the visual communications (viscom) category. Some of the sector’s largest players are sounding particularly confident, with sales figures soaring to new heights. Reports suggest this is driven, in part, by a rapidly-developing product range that’s seen as dovetailing with the changing ways in which we are now working.

“We continue to see annual double-digit growth and it’s set to maintain that pace throughout 2017,” says Beth Wright, Chief Commercial Officer at Bi-silque. “This is largely due to channel growth globally in the industrial, hospitality and education sectors, as well as new business acquisitions with pan-national and independent OP resellers in markets like Germany and the US. This strategy saw our US business increase by 48% through Q1 2017.”

Fellow viscom vendor GMi Companies is equally positive. Says VP of Sales and Marketing Jim Harter: “2017 was another banner year for us. The decade of the whiteboard continues, with collaboration, communication and learning happening everywhere. We are also finding that people want to be closer to the source of their products, so ‘Made in the USA’ is an important aspect when choosing who to work with and purchase from.” 

Changing times

As technology and social interaction have changed, so too has workspace design. Businesses have now had long-term experience of the pros and cons of open workspaces and the agile workforce, causing them to take a long, hard look at the way forward. 

The open office concept was originally conceived as a way to increase collaboration, transparency and equality in the office. But a recent survey of 90,000 employees by design firm Gensler concluded that, when an open office sacrifices focus for teamwork, both suffer. People who are constantly distracted from their core work grow frustrated and are therefore less likely to collaborate with their co-workers.

An international Ipsos survey commissioned by furniture manufacturer Steelcase also found that 84% of staff reported their work environment did not allow them to concentrate or work without interruption. They saw this lack of privacy as one of the most important office issues that needed tackling.

Balancing this desire for a flexible office space with the needs of individual employees has seen increased attention being given to the acoustic impact of hard, sound-reflective surfaces and the effect this can have in open-plan areas. For the viscom category, this has meant the use of more bulletin board surfaces and acoustic-dampening panels to reduce noise levels within the office and mitigate the disruption this can cause.

“Providing products which are mobile and have noise-cancelling properties that can deal with the challenges of the open office is one of the key office trends today,” says Wright. 

Some workplaces have already introduced silent areas where people can go when they want to concentrate and avoid interruptions, and this is a trend that’s expected to continue in the years to come. 

Connection to others

Social interaction at work is important for maintaining positive morale and sustaining productivity. Without meaningful connections to other people organisations can seem anonymous. And because of the increasing mobility of the workforce and many staff members often located remotely, alternative work strategies must be crafted so that employees don’t lose their sense of belonging. Viscom products can be used to help achieve this, with video and telephone-conferencing systems specifically designed around the needs of both in-house and distributed employees. These are aimed at creating an equal sense of community for both those off-site as well as those physically present.

Alongside this, on-site employees also need areas where they can work collaboratively and firms are increasingly providing dedicated immersive team spaces which give staff a place where they can share and display ideas, thoughts and ongoing work. Providing both the analogue and digital viscom tools necessary for this collaboration and information sharing is obviously vital.

“This key trend centred on collaborative spaces means we’re seeing an increasing interest in a broader assortment of personal decor boards, and a rise in demand for higher performance, mid-sized, dry-erase boards and presentation easels,” says Wright.

Scott Bowers, Director of Product at GMi Companies, picks up on this trend: “As life continues to grow more complicated and technology advances, we’re actually finding more people value the simplicity of dry-erase boards. They are easy to use, effective, and a great way to promote collaboration. They’re still seen as a safe way for people to get their thoughts out and promote an inclusivity of ideas while verbalising and visualising different viewpoints.”

Other viscom products that help promote collaboration and sharing are also expected to do well in 2017. For example, monitor arms that let people turn and show their screen to others nearby are growing more popular and tables with built-in touchscreens, which enable them to collaborate on projects in real time are also being embraced within more workplaces.

Material focus

From a design perspective viscom products are undergoing something of a sea change, driven in part by fashion trends but also by the type of environment in which they are designed to operate. 

Within the traditional office space quality, functionality and products with high aesthetic properties are particularly in demand. “With an increasing requirement for items that fit within the overall office decor we see an opportunity for a hybrid viscom range that integrates well with other workspace furnishings,” says Wright. “We are therefore employing novel construction methods and incorporating new surface substrates into product applications such as easels, wallboards and desks.”

Bowers adds: “We’re reinventing traditional whiteboards and looking to create products with an architectural design element. We’re also exploring how to make glass boards dynamic so they are configurable. This will give people the flexibility to set out their space as they see fit without being tied down to a permanent layout. The days of having a single-purpose product are gone.”

 In industrial environments things are quite different. There is still a need for flexible writing surfaces, but vendors are seeing a greater focus on products that can combine effective communication with productivity tracking and goal setting. This is creating demand for enclosed-display structures and document-display products. 

Meanwhile, in areas such as healthcare where the emphasis is on wellness and improving recovery times, the trends are centred on products that incorporate antimicrobial infection control, and custom boards that can deliver effective communications to both patients and healthcare support teams.

Tracking the technology

Developments in telecoms such as the rise of Skype for Business are also having an effect on the viscom sector according to Alex Mackay, Technology Product Manager at UK wholesaler VOW. “It’s a vital communications package that completely eliminates geographical constraints and is now seen as an essential money and time-saving tool. It also makes completing training courses and exams a lot easier. I recently completed a webinar course from the office. It would have involved a 300-mile round trip before.”

And watch out for the latest marketing buzzword, Unified Communications – or UC – that promises to have an impact on the viscom sector. Put simply, UC refers to the integration of different types of communication tools that help people exchange ideas and do their jobs more effectively.

Some tools, like IP telephony and instant messaging, facilitate synchronous communication in real time. Others, like email or Twitter, employ asynchronous communication where messages are picked up at a later time at a person’s convenience. The goal of UC is to provide the solutions that integrate both synchronous and asynchronous communication so end users have easy access to all possible tools from whatever computing device they are using.

However, technologically speaking, it’s advances in virtual reality (VR) that are taking viscom products to the next level. As an educational tool it offers unparalleled opportunities. School children, for example, can already use it to immerse themselves in a plethora of learning experiences and trainee surgeons are now using it to practice their profession on ‘virtual’ patients before attempting real operations. 

In the traditional workplace, VR will allow people to step into a virtual view that shows what a finished project will look like. For example, a visualisation of a set of floorplans could provide an idea of how a finished space will appear – something that is often difficult for the inexperienced eye to imagine. 

Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, delivers the ability to show how a product or design will look in an existing space by placing a virtual product over the real world view using, for example, the camera on a smartphone or tablet. 

“It’s trends in VR, AR and mixed reality (MR) that are worth keeping a close eye on in my opinion,” says Mackay. “With the technology behind these products advancing rapidly and ever more cutting-edge devices being released on a regular basis, it won’t be long until the market sees the emergence of something truly astounding in the viscom sector.” 

The visual wall

Functional wallcoverings is an emerging, but fast-growing sub-category within the viscom sector. It takes the concept of traditional flipcharts, whiteboards and projector screens and turns them into collaborative walls that you can write on or project onto, effectively making use of an existing vertical surface and reducing clutter within the workspace.

Smarter Surfaces is the company that developed the original Smart Wall Paint in 2009 – a one-coat whiteboard paint that turns any smooth surface into a write-on/wipe-off, dry-erase whiteboard area. Since then, the company has also introduced a blackboard paint and a range of magnetic paints and plaster that can additionally transform walls into magnetic areas. Its latest addition is the Smart Projector Wallcovering, a low-sheen, dry-erase product that turns a wall into a projection surface.

Company Director Denise Doran explains the idea behind the company’s range: “Walls are usually dead. They come alive with products that reduce clutter and transform spaces into areas where employees can effectively communicate together. The workplace environment is changing at a rapid rate and we aim to provide catalysts in meetings and planning sessions that aid professionals in their workplace needs. 

“The office trend towards functional surfaces has had a positive impact on our success, particularly with architects, contractors and interior designers, but also with major corporate companies like Google and Facebook.”

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