What happened to the conference phone?

It wasn’t all that many years ago that every project had a 3-pointed conference telephone on the table, with a cable snaking off to the wall or, if we were lucky, disappearing down through a hole in the table top.  Then along came video conferencing, first in large complex rooms, and now everywhere.  An article a couple of years ago in the Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2018/06/stop-scheduling-conference-calls-and-finally-commit-to-videoconferencing urged this along; give up your telephone conference system, you can do more with video.  And in many ways we have.

But the needs for telephone conferencing haven’t completely gone away.  For starters, users know that good audio is the basis for any conference call, and if you can’t hear, you’re wasting your time.  They also know that the reliability of video calling isn’t always there, and they suffer with dropped audio, microphones that are too far away, and the hassle of connecting their laptop just to make a phone call.  So as designers, where have we gone with systems for voice-only conferencing?

In simple spaces, we’ve built on the users’ acceptance of devices on the conference table, a microphone at arm’s length.  We’ve provided USB microphone pucks for close pickup, and multiple small wireless mics that drop into a charger.  The same pucks can link to a smartphone, providing natural-sounding voice to small groups.  Larger rooms will have installed microphones and electronics, and VoIP telephone connections.  We provide a dial keypad, retaining the familiar telephone layout we all know.

I’ve no doubt that telephone-only needs will decline over time, as video conferencing systems mature.  But for now, we frequently include it, and we always ask.