Top Performers

Everyone knows that first impressions are extremely powerful, so it makes sense for businesses to invest in the latest presentation products. For example, Formula One team Jordan Grand Prix was so impressed with its plasma screen – a top-of-the-range video monitor – that it has bought three more.

A plasma screen’s image is brighter than a PC or laptop monitor and never flickers. Because the screen is about six inches thick, it can be used like a projection screen, although it is limited to 42- or 50-inch diagonals. Suitable for small presentations, this technology is beginning to find its way into offices for video presentations or simple PC displays in boardrooms.

Field marketing company EMS uses plasma screens for some of its presentations. EMS trains sales staff for its hi-tech clients which include Sky, Microsoft and Toshiba, with this technology, keeping them up to date on product developments.

EMS chairman Richard Thompson says: “Plasma screens offer a more personal and intimate approach. When the trainer sits with the audience, its makes the presentation less formal but people still expect a certain level of quality. When we only have 20 minutes, we need to make an impact quickly.”

Sometimes technology moves too quickly and compatibility between different products can become a problem. Plasma screens, for example, are in widescreen format, so they distort computer displays which are a different shape. Windows 98 promises a facility to change the PC display to widescreen format. Until then, users who want a perfect image need a video graphics board accessory for their PCs. The distortion, although slight, is noticeable. Fujitsu sales and marketing manager Mark Dew argues it does not affect the impression plasma makes: “The distortion is only important when there is real detail, such as a spreadsheet.”

Plasma may be making an impact on business presentations, but it is not yet a commodity purchase – the screens cost 6,000 and above. Some office equipment suppliers such as Acco UK believe plasma screens are not yet financially viable.

“The market is very unstable,” says Mark Wilkinson, Acco’s senior marketing executive for computer presentation products. “Plasma is expensive and manufacturers offer a number of formats in terms of size and resolution.”

Even the Asian recession has had an effect. Screens will probably stay the same size for the next couple of years because technology leader Fujitsu has delayed building its new plant, which would be dedicated to making the bigger screens.

High resolution is on the way, however. Plasma screens meeting the XGA-resolution standard for computer monitors should soon be available, making them compatible with the PCs and laptops that will be made after next year. Fujitsu says true XGA plasma screens should be with us by the end of this year.

Mark Iveson, UK sales manager for presentation products distributor RSL, is not convinced, however. “We’ll wait and see what happens,” he says. “There’s often a lot of hype, and then nothing is heard again.”

So there is still a place for projectors. Even the humble projector has benefited from the latest technology. Lighter LCD projectors, for example, can now cast light without sacrificing brightness. Current models plug straight into computers and operators do not need any technical know-how.

At trade shows this year, five kilogram models projected enough light for table-top use and met the XGA-resolution standard. This makes them ideal for projecting PC and laptop displays.

The need for brightness depends on where a projector is used. Specially designed conference rooms can be darkened, bur boardrooms usually lack these facilities, so a brighter model would be needed.

EMS’s Thompson advises buyers to choose one with several inputs so users can plug in a video recorder alongside a PC if necessary. For best results, the resolution of your projector should match that of your PC or laptop. If you do not find one that meets the XGA-specification, software in the projector should be able to compress images to fit its capabilities. Alternatively, you can lower the resolution of your monitor.

LCD projectors cost between 3,000 and 6,000 but Acco’s Wilkinson expects prices to fall over the next few years. Meanwhile, a range of digital technologies which could replace LCD are on their way. Digital light amplification will give projectors the same quality as workstations. RSL’s Iveson says digital’s greatest strength is reproducing computer screens to a higher quality, but it can also reproduce video to a higher quality.

Usually, a presenter has to stay close to the computer if he wants to interact with it during a presentation. This detracts from the presentation as it divides the audience’s attention between the projector and the projection screen. The Smart Board projection screen, which has a touch screen surface, aims to bridge the gap. Users can move text and open applications simply by touching the screen, so there is no longer any need for a mouse.

“Users can control the presentation from the board and focus attention even more,” says RSL’s Iveson, whose company distributes them in the UK. “They save time and increase audience participation and information retention, because there’s no need to take notes.”

While Smart Board draws on touch screen technology, SoftBoard uses a pair of laser scanners to sweep the board at a rate of around 400 times per second. The scanners track barcoded pens, which enable SoftBoard to register different colours as well as save the text.

SoftBoard can be used as a flip chart by attaching sheets of paper to its porcelain-on-steel surface. Kim Menen, managing director of European SoftBoard distributor Mayflower Advanced Meeting Solutions, says it lasts longer than the membrane of a touchscreen: “You cannot puncture the SoftBoard, so we offer a lifetime guarantee.”

The plasma model is even more expensive than SoftBoards, which cost between 3,000 and 4,000. Launched last month, this costs from 15,000 to 25,000 for a 50-inch diagonal screen. Apart from improving the standard of presentations, the plasma board also saves up to 1.5 metres of space. Compared with projectors at the front of screens, no one gets in the way of the beam.

A cheaper alternative is the Nobo Interactive Flipchart that lacks the software to interact with computer displays on screen. Its electronic sensor saves text as a PC file and the wire mesh behind the screen is so sensitive it picks up the thickness of a marker pen as well as its location when it touches the board. The flipchart costs between 1,000 and 2,500 depending on the size.

Although technology has improved presentation products, it is companies that raise service levels that tend to stand out from the others. Projector developer Sony Broadcast and Professional Europe is recruiting dealers and distributors for a scheme to promote quality care. The company will award Focused Expertise marks to dealers which give demonstrations, install its products and employ technology experts to talk with customers about their needs. The scheme covers three categories – audio-visual production, fixed presentations and presentation products for business users.

Tripta Dogra, Sony’s marketing manager for displays products, says: “If users buy the wrong product they will leave it to gather dust in a storeroom and won’t come back to us. If they don’t know what they want, they should visit a good audio-visual dealer who can give specialist advice.”

Fashion still plays a role in the business presentation market. Discerning customers want more discreet means of making presentations. For ten years, RSL has produced the Media Wall, a structure found in boardrooms which co-ordinates audio-visual technology. Taking up one side of a room, the custom-built units match the surrounding decor, so that wires are concealed. When needed, doors swing open to reveal the projection screen.

Last month, RSL launched the much smaller Presentation Credenza. More of a digital sideboard than a media wall, the projection screen rises from its depths at the touch of a button.

“The Credenza is very James Bond,” admits Iveson. “But people love the minimalist effect.”