Apr 15 2014

Setting Up a Killer Audio/Visual System for Your Office

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Most companies don’t know that you can remotely control your displays for only $35 apiece. Think of the potential: Showing off employee work, office photos, company metrics. As a company that has a super collaborative work environment, we wanted to harness the potential to share more. We realized we could really soup up our visual system for our office — and not spend too much.

As a design agency, we use mounted TVs during morning scrum to present our work, show newly launched sites during lunch, display Betterment blog and Filament metrics above our desks, and put ongoing design work up for coworker feedback throughout the day. How could your office benefit from easy-to-use displays?

While we’ve refined our use of visuals, we’ve also tried out different solutions with our audio system. We haven’t landed on a perfect setup for our space yet, but it’s in beta (and still pretty killer). Great visuals need great audio, and we enjoy streaming music over the office speakers while we’re working.

Here’s how we made our audio/visual system hands-off, reliable, and impactful. Read on to learn about the pros, cons, and general advice about the equipment we’ve tried.

Our Visual SetupAnimated GIF infographic of a monitor displaying a webpage from a browser via Chromecast.

There’s something to be said for making data and your work visible. Too often, great ideas get stuck in a long lost Google Doc. Give your office more opportunities to share, get feedback, and monitor data, and fewer gems will get lost in the shuffle.

You’ll first need to find TVs or monitors (Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon are all go-to’s), and then figure out the optimal places to mount the displays. We went with TVs because they have a HDMI port and built-in speakers. After those steps are settled, you can move onto the fancy-yet-affordable equipment.

ChromecastA photo of our team gathered around a big monitor. One team member is chromecasting a web design from his laptop.

Brought to you by Google, Chromecast is an affordable solution for displaying any given tab in your Chrome browser. We use this HDMI stick to quickly show our work. Chromecast is used primarily on our displays for sharing at lunch, during scrum, and designs in progress (which are on 50” displays right above the designers’ desks).

We think Chromecast is an awesome tool for quickly showing our work and often changing what we’re showing on the display. However, this device doesn’t maximize the display’s HD abilities when casting a web page (currently capped at 720p). If you’re looking for crisp, pre-determined visuals (like a metrics dashboard), look no further than Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry PiThree team members gathered around a monitor showing metrics in a colorful dashboard.

Want to equip your office with metrics dashboards? We’ve found that Raspberry Pi is an excellent tool for clean visuals that you set up in advance. For instance, at DT we created custom dashboards with Dashing, which we then pointed our Raspberry Pis to. With Dashing we set up how often we want the metrics to refresh, and the Raspberry Pi happily displays the information with crisper visuals than the Chromecast.

Why else didn’t we use Chromecast to show our dashboards? Well, a major advantage of Raspberry Pi is that it doesn’t need a designated computer in the office to be in charge of displaying the given tab all the time. This way a computer going to sleep or getting shut down doesn’t affect the display. You also don’t need to buy, set up, and power yet another full-on computer.

What exactly is a Raspberry Pi? It’s a tiny USB-powered computer running Linux. Sure, it’s a slow-as-molasses computer, but it’s pretty cool to use this little device.

Pro tip: We installed a great app on our Raspberry Pi called Unclutter, which hides that stubborn mouse cursor on the dashboard display.

Our Audio Setup

While we’re very happy campers with the visual side of our setup, our audio is still in progress. We’re testing out different solutions that will make everyone in the office the happiest. Here’s what we’ve been trying lately:

With the help of Apple’s Airplay, we send music from any Apple device to our Airplay-enabled speakers. We use Spotify, Pandora, Rdio from one designated laptop, as well as beaming our own playlists to the Airplayable speakers.

The main problem with any audio solution is sound distribution throughout the office. Balancing the sound to a good volume for everyone — and not blasting one section of the office — is key. To indulge our audiophilia, we’ve also experimented with a wireless Sonos speaker, but a single speaker leaves part of the office too quiet if other sections aren’t too loud.

Another obstacle in setting up office audio how to determine who’s controlling the playlist. So far we’ve had a system where people can jump in and take over the music, but we’re looking to automatically “stack” the playlist in the order that songs are requested. That way each person can more fairly contribute to the queue.

The Cost

Chromecast:

The plugin is free, and the device is around $30 per display.

Raspberry Pi:

A starter kit will be around $70. We got this kit, but you can get less expensive ones if you don’t need wi-fi or already have your HDMI cable.

For audio, AirPlay is enabled in certain devices, so it’s just a matter of keeping an eye out for your equipment’s capabilities.

Final Thoughts

A simple setup with great technology can jumpstart the functionality of your workspace. Not only do you reap the benefits of better communication among peers by showing and explaining work, displaying important metrics, and setting the mood with music, you also get an office that greets visitors (clients, prospective employees, friends, family) with a strong sense of who this company is.

Our next steps are to polish our audio setup, and also add more displays for client metrics for our account strategists, an interactive display for guests, and more.

Do you plan to soup up your audio/video system? Have you had success with other tools than the ones we mentioned? We want to learn how you’ve improved your office and plan to in the future.

About the Author:

Dan Trenkner is a long-time employee and art director of Digital Telepathy. He loves elevating brand experiences through design. He stays inspired through traveling, surfing and cooking. You can find him on Instagram and Dribbble.

Leave a Response

7 Responses

  1. Apr 16 2014
    Dave

    Soundrop app for spotify gets a lot of time at our office and is perfect for stacking up requested songs, unfortunately the only drawback being limited to spotify’s library.

    • Apr 21 2014
      Dan Trenkner

      Nice, I just downloaded the app. So you guys just create a private “room” for you office?

  2. Apr 17 2014
    Lew

    That Raspberry Pi is very cool. I wanna get one just to play with.

  3. Apr 18 2014
    Tom

    Sonos enables easy (and perfect) synchronization of music across multiple speakers, and stays in sync better than Airplay. Plus, like the Rasberry Pi, it doesn’t require that any sending device remain connected – you just use the clients to set the playlist up, but the Sonos system itself takes care of playing them.

    • Apr 21 2014
      Dan Trenkner

      I didn’t realize you can use Sonos with your existing speakers, it looks like all you need is the Sonos amp. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Apr 22 2014
    Brad Parnell

    Great post, thanks for sharing! We just moved into our new open concept office and we just installed our second TV and second Chrome Cast and it’s been great for throwing up our project management dashboard, or design ideas to review quickly. We also are experimenting with streaming audio. We have a community iMac playing Pandora or Rdio that we Airplay through speakers but I’ve been curious about the Sonos system as well. Look forward to hear what solution you guys end up using.

  5. Apr 23 2014
    sam

    Hi, How easy is raspberry PI to set up, I want to be able to sync my dashboards from my PC to a TV above my desk for my team to view but want to learn more about the compatibility side.