House Science Committee digitizes hearing room

As the 106th Congress heads into a legislative year with such high-profile technology issues as the Year 2000 problem and aviation modernization on the agenda, the stage on which many of these issues will play out has undergone a major multimedia makeover.

After a four-month facelift, the main hearing room of the House Science Committee, located in the Rayburn House Office Building, has reopened for hearings. Congressmen, witnesses and hearing attendees all are enjoying new gadgets designed to make hearings more informative and interactive.

The committee has supplanted the plain-vanilla public-address sound system and standard VCR-TV cart with a digital audio system, a DVD player, flat-screen video monitors and other tools that will allow hearing witnesses to use modern technology - rather than massive paper charts and wooden pointers - to present their testimony.

For example, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin last month used one of the massive video projection screens at the back of the room, which congressmen can view easily, to show computer-generated video clips dramatizing NASA's planned missions to other planets.

The new video system also allows witnesses to pull up and display World Wide Web sites during testimony - a feature likely to be welcomed by witnesses who want to give the committee the freshest possible information, such as online reports or news stories.

"Information is power, and these days, [having] as much information as we can get our hands on, we need a way to display it," said Jeff Fink, senior account executive with Signal Perfection Ltd., the company that put the new audio and video systems in place for the committee.

Changes in maintenance contracts helped the committee pull together the money it needed to undertake the project, a committee spokesman said. In all, putting the new video and audio equipment into the room cost about $400,000, Fink said. The new sound and video infrastructure, which can be upgraded further at any time, should last the committee for about a decade, he said.

Included in the package are three small cameras - two aimed at committee members and one aimed at panelists. The cameras capture the images that the committee needs to broadcast its hearings live over the Internet. Signal Perfection wrote software to allow the cameras to operate without a human camera operator. The cameras, which are linked to the sound system, zero in on whoever is speaking, and when two people are speaking - two congressmen, for example - the cameras will focus on whoever has seniority in the hearing room, Fink said.

For the audience, two large flat-screen TVs show hearing attendants the same images that committee members see on the projection screen at the back of the room. The committee also installed a large-screen TV directly in front of the witness table. Not only can the new video system display "canned" video presentations from DVDs or videocassettes, it also can bring far-away witnesses into the hearing via video teleconferencing, or it can display TV programs or live shots from the floor.

The room's audio equipment also has a high-tech spin. When a committee member or witness speaks, equipment installed by Signal Perfection determines which microphone is being used. Other microphones nearby remain on, but the equipment adjusts the sound level on those microphones to get the best sound mix for the room, Fink said.

Lewis Goetz, principal in Greenwell Goetz Architects in Washington, D.C., said equipping meeting space with the freshest technology is becoming more common, even within government. "I think the government is embracing it as much as anybody," he said.

But in embracing technology for presentations, users should make sure the technology they put in place is not so unique that it cannot be replaced or upgraded easily, and they should make sure that a room is designed to accommodate future technology, according to Goetz. "As we all know, technology is one thing that changed very, very rapidly," he said. "And you don't want to do things that block your punt, so to speak."


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