Future calling

After years of hype, videoconferencing is finally breaking into the pro-AV mainstream. Dan Goldstein looks at the business, technology and human factors behind the growth

Popular wisdom suggests that videoconferencing business should be booming. Travel costs are spiralling, so any technology that helps a business to reduce those costs ought to be gaining traction. There is also pressure on companies to cut the size of their carbon footprint, and ‘VC’ can help there, too.

Yet many in the pro-AV industry still perceive videoconferencing as something of a sideshow – a market which, despite the hype surrounding it, has remained on the periphery of their business and has somehow never quite fulfilled its potential. The fact that some VC solutions, particularly high-end systems such as telepresence, have been marketed by IT companies hasn’t helped. Nor has the growth in popularity of PC desktop-based end points which, by definition, would tend to be an IT department’s domain.

At the core of a successful and enjoyable videoconference, however, are disciplines that no self-respecting AV integrator can afford not to have in their toolkit. Ray McGroarty, Solutions Marketing Director, Polycom EMEA, highlights three key areas.

“The first is video quality. High-definition is nine times the resolution of standard def, and that has made a huge difference. Then there’s sound. We now have a kind of ‘HD audio’ which has a stereo component to it. If someone is talking from the far left of the picture, then that is where the sound appears to come from. Also, we have gone from a 3kHz upper frequency limit, which was the telco standard, up to 22kHz which is beyond most human hearing.

“The third driver is content. It’s now as easy to connect your PC to a videoconferencing system as it is to connect it to a projector. And there have been huge advances in compatibility. If you can see it on your computer screen, then that is what the other party will see at the other end of the call. There used to be certain limitations – like having to use a larger font size, for example – and those no longer apply.”

Potentially, there’s a double whammy here for pro-AV. End customers no longer need the services of a ‘man in a white coat’ to connect their computers to a videoconference. At the same time, HD video signal management, stereo microphone placement, image processing and audio DSP are all things the average IT professional – whether an installer or a facilities manager – knows little about, and probably cares less.

But while it might be one thing to design and install a comprehensive VC setup which, to use McGroarty’s phrase, “enhances the experience” for the customer, that alone may not be enough. The fact that so many VC calls are international means there is still a need for a certain amount of hand-holding once a project has been signed off, for reasons that are cultural and linguistic as much as technical.

Talk & Vision, the Dutch-based VC distributor which is a partner for Polycom, Tandberg and Sony, has steadily expanded its offering over the past decade by growing geographically – first into neighbouring Belgium and Germany and now, with the opening of a London office later this year, the UK. The man heading up the new UK operation is Scott Taylor, who has seen the videoconferencing industry change dramatically since he began working in it 12 years ago.

While Taylor’s six-year involvement with Tandberg makes him well-placed to demonstrate and sell systems, it is the service side of the VC business that he feels has the greatest potential: “It’s the hand-holding, launching calls for people, saying hello and making sure everything is all right, plus all the back-end engineering that’s required for that. That’s the way the market has gone. If videoconferencing has a reputation for being unreliable, it’s not the kit’s fault, it’s the fault of the people using it. In the same way that you would outsource your print or email servers, so as videoconferencing becomes infrastructure-based, it’s going the same way.”

Taylor’s reference to infrastructure is important because, as the VC industry matures, it is inevitably converging with others, and not just the obvious IT and telecoms spaces. With its IPELA offering, Sony has championed compatibility between its videoconferencing and security camera product lines. Fumihiko Kawamura, Product Marketing Manager for IPELA, believes such a one-stop shop solution will have a particular resonance in markets such as telemedicine.

“Imagine a private hospital where each bedside has a videoconferencing unit, as well as a security camera,” says Kawamura. “A patient in that hospital can push a button on the wall that links to the VC system so that they can see who’s coming into the ward. On the other side of the door, you’ve got hospital staff who can monitor the progress of the patient remotely, and also use videoconferencing to connect them to the patient’s doctor who might be at home.”

This brings us nicely to the subject of remote working and whether or not desktop PC solutions such as Skype have a place in the videoconferencing scheme of things. The consensus seems to be that they don’t, and for a number of reasons.

“Think of a typical, hospital diagnostic conversation, which is pivotal to a patient’s well-being,” says Kawamura. “Should that conversation take place over Skype, or should it be over a reliable, dedicated, standalone product that offers superior quality in both image and sound?”

As well as the quality and reliability of the VC connection itself, there is also the matter of the immediate environment surrounding the call, which, as Taylor points out, significantly damages the appeal of desktop solutions.

In the workplace, Taylor believes that people “don’t want an open-plan office, with all its associated noise” around them when they’re in the middle of a VC call. “They want to go into a dedicated room. Vodafone’s headquarters is a good example of that. Their reception area has little pods that you go into that have a flat screen on the wall and a camera, and you go in there and have your meeting.”

Taylor sums up his argument by saying that there is “a technology push, but not necessarily a user pull” towards PC-based videoconferencing. And even the technology can’t be taken for granted. “Video takes up a lot of bandwidth, and most IT people don’t want that running across their network. The cost per seat of rolling out a desktop solution might seem low initially, but if you have to upgrade all your networks, routers and so on, suddenly it becomes a much more expensive project.”

On the other hand, Polycom’s McGroarty believes that the trend towards video on the desktop, while currently slow-moving, will build in momentum with time. “Demographically, the next wave of people to come into business will be from the Skype and MSN generation,” he points out. “They will be put behind desks and told that they need to ‘build relationships’ with colleagues and customers. And their response will be ‘how do I do that if I only have e-mail and a phone?’ They are used to using video as a communications tool, and they will insist on having it on their desktop.”

Until that happens, McGroarty sees a kind of ‘trickle-down’ effect within businesses, whereby the upper echelons of management are the first to experience videoconferencing, and then preach those benefits to staff working at more junior levels: “If, as a company over the past 5-10 years, you’ve done all the downsizing and outsourcing and all that good stuff, you’ve got multiple locations and multiple teams to manage. So travel has become a huge cost for companies and, as senior people within enterprises see the difference that videoconferencing can make in controlling their own costs, so they pass that experience down the line to people beneath them.”

This results in what McGroarty terms “enterprise-wide deployment” for which a fully scalable and compatible suite of VC solutions is necessary. “You’ve got to have scalability,” he says. “What we’re seeing is companies opting for telepresence in the locations to and from which employees travel most. But it’s expensive – we’re talking tens of thousands to add a site, compared with (literally) tens to add a desktop the network. So what you need is a backbone that will allow several different kinds of end point to talk to one another.”

Then there is the simple fact of life that VC calls, just like regular, single-site office meetings, don’t always go according to plan. “Very often in meetings, you get to the point where nobody in the meeting knows the answer to something,” says McGroarty. “So at that point you need to bring in a third party, and they might be in an office or they might be working from home. It’s not unusual now for people to have two video communications systems – one for the office and another for home. But you have to be sure that there is compatibility between them, and that everyone can see, and hear, one another.”

Inevitably, not all end-points in a VC network – especially if it’s a large, international network that has been rolled out over time – are going to be of the same technological generation. As Sony’s Kawamura points out, this creates a need for backwards compatibility with legacy equipment: “Enterprises don’t want to have to install a complete system from scratch just because they’re upgrading to HD. Their rooms will have AMX or Crestron command settings, for example, that were written for SD equipment. So we need to ensure that customers aren’t dissuaded from upgrading.”

Thanks to advancing technology, plenty more of that upgrading will be possible – and, in many cases, desirable – in the months and years to come. Returning to his three ‘experience enhancers’ of image, sound and content, Ray McGroarty offers an intriguing template. “With video, we’re currently running what I’d call consumer HD – 720p. That will go up to 1080p in the very near future, and that will be driven by telemedicine for which resolution is so critical.

“For audio, one possible further development would be better spatialisation. If you had sufficiently sophisticated microphones, auto-mixing and DSP, you could divide the room at each end-point into audio zones and those zones would be reflected in the audio at the other end. That would lead to a more natural meeting experience.

“And with content, you can definitely foresee a demand for 3D. If the customer wants to not just see a design but be able to look all the way around it, you could do that with CAD software and that would potentially be a very useful tool in industrial design, for example.”

So…we’ve got 1080p video, multi-zoned audio and 3D imaging as future drivers for the videoconferencing industry. And if the pro-AV business can’t exploit that opportunity, it surely would only have itself to blame.

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