VC grows up

High-definition videoconferencing, transmission optimization and the widespread use of consumer solutions have made VC a real alternative to face-to face meetings. Geny Caloisi explores the options available and finds out if 2011 is the year for VC.

Videoconferencing is growing rapidly with the global market expected to jump to around $8.6 billion (€6.4 billion) in 2013 from around $4.9 billion in 2010, according to research firm Gartner.

Companies today need to be more efficient, cut costs and extend global reach. Product advances and interoperability, together with better bandwidth and more accessible offerings, are allowing small and larger enterprises to integrate end-to-end visual communications into corporate workflow.

Other factors such as natural disasters and rising air fares, have also hyped the awareness of companies on the advantages that VC can bring to their business.
Roland Dreesden, managing director at AV specialist Reflex confirmed that over the past three years his business has increased by more than 200% with the largest increase in the last year.

Ray McGroarty, solutions director of Polycom EMEA, says that the company has seen a growing demand for not just video, but also audio conferencing, especially for Polycom’s HD audio systems.

However, Mike MacCarthy, major accounts manager for UK and Ireland at LifeSize argues that everybody needs video. “When you have a conference between more than two people, if you don’t have the visual cue of who is talking, the meeting is less efficient. Also by using video participants need to pay attention, they can’t be multitasking.”
Since its conception LifeSize, now a division of Logitech, has always offered HD video. HD has at last bridged the distance gap between people, offering a more ‘human’ kind of interaction – with better image quality and shorter audio delays.

However, Ian Vickerage, director of Imago, Europe's largest distributor of video conferencing products, highlights the importance of using AV expertise to offer the best solution. “VC is a complex application to get right,” he says. “When I talk to integrators, they all say that these days they never see a brief that doesn’t include VC. But they need to have a set of expertise that is very specific to the AV industry to do a good job.”

Trends – video everywhere
Peter Magg, director at Haivision, maintains that the issue today is not just about VC, it’s about video all around us. The company recently bought CoolSign, a digital signage manufacturer and Magg says this is the way it’s going to be, video everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it is one-way, like signage or video capture; or two-way video, as it is in VC.
According to Vickerage, it is essential to ask the client what the VC application is going to be. Then, the integrators need to understand the technical requirements and the network it’s going to run on. They also need expertise in route design, audio, and video performance.
“VC everywhere” also means that we cannot ignore its extension into desktop and mobile solutions that allow remote workers to hook into conferences from where ever they happen to be. The role of a conferencing manager is changing, having increasing involvement with IT.

Paul Mackenzi, VC accounts manager at UK based system integrator ProAV, says: “We have noticed that end user requests for VC have risen and not just for physical end point systems but for all manner of VC related opportunities.”

He highlights webcasting, recording of VC sessions, room rental, hire of VC systems, procurement of the systems and more prevalent the upgrading of old traditional ISDN based Standard Definition systems for the newer HD systems operating over the corporate WAN’s.
An emerging trend the AV industry also needs to understand and embrace is cloud computing.

Many companies are looking to locate their VC solution in the cloud because of the advantages that integrating cloud-based applications - such as customer relationship management (CRM), remote maintenance/server virtualization and email security - could bring to their business, versus installing a standalone VC.

Stepping ahead on the trend, Polycom has recently announced a strategic relationship with Microsoft to provide end-to-end Unified Communication (UC) solutions. Polycom, a Microsoft Gold Certified partner, has enhanced its comprehensive portfolio of voice and video solutions for Microsoft Lync Server 2010.

The Polycom HDX series telepresence systems, the RMX conference platform and Polycom UC Intelligent Core Infrastructure are the industry's first telepresence solutions designed to be fully interoperable with Microsoft Lync. The Polycom CX500 and CX600 UC devices and the Polycom CX3000 IP conference phone, are also the only conference phones optimised for Lync.

Cisco has spent a lot of time this year building out not only its video portfolio, but also its broader UC portfolio, in line with its integration of Tandberg and a number of new UC and collaboration initiatives. One key release will be the Cisco Cius, a 1.5-pound, Android-based tablet device with a front-mounted 720p HD camera, a 7-inch VGA touch-target display, a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and 8 hours of battery life. Cisco is in field trials with the Cius now and is expected to release it early in the new year.

Another trend is the developing relationship between IT and VC. Mike Phillpot, marketing manager at ProAV said: “We have had more cross over enquiries from the IT sector heads of departments needing information on integrated room based video solutions as well as the desire for their people to have desktop and software video communication capabilities delivered to the desktop and tele-workers.”

What have we learned?
In the past couple of years, VC vendors brought us Telepresence (TP), which has been instrumental to making VC what it should have been for the past 20 years: an efficient business tool.

Andrew Davis, from Wainehouse Research, explains: “One of the lessons we learned from telepresence is how important good sound, video and lighting is. TP is VC with rules. Manufacturers created rooms where the space was set up in a controlled way. The microphones, cameras, lights and furniture, have to be arranged in a way to give the user the best experience he or she can have. Applying these rules people truly get the impression of being in the same room with others that might be across the Atlantic.”

But TP is not for everyone. It is very expensive. In many cases it needs to be manned in order to fulfill service reliability and not every company has the required space to set up a TP room.

“We’ve seen now all integrators shipping multicodec systems as kits, allowing them to integrate more flexible systems that makes sense for the customer,” Davis said.
For these reasons, Davis argues that TP as such, is vanishing, giving way to properly implementing VC.

The technology
When we talk about what video conferencing technology there is in the market, there are two groups: the firmware manufacturers and the software vendors.

Firmware based systems, that provide the traditional VC infrastructure, have well known players such as Polycom, Cisco/Tandberg, and Lifesize.

Software based infrastructure vendors include Radvision, Vidyo and BrightCom. Skype should be mentioned in this group as, although it is mainly for personal use, it is investing money on business applications and is being used by more and more professionals.

Both hardware and software approaches have advantages depending on the application. We should not think of them as new and legacy; both are valid options today.

A multi-way videoconference will have to run the video streams through an MCU or go through a gateway product.

Multiple signals are transcoded and then re-coded into a single signal. One of the big issues this industry has had for many years is interoperability amongst different brands and VC systems. Now the industry is advancing in establishing common standards, such as H.264 video encoding, that allows end units from different makes to connect to each other.

Polycom telepresence solutions lead the industry with support for standard-based H.264 High Profile technology, which reduces bandwidth requirements for HD video communication by up to 50% while also working with Lync.
Bandwidth is always an issue. Ofer Shapiro, founder of Vidyo, has been working on video optimisation for a number of years. He was one of the first people looking into Scalable Video Coding (SVC) as the solution to package loss and better video quality in reduced bandwidth. The advantage of SVC is that it allows adjustment of video streaming depending on what end point it is going to be watched in. And, as a consequence of its scalability, it creates a more efficient transmission with less package loss.

Polycom said it is developing H.264 SVC technology for future deployments - made available at no cost to strategic partners that support open standards. It also confirmed ‘universal bridging’ capabilities for the current Polycom UC Intelligent Core platform that will enable bridging between emerging protocols such as H.264 SVC, Telepresence Interoperability Protocol, Jingle and others.

Where is the market growing?
Dresden says that at Reflex they still see a massive growth potential in videoconferencing. “The introduction of HD solutions, good quality desktop solutions and immersive telepresence systems will help to drive VC. Additionally there are requirements to record and stream video, bring live TV to the desktop and video to digital signage solutions. The convergence of AV technologies and IT solutions from the likes of Cisco and Microsoft is confusing for clients and it is not altogether clear how this will benefit them.”

“We see very large growth potential in the large corporate market, universities, and healthcare. The SME sector is also crying out for a simple way to implement some of these technologies to deliver clear business benefits,” added Dresden.

McGroarty said: “Some applications were not really possible before HD. Things like telemedicine, for instance are galloping ahead thanks to better image quality and standardisation that allows VC to connect with other equipment, including X-Ray machines. Experts can be brought in virtually and people can carry out more comprehensive discussions.”

Polycom itself has reduced its training and recruitment expenditure by using video conferencing, McGroasty noted.

For ProAV, the market growth seems to be with clients wishing to expand control of their Communication Networks and centralise the video offering with the capability to manage and distribute video, audio and data seamlessly. But, security is top on the agenda so firewall devices and enterprise video networks are being invested in which has led to us seeing an increase growth in border controllers and infrastructure products sitting within and on the edge of clients networks. This drives desktop applications, along with all the associated unified communication system sales too.

So, is 2011 the year for VC? (I seem to have heard that statement last year, and the one before that…) Experts think there will be good growth and advances in the next couple of years. But it won’t be until 2013 that we will see VC working harmoniously everywhere.

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