A group of my colleagues from different offices recently attempted a multi-party videoconference, brutally showing the continued need for a better method of video communication.
While three of us were fine with our individual laptops, webcams and headsets, another participant joined with two people sharing one notebook where the audio was horrendous -- they didn't have a headset or good microphone.
Three other people on the call also shared one notebook -- they were in a conference room and setup their notebook at the end of the conference room table so we could see all three of them in the single shot. But this meant that they had to shout for the entire meeting in order to be heard on the notebook's microphone.
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Clearly, we would have been better off with an in-room videoconferencing system, but the high costs of those systems ($5,000 to $10,000 in some cases) prevent most offices from investing in them. While you may see interest from large corporations for their executives, it's highly unlikely that ground troop-level employees will have the access (or skills) to setup and use these, especially for ad hoc, on-the-fly sessions with multiple attendees in different locations.
One company is attempting to change this or help alleviate some of this pain. TelyLabs, which created its TelyHD videoconferencing system last year for consumers, launched a Business Edition in November. I was able to test out a unit recently -- and it could help SMBs or branch offices to enjoy some of the in-room videoconferencing benefits.
The TelyHD hardware itself includes a built-in HD camera (720p resolution) along with dual microphones. The system attaches to a TV or monitor with HDMI inputs (a very nice bracket system lets you place the unit securely on top of the display). Network connectivity is achieved through an Ethernet cable, or you could try this with a Wi-Fi connection (although the company warns that multi-party calls could suffer via Wi-Fi or powerline network adapters). Users navigate and configure the TelyHD software via an included remote control.
Like the consumer edition, the unit uses Skype protocols to initiate videoconferencing sessions with other Skype contacts (or, if you have Skype credit, you can call a regular phone number). The Business Edition upgrades the TelyHD unit to the newer version (via a software upgrade code), which then allows for multi-party (up to six parties) conferencing, desktop sharing (via a Windows app) and improved video stream quality (via the company's own cloud-based technology. While you can still make one-to-one video calls via Skype, the multi-party feature requires that everyone have a TelyHD unit (at least for video, audio-only calls can be made through Skype).
In the case of document sharing, the host of a meeting can stream their PowerPoint presentation to the TelyHD unit, for example, allowing everyone else to see the presentation. TelyLabs has also created some apps that allow users to display photos through the system via a smartphone/tablet, or use that smartphone/tablet as the remote control/navigation system for the TelyHD unit.
The Business Edition costs $500 for the hardware, and a subscription is required to access the multi-party conferencing feature (at$200 per year, although the first year is free with the purchase of the TelyHD unit).
There were some downsides of the system/service. Testing this at our own corporate offices, we got lower video quality due to a "strong firewall" that seemed to be slowing down the stream. This meant we would have needed IT support in order to allow specific ports on the network to be opened. This could be troublesome for branch office employees attempting to configure a unit.
In addition, the service is limited to Skype-based calls and the company's own service for multi-party calls. It would be nice to be able to use the camera and speakers for PC-based webcam chats or offerings -- for example, using this for a FaceTime, Google+ session via my PC/Mac, or connecting to a different telepresence system.
For the latter issue, TelyLabs this week announced an Enterprise Edition, which features built-in support for the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard and support for connecting to the Blue Jeans Network, a service the provides interoperability for Webcam users and hardware that includes Cisco, Polycom, LifeSize, Skype, Microsoft Lync and Google. However, the Enterprise Edition doesn't support multi-party calls like the Business Edition, so companies would need to choose between having multi-party calls or tying into a SIP-based system.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five)