Say Cheese! The past and future of the videoconference room camera

The importance of understanding where room-based videoconferencing cameras are heading.

Cisco Speakertrack 60
Credit: Cisco

Enterprise videoconferencing has been around in one form or another for decades. The space has been - and continues to be - owned by many diverse silos (facilities, AV, IT, UC) which is one of the key reasons it is still "seeking its potential" all these years later.

While the latest thinking has videoconference room systems playing a much smaller role in the world of Unified Communications (smaller both in importance and the size of the typical room) it is still an essential tool in an organization's collaboration ecosystem. All of which makes one wonder why the approach to these systems is still so confusing and…well…FUBAR is really the only term to describe it. In this first of a few bogs where I'll address this space, I'll focus on the videoconference room camera.

+ Read parts 2 and 3 of this series: The past and future of the videoconference room, Part 2: The Room | The past and future of the videoconference room, Part 3: The User Interface +

The first videoconference room systems used cameras on top of carts that could move around and zoom-in on whatever the users wanted. This style of camera – the PTZ (for Pan-Tilt-Zoom), is still in use and represents the bare minimum that should be used in a videoconference room of any size. Regrettably, there are a number of manufacturers – from startups to major players – that ignore this minimum and try to get away with fixed-focal-length cameras (webcams) in videoconference rooms.

The webcam is meant to work on a personal device. You're reading this on a PC, tablet, or similar device. Can you touch the camera? If you can, the webcam is perfect to use for videoconferencing. That "arms-length" is the maximum distance where a webcam can convey body language, facial expressions, and all the important non-verbal communication that visual collaboration can provide. However, stick it in the front of the room and it's just a joke.

The hierarchy of cameras for room videoconferencing starts with those two, takes us into better solutions available now, and then peeks into the future:

1. Webcams. Great for personal devices, maybe on the edge of acceptable for small "huddle rooms" that have a handful of people at arms-length from it, but a poor choice absolutely everywhere else. You can look at manufacturers' claim of how many "room systems" they've sold with these poor fixed-focal-length cameras and debunk those claims by analyzing how infrequently they are used for videoconferencing. People hate the experience.

2. PTZ Cameras. The bare minimum that can be used for room-based videoconferencing systems. While these systems can get images close enough to a person to convey the expressions and body language required for effective visual collaboration, they're often a pain in the neck to operate. Users frequently don't take the time to set up the needed shot correctly and/or move the camera around as various people in the room take turns speaking. While they are still the bare minimum, they are quickly being obsoleted by the next level.

3. Dual Tracking Cameras. Two-camera auto-switching systems that follow the conversation. A space begun by Polycom and its Eagle Eye Director, followed by Cisco and its SpeakerTrack system, this represents current best practice in rooms in all conference rooms that aren't huddle rooms. These systems automatically "hear" who is speaking, move a camera to get a good shot, switch to that camera, and get the other camera ready to get the next person speaking.

tracking cameras Polycom and Cisco

Polycom's Eagle Eye Director and Cisco's Speakertrack 60

If everyone starts speaking over everyone else it takes a wide shot and waits til one or two people become the focus again. People who use these systems experience just about the same level of quality and communication that used to require expensive immersive telepresence – at a fraction of the cost and with no special rooms needed. The first camera manufacturer that builds one of these dual-tracking systems that is manufacturer and codec agnostic will severely disrupt the industry.

4. Electronically Tracking Cameras. Representing the next era in visual collaboration, these systems use one or more high-resolution image capture devices and process the images to look like individual camera shots. A new company – Array Telepresence – uses a nascent version of this by placing small cameras between two displays and assembling an immersive telepresence-type image in a processing box that sits between the cameras and the codec device. They are able to manipulate the picture digitally and resize the participants to their liking.

The before and after of electronic image processing Array Telepresence

The before and after of electronic image processing

Cisco also does an early form of this on their immersive IX5000 system, using 4K cameras and electronically manipulating the combined images. In the future, videoconference rooms will use a camera or cameras with a very high resolution (8K or higher image sensor) and electronically "zoom" and "switch" just like the dual-tracking cameras above do.

5. Invisible Cameras. Taking the above concept to the next level, imaging systems in the future will be able to be comprised of an array of cameras (ranging in size from what we have on smartphones now to the size of fiber-optics) embedded around the bezel of room displays. These camera images will be connected to a processor that can create close-up images of anyone in the room – either seated at a table or standing in front of the display. These advances will allow for room collaboration systems to become "electronic windows" with two locations able to use them as if they are standing on opposite sides of a big piece of clear glass.

As room collaboration systems continue to evolve, they will still have an important place in the expanding world of unified communication. Selecting appropriate cameras for these rooms is an important part of ensuring that they remain a useful part of any collaboration ecosystem.

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