The past and future of the videoconference room, Part 2: The Room

Getting to the right answer when picking collaboration systems is never just about the technology. The first step is understanding your use case and environment.

In the first of this series of blogs, I discussed the history and future of videoconferencing cameras. This – part two – comes out of a conversation I had with my friend and industry colleague Simon Dudley on the eternal hardware-vs-software debate. I advocated that apps and software had their place, but nothing will beat the reliability and quality of a dedicated device to complete mission-critical calls. Simon, on the other hand, believes that software codecs and cloud services coupled with good cameras and microphones give a "good enough" quality of experience and make life much more flexible for the users (and less locked-in for the IT department.)

While neither of us is wrong, the lesson here is that each use case and user need is different, and developing a blend of technologies to meet each one is the best practice an organization can follow. The first step in doing that is understanding the nuances of each environment and how collaboration best works within them. Or, in other words, bypass the technology discussion and take a look at the environment – the room.

The first video collaboration systems used in enterprises involved balky carts and completely assumed they’d be located in conference rooms. In today’s world, effective visual collaboration no longer means going to a dedicated room to use installed, expensive technology. In fact, many software firms will point out to you that their desktop or mobile software enables videoconferencing as good as any room ever did – and usually for just a fraction of the cost. Of course, when you try to use their software out of its sweet spot – in an actual conference room - the experience can be awful.

The hierarchy of rooms/spaces/environments for visual collaboration begins with a few flavors of mobility and then progresses through rooms to much larger spaces:

Mobility - Portable

This is most easily identified as the version of mobility without a desk. You may be at a child’s sports match, or the airport boarding gate, or at a conference or seminar. The only tools you have with you are a smartphone or tablet, and the only accessories are the ones you may have with you in your pockets or a small briefcase or purse. In today’s world, it is essential to be able to collaborate with individuals on the road/on the run. These needs are met with a solid personal device that is enabled to connect to any other type of room or system. (This interoperability will not be achieved because of the software or app used, but rather because it connects via a well-designed infrastructure that enables any-to-any collaboration.) The most important tools to carry for this environment are a reliable smart device, a powerful and smart headset, and an extra capacity or spare battery for both. It’s also important to realize that while “one” may be the loneliest number, it is the maximum number of users these tools can support. Don’t try to use a system meant for individuals to support small-group conferencing – it just looks ridiculous on the other end.

Mobility – Traveling

This is a very different version of mobility from the above. When you are frequently on the road you find yourself working from many different locations – including hotel rooms, client offices, airport clubs, office hoteling spaces, etc. To collaborate effectively from these locations you need to have a step-above the portable gear as listed above. While a tablet may be a minimally acceptable device to use in these circumstances, a full notebook computer is the optimal solution for this kind of environment. Here is where the idea of collaboration is more than just seeing the faces of your colleagues. There are usually relevant documents to be shared (or at least referred-to.). Even the best tablets don’t effectively permit multitasking while in a video call. Here as well, a small kit of accessories will prove to be your best friend. This includes a great headset and a power supply for your notebook - and sometimes a portable USB speakerphone can come in very handy. Don’t skimp on the headset, by the way. Get one that can connect to all your devices via Bluetooth and USB and comes with a charging case, making it one purchase for all your needs.

Home Office

This location is used by no one other than yourself, so you can and should take the time to customize it to meet your specific needs. Those customizations might include a number of things. Firstly, I’d add one or more additional displays for your computer. (Having an extended desktop where you always use a non-primary display for sharing makes it simple to keep working on your desktop without pop-ups or other apps showing-up on the far-end.) You should also use a USB speakerphone to make it easy to use IP for your voice calls instead of a traditional phone.

desktop collaboration accessories David Danto

Another often overlooked but important accessory is a dedicated video light - a task lamp aimed at your face with a little sheet of diffusion paper or gel works great in this application and will vastly improve your video image. And instead of just stopping there, a useful upgrade to a higher quality external webcam is also worth investing in. External cameras increase color depth and resolution and provide more adjustment controls for greater flexibility. There are even products on the market that include the camera and USB speakerphone in a single unit. A home office is also the first opportunity in our journey through environments to consider an appliance instead of just software. Appliances are more stable and reliable than software or apps for conferencing, and they are remotely monitorable and manageable – a huge plus when reliability is the key consideration (as in an executive’s home.

Office Desk

For those that still have a permanent office at the firms they work for, correctly equipping it for visual collaboration is not as simple as it seems. All of the nuances described above for the home office apply here too - computer vs. appliance, accessories, lighting etc. But here, the stakes get higher. Is the end-user a visual thinker that uses a whiteboard? How do you ensure that the far-end of any call can see and collaborate with work on it? Does he or she have guests that might need to join a call – either at the desk or at a nearby small table? Giving the private office owner the same technology as the cube-dweller just because it has been deemed your organizations standard is the worst mistake that can be made. Look at products and accessories that can multitask to both support the local use and support remote collaboration – like cameras that can zoom out and move around for a changing number of guests and small whiteboards that can be transmitted remotely. The PC vs appliance decision here should depend on the user. Computer application-based collaboration with USB accessories should be reserved for power-users that are comfortable resolving PC resource conflicts and managing wires that might come loose. Appliances that combine all desktop and visual collaboration functions are still preferred when remote monitoring and pro-active support is preferred to following-up on a blown call – or even worse, a blown external/client-facing call. For larger offices, some organizations skip the personal design entirely and simply emulate the next category.

Huddle Room

The newest and most popular modality of room collaboration is this new classification, sometimes also referred to as team rooms. The concept that created this classification makes perfect sense. Most organizations used to build large conference rooms that were usually not available for many reasons, forcing groups of about three people to wander the halls looking for a place to meet. The industry has now acknowledged that this larger number of smaller meetings is the norm. Organizations need to build lots more of these smaller capacity, lower cost spaces and much fewer of the big, expensive rooms. There are just as many bad solutions being sold to enable these spaces as there are good ones – so users have to be very careful what they install. Step one is to follow the basics that I included in my earlier article on cameras. If you can touch it – at arm’s length from where you are seated – then a web-cam/fixed focal length camera solution is probably OK. If you can’t reach it then you need a PTZ camera – period. The next question is the codec – or the device that is digitizing the audio and video you send and decoding the signals you receive. Are you using a PC for this? That can work, but whose PC are you using? If you are expected to bring your own then you’re going to have to plug that room’s camera and display into it, possibly plug a separate microphone system into it, hope the driver(s) load OK and your screen resolution works, hope you establish a great wired or wireless network connection that will support the needed bandwidth, and hope there is nothing else going on on your PC that would impact video performance. That’s a lot of hoping for a mission-critical call. If you’re using a PC that’s already in the room it solves many of those problems, but then who manages it? Does your enterprise allow generic room log-in accounts for such devices? How do you get your data to it for sharing? These questions are all solvable, but not so easy or straightforward to answer.  

Cisco MX200 Huddle Room Appliance Cisco
Cisco MX200 Huddle Room Appliance

Some organizations decide to avoid the complexities entirely and instead choose to install an appliance in their huddle rooms. A device with a dedicated display, camera, processor and microphone system not only resolves the complexities, but is also usually much more reliable – and is remotely monitorable and supportable via various enterprise management consoles. It’s also more expensive than a PC with a webcam – so the idea that “you get what you pay for” is definitely in play here. (In my conversation with Simon he was very quick to point out that while an appliance brings superb quality at a higher price, it often comes with restrictions that limit interoperability. He likes to opt for a less reliable, good enough huddle room solution that enables users to connect to traditional conferencing systems as easily as an on-line "hangout." I didn’t disagree with that, but I again feel interoperability should be in the realm of a well-designed infrastructure, not in the flexibility of an enterprise user to spin-up a different app for each meeting.)

Meeting Room

This new/old term is beginning to take the place of the dated terms PC Display Room, Conference Room, Videoconference Room and the like at many organizations. This tacitly acknowledges the fact that it’s all about the people who meet and collaborate, not about the technology in the rooms. In the 1980s we used to design these rooms to be able to handle anything that might possibly come up. Every possible feature and component was included in a complex and integrated design meant to handle any situation - and put together by expensive engineers and consulting firms. We then discovered that unless you were said engineer or consultant you couldn’t or didn’t want to go anywhere near the technology in these rooms. They were simply too hard to use. Modern best practice now dictates that our meetings rooms be simple – that they do only one, two, or three things really, really well. Manufacturers in the industry have realized this and have begun to produce all-in-one systems to easily and simply meet the needs of these rooms.

Cisco MX800 and Polycom Medialign 270 Cisco and Polycom
Cisco MX800 and Polycom Medialign 270

These systems require no customized designs and they work the same at every location where they are installed. They also install in hours, not days or weeks like custom rooms used to take. Perhaps more importantly, however, all the components come from one manufacturer. This means there are no difficult integration or programming issues to resolve in a “staging,” and no complex, multi-manufacturer security research to contend with when the latest malware requires a patch. Then, finally, there’s the price consideration. Custom integrated rooms carry costs for all the design, programming, staging, and a week or more of assembly and installation. You can usually get multiple off-the-shelf solutions for the cost of one 1980’s-style integrated room.

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