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.

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