The past and future of the videoconference room, Part 3: The User Interface

The user interface for videoconference rooms has come a long way – and has a brighter, simpler future.

In the first of this series of blogs, I discussed the history and future of videoconferencing cameras, in the second I discussed the hierarchy of rooms/spaces/environments for visual collaboration. This – part three – is about how to use the darned things.

From the earliest days of technology in enterprise conference rooms the user interface (UI) has been a contentious, problematic and difficult part of users’ satisfaction with that technology. All UIs have to achieve a balance between simplicity and power. The more that they can do, the harder they are to operate. So because videoconferencing has traditionally been hard, the UI has needed to do a lot to meet the needs.

When I worked for Michael Bloomberg he once described to me his vision of a perfect UI as consisting of two buttons. Pressing the first would read his mind and do whatever he was thinking he wanted. Pressing the second would make both buttons go away till he needed them again. While I’ve been striving for that simplicity for the many years since he mentioned it, we’re not quite there yet – but we’re closer now than ever.

Looking back at when videoconference rooms first came to the enterprise, they came with the same hand-held remote controls we used to use for projectors and TVs. The problem with them was that you needed more than ‘power, volume and channel’ to operate a videoconference device. These remotes were packed with buttons – and complexity – which put-off typical users.

Past Videoconference System Remote Controls Polycom, Tandberg

Past Videoconference System Remote Controls

I remember attending an industry conference in the 1990s where a videoconference manufacturer was giving away miniature footballs to people that stopped by their booth. In order to get one you had to line-up to operate their video system with a remote. If you were able to complete a call you won a football. I suppose it was intended to get people to understand how easy they were to use, but in retrospect it only proved that using complex remotes was such an issue that you had to give away stuff to get people to even try them.


Moving forward in history, many larger enterprises abandoned the hand-held remote in favor of the control system and touch-panel. This was definitely a good idea – tying all of the room’s components into one system and UI that would operate everything. However, like Apple’s Newton or DeLorean’s car the execution of the idea turned out to cause more problems than it solved. Instead of creating a universal, standard interface to control all aspects of the needed technology, the control system created a boondoggle for room integrators.

Here they could create custom-programmed masterpieces, with sub-menus under sub-menus, company logos and colors plastered all over the screen, and a button and indicator for every possible function. Instead of being easier than the remote control they were often much more complicated – and much more frightening to operate for the typical end user. This was because the technical teams and engineers programming them were designing systems that could handle any possible scenario – a wise precaution for a technician, but one that led to an experience that left the typical user in the dark. In addition to that, because these panels were all custom-programmed, a given enterprise could have dozens of different versions in different rooms to accomplish the same thing.

Multiple versions of one enterprise's touchpanels David Danto

Multiple Versions Of One Enterprise's Touchpanels

In the mid 2000’s the videoconference manufacturers decided enough was enough and began creating their own touchpanels and UIs (assuredly with the idea that they couldn’t get any worse.) One-Button-To-Push (OBTP) was a trend started by Cisco and eventually embraced by most manufacturers. This was the idea that the room you were walking into would already know you were coming and what your meeting needed to dial to connect. All you would have to do is walk in and push the button.

A perfect idea – but regrettably one for a perfect world. In the real world however, sometimes the person walking into the room was the janitor…or an employee that shouldn’t be connected to a confidential call. Additionally, sometimes you found you couldn’t get to the room (or city) that your call was scheduled in – you’d have to take it from somewhere else. Those were all scenarios that made the simplicity of the original OBTP fall apart.

The next (and current) wave of room UI is really a blast from the past – the audio conference call. Most organizations have embraced dialing a central number or URI and entering the code for their conference. This is much easier and more reliable than trying to develop a complex dial-plan and/or enterprise directory, and usually means the only controls needed on the UI are dial-pad/keyboard and perhaps volume/mute. (As I mentioned in my blog on cameras, the need to move and zoom cameras will soon be a thing of the past as hardware and programming automatically perform that function.)

As far as the future goes, we’ve seen glimpses of that already as well. It turns out you’re already using the next UI and generally love it. It’s your smart device.

Cisco Demonstrating Videoconference System Control From Spark App Cisco

Cisco Demonstrating Videoconference System Control From Spark App

You probably already carry around a smart phone that knows who you are and who your next video meeting is with. Now all you’ll have to do is decide what device or room you want to take the call on. You can have that videoconference on your smart device, or if you go to a room with videoconferencing technology it will automatically recognize your smart device and let you take the call on it. No additional UIs will be needed. Rooms will be as easy to operate as your personal smartphone – and custom programming will go away.

Getting to the ideal UI for videoconference rooms has been a long, tough journey. Now that all the controls will be as easy to use as our smartphone it will finally allow everyone to concentrate on a video call’s content instead of its set-up.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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