The corporate world is evolving. Long gone are the days of cubicle farms and offices with actual walls and doors. In today’s white collar world it’s all about open offices, collaboration, and sharing ideas.
The dreaded audio conference call has earned a bad reputation for good reasons. Poor audio quality, confusion as to who is speaking, and participants talking over one another quickly come to mind. Let’s not forget the phantom participants – those who call in to the conference, state their name, and immediately place the phone on mute. Are they even listening?
Add a camera and the horrific audio conference becomes a beautiful, personal, and productive meeting. It truly is that easy.
The Hardware and Software Codecs
In the days of yesteryear, Polycom and Cisco were the major players in the videoconferencing world, along with other manufacturers such as Lifesize.
This type of system, referred to as a hard codec, requires a physical piece of equipment (a box) to be installed on site. This codec takes all the associated audio and video, encodes it, and sends it to the far end. Hardware based codecs provide excellent audio and video quality. They are very reliable, and are generally easy to use.
On the flipside, they are expensive. Though entry level models can be had for a few thousand dollars, higher end Cisco and Polycom systems can easily surpass fifteen thousand dollars. They also require maintenance service agreements, licensing fees, 1080p upcharges, and other types of upgrade fees.
The most damaging aspect of hardware codecs is their inability to play nice with other types of videoconferencing equipment. Hard codecs rely on a protocol called H.323 to communicate back and forth. Both near and far end participants must have equipment that can handle this type of communication. A Cisco can call another Cisco, a Polycom can call another Polycom, a Polycom can call a Cisco and vice versa. However, a Polycom cannot call a WebEX meeting, a Skype meeting, GoTo meeting, Google Hangout meeting, or other non-H323 types of video calls.
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There have been some licensing arrangements, as of late, which do allow some of these types of calls to take place. For example, Polycom offers a Skype license which will allow Polycom users to make video calls with Skype users. There are also other video bridging services, such as Bluejeans and Zoom, which do allow hard codecs and soft codecs to live together peacefully.
Of course, nothing is free. Bluejeans and other bridging services do cost money, usually consisting of a yearly per user fee.
There has been a dramatic shift over the past several years towards software based video conferencing. This soft codec videoconferencing is very flexible and can be easily tailored to suit most organizations’ needs.
The infrastructure needed to run software based codecs most likely already exists in most corporations – a PC and a network connection. Today’s laptops, smart phones, and tablets already have integrated cameras and microphones. Download the free Skype application and simple video conferencing is born. Or, add an inexpensive Logitech USB webcam with built in microphone to an existing desktop PC and be off and running in your very own video conference call.
Scaling Up for Video Conferencing
As room type and functionality change, so will the cost of video conferencing gear. Larger rooms will require better quality cameras and external microphones. A basic webcam will not be sufficient as the size of the room increases. A PTZ (Pan, tilt, zoom) camera will offer more flexibility and function and provide a more life-like video experience. Small webcams are great when used properly, just don’t ask them to do too much.
Additional microphones will also be required as the room size increases. Basic audio 101: the closer the microphone is to the person speaking the better.
It would be a dream come true to AV integrators if each participant in the meeting was wearing a head-worn Countryman microphone. This will never happen. Next on the list is for each participant to wear a lavalier microphone. This will never happen either. How about each participant has a handheld Shure SM58? Nope, not going to happen!
A gooseneck microphone for each participant is an ideal option. This will provide excellent audio pick-up, while not being too obtrusive. It’s sad to say, even gooseneck microphones are too much for some designers and architects. The next logical step in the microphone ladder is the boundary table microphone. These microphones are integrated into the table near the participants. Ideally, each participant should have their own microphone, but in the case of boundary mics it’s okay to share with two people.
Designers love multipurpose rooms. AV integrators hate them. How can we provide a well-balanced, professional sounding room when the tables move around?
There are two options for this scenario, and audio pros everywhere will wince at these words – wireless microphones and ceiling microphones. Ceiling microphones, such as the Audix M3, are mounted to the ceiling. On the plus side the mics don’t move. On the negative side, well, the mics don’t move. When the room changes from group collaboration style to classroom style seating, the mics in the ceiling don’t change with it. Generally, ceiling microphones are not the best option. The reason being is they are just too far away from the person speaking. No amount of tweaking or equalization can change that.
Wireless microphones are another option. Wireless microphones can be placed close to the person speaking, and if the tables move around so can the microphone. However, wireless microphones rely on battery power to operate. If the battery dies or if someone forgets to place them back on the charger, they will not work. This can be a real problem. They are also prone to interference, can have range issues, can become unpaired with the base station, and are susceptible to the limitations of wireless equipment.
What good is having a video meeting when you can’t hear the other end? In small room applications, sound from the display, a sound bar, or PC speakers will be adequate. The same goes for speakers as microphones – as the room size increases so does the demand for improved sound.
Distributed audio is the way to go. It’s all about coverage. Several well placed smaller speakers will provide a pleasant experience. Participants in the back of the room will hear the same volume as the participants in the front of the room. In most room environments, only a few watts of power are needed for each speaker.
Which House Are You?
Establishing videoconferencing throughout an organization may seem like a daunting task. All of that equipment is so expensive, difficult to set-up, and nearly impossible to use, right?
Not so much anymore. Today’s networks are faster than ever. With the advent of fiber, dedicated circuits, and high speed internet, bandwidth, which was a problem as little as 5 years ago is not so much anymore. Hardware based video codecs do require a bit of configuration and IT knowledge to set up. It’s always a good idea to work closely with the IT department to be sure all of the settings are accurate. Manufactures provide datasheets consisting of port information that can be given to the customer ahead of time to ensure a seamless installation.
It can be very difficult to choose which video conferencing path to traverse. Companies rely heavily on ease of use and consistency. If you are an established Polycom house, it may be a good option to update the existing analog HDX systems to the newer digital Group Series. Do you already use Microsoft products? Software based video conference systems would be the better option. Skype for business, now a Microsoft company, is fully compatible with the Office 365 line, including Outlook integration and scheduling.