Video Switching: Is the MCU Dead?
Does every meeting really need that MCU to be churning away, mixing all those video feeds? Or can voice-activated video switching lighten the load?
Okay, so I know I started my blog with a post preaching to "start with the user", but sometimes I admit we work backwards when we think about a specific technology. This happened to me recently when I was at a meeting where video technologies were being discussed. We know that with the "consumerization of the enterprise" trend, the expectation to have video available in the workplace is growing. Most new communications-ready devices have video capabilities. And consumer-oriented social media applications make it free and easy to connect with remote friends and family. Yet as with many new technologies, the adoption of video in the enterprise is slowed by several critical factors, including upfront and ongoing costs, network capacity, security and user-adoption.
Of course there are plenty of enterprise-grade solutions available today for video, everything from desktop video integrated into the UC suite to sophisticated boardroom solutions. And I contend that the UC-integrated capabilities are actually quite a tease. It's so simple to add video to a conversation, right there at your desk, seamless and natural as it should be. However, once that conversation grows to anything larger, the precious resources of a video MCU (multipoint conferencing unit) are required. Hopefully your company has deployed one so that the transition to multi-party is seamless, but even then this has historically been a processor-intensive, and therefore relatively costly, limited, resource. What happens on Monday mornings when all the sales teams are trying to have their weekly funnel-reviews at the same time? In a larger company, this can be engineered to some degree, but mid-sized and small companies will always have a hard time with managing the "peak busy hour" with a relatively limited shared resource like this.
But now I ask you, in a group meeting, do you all actually need to see everyone all the time? Think about a real meeting. You generally are just looking at the person who is speaking. So do you really need that MCU to be churning away, mixing all those video feeds? If your answer is "no", then voice-activated video switching, whereby the video feed of the person who is talking the loudest is viewed by everyone, is worth considering. Since this is a much simpler operation, requiring no mixing of the multiple video streams, just switching amongst them, this is no longer as precious (i.e., costly) a resource. Video can then be integrated into the work-flow in a much more natural, ad-hoc way--no need to reserve a specific room, or even ports or resources.
Once again, the consumer world is paving the way for us. The much-awaited (debated?) Google+ has this capability in their Hangouts video chat feature. In fact, this is touted as one of the Facebook-killers for Google+, providing the multi-party capability vs. the new Skype-enabled Facebook video chat. So why not just use the Google+ Hangouts for your enterprise group video? That may work depending on your organization size and user requirements, but when cloud-sourcing a bandwidth-intensive capability like video you need to consider how that will affect another relatively precious resource--namely internet bandwidth. Is a free service really free? There are also potential security concerns that arise with having your corporate meetings conducted using a public, consumer-oriented service and with video traffic traversing your firewall. And since end-user adoption is often the make-or-break factor with any new technology, this capability ideally should be fully integrated with the other UC tools that the user has at their fingertips.
So I encourage you to add video switching to your list of items to consider for your overall Enterprise Communications strategy. Not to say that other traditional video technologies are all out the window, but if you investigate what the users in your organization need, I believe this is a compelling capability that should be considered and potentially added to your requirements for a next-generation communications solution.