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Don't Underestimate Conferencing

Conferencing, the most basic tool of collaboration, can alone justify a major technology investment. And while conferencing has evolved rapidly over the years into three distinct categories -- audio, Web, and video -- it has not kept pace with user expectations, which, in a word, are dynamic.

When, where, what type of device, and what modalities users require for conferencing are changing rapidly. To move forward, we must drop the audio, Web, and video monikers, and look at conferencing more holistically. That doesn't mean it has to be one solution.

Source: Greg Williams

Here are a few things to consider when evaluating conferencing technologies.

Capacity: We used to count ports, but conferencing is so effective that we need to think much bigger now. Capacity is not a simple concept because conferencing involves so many variables and architectures. For example, 10 participants could require 10 separate connections or a simple point-to-point link that connects two conference rooms. Media streams can be centralized to a hub (bridge), or formed via a peer-to-peer matrix. A 10-participant conference could involve 30 endpoints dedicated to a single-mode purpose (content, audio, or video). The location of the users also is shifting -- a bunch of internal users never required much wide-area bandwidth, now they do -- internal participants may or may not be internal.

Webinars, once a separate form of conferencing, are increasingly now a part of the conferencing portfolio. Large format webinars, seminars, or video events could involve hundreds or thousands of participants with various mixes of one-way broadcast and full-duplex audio.

PIN Codes: PIN codes have long been a reasonably effective way to slice and share common infrastructure. Unfortunately, they are cumbersome for mobile users. To avoid PIN codes, many solutions identify the caller based on caller ID or unique URL address. In other trends, some conference providers offer the ability to dial out to participants, and some assign a dedicated DID number for a given bridge. Back in the days of fax + pagers + cell phones + home phones, DIDs were too valuable to squander like that, but today they are inexpensive.

Regarding conferencing solutions for the PSTN -- toll-free numbers present another interesting question. These were effectively standard issue for decades just a few years ago, but today their value is less clear. Consumers are less likely to pay for long distance at all or, more accurately, get it included in their base service.

Interoperability: Addressing interoperability is a lot like playing whack-a-mole -- solve one issue and another pops up. PSTN audio remains the lowest common denominator. Audio codecs went from narrowband to wideband. Audio conferencing is fairly interoperable among devices and carriers, and video is getting better. However, WebRTC is in the process of resetting all this. Opus, the audio codec in WebRTC, is rarely found in telecom solutions. The video solutions tend to use compatible codecs, but interoperability among WebRTC-based video solutions is probably several years away.

Devices: Effective conferencing solutions will offer rich content and support a wide variety of device types. This is more complex than it sounds due to the permutations and combinations of key components. A conference solution may need to support up to at least six operating systems -- Windows, MacOS, ChromeOS, iOS, Android, and BlackBerry OS -- and at least five browsers -- Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Microsoft's upcoming Spartan, plus various room systems. That's not even counting whatever Apple might release next year.

Looking Forward
Here's a preview of some emerging conferencing technologies.

Analytics: Various analytical tools will impact conferencing both during and after a call. Offline analytics could improve the indexing of recorded content by topics or presenter. We can't be too far away from a built-in lie detector that uses audio and visual cues to flag insincerity. Real gains in productivity could be achieved by flagging deceptive statements in real time. Imagine a conference alert tone flagging insincerity on statements such as: "I'll get it done today" or "I've got too much to do to meet that deadline."

Calendaring: Just about everyone has an online calendar, but sharing and interacting with the data is still a challenge. Setting up conference times today represents a major productivity leak. Interoperability among calendars, from an inter-organizational perspective as well as across platforms, needs improvement. Algorithms that do exist today search for availability, but realistically each appointment has relative importance. Eventually, enterprise solutions will automatically re-adjust our schedules as priorities dictate.

Sound: Often times during in-person conferences, multiple conversations occur in a given meeting -- the main conversation and numerous sidebar conversations. Humans are actually pretty good at separating these channels -- it's known as the Cocktail Party Effect where the brain is able to select a specific stream.

Without spatial reference information, this ability is compromised on electronic conferencing solutions. However, various new technologies allow a subset of participants to hold private conversations within a larger conference. In addition, developments with proximity and spatial audio are emerging that enable the Cocktail Party Effect over teleconferencing.

Today, conference rooms still penalize remote participants with inferior audio. Despite improvements, it can still be very hard for a remote participant to hear the soft-spoken or a participant who talks to the whiteboard rather than toward the microphones. Room system equipment improvements are eliminating this disadvantage. Newer technologies will completely eliminate the disadvantage -- if it can be heard in the room, then it will be heard remotely.

Integration: Perhaps the most exciting breakthrough in conferencing will come from improved integration into workflow, which would eliminate or reduce the need to utilize separate applications and devices -- a natural evolution for communications-enabled applications. New optimized devices also represent an opportunity for seamless conferencing. Televisions with integrated cameras and microphone arrays are emerging now. Longer term, it isn't hard to imagine self-driving cars that feature optimized acoustics for conferencing.

Conferencing is a big part of the day for most knowledge workers, and it's probably going to increase. The technologies are getting better, and travel is getting harder.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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