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EC13 Report: The Conference Room Experience

This is the last in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, Monday was Cloud Services, and yesterday Mobility.

Redefining the conference room experience
Video conferencing vendors have been trying to extend the video conference room experience to desktop and mobile devices for a while, and competed in this realm on video quality. Now Microsoft is taking the opposite approach: extending the desktop/mobile Lync experience to conference room. The user experience in the room is driven by the capabilities of desktop and mobile video, not the other way around.

The new approach changes the implementation priorities: ease of use is the king (the main goal is to eliminate the 5-10-minute delay of the typical video meeting due to technical issues); content sharing and whiteboarding/annotation are the most important parts of the meeting, while video quality is far lower on the requirement list. For the first time, Microsoft does not depend on third-parties for providing multipoint video: Lync 2013 supports H.264 SVC, and the Microsoft AVMCU enables multipoint video calls.

By releasing its Lync Room specification to 4 partners--Crestron, LifeSize, Polycom, and SMART--Microsoft is essentially doing a trial of its Lync Room concept. The specification is not publically available but the key requirements can be recognized in the first demos--by SMART and Crestron--at Enterprise Connect.

Addressing the trends towards smaller conference rooms, wide angle cameras are required to capture people sitting close to screen/whiteboard. Based on the notion that mechanical noises distract meeting participants, Lync Rooms use digital (not mechanical) Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) cameras. Audio elements--speakers, microphones, and stereo/mono modes--are also defined, and so is the user interface for starting a meeting. The logical split of the control functions is that meeting controls are on a small control tablet while whiteboarding/annotation actions are on the large touch screen.

From the pack, SMART came to EC best prepared with its own 109-degree camera design, multiple models--small for 6 people, medium for 12, and large for 16--and support of one or two screens. SMART leveraged its experience with whiteboarding technology to differentiate. Although the video quality was not impressive (network issues, as usual), the collaboration capabilities were superb.

Crestron opted for using an off-the-shelf Logitech camera and focused on the room control experience to differentiate its Lync Room solution--a logical approach based on Crestron's background in room control. One touch of the Crestron control unit lets users switch seamlessly between "Room Control" mode and "Lync Room Collaboration" mode.

Polycom has invested a lot in interoperability with Microsoft, including support of the Microsoft RTV video codec that enables best possible quality between older Lync clients and video endpoints. Polycom also licensed its H.264 SVC implementation to Microsoft and all other UCIF members willing to use it, a move designed to create a critical mass behind one SVC flavor. But while having the best video quality between your portfolio and Lync is a tangible competitive advantage, the concern is about the overall lower importance of video in the Lync world, where content is truly the king.

While the Lync room designs are pragmatic and will improve the conferencing room experience, the cost for building rooms is still an issue, and many small companies are looking for solutions that are a little less perfect for a lot less money.

Start-up Tely Labs is trying to make video collaboration more affordable and demonstrated telyHD Business Edition, which works with Tely's own simple infrastructure supporting up to 6-way video. Their telyHD Enterprise Edition was built in partnership with BlueJeans Network, and therefore allows connecting the majority of video endpoints out there. Trying to find a market segment between free clients and $10-20K rooms, Tely has very attractive price point of $550 for the enterprise or business edition; this include camera and audio but not the cost of the video monitor.

Revolabs has developed a new generation of wideband wearable and on-table wireless microphones that improve the audio capture in conference rooms. The importance for audio in collaboration cannot be overstated, and Revolabs provides an excellent alternative to wired microphones.

The cost of equipping conference room with video is also going down. Combined with cloud services, this will democratize video.