InfoComm 2018: And 'So It Goes'

Personal events impinged my calendar for early June, and so I had to cram my time at InfoComm 2018 to just one day before catching a red-eye to elsewhere. The disadvantage: limited time for in-depth study of individual announcements and demos. The advantage: forced concentration to discern big-picture developments.

Here are five themes I contemplated before the Ambien kicked in on the flight.

Consumers at the Gate -- InfoComm started with a three-day event on emerging trends hosted by the IMCCA and AVIXA. Covered subjects spanned from the digital workplace to huddle room futures to the evolution of conferencing cameras and UC solutions to voice interfaces for collaboration applications.

Two of the Tuesday sessions focused on CES 2018, which took place in January, with panelists discussing how many of the trends and products shown there were sure to move into the enterprise mainstream (and how many were not destined to make the transition). The presentation reminded me a bit of how CD-ROM, multimedia PC subsystems, instant messaging, and other hot trends in the distant past made a transition from consumer to business.

The target this year at InfoComm was 4K video (now in almost every TV being sold), soon to be 8K video, and how HD video would affect cameras, displays, network and peripheral connections, etc. -- all elements at the heart of the AV industry. Presenters encouraged audience members to future-proof their interfaces and investments, or at least move cautiously, but didn't specify exactly how to do so. The audience also got a view of the coming impact that technologies like 5G and lidar, for light detection and ranging, will have on business communications.

My conclusion: In 10 years, we won't have physical connectors -- wireless for all, in one form or another. And video resolution will exceed human eye perception.

What If the Huddle Bubble Bursts? -- If I had a euro for every vendor on the show floor touting its huddle room solution (audio, video, both, or room management), I could have flown back first class. The folklore today is that enterprises with their ever-younger workforces are moving to open workspaces, and that this in turn will drive exponential demand for small private spaces where knowledge workers can be creative or huddle with local and remote colleagues.

Every vendor with a speaker-microphone, video system, whiteboard, wireless presentation system, or ideation solution wanted to convince prospects that they're doomed to fail without a comprehensive huddle room strategy and deployment. At the same time, many enterprises are allowing more telecommuters to telecommute more often -- driving down real estate needs and potentially conference room demand.

While the history of enterprise communications has been driven by technology shifts (HD video, wideband audio, cloud deployments, integrated unified applications), the predicted huddle room explosion is based on cultural shifts. Demand here could really explode, but it could also implode.

Analytics, Schmanalytics, or Not? -- Before InfoComm, I thought room management and monitoring systems would remain in the large conference room arena where important meetings take place on dedicated equipment in dedicated conference rooms.

If the huddle room AV equipment is so inexpensive, why bother to manage, monitor, and provide analytics on usage? At InfoComm, multiple vendors, including BlueJeans, Lifesize, Polycom, StarLeaf, Videxio, Visibility One, Vyopta, and ZiipRoom, convinced me that I was wrong.

I guess if you have 100 or 1,000 huddle rooms deployed, you do (or should) care how they're used, and by whom. But the analytics solutions shown at InfoComm weren't just about traditional device monitoring and management. Rather, they demonstrated an important shift toward metrics around end-user satisfaction: MOS ratings for audio quality, failure rates, faster start times, etc.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em -- It's not that everyone is partnering with everyone, it just seems that way. (I'm not talking about signing up a reseller and calling that relationship a partnership. As far as I can tell, nobody is a customer anymore. They're all partners.)

Multiple video conferencing vendors are building Microsoft Skype for Business, or BlueJeans, or Pexip, or Zoom interfaces into their endpoint and infrastructure hardware. Google Hangouts (or Skype for Business for that matter), for example, is no longer a competitor. It's just another endpoint on a call thanks to the likes of Pexip and Videxio.

The real issue here is the key role played by video conferencing-as-a-service (VCaaS) providers in bringing together the disparate protocols and systems. I found a presentation I made on this issue back in 2011, near the end of the "telepresence" wars. A key message within this deck was that service providers would be key to the future as they would provide the bridges needed to connect the various islands of video communications. InfoComm 2018 demonstrated that the endpoint manufacturers are now fully behind this notion.

Islands of visual communications, circa 2008

Conferencing Smarts -- Last year, "cloud" was the buzzword in InfoComm's collaboration pavilion. This year it was "AI." If a video conferencing camera uses an audio input to pan, tilt, and zoom to the current speaker, is that artificial intelligence? What if the camera adjusts the field of view to incorporate just the faces in the room? What if all the room is captured by the lens and integrated software figures out which part of the video memory to send to the screen? Or what if that software adjusts for lighting conditions? Is that AI?

Whether you're into machine learning, neural networks, speech recognition, cognition, or cognitive dissonance, you would have to agree that whatever the technology is behind the newest meeting room solutions, the result is a vastly improved audio (echo and noise cancellation, gain control) and video (field of view) happening. AI might be the feature (or buzzword) and AV automation might be the function, but an improved meeting experience is the important benefit.

Andrew W. Davis is with Recon Research. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewwd47.