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Polycom Looks to Change Physical Meeting Space Dynamics

In August I wrote this No Jitter post discussing the challenges associated with physical meeting spaces and then followed that up with another article in which I debated this topic with Rob Portwood, managing director and owner of Videocall, a U.K.-based systems integrator and service provider. The theme of these blogs was that although the industry has done a nice job with the evolution of virtual collaboration tools, physical space evolution has lagged way behind. For all intents and purposes, the dynamics of huddle rooms, meeting rooms and other meeting spaces are the same as they were decades ago.

This week Polycom held an event in New York to celebrate its 25-year anniversary. At the shindig, the company unveiled a number of innovative new solutions to help evolve physical meeting spaces. While the products were each quite different, they were designed to help organizations maximize the effectiveness of a meeting space -- from small huddle rooms up to large conference rooms. Here's a closer look at the products that I felt were the most meaningful:

For the analysts reading this, Centro is the product formerly known as Bonfire that Polycom gave us a sneak peak at a couple of years ago when its analyst event was in Austin. I remember liking the product then, and I like it even more now.

One of the challenges with traditional meeting spaces is that the video screens are on the wall. This is fine for many types of interactions such as huddle rooms or board meetings, but that kind of set-up does have its limitations for collaborative sessions with multiple people as everyone's focus is the wall instead of the people in the room.

Centro is the first video solution that puts the screens in the middle of the room. The solution is comprised of four video screens and a 360 degree voice and video camera that tracks the speaker as he or she moves around the room while showing the entire meeting space on the screen. Users on the far end of the camera are shown on the screens in the middle of the room enabling a better collaborative experience.

The picture doesn't really do the solution justice as in reality there would be a table and chairs on all four sides of the Centro apparatus.

It's hard to describe the benefit of Centro to those who haven't actually used it, but consider how people sit when they're conversing around a campfire or in the backyard. Typically it's in a circle and not a line. Now imagine dropping Centro into the middle and being able to converse with people at the remote end. As humans, we like to face each other when we converse, and Centro is the first meeting space technology that lets us do that easily.

I also felt Polycom did a nice job with the user interface. Polycom hasn't exactly lit the world on fire in the past with their un-intuitive UIs, but Centro has an easy-to-use touch interface that should obviate the need for IT support in order to get meetings going. Additionally, Centro has proximity-based wireless pairing so mobile devices can become part of the Centro experience as well.

Because Centro is one of those products you need to try before you get it, it's critical for Polycom to put together some use cases to "prime the pump" and get customers interested in it.

While Centro will likely get most of the media attention because it's new and sexy, Polycom's RealPresence Trio should make the biggest splash with customers and channel partners. The Polycom SoundStation conference phone is the de facto standard when it comes to conference room phones, and it has reached near ubiquity. Despite its success, there hasn't been much innovation with respect to the device since the product first launched decades ago. In reality, Polycom has actually delivered a significant amount of innovation, but most of it revolves around technical things such as improvements in audio quality. Very little of the innovation that has taken place so far is something the user would actually see. In fact, the quality of the original conference phone was so good that many customers haven't even upgraded the device because in many environments, the improvement in quality isn't discernable.

Trio is a meant to change the role of the conference phone. Instead of being a device that sits on the table and becomes one of many tools used in a meeting room, Trio acts as a "smart hub" for the room.

If you look at the picture, the old keypad has been replaced with what looks like a smartphone interface. The screen is an Android-based display that turns the phone into a control point for voice, content sharing, and video. The device also has a calendar on it so anyone in the room can see who has the meeting space booked, and any collaboration function can be initiated from the display.

Like with Centro, mobile devices and laptops can be paired to Trio to enable content sharing in HD quality. It's also worth mentioning that like the previous versions of SoundStation, Trio maintains the outstanding audio quality we have all become accustomed to.

Polycom also created a developer interface into Trio that allows third-party apps to run on it. Examples of future apps could be the ability to control the lights or drop down screens in the room. A good way to think about Trio is that it's the "smartphone" of the conference room, rather than being "just a phone."

Unlike Centro, which customers will need to try out to understand the value, Trio should be a slam-dunk for any organization that uses conference room phones, which is nearly every company.

Debut brings high quality enterprise video to huddle rooms that's easy to set up. Huddle rooms have exploded as more organizations have built rooms where small teams can get together and collaborate. Debut is a turnkey product that is purpose-built for environments with limited IT resources, as anyone can set it up. Despite the fact that Debut is designed to be simple and low cost, it has many of Polycom's advanced features such as NoiseBlock and an integrated pan, tilt and zoom camera with 1080p.

This is another turnkey solution that's meant to redefine the workspace and improve collaboration without having to alter the room in any way. Medialign is an all-in-one product that includes voice, content management, content sharing and video technology. It also includes NoiseBlock, Acoustic Fence, Eagle Producer and Eagle Eye Director to enable employees to work naturally as the technology will adapt to them instead of having to adapt work styles to fit the technology.

As I've pointed out many times in the past, meeting space technology has rapidly fallen behind virtual meeting technology. However, there are still thousands of conference and huddle rooms and other places that people meet to work. The new products from Polycom should allow businesses to get more value out of these spaces as workers can now work more naturally and focus on collaborating with other people and content instead of constantly fiddling with the technology.

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