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Skype for Business Rooms: the Rigel Effect & Logitech's SmartDock

At Enterprise Connect 2016, Microsoft talked to its concept for the Skype for Business room system beyond the very expensive Surface Hub. The concept, initially called Project Rigel and now known as Skype Room Systems, was to take a Surface Pro 4 outfitted with a dedicated app for controlling and managing the video room experience, install it into a base/dock on the table, and use that as the core of a room system. This would be the Microsoft preferred small-to-medium room video solution for Skype for Business.

At the time, I wondered about issues like cabling and managing all the components of a room video system on the table. What would the experience be like? Now, with the first Skype for Business rooms emerging, I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours at Logitech to check out its recently introduced Skype Room System.

SmartDock in Detail
Logitech SmartDock is the embodiment of the Skype Room Systems concept. Calling it a dock is a bit of a misnomer, as the Surface Pro is screwed into and encased in the base and cannot be removed (not unexpected, since the device isn't serving as a general-purpose laptop in this instance, but as a dedicated room system). The base, which can swivel, has several ports: two HDMI outs, one HDMI in, USB, power, and gigabit Ethernet. When installed in the base, the Surface Pro sits at about a 40-degree angle from vertical, facilitating ease of use.

At the entry level, Logitech provides the dock and Surface Pro with Skype Room Systems software preinstalled. But it also offers other packages, including a version with the Logitech ConferenceCam Connect tabletop camera and speaker and one with a pan, tilt, zoom camera, and tabletop speaker device (Logitech Group), as well as a larger room system with expansion microphones. In addition, it offers a remote "extender" box and 16-foot cable for use from the tabletop SmartDock to wall-mounted cameras and monitors. This is Logitech's solution to the problem of locating all the intelligence and processing on the tabletop.

Prices on the Unified Communications site for pre-ordering range from $1,999 for the SmartDock with the Surface Pro to $3,399 for the complete package with multiple mics, a wall camera, and the extender box, as you can see below.

Note that the SmartDock is not listed for purchase without the Surface Pro. In the current delivery model, only master distributors can assemble the SmartDock with the Surface Pro; (Synnex and Tech Data for Logitech in the U.S.). This is because that to run as part of a Skype Room System, Surface Pro requires the Skype for Business room software plus a special version of Windows 10 that is only available to distributors. So, the distributors procure the Surface Pro and the SmartDock, assemble and configure them, and then ship the complete system to the channel.

The SmartDock itself is relatively stylish, with a quality appearance. The design seems well thought through; for example, all the cables connect under the base and are "captured" by a screw-in cover plate that prevents them from being pulled out when the base is moved.

The base provides the connectivity to the Surface Pro; although the SmartDock has interfaces for two HDMI monitors as well as an HDMI input cable, as mentioned above, it will only work with a single display when initially released. The second monitor output, typically used in larger rooms as a content display, requires changes to the Skype for Business room system software coming from Microsoft in the first half of 2017.

In addition, Logitech has included a motion sensor on the front bezel of the SmartDock so the unit will wake up from sleep mode when someone walks into the conference room. My only comment is that the bezel is a shiny black plastic that looks like what it is. A matte bezel would have improved the overall look a bit.

Meet With Ease
The real experience comes from the Skype for Business Room software, which is designed for easy meeting joins as part of a resource-based video conference room model. When a room receives an invite to a Skype for Business meeting, the meeting will appear on the Surface Pro screen. An attendee merely touches the meeting to join. During my visit we unfortunately did not have time to explore other options, such as using the room with a user login, but I assume that works also.

The system allows use of an external camera as well as both the front and rear cameras in the Surface Pro. By design, however, the optimal experience comes when using SmartDock with an external camera. While the front camera can be used for a personal view, the angle is a bit unwieldy and Logitech does not recommend this for normal use. The back camera, in the meantime, isn't usable since the Logitech base covers it up.

The video experience will be similar to that of running a Skype for Business video meeting on a PC, as can be expected. In other words, if you are happy with the video experience of your Skype for Business desktop/laptop client when using a larger monitor with 1080 resolution, the Skype for Business/SmartDock experience will be fine. As the Surface Pro could be the top of the line with a high-end processor, I assume it can handle two output and one input video streams with no issues, especially as no other processes would be running on this video-only system.

The SmartDock seems to be a very good realization of the Skype Room System vision of having a Skype for Business room experience defined and controlled by Microsoft through a Surface Pro, and I look forward to comparing it to units from Polycom and Crestron. Since all these systems will use the same Surface Pro and Skype for Business software, the video and join experience should be consistent among them, regardless of the associated hardware vendor. This means organizations should be able to choose hardware to match different room types -- perhaps Logitech for huddle rooms and Crestron, with its room control capabilities, for large rooms.

Where's the WebRTC?
A limiting factor is that these systems only enable users to join Skype for Business meetings.

While Microsoft has announced a cloud integration that should allow legacy video rooms and guests to participate in Skype for Business meetings, a Skype Room System room cannot join a WebRTC-based video conference. WebRTC is fast becoming the basis for both guest experiences in most UC platforms as well as embedded video (and audio) experiences in a range of applications. As a Skype Room System room is Skype for Business only, it cannot join other video experiences. For many organizations, this could be a major limitation. For example, if a company is partnering with another company and users are invited to a Cisco Spark meeting, the only way they can join is via a WebRTC-enabled browser. The SmartDock/Skype Room System room would not be able to join unless Cisco supports a Skype client join capability.

Similarly, many next-generation applications that include a real-time experience will be based on the Web technologies, not Skype for Business. Without a WebRTC capability, the Skype for Business room can only be used when users bring their own PC/processors and unplugs the room system, using the components as peripherals. As I foresee a time when many meetings are joined this way, unless Microsoft opens the room to participate in open Web conferences, it will be limited to Skype for Business, potentially frustrating users. In a time when open video systems are becoming the norm, this limitation bears serious consideration in any purchase.

With SmartDock, Logitech shows how it has become a leader in video hardware. The team delivered a well-thought-out product in less than a year. I look forward to using a SmartDock Skype for Business room extensively in the future and reporting on the total experience.