Whether you work for a massive global powerhouse or a scrappy startup with a single office, your workforce is likely more geographically disparate than ever. To attract and retain top talent, more business leaders are considering candidates from the other side of the country or globe, while even your local teammates likely sometimes take a meeting from the road or at home.
Ever-evolving collaboration tools play a critical role in keeping teams effective and meetings efficient, regardless of where the participants are located. As quickly as the tech landscape changes, though, there are certain pieces of human nature that remain constant, among them are that people really like to see each other’s faces.
Sure, in the not-too-distant past, videoconferencing may have been a nice-to-have item on your wish list, or a fine china sort of tool, only taken out and used for special occasions. No more.
“Videoconferencing has finally taken its rightful place as a core business tool,” reports Wainhouse. “Companies around the world are depending on video-enabled meetings to empower their people, serve clients better, and compete on a global basis.”
As previous problems surrounding video have faded, new opportunities have opened, and the high barrier to entry has been removed.
“Videoconferencing is the linchpin of online business collaboration,” wrote PCMag’s Rob Marvin. “As new plug-and-play videoconferencing solutions iron out the audio/video quality and usability issues that have plagued the space for over a decade, the virtual pow-wow is replacing more and more in-person staff meetings, brainstorming sessions, or small team check-ins…. In 2016, videoconferencing will continue to get smoother, smarter, and more affordable while operating at higher internet speeds.”
Video has become an essential piece in the collaborative day-to-day of business, but of course there are dramatic differences in strategies and approaches. What follows is a rundown of critical terms you’ll need to know, tough debates you’ll need to have, and key factors that may set one solution apart from the rest.
Key components of a videoconferencing environment
For the non-technical end user, a satisfying videoconference likely boils down to two things: a good display and crystal-clear audio.
One or more cameras will be needed to show the action in the room, and there is a wide range of cameras available for the task, ranging from small USB cameras perched atop computer monitors to high-definition cameras that offer remote pan, tilt, and zoom for conference rooms.
Audio equipment can include speakers, microphone pods and, for larger systems, multiple microphones and separate echo cancellation devices.
Display equipment, too, varies depending on the size and scope of the videoconference; while a single monitor will serve the purposes for some, others use multiple HD displays to present multiple endpoint locations and shared data simultaneously.
Hidden away from the average user is the brain of the videoconferencing system: the codec. The codec takes the video and audio from the camera and microphone, compresses it, transmits it over the network, and decompresses the incoming signal so it can be viewed on a display. A single-codec is a videoconferencing system that includes the traditional modular room system appliance (codec) and single or dual-displays, often referred to as telepresence. Multi-codec or multiple systems servers are often referred to as immersive telepresence systems.This is a highly interactive and personal virtual meeting experience that can feature not just high-definition video on multiple screens, but even prescriptive furniture and lighting designs.
Infrastructure for videoconferencing includes bridges, gateways, gatekeepers, NAT/firewall traversal solutions, and streaming and recording solutions. Many enterprises are shifting their infrastructure strategies from products typically deployed on premises to services.
Collaborative room systems
Videoconferencing equipment is typically not well utilized. Meeting resources are difficult to manage, remote attendees are left feeling isolated and perhaps reluctant to participate, and setup can take up to 10 minutes on average.
In a cloud-connected collaborative video room, however, remote attendees are easily able to collaborate and interact, participants join the meeting with a single click, and scheduling and directory services are available. Larger, higher-quality video leads to better body language and a great ability to read non-verbal cues. Participants can easily share content and annotations with each other.
Any skepticism about the efficacy of videoconferencing is likely linked to an unpleasant memory of a failed video connection in the past. When carried out seamlessly, however, videoconferencing can make colleagues in China and Canada feel like they are in the same room – but nothing makes conference participants more acutely aware of the distance between them quite like dropped connections or shoddy video and audio.
Videoconference buyers need to become familiar with the codec family tree, which includes the following.
H.263 – This is the old faithful, deployed on a large number of existing videoconferencing systems.
H.264 AVC – Advanced video coding was the successor to H.263, offering similar video quality at half the bandwidth usage.
H.264 SVC – Scalable video coding, an extension of the H.264 family, allows video to be encoded and selectively decoded in layers, depending on the capabilities of the participating endpoints. Since users are likely to be using a range of endpoints like mobile devices, desktops, room systems, etc., scalable video coding provides flexibility in frame rate and resolution while also offering a range of implementation options.
H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding – This is the primary successor to H.264, allowing more aggregate video to be allocated to a given amount of bandwidth. The threshold for network capacity finally comes down below 1Mbps for all H.265 use cases apart from immersive telepresence. The processing power in H.265 packs a real punch for encoding and decoding video. And, as with H.264, H.265 is ready to scale regardless of the multitude of endpoints – but does so with half of the bandwidth of H.264.
4K Videoconferencing – Ultra-HD videoconferencing delivers four times the resolution of 1080p60 video implementations. Hopefully you got the spinach out of your teeth, because it’s definitely showing up on video otherwise. Consumer displays are beginning their gradual transition to this next step in resolution, although much of the focus is on upscaling local HD content rather than broadcasting in full 4k resolution.
WebRTC Video – Web real-time communication video allows native browser-based endpoints in videoconferences without requiring browser plug-ins or the downloading of thick clients.
Cloud vs. on premises
One of the old barriers for videoconferencing was the need for the video environment to be incorporated into an organization’s internal IT environment, creating a situation that was difficult to scale and required internal resources to act as service providers.
There are still advantages to keeping video in-house, especially for businesses needing to exert absolute control and flexibility over how the solution is customized, managed, and deployed. By avoiding the public internet, an on-premises solution can also help ensure reliability of bandwidth and quality, and keeping data on premises instead of housing it in third-party data centers can help ensure security and compliance.
By opting for cloud hosting of videoconferencing, businesses can avoid the heavy upfront costs associated with an on-premises deployment. The cloud reduces the burden on IT significantly, if not completely. Instead of fretting about bringing unknown users through IT’s firewall, cloud solutions connect video participants in a virtual space, connecting them regardless of the different protocols or different devices they may be using.
According to the aforementioned Wainhouse (News - Alert) report, 97 percent of survey respondents report using videoconferencing more now than two years ago. The trend is clear, and as demand continues to grow, it’s much easier for businesses to scale video solutions on the fly when they’re living in the cloud. Simply add users or resources as adoption spreads, rather than having to spend money on additional hardware, or buying expensive hardware today that’s designed to meet the hypothetical demands of tomorrow.
Putting it all together
Instead of cobbling together cost-prohibitive videoconferencing options and leaning on fragmented platforms, forward-thinking customers are unifying their collaboration solutions across the board, cutting costs – due in part to the lack of dedicated facilities or required infrastructure – and making video more accessible.
Ultimately, videoconferencing makes the biggest impact when approached as just one part of an overarching collaborative strategy and toolset.
“Like all other technology systems, an organization’s videoconferencing environment can easily become complex and disjointed,” warns Wainhouse. “However, organizations can minimize or even avoid the complexity by taking an end-user oriented, system-wide approach to videoconferencing. Specifically, organizations should view videoconferencing as a part of the overall communications ecosystem and not as a technology island.”
David Guthrie is CTO of PGi (www.pgi.com).
Edited by Stefania Viscusi