Saturday, December 19, 2009

Video Conferencing


When introducing Video Conferencing, it's as much about technology as it is about culture shift, patience of users, training, and proper planning. This is when IT staff need to be sales people as much as good technical people and work with staff who organize meetings to help them understand what it takes to make video meetings successful. All staff need to understand that it's a new technology that they'll need to learn, but that their investment will make a significant difference in productivity of meetings and bring remote staff closer together.

Understand Your Meeting Participants

Think about the types of meetings you have now and who is attending each. These are the types of rooms and meeting participants that we have planned for. It's safe to assume that this list is common among most medium-sized company or organization.

  • Full Video Conference Unit-equipped room - this can be a large or small conference room that has built-in equipment.
  • A single person with a notebook computer with camera, microphone and speakers (or a headset)
  • A single person with a notebook computers without a camera
  • A single person only on a phone or Skype (i.e. audio only)

Now consider the types of meetings you already have or want to have. Below are common combinations and ones my organization has regularly. The accompanying diagrams may help visualize the components and connections.

1. VC unit-equipped room to VC unit-equipped room: This is what video conferencing was designed for so this scenario is fairly easy to support and maintain. A direct point-to-point call will be most effective here. Easy, eh?

2. Two or three VC unit-equipped rooms, plus a few PC with cameras: This will require some kind of bridge, whether it's a VC unit with built-in bridging capability (e.g. a Lifesize Room) or a purpose-built bridge or Multipoint Control Unit or MCU. All the endpoints call into the bridge blah blah. A conference with just PC's falls into this category as well.

3. Small number of VC room units, some PCs with two way audio and video, some audio-only participants, and some one-way video and audio participants. An MCU or video bridge is required in this configuration.

4. Same as above, but with some people participating only as viewers, i.e. there is only a one-way audio and video stream available for some. This is less useful for traditional meetings, but is more common for trainings, or large-scale presentations, announcements, or shows.

The Tech

I won't go too deeply into the technology, as, in many ways, that's the easy part since you can control that easier than you can the people that need to be introduced to a new way of working and trained to use the tools and equipment.

There are a wide range of options for room-based systems from Cisco/Tandberg, Polycom, and Lifesize. Your choice of vendor will depend greatly on your budget and quality expectations. If you have money to burn and expect extremely high quality high definition video between mostly large offices, then Cisco and Polycom systems in a custom-built room (and a high-end MPLS network) are in your future. If you're like most companies and organizations, you're trying to do this on a budget, then LifeSize (what we chose) equipment on SDSL, T1's, and Ethernet-over-copper (no MPLS) might be the way to go. We get very good HD quality from 512 or 768 kbps calls.

If you want to do the video bridging in-house on a large scale, then be ready for significantly more costs. Multi-point Control Units (MCUs), firewall traversal units, and other central management systems are a necessity for large installations, but be ready for significant effort in setup and maintenance. There are hosting options, but the costs must be weighed carefully to determine the best fit.

The Whole Point is for Them to See Your Face

A piece of the puzzle that's very important, but often overlooked, is the conditions of the room you're installing room-based video conferencing equipment. Good lighting can make make a significant difference in the quality of the picture the other end sees in video meetings. Most video conferencing cameras are great at compensating for low light, but they can't fix all situations.

Things to consider:

  • Walls that the camera faces should be dark. Bright walls confuse the low-light compensation algorithms.
  • If you must have windows on the wall that the camera faces, block the light with good shades. Sun coming through the windows behind participants will confuse the low-light compensation algorithms.
  • Good overhead lights in the room make big difference. The other end needs to be able to see your face well in order for video conferencing to be worth-while.
  • Make sure the camera is near to eye level in the room and pointing at faces so people on the other end can see as many people as possible and that they see faces and not just backs or tops of heads.
  • Be sure to place the TV or projection so everyone in the room can see it comfortably and they're facing the camera when looking at the screen. People should be looking at each other through the video conferencing system as much as possible.

This page has some more useful hints about lighting and other general video conferencing etiquette.

Meeting Management

There's one more non-technical area to consider: meeting management. This refers to properly planning meetings by getting them started on-time, which gets more and more difficult as we add more technology to the mix, and being conscience of what the other end is seeing when you're in meetings. Having someone in charge of maintaing their room's view at each end greatly enhances the experience. This involves changing where the camera is pointing or zooming throughout the meeting if speakers change, there are lots of participants in a room and the room is big, and pausing meetings to point out problems on other ends of the video ("hey Chicago, we can only see your feet!") Haven't you experienced a video meeting where a person off-camera does most of the talking, or the speaker is a tiny head in the back of a room of forty people?

Good luck making the meetings in your office more productive and interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog .. Thanks for sharing..... Video conferencing software is one of the most efficient communication technology that minimizes the travel expenditures and serving as a virtual interface for collaborating the world economic landscapes