Videoconferencing Untethered

Videoconferencing Untethered

It’s getting easier to bring your own device to business conferencing.

Depending on where you work, videoconferencing might feel like entering a small time warp.

In your off hours, you use FaceTime and Skype with your friends and your studying-abroad kids. You have video chats with them from the couch or the deck a few times a week on your iPad. It’s easy. The high-definition images are great. You can show your kids video of the dog’s latest escapades while you’re talking.

Then you come to the office, and a conference between your engineering team and a customer in Texas is a throwback to an earlier era. You have to go to a designated room to make the connection. Your IT staff has to be there to make your company’s equipment talk with the equipment on the other end. Someone on your side tries to share a presentation file with the group, but your customer can’t access it. Awkward.

You’re not alone in wondering why your at-work experience can’t be more like the at-home one. Out of the gap, new options are emerging.

“In the last two years, it’s picked up quite a bit as far as . . . connecting via mobile device,” says Darrick Knutson, director of systems integration for Tierney Brothers, Inc., an audio-visual design and integration company in Minneapolis. It’s not just that tablets and smartphones are in so many people’s hands. The devices and their cameras have improved, making them more viable for business videoconferencing.

In response, the makers of conferencing technology are making it easier to “BYOD”—bring your own device—to connect to a meeting. Businesses can incorporate a wide range of personal devices into traditional room-installed videoconferencing systems now. They can even forgo room-based systems using their own mobile, laptop, and desktop devices, and services like WebEx or FuzeBox.

Videoconferencing is becoming software based, says Dan Driscoll, director of marketing for Video Guidance, a provider of visual communications technology and services in Bloomington. Often, the software is a cloud-based service, adds Dan Giesen, Video Guidance’s director of operations. “That’s been the big enabler for small businesses.”

Codec? No, Thanks

Outsell, LLC, makes digital marketing software for big automotive brands and their dealers to help them manage customer relationships. At Outsell’s Minneapolis headquarters, meeting areas boast high-definition cameras and displays, microphones, speakers—the usual videoconferencing setup.

What’s missing is the “codec,” the processing unit that historically is at the heart of most videoconferencing. A codec encodes and decodes, and compresses and decompresses (hence the name) audio and video signals between endpoints in a conversation. It can split a video signal to create split-screen images—for example, someone’s face on one side, a document on the other.

Instead of a codec, Outsell’s equipment connects to a Savant switch matrix, part of a system that Outsell designed with a vendor. The Savant device and some programming are the behind-the-scenes mechanisms that switch the system from one audio, video, or digital input or output to another. But no one on an Outsell conference has to think about how it works.

Outsell’s people can run a videoconference from the interface of iPads and iPods mounted in the company’s meeting spaces, or from any location using their own personal devices. They share files and presentations for collaborative work regardless of the device or platform used on the other side of the conversation. The meetings are hosted on the cloud service GoToMeeting.

“We were already using GoToMeeting” for audio conferencing and presentations, says Bryan Harwood, Outsell’s chief technology officer. “Facilitating their video portions . . . was just an extension of what we did on a daily basis.”

Keep What’s Good

Harwood faced a common problem in videoconferencing, and he had to solve it a year ago, as he built the IT and communications infrastructure for the new offices that Outsell opened in downtown last August.

“One of the challenges we have is that our remote users are typically not on our corporate network,” he says. That includes customers, businesses that collaborate with Outsell (among them New York ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi), and Outsell’s own employees. Many work from a home network or another remote location on a shared network. They need to “securely access a web conference, a videoconference, from wherever they are, provided they have enough Internet bandwidth.”

Traditional room-based videoconferencing systems vary, but typically they’re designed to run on private networks and to connect one specific location to as few as one or as many as six others, but usually no more than that.

Today, a simple room-based system costs roughly $10,000 per outfitted room. The price rises with the size and number of displays, their image quality, and the number and feature sets of microphones and cameras. On the high end, a company can pay close to half a million dollars for a sophisticated “immersion telepresence” system, where identical furnishings in the endpoint rooms and the right arrangement of cameras and displays create the illusion that participants are sitting together at two ends of the same conference table.

Harwood’s 25 years in IT told him that codec-based systems “were hard to use, hard to integrate, and really required an expert on staff who understood and could maintain and set up conferences.” Operability was a problem. Inter-operability with systems that ran on different protocols was another; so was cost. But the lack of easy mobility was a clincher.

“I felt like we had to take a different approach, and there had to be technology out there that would enable people to use what they have today, which are handheld devices, smartphones, tablets, laptops with cameras,” Harwood says. “Everything we use today is being built to enable mobile communications, and the videoconferencing systems weren’t taking advantage of that.”

Combining a business-oriented cloud service with switching, and BYOD with the option to use good room-based cameras and displays, Harwood was able to avoid a big up-front hardware investment that would require reinvestment over time to keep it up to date. He also retained some of the positives of older systems that can be lost when people turn to services such as Skype or rely solely on BYOD equipment. At risk are security and privacy, capacity for multipoint calls, and document sharing—and the quality of the interaction, which really matters, says Joe Baer, regional vice president for AVI Systems, Inc., in Eden Prairie.

Think about why you’re video-conferencing, says Baer, whose company is an audio-visual systems integrator. “Think of all the audio conferences you’ve been on. How much have you gotten out of them, and how much attention do you pay to the other person?” Nonverbal communication is lost. Multitasking in the background is rampant.

The clearer and more natural the images and interaction, the more focused attention participants will give to a conference. In consumer applications like Skype, especially with low bandwidth, Baer says, “you’ll get the jaggies, you’ll see the halos, you’ll see the movement.”

Old Solutions, Renewed

The choices are different for companies that own room-based video-conferencing systems or decide to install them. The question then is how to make it easy to use with mobile technology.

Some of the solutions aren’t entirely new, Knutson says. What’s changed is that they’re available across more platforms and devices. And again, cloud services are making BYOD integration easier.

For instance, Tierney can sell you bridging hardware for about $25,000. A bridge enables different kinds of technologies to participate in the same videoconference, whether it’s over an ISDN line or a VOIP connection, or from a Razr phone or an iPad. But now Tierney also resells a cloud-based bridging service from Vidtel, Knutson says.

Cisco, Polycom, and LifeSize, the three big makers of videoconferencing systems, have each released software and mobile apps in recent years that enable desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones to work with room-installed systems. Cisco’s Jabber, Polycom’s RealPresence, and LifeSize’s Desktop continue to roll out new versions for more devices and platforms, and at roughly $100 per user license, Knutson says, these applications are a reasonable way to give conference access to remote users on their own devices.

Giesen says Jabber was a good fit for a Video Guidance customer whose team of sales reps work remotely. They use Jabber’s “FindMe” feature that can call a desktop or laptop, forward to a mobile device if there’s no answer, or call both places at once. But he doesn’t mean to suggest that BYOD integration is a snap.

“We’re just on the cusp of understanding . . . how to make the most sense of an employee bringing these devices in, from a security standpoint, and then a support standpoint,” Giesen says. Video Guidance bundles bridging into a package of cloud-based videoconferencing services, which it calls VG Connect. Among other things, it includes client software for users’ devices, technical support, firewall traversal, and a gateway for security and administering different degrees of access for different users. Integration “is not as easy as somebody bringing a tablet in and downloading an app off of an app store,” Giesen says.

Driscoll says that two years ago, Video Guidance evaluated a few new potential technology partners a year. Now, to keep up with customers’ needs, “we evaluate a few a month.” Lately, the company is talking with a major provider of switching devices, like the one Outsell uses.

Using the Investment We’ve Already Made

At Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, Patti Elliott Allen, system architect, and Greg Griffin, infrastructure architect, are handling BYOD integration on their own and doing it one step at a time.

“We had a very, very old system”— nine years or so—“that we found less and less able to do what our current users needed it to do,” Allen says. Just making an audio add-on to a videoconference for an employee who wanted to dial in from home was difficult. It required babysitting from IT.

“We were limited to the supported endpoints” of the system, Griffin explains—that is, rooms that were equipped with Polycom or Tandberg equipment, or computers loaded with Polycom’s older PVX client software.

But after an infrastructure upgrade last year, the room-based system has better bridging capability and a gatekeeper that can manage access for more remote users on more platforms. “Today, we can do many different endpoints with the Polycom RealPresence [client software], such as desktop and laptop PCs,” Griffin says. “But now, they associate with my gatekeeper, so I can actively manage those clients. I can push [dialing] directories to them, I can see when they come on the network, and I can then manage them. Whereas before, everything was kind of at an arm’s distance. It was limited, and I didn’t have control over what was going on.”

In phase two of their project, Griffin and Allen want to bring even more endpoints into Children’s system and develop an overarching mobile communications strategy, of which videoconferencing is a part. Health care, more than many fields, has become video intensive. Video lets medical specialists share their scarce skills through consults and training other care providers. It’s also important for communicating with patients. Physicians tend to work from their own smartphones and tablets, and Children’s Hospital must provide communication services to physicians who aren’t on staff but see patients at Children’s.

“We have to provide them services so when they come to the hospital . . . they can continue to function just like they do in their offices and in other hospitals,” Griffin says. So far, Children’s has pushed out a software to help integrate calendar and e-mail functions between users’ own devices and the hospital’s systems. Voicemail, call forwarding, and videoconferencing are next. Griffin says he’s looking at ways that cloud-based services could enhance what’s been done so far.

He and Allen also think about system security and technical support. “We’re doing the same thing other institutions are doing, which is struggling with this whole BYOD, and how do you draw that line between helping the user and going too far?” Griffin says.

But integrating personal devices is not a question. It has to happen, they say, because it’s where their business is headed. And how to measure the costs of integration relative to the benefits isn’t something they’ve worried about.

Griffin says before they started integrating, their videoconferencing system wasn’t getting used much. “What I’m seeing in the first six months of us installing this gatekeeper and all that is that our room systems and our videoconferencing infrastructure is really underutilized.” By giving access to more remote users and their personal devices, “we can actually better utilize the investment that we already have.”

Related Stories