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Videoconferencing: key tech considerations

Videoconferencing has come a long way since its early days of dodgy lines and ropey video, and is ubiquitous in today’s commercial AV fit-outs. And while it’s true that popular systems such as Zoom also allow VC to be portable and laptop based (a high-flying, multi-millionaire work-from-home pal opined “we all use Skype – that’s all you need!” when I mentioned this article!), decent AV is central to a successful office-based conferencing experience. 

“Audio quality and visual clarity are critical for any VC system,” explains Andrew Hug, VP SE EMEA at Poly. “It’s essential that participants can clearly see and hear one another because as much as 80% of communication consists of non-verbal and visual cues.”

“There are a number of things that are needed for a decent VC system and service,” agrees Christian Bozeat director at Macom GmbH UK. “A set of quality hardware (a decent audio solution is a must), a properly designed network and a working process design that maps to the users’ working processes – plus a service and support process to match.

“The business has to take the VC system as seriously as it takes its IT service and understand that VC, UC and AV are not all one thing but have a different set of skills needed to design, install and support.”  

Certainly the highest possible quality audio and video should always be specified, to ensure the experience is as close to face-to-face communication as possible and allow for productive meetings. 

“One way to ensure this is to use a reputable vendor with global distribution, and balance choosing an affordable system with being willing to make a significant investment,” says Anne Marie Ginn, head of video collaboration, Logitech EMEA. “Opting for the cheapest option is likely to result in a subpar experience.”

Making room

But before the choice of technology is even considered, it’s essential the room and environment is carefully chosen, otherwise audio and video quality may be compromised.

“Room acoustics, lighting and finishes are often overlooked,” explains Dan Watson, senior consultant, PTS Consulting. “Reflective surfaces, noisy mechanical services, high ambient light, poor surface lighting and noisy finishes on the walls all contribute to a bad experience for the far end participants. The quality of a videoconference overall is only as good as the weakest link.”

“Rooms equipped for VC not only need to have the technology in them, but they need to be acoustically fit-for-purpose,” agrees Richard Knott CTS market development manager at Shure UK. “Treat the room first, then use technology to make the most of that room. If the room has bad acoustics to begin with, technology can only go so far to help you transmit your message effectively.

“Ultimately you need to be able to see and hear each other (whether one-one, one-many, many-many), and have a reliable system with which to do that. The experience should be the same for everyone no matter at what size or scale.”

User experience should always be central to the thinking of those specifying a VC system, especially when it comes to the shape and size of the room.

“Before video enabling a room you should consider the appropriate solution for the room’s size,” says Ginn. “If it’s a huddle room, consider something with a wide-angle lens to catch all the participants. If it’s a long board room, consider a solution with a powerful camera and which can take expansion microphones, so everyone can be heard.”

It is also essential that employees are able to screen share, host multiple people on a call at the same time, use multiple screens and walk into a meeting room and instantly connect to a call. This enables employees to effectively collaborate and communicate with a large number of people, without being hindered by location issues. 

It’s this ease of use that’s central to the success of modern VC systems. Solutions that are either plug-and-play or as simple to use as everyday communication and social media applications help with user adoption and are essential for maximising usability and ultimately profitability. 

“You should consider a solution that is quick and familiar to use,” says Ginn. “Any solution that at first glance appears too difficult to use (and too much effort to learn how to use) will put employees off using and adopting it. The technology itself should effectively be invisible, with a participant only having to concentrate and focus on the meeting itself. Features such as one-click join are just a couple of ways that technology providers can go about doing this.”

“The workforce dynamic is changing dramatically and with more people than ever working from home, employees have become reliant on video conferencing systems to help create an environment that can bring stakeholders together efficiently,” opines William MacDonald, chief technology officer, StarLeaf.

The basic requirements of a VC system should support the dynamics of today’s modern organisations, with staff expectations geared towards modern, flexible tech-influenced communications. It’s almost as much about giving them what they want as what they need.

“We’re seeing that teams are increasingly distributed, so there’s a greater need for deeper engagement across employees, customers, partners and suppliers,” explains Dan Creigh, head of UK and Ireland, Zoom Video Communications.

“We’re also seeing changing workforce expectations. In the US for example, millennials make up 35% of the US workforce, and they want both flexibility and engagement – plus they’re a generation that’s comfortable using video. Employees are increasingly influencing IT. The end user experience is priority number one.”

At scale

One of the fundamental decisions companies have to make when choosing a VC system is whether to go with traditional, proprietary codec solutions or the new wave of USB-based conferencing systems – with flexibility and scalability key considerations alongside audio and video quality.

“Ensuring that a system is optimised for the major platforms, such Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams or Zoom, will help to ensure that the experience is intuitive for all users,” says Ginn. 

“Systems tied to proprietary software are likely to be less familiar than users’ everyday platforms, and hence users may be discouraged from using it or waste valuable meeting time setting up and joining calls. The more compatible a device, the fewer barriers there will be to user adoption.” 

“VC systems should typically be compatible with multiple videoconferencing services, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business and Cisco Webex, so anyone can join no matter what application they use,” agrees Hug. 

However, there’s also a desire to consolidate communications services among business leaders. According to Forbes last year, 62% of organisations use three or more video conferencing solutions, with 100% of CEOs/presidents saying that they would achieve greater effectiveness in consolidating platforms. 

“A VC platform should offer one consistent enterprise experience for all users, and be engineered and optimised to work reliably,” says Creigh. “Ideally, it should be able to host up to 1,000 video participants and 10,000 viewers, while being easy-to-use, buy and scale. Finally, it should be affordable with straightforward pricing.”

Zoom, of course, provides one solution for consolidation, with flexibility key to its offer. Zoom Rooms is designed to tackle the three biggest pain points of the conference room: starting a meeting, booking a meeting and sharing content.

Indeed, HSBC, one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations, recently announced that is has standardised to use only Zoom. The company is set to consolidate all of its communications services onto Zoom’s video-first unified communications platform. This includes video conferencing, audio conferencing and screen sharing across mobile, desktop and conference rooms, for both internal and external meetings. 

“By standardising on Zoom, HSBC will consolidate costs and create an enhanced, frictionless experience for end users,” explains Creigh. 

However, most organisations tend to have a mixture of collaboration tools and meeting room systems across their network, particularly if they are a global organisation. This makes the move across to single-platform solutions much more difficult to realise.

“Today, businesses are seeking frictionless, cost-effective, and intuitive solutions that have the ability to integrate multiple endpoints and infrastructure with new systems, which can extend the life of existing videoconferencing equipment,” explains MacDonald. But the utopia of moving directly to a single platform can be difficult to achieve, even with the best intentions.

“So, organisations need to opt for a solution that provides a wide range of interoperability to achieve this goal. Integrated cloud-based solutions serve to better connect users smoothly in real-time high definition with any third-party standards-based meeting systems and deliver optimal control to allow authorised users access anywhere and from any device.”