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Technology Showcase:
Videoconferencing Room Systems

Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Room-sized videoconferencing systems connect groups audiovisually.


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Polycom VSX 7000

The concept of the videoconference is as old as telephony itself. Many early sci-fi films depicted the technology before it became a practical reality. Today room-sized videoconferencing systems offer the promise of face-to-face business meetings without the expense of actually transporting conference members to a single location. They lend the corporate panache of being involved in cutting-edge audiovisual communication — without the need for a complete broadcast studio or even complex IT facilities.

A videoconference (sometimes referred to as a videoteleconference, or VTC) system is a set of interactive telecommunication technologies that allow two or more locations to interact through simultaneous bidirectional video and audio transmissions. At its core is a codec that can handle the digital compression of audio and video streams using either hardware or software.

This “codec” — which in the videoconference world stands for “coder/decoder” as opposed to the more commonly contracted “compression/decompression” — is the multifunctional heart of a room-sized videoconferencing system. Besides hosting codec operations, this central unit can also include a camera control unit directing PTZ cameras (pan, tilt, zoom), an echo-cancellation system for microphones, scheduling management, and all the I/O connections that today's business communication tools require.

Simultaneous videoconferencing among three or more remote points is possible by means of a multipoint control unit (MCU), which acts as a bridge that interconnects calls from several sources. All parties access the MCU unit in sequence, or some MCU units can also call the parties that are going to participate on a preset schedule. The room (as opposed to desktop) videoconferencing system can be built into a permanent corporate conference room, or sit on a roll-around stand to be positioned where needed.

AT&T’s historic Picturephone

A LONGISH HISTORY

The first commercial videoteleconferencing system was the Picturephone, demonstrated by AT&T at the 1964 New York World's Fair. It sent B&W images at a reduced frame rate back and forth to a similar installation at Disneyland in California. The company had been experimenting with the system since 1956. When AT&T finally tried to market Picturephone at $160 per month in 1970, it found little in the way of consumer acceptance.

But after the introduction of Network Voice Protocol (NVP) by ARPA's Network Secure Communications project in 1973 and Packet Video Protocol (PVP) in 1981, Compression Labs began to sell a videoconferencing equipment system in 1982. The unique Compression Labs system required mountains of permanently installed equipment and cost $250,000 with lines running at $1,000 an hour.

In 1986, PictureTel managed to “miniaturize” everything onto a single $80,000 rollabout cart, but still hit corporations with a $100/hour bill. After several other companies, including Mitsubishi, tried to introduce other unsuccessful videoconferencing schemes, IBM released its PicTel on a PC in 1991. Cornell University introduced the first network videoconferencing software, CU-SeeMe for the Apple Macintosh, in 1993. A Windows version of CU-SeeMe followed in 1995.

Today video telephony on personal computers is still a VTC alternative, although it is relatively limited in bandwidth, number of available connection endpoints, and media flexibility compared to the much pricier dedicated room-sized videoconferencing systems.

The adoption of dedicated room-sized VTC systems accelerated in 1996 when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began developing standards for videoconferencing coding. It started with H.263 to reduce bandwidth for transmission for low-bit-rate communication and H.323 for packet-based multimedia communications.

In 1999, the Moving Picture Experts Group developed MPEG-4 as an ISO standard for multimedia content. This led to H.264, also known as AVC, which is used to compress high-definition signals over IP. Most new videoconferencing products now include H.264 as well as H.263 capabilities. In recent years, videoconferencing over IP has emerged as a common communications interface that VTC manufacturers provide in their traditional ISDN-based systems.

Room-sized dedicated videoconferencing systems are now being used not only by major corporations that can afford the hardware, but also by schools, telemedicine, and telenursing applications — and even law enforcement. Louisiana has installed videoconferencing hardware and software into 11 of its prison systems.

Today there is a burgeoning variety of remote AV collaboration alternatives, including web conferencing and even video-equipped cell phones. But this technology showcase will focus on dedicated room-sized videoconferencing systems, which offer the highest quality picture and sound for communicating among multiple endpoints.

Including domestic and Asian manufacturers, total revenues for the industry grew by 9.9 percent last year, as reported by Wainhouse Research in the November 8, 2005, Wainhouse Research Bulletin. Wainhouse is an independent market research firm that focuses on critical issues in the rich-media conferencing and communications fields. The industry remains highly concentrated — the top two vendors, Polycom and Tandberg, account for approximately 65 percent of the units and 75 percent of the revenues on a worldwide basis.

With airline prices escalating and travel restrictions becoming ever more cumbersome, room-sized videoconferencing systems are an increasingly attractive opportunity for personalized business meetings for participants anywhere in the world.

THE MARKET

Combining elegance with compact efficiency, the Supernova Star 243 and Supernova Star 250 VTC systems from Aethra feature two 43in. and two 50in. plasma screens, respectively. Each integrates a complete videoconferencing system in a sleek rollabout stand. The two large plasma screens enable every visual angle to be covered in conference rooms of all dimensions. The dual screens allow the Supernova Star systems to send two simultaneous video signals from two different video sources. The systems are controlled by patented Voice Tracking technology, which directs the cameras to follow whichever person in the room is talking. Aethra's multiple network connectivity supports 768kbps over ISDN BRI and up to 3Mbps over IP, as well as connections up to 2Mbps over ISDN PRI, or over leased lines (X.21, V.35, RS-449, G.703). The built-in mixed-mode (ISDN and IP) multipoint control unit can connect up to five sites with either video or audio. The MCU's timesaving dial-out and dial-in (Meet Me) configuration lets participants join conferences even while they are in progress.

Aethra Supernova Star

Aethra is just now releasing its Vega X5, a high-performance set-top system for medium-sized videoconferencing sessions, with embedded XGA ports and support for three monitors. The Vega X5's integrated MCU connects up to eight sites in mixed mode, with convenient XGA input and output ports providing one-step PC plug-in for simultaneous dual-stream video and live PC presentations. Aethra also offers the Vega X3, with a user-friendly GUI managed by a new “one-touch” remote control for small or medium groups of people in videoconferencing sessions.

LifeSize Communications Room

LifeSize Communications is a relatively new entrant in the videoconferencing game. The company brought out its product line in April 2005, emphasizing high-definition video empowered by H.264 technology (see “HD Technology Trends,” p. 36). LifeSize Room is an HD communications system that combines exceptional quality and user simplicity to make remote communications a productive, true-to-life experience. The fully integrated system connects to most displays in any size conference room and provides high-definition video clarity and high-fidelity audio for a productive conferencing environment.

LifeSize designed its high-definition PTZ camera and wide-angle zoom lens with a 70-degree field of view and 1280×720-pixel video resolution. With advanced digital processing capabilities, LifeSize Room provides high-quality pictures at any bandwidth, including HD quality at 1Mbps, DVD quality at 384Kbps, and cable TV quality at 768kbps, along with 22kHz audio. LifeSize claims 2X room coverage over existing systems.

The LifeSize Phone that is integrated with LifeSize Room is a super-wideband audio system built around 16 directional microphones that can also be used as a powerful standalone conference phone.

Conference members direct this videoconferencing system through LifeSize Control, a fully integrated, secure, web browser-based application that provides complete management of multi-vendor video communications systems and IP devices. LifeSize Control even lets you remotely monitor and manage video devices and set up cell phones or email for troubleshooting and problem resolution. The software provides administrators a web-based scheduler that is time zone-aware and handles point-to-point and multipoint scheduling.

The VSX 8000 series videoconferencing system from Polycom comes in a slim form for efficient rack-mount installation. The system features advanced Pro-Motion video technology offering 2CIF (Common Intermediate Format) resolution with 50/60 fields per second. Lending TV-quality image detail and motion handling, the VSX 8000 series offers smooth, natural images. Its Polycom StereoSurround delivers crisp, natural voice clarity even when multiple parties are speaking.

Polycom's VSX 7000 is expandable — it provides the option to add displays, microphones, speakers, ISDN network modules, and more. Its Polycom Siren 14 delivers clear audio with an integrated speaker and subwoofer. The system is easy to set up and install with a small number of color-coded cables. The VSX 7000's H.264 compression provides television-like Pro-Motion video for unsurpassed quality, along with 14kHz wideband, crystal-clear audio. It comes IP-ready yet versatile enough to add QBRI, PRI, or serial network interface modules. The system features robust remote management tools for IT or video administrators that even provide Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) support on ISDN and IP.

Included in both of the Polycom videoconferencing systems is Vortex EF2280, a multichannel acoustic echo and noise canceller with integral automatic microphone/matrix mixer. Vortex EF2280 is a complete solution for audio and videoconferencing, distance learning, and even courtrooms. It features voice-driven automatic gain control (AGC) that uses neural network processing — so it activates only on valid voice signals.

Polycom is also marketing the Easy-VC E107, a simple addition to any point-to-point or multipoint videoconferencing infrastructure. Easy-VC E107 is a plug-and-play two-port Ethernet appliance that transmits clear video over IP without changing your existing network or camera.

The Easy-VC technology works by making packet-based IP networks look like circuit-switched networks by eliminating out-of-sequence packets and reducing packet drops that result in excessive inter-packet jitter. The Easy-VC technology uses unique algorithms that minimize additional latency requirements and provide the ability to make calls through a Network Address Translation (NAT) or firewall with little or no changes to the NAT or firewall.

Sony IPELA PCS-G50

The IPELA PCS-G50 system from Sony is built on the same platform as Sony's PCS-1 and PCS-G70 videoconferencing series, but adds the scalability necessary for installation in a range of environments. The IPELA PCS-G50 system can be customized with capture, output, and display options, and is capable of delivering broadcast-quality video over IP networks using the H.263 standard video codec/4CIF format at a maximum video transfer rate of 4Mbps. For higher throughput, the PCS-G50 also supports the H.264 standard as well as previous ITU-T standard videoconferencing codecs for enhanced compatibility with legacy systems.

The PCS-G50 system's internal MCU can bridge mixed calls between ISDN and IP networks, allowing users to match individual speeds rather than drop the performance of the entire system to the lowest rate. The system supports multipoint conferencing with six endpoints or up to 10 endpoints by cascading two PCS-G50 units. A “site name” display makes identification of multiple participants easier. The system incorporates data-sharing, quality-of-service support functions to maximize bandwidth efficiency, encryption, and digital whiteboard support.

Sony's PCSA-CTG70 tracking camera is able to keep the PCS-G50's focus on the person speaking with three operational modes. In Speaker Tracking mode, voice-detection and face-recognition functions automatically adjust the camera's angle and zoom settings to center the active speaker's face in the screen. In Next Face Centering Mode, the Remote Commander control unit can be used to pan the camera to the left and right so that it captures participants' faces one by one. The Presenter Mode uses movement detection to track and center the camera on a moving speaker. Presenter mode is ideal for use when you prefer to track a specific speaker, such as during a lecture.

One intriguingly handy feature of this system is its ability to record audio and video signals displayed on the main monitor directly to Memory Stick or Memory Stick Pro media in the MPEG-4 format. These recordings can be used to create electronic “meeting minutes,” and can be played back easily on any PC using QuickTime media player. In addition to archival and records-keeping benefits, the Memory Stick offload feature lets people who were unavailable for the original conference access a multimedia file and catch up on the meeting at their convenience. This Memory Stick recording capability can also be added to Sony's higher-end PCS-G70 conference room system through a free software upgrade.

Back in July 2004, Tandberg completed a major upgrade to its videoconferencing product line, the MXP series, by giving them all digital inputs and outputs and dramatically increasing their video-processing engines. That groundwork paid off in January of this year when, through new F-4 software releases, the MXP systems could match the available bandwidth speeds to new resolutions. Now, instead of being limited to CIF resolutions of 288 lines, the Tandberg MXF series could present progressive widescreen images at up to 1280×720 over 1Mbps connections. With their resolution scalability, the Tandberg videoconferencing systems don't require an HD camera for improved images, even at 400 lines and with a standard NTSC camera. And the best bonus for existing Tandberg VTC systems is that this is all available through a simple software upgrade.

Tandberg 3000 MXP

The Tandberg 6000 MXP codec is the company's top-of-the-line in standard 19in. rack-mountable dimensions, with optional embedded MultiSite functionality that lets you combine up to six video and five audio sites without an external box. You can also plug in a PC through the DVI connector, while simultaneously viewing presentations and presenter via its DuoVideo and H.239 Dual Stream features. The 6000 MXP gives you a wide choice of network options: up to 2Mbps ISDN or external network (H.320), 4Mbps IP (H.323 or SIP), or 6Mbps in MultiSite mode.

If up to four video and three audio sites are needed, Tandberg presents its 3000 MXP codec, offering DVI/XGA with VESA power management via serial port, embedded web server, SNMP, Telnet, XML, HTTP/HTTPS, FTP, and onscreen menu. The 3000 MXP permits dynamic live presentations through one-step PC plug-in or LAN connection. It lets the conference members view both the speakers and their presentations simultaneously with either DuoVideo or H.239 on single- or dual-monitor setups.

Security firewalls can be the bane of videoconferencing systems, so Tandberg provides its Expressway solution. This lets one publicly deployed server reach across any number of firewalls and NATs (Network Address Translations) without requiring your users to access them, or even know they exist. Tandberg's global reach makes the firewall a virtual “black box,” eliminating the need for users to understand or access any settings.


For More Information

Aethra
www.aethra.com

LifeSize Communications
www.lifesize.com

Polycom
www.polycom.com

Sony
bssc.sel.sony.com

Tandberg
www.tandbergusa.com

Wainhouse Research
www.wainhouse.com





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