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The VC Divide

As more videoconferencing vendors enhance their existing group lines with new desktop systems and software, the future of the traditional videoconferencing market is in flux. With different applications and potential customers, integrators should find opportunities on both sides.

Since its inception in the early 1960s and ongoing evolution over the past five decades, the videoconferencing (VC) market and pro AV integrators have formed a rather symbiotic relationship. As the technology has gained acceptance, many integrators have enjoyed the fruits of a growing interest in this niche over the years — an interest that is fueling unit growth rates of ~25 percent per year (see chart on page 26). A recent Pro AV reader survey on purchasing practices reiterates the reality of this commitment, as almost 50 percent of systems integrators and contractors say they plan to purchase and install VC systems for their customers within the next 12 months.

Historically, most AV integrators have focused on the corporate end-user market for the bulk of their VC business, installing systems in conference room-type settings better known as “group VC” (GVC) environments. An installed room or group VC system can include not only cameras, displays, and codecs, but also AMX/Crestron-type control systems, special lighting, window treatments, high-end microphone and speaker systems, scheduling software, and even specially shaped furniture — making the business opportunity far more lucrative to the channel partner than just reselling standard VC hardware. However, in the past year a lot of attention has turned to “personal VC” solutions, also called PVC or desktop VC systems, as many leading vendors have made a move to round out their existing GVC product lines with new desktop options.

Many of the new products in the PVC space are small hardware devices or PC-based software systems that provide highly functional and cost-effective video solutions for the enterprise worker's collaboration needs. While these systems represent little or no business opportunity for the traditional AV systems integrator, they are a good way for end-users to get more usage and value out of their room systems because they increase the number of endpoints that room systems can call.

However, this market does represent an important business opportunity for AV integrators who are already active in IP networking. In fact, if integrators want a piece of the PVC market at all, they'd better be up to speed on IP networking and enterprise desktop technologies and trends.

Understanding the new directions being taken by VC developers as well as new thrusts influencing the industry from such heavyweights as Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, and others can help integrators evaluate the threats and opportunities presented by the current market and technology developments. To do this, it's important to understand the two basic divides in the VC marketplace — group (room) systems and personal (desktop) systems. Here's how we expect them to shake out.

Group VC (GVC) overview

GVC systems are deployed in large and small meeting rooms, boardrooms, auditoriums, and other similar shared spaces. Generally, the objective is to provide the best quality audio-video experience possible and match the capabilities of the system to the requirements demanded by the room and its users. Today's GVC market consists of three types of systems.

Set-top devices are generally attached to one or more display systems (typically video monitors or TVs of some type). These systems represent the bulk of today's shipments and come in a variety of performance/feature configurations ranging from $2,000 to $14,000. In general, they aren't integrated into a conference room's AV system.

Integrated systems generally include a codec, one or more displays, one or more microphone arrays, and a roll-about cart. Today's systems, with large plasma displays attached to a carefully designed mechanical support infrastructure, are still called roll-abouts, but are hardly portable given their large size and weight. Many of these systems are truly standalone, but some are also integrated into the overall AV system in a professionally designed meeting room. Integrated systems can range from $15,000 to $45,000, depending largely on the display system configuration.

Rack-mount codecs are high-performance box-like codec devices designed to meet the demanding I/O needs of the professional AV integrator. They're typically installed in a rack or closet and are not seen by the end-user at all. Ranging in price from $5,000 to $10,000, these devices are typically found in end-user systems costing 10 to 30 times more — once you add in all of the common integration products and services along with them.

GVC trends

Several important trends have emerged in the past year in the room systems market — perhaps the most important of which are new standards and implementations of higher performance audio and video compression. H.264, the latest standard developed in 2003 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-T) and Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), has taken the VC industry by storm. This algorithm provides the same video quality as its predecessor, H.263, but at 30 percent to 50 percent less bandwidth utilization (up to about 512 kb/s) — after which the advantage disappears. Sporting improved motion estimation algorithms, H.264 also supports many screen resolutions, including native NTSC and PAL resolutions, removing the need for scaling and interpolation. The result is noticeably superior video, and an increased opportunity (and responsibility) for integrators to support VC with higher-end display systems. H.264 also meshes nicely with the improved PTZ cameras that are making their way into new GVC systems.



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