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.
While the PSTN telephone system supports 3 kHz audio, VC systems today support wideband audio up to 14 kHz, and with MPEG-4's Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), 22 kHz CD sound is on the way. Some vendors are now supporting stereo as well. In a full implementation (with stereo speakers and microphones), the technology delivers important cues in a multi-person meeting as to who is speaking, making remote meetings seem much more natural. Audio quality is well known to be the most important determinant to perceived meeting quality and a key to reducing meeting fatigue. AV integrators will find that today's wideband GVC systems can take full advantage of sophisticated conference room sound systems.
Another important GVC trend that will affect how integrators work in this market is the VC industry's embracing of 16:9 display systems. While high definition is not yet shipping in current products, support for true HD technology from camera to codec to display is likely in the future. Today's VC systems provide several advantages when used with 16:9 displays based on the ability to emulate a dual monitor configuration on a single display system. This works well with another new industry standard, H.239, which enables systems connected to a PC to send both the presentation and the presenter. The dual-mode emulation then enables the audience to see both images at the same time, even when using only one LCD or plasma display.
The last major trend that has made today's GVC systems even more functional than their predecessors is the fact that they harness the increased processing power inside these appliances to build in multipoint control units (MCUs), which enable the user to connect to three or four remote video systems and an equal number of audio endpoints. These systems (set-tops, integrated, and rack mounts) handle on-the-fly multipoint calls across both ISDN and IP networks, providing all the functions necessary to link up like and unlike systems.
GVC systems have some demanding characteristics because they're shared resources. When six of your design team members are meeting remotely with the top three sales and marketing executives in three remote locations, you've got nine calendars to contend with. Enterprise scheduling systems are not only critical to schedule the rooms, but also to coordinate with the schedules of meeting participants — and you don't want nine people sitting around waiting for a technical glitch to be solved. That's why the systems must be monitored and maintained continuously and performance must be flawless. Otherwise, experience has shown that these users won't come back.
Many clients will prefer to have the meeting launched by an experienced conferencing professional, especially if there are more than two sites on the call. Naturally, attendees at a formal, scheduled meeting will be very particular about quality, especially when it comes to audio. Meeting participants need to hear everything being spoken clearly. Careful location of microphones, lighting, and even the use of acoustic gain control subsystems and speaker-tracking cameras are all issues integrators must plan thoughtfully.
GVC future and AV integrator implications
Perhaps the most exciting concept for AV integrators is that the new GVC systems now support the high-end audio-video performance characteristics that are compatible with high-end sound and display systems. The bottom line is that customers will derive more value from multimedia integration projects incorporating VC and other remote meeting technologies. With wideband audio, stereo sound, high resolution, and high frame rate video, the new crop of GVC systems are definitely tools that can help integrators shine. Equally important, the rack-mount VC systems being delivered are designed to make an integrator's job easier and more reliable with support for rugged connectors, multiple camera and microphone connections, and network connectivity for remote monitoring and control systems.
Personal VC (PVC) overview
While the GVC market has evolved and improved continuously in price/performance in recent years, the personal VC market might be better described as one that is mutating rather than evolving. The PVC market began 10 years ago as desktop VC, with a slew of vendors introducing hardware/software subsystems for personal computers to turn those PCs into VC systems. That market never took off, due to complexities around the Windows PC, the VC subsystem, and the network. Today, the PVC market consists of three distinct segments.
Videophones are telephone-like appliances with embedded cameras and displays. This market is just beginning to take off as systems are introduced that take advantage of consumer broadband Internet connections.
PC-based systems today consist of USB-attached cameras and software. They are far easier to install and use than the first-generation computer products; they also provide far better audio and video performance.
LCD-integrated systems are the newest form of personal systems. These all-in-one devices embed a complete VC system inside an LCD display — the user simply supplies the power and a network. Some of the systems on the market double as a computer display as well, giving the buyer two functions for the price of one while saving desk space. But while positioned as personal systems, many vendors are finding that users are installing these devices in small conference rooms. With fixed focal length cameras, this class of PVC system often makes for the perfect “huddle” system with two or three people sitting relatively close to the device (hence they're also serving as GVC systems). Like their GVC counterparts, the LCD-integrated systems support wideband audio, stereo, H.264 video, and H.239 dual stream “people plus content.” Two vendors have even introduced LCD-integrated systems with 16:9 format displays, enabling the user to see his computer on half of the screen and the remote video caller on the other.