Over the past two years, we have witnessed the coming of age for USB cameras for huddle rooms. Managing multimedia engineers situated across the globe, I live in these spaces, but it was not until the MBA coursework that I started to incorporate cultural considerations into determining what equipment works well when we collaborate at a distance. I am sharing what I have learned to help others design effective collaboration spaces. 

camera comparison

None of the currently available non-proprietary videoconferencing cameras are ideal. I would prefer to hold out for the next generation rather than put in fixed or so-so Pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) cameras. The labor cost of replacing cameras is greater than the cost of the hardware itself. When we are talking about deployment in the thousands, we really have one chance to get it right. Unfortunately, the wave of the huddle room is upon us.

·         Fixed lens cameras work at the desktop but only effective up to four-seat huddle rooms and are not effective high-context meetings. You are probably best installing these cameras in collaboration rooms now, until the next gen PTZ hardware is available, since they have the lowest cost and greatest reliability. Keep in mind that next generation cameras will probably require a more complicated mounting solution.

·         PTZ cameras increase the flexibility of the huddle room to for low and high context, plus the size of room can increase without resulting in much more expensive traditional videoconferencing systems (difference between $10K and $75K). The Logitech PTZ Pro returns to the wide shot when the call connects. This is a key feature in PTZ USB cameras, since no one is going to take the time to find the remote and adjust the camera properly. Presets, however, may never be available in MSFT standard drivers, so getting the right shot for 1:1 and high context meetings is going to be difficult. Logitech also has a beam-array speakerphone, and it would be great if the company provided a way of recalling camera presets to an active microphone and a wide shot when more than one microphone is active (or none).

·         The biggest challenge with outfitting collaboration spaces is cost.  In order for Collaboration spaces to be inexpensive, they have to be very cheap to support, particularly when deployed in the thousands. To achieve this goal, we can invest in a high quality camera, but we need reliability, such as in the the fewest moving parts possible, which includes servo motors that break and remotes which get lost.

·         The Cisco SX10 appliance provides the best bang for the hardware buck in huddle rooms. The camera, call quality, microphone and user interface is ideal for low and high context meetings. The users still has to adjust the camera themselves, as the dual camera system is only available on the more expensive platform. The biggest challenge with Cisco is the on-going support costs. In addition to annual SX10 maintenance, there are Cisco infrastructure and management tools that must be maintained. Staff have to specially trained, so they cost more too. And, if your company uses PCs more than laptops, you will have to provide a completely separate process for supporting the PC, mouse and keyboard dedicated to the huddle room. Finally, you will need a solution to interoperate between Cisco and Skype for business. So the investment for that small huddle room starts to equal the same cost for medium and larger rooms, which is not desirable when the goal is to install as many low-cost systems as possible.

·         The intelligent tracking in Polycom’s Producer is a great concept, and a sign of where cameras are headed, but the product is only available with Polycom codecs. I also like the acoustic fence that blocks out background noise, but that too only comes with the codec. While I believe the Polycom RPGs are good units, anyone with a Cisco shop is unlikely start adding Polycom codecs just to get these peripherals because they require maintaining an additional support tool, maintenance agreements and staff training.

The most recent 4K cameras on display at CES 2016 are engineered to support virtual reality, like the ALLie https://alliecam.com/  which are not effective in collaboration spaces, at least as they exist today. The exception is the Panacast by Altia systems.

  Altia   Systems (2015  ).   Panacast   Camera. Retrieved   from :   http://www.innovant.com/products/conference_products/video-conferencing/

Altia Systems (2015). Panacast Camera. Retrieved from : http://www.innovant.com/products/conference_products/video-conferencing/

The three lenses in the Panacast provide for a wide angle of the room, capturing everyone and the table. The panorama effect is more comfortable to look at than output of the Polycom Roundtable. The sub $1,000 also makes this camera very appealing. The challenge is establishing consistent experience globally. The camera needs to be available in all markets. This panoramic camera technology that is likely to change rapidly and improve in quality and adoption over the next year. 

Instead of the trend towards VR and panorama, I am on lookout for the next generation of 4K cameras that provide intelligent switching between wide and close images and without mechanical servos. This type of 4K cameras would be an excellent investment because they can be used interchangeably for both large and small conference rooms. The very high quality means very little camera adjustment will be needed. They should last much longer and be unnoticeable when they zoom in. When they arrive, it is likely they will be tethered to a specific vendor’s codec, but the potential benefits of the user experience outweigh the codec vendor support concerns mentioned above.

There is much debate about mounting cameras above and below the display. The truth is that both locations are a sacrifice. For cultural context, the camera should be as close as possible to the average seated eye height (38”), so that both sides appear as equals. While mounting the camera above provides a better overall view of the room, 4K displays are typically very big to read text at higher resolution. The resulting steep camera angle reinforces the division between the two sides of the call. Lowering the display to compensate is not an option because the display drops below the edge table and obstructs sight lines from the back. So the camera should ideally go below the display. However if the screen is touch-sensitive, the camera has to go above. A camera below will be blocked when someone is annotating on the screen. A camera to the side prevents eye contact. The best choice for cultural context is to not put in as big a display, and not make the primary video display the annotation surface. Look for these new 4K electronic PTZ cameras to be installed into the next generation of walk-up stations, competing with Microsoft’s Surface Hub in 2016. 

  Microsoft (2015  ).   Microsoft Surface Hub. Retrieved   from   https://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-surface-hub/en-us

Microsoft (2015). Microsoft Surface Hub. Retrieved from https://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-surface-hub/en-us

Ideally, the 4K camera’s electronics should compensate for camera placement at less than desirable angle and height we have been discussing. Even then, it is unlikely that these cameras will overcome loss of eye contact due to the off-access (distance from camera to center of the image). For Westerners, off-access camera is not a concern because we are used to productive low-context meetings, but for other regions of the world, the cameras need to be effective in high context situations as well. Soon, display manufactures will build the 4K microchip cameras into their displays, saving installation and support costs. The camera in the display bezel will reduce but not eliminate the eye contact problem.

Opposite Point of View

Many IT professionals may agree that camera quality is important, but that cultural context is not critical; or that the cost of a better camera is too large a percentage of a $10K room, particularly if the goal is to deploy a common standard across the global company at the lowest cost. The reality is that over 75% of the systems will be productive, and we can claim substantial success even with the lowest cost equipment.

Huddle rooms are not a new invention, but adding video and using these spaces for live collaboration across the globe is a new concept and important to the Unified Communications and Collaboration strategy. In these more intimate settings, teams are going to realize that in order to maximized productivity and avoid road blocks they need to trust and share with their partners who see the world from a different perspective. If we design these low-cost spaces to work across cultural divides, teams can come to agreements faster and be more productive. If we avoid these considerations, then we can anticipate that change management projects will continue to have long implementation cycles, and  utilization rates will drop over time, at least for  high-context content.

TURNING POINT is Mark Peterson's personal take on innovation and collaboration influencing today's corporate strategy. To have a conversion about what takes to implement collaborative solutions efficiently and at enterprise scale, contact Mark Peterson.

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