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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.

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.

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.

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

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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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 attributes

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.

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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.

PVC trends

The most interesting trend in PVC is the move from VC serving as a standalone application to a feature within a larger system. Boston-based visual collaboration and rich media communications research firm Wainhouse Research believes that the battle for the future enterprise desktop is taking place on three fronts.

First, you have the PBX (telephony) vendors working to include audio-, video-, and webconferencing as features controlled by their PBX servers. All the major vendors here, including Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, Mitel, Alcatel, and Siemens, have programs to enable VC from their PBX handsets in one form or another. We expect these vendors to reach out to the large installed base of room VC systems as well and to enable connections between room systems and their PBX endpoints.

Another trend in the PVC space centers on existing enterprise workflow applications from such vendors as Siebel Systems, SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, BEA, IBM, Microsoft, and others. The concept is to enable audio and video communications from within the higher-level enterprise software. Users running a CRM application, for example, would have a “collaborate” button to call on the appropriate person for conflict resolution, etc. The advantage here is there would be little for the end-user to learn. On the other hand, the suitability of this conferencing application for general-purpose meetings or for calling outside the enterprise is highly limited.

Finally, there’s a trend toward the development of conferencing and collaboration portals, which are communications applications (not add-ons) that bring audio-video-web tools together in one virtual location where users can schedule, launch, and control their meetings. Portals are highly flexible, suitable for meetings, briefings, training, and many other enterprise applications. Portals today deliver video performance that ranges from 2 to 30 f/s in video windows ranging from very small to full screen.

Wainhouse expects to see some crossover between these three different approaches. Indeed, Microsoft, Alcatel, and Siemens are already working in multiple areas, and many portal developers are likely to partner with PBX vendors and software developers to integrate their solutions.

PVC attributes

While GVC systems are used in scheduled, structured environments where AV quality is crucial, the opposite is generally true for PVC applications. These are personal systems, and just as people don’t generally schedule or reserve their telephones, they don’t want to do so with their desktop video systems either. Tolerance for audio-video glitches, while not high, is still higher than it is with room systems. The key for PVC systems is to support ad-hoc calling, and ad-hoc multipoint. Even more important from the AV integrator’s perspective is that the primary function of many enterprise video calls (not so for consumer video calls) is to discuss a document or presentation, so that the focus of the conference is on content first, audio second, and video a distant third. Therefore, many PVC systems use small display systems or display small video windows on computer screens. As a result, integration skills in the PVC world are typically focused on network integration and on integrating the PVC systems to other enterprise desktop applications such as scheduling, workflow, or the enterprise Presence engine, rather than AV (see “The Importance of Presence” sidebar.)

PVC future and integrator implications

While no one can be 100 percent certain how the enterprise desktop VC market will develop, it appears that the major implication for AV integrators is not a growing opportunity to get involved at the desktop, but rather an opportunity to support room systems that will see increased use as enterprise workers are exposed to the benefits of rich media conferencing and collaboration tools. If there is an “overhang” in the market today it’s that many GVC systems are underutilized. While it’s hard to justify video enabling more conference rooms when existing rooms see utilization rates well below 10 percent, as measured by Wainhouse Research, AV integrators will see demand for their services soar as VC becomes mainstream in the enterprise, driven by higher quality and reliability, lower cost of ownership, and persistent demands on enterprise users to be more efficient.

Andrew Davis is the managing partner with Wainhouse Research in Boston. He can be reached at [email protected]

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