Mar 28 2013

Now's the Time for a Conference Room Refresh

Want to enhance collaboration and productivity? Start by modernizing the space where everyone meets.

When it comes to boosting productivity and promoting collaboration in today’s organizations, there’s no single be-all, end-all solution. Even so, the venerable conference room comes close.

Conferences are often a part of everyday work life. And regardless of what people say, a well-designed, well-equipped and highly functional conference room can make a massive impression on visitors.

The key is to look past traditional room designs and imagine how a mix of latest technology innovations can turn these valuable resources into dynamic communication hubs. The idea is to quickly link people together to brainstorm ideas, solve problems and improve decision-making.

“Organizations have long known that they could improve productivity by bringing more people together in meetings, but now, with video conferencing and video-ready mobile devices, they can extend collaboration capabilities even more,” says J.D. Vaughn, a consultant and chairman of the advisory council of the Visual Communications Industry Group.

Paving the way toward better collaboration is a host of new capabilities that are making conference rooms more accessible and easier to update than ever. The result: Forces are combining to make this a good time for forward-thinking organizations to seriously consider a conference room refresh.

Why Refresh Now?

A number of technology advancements are encouraging organizations to modernize their conference rooms. One of the leading drivers is the wide range of software-based codecs, the technology that encodes and decodes the streams of digital data that make real-time communication possible.

The latest software solutions free organizations from having to rely on proprietary hardware that does not mesh well with corporate IP networks.

“In the past, video conferencing hardware was essentially an anomaly to an IT manager because it had to be separate from the existing network,” Vaughn says. “Now that we have software solutions and USB-based options for cameras, audio equipment and other peripherals, we are seeing a lot of folks convert to the new technologies.”

There’s also good news on the cost front. Rather than in the past, when conferencing systems had reputations for being big-ticket items costing tens of thousands of dollars, some of today’s solutions sell for far less than the $10,000 price point. The pricing makes it easier for entities to justify implementations for small conference rooms and satellite offices.

“These technologies are mass deployable now, so they really shouldn’t be thought of as just boardroom devices, which they traditionally had been,” says Simon Dudley, video evangelist for LifeSize, a maker of video conferencing technology. “The best way to deploy video conferencing these days is to put it in all the meeting rooms.”

The equipment that supports today’s conferencing session is also substantially easier to use. “There’s almost nothing more capable of embarrassing you in front of others than a video conference,” Dudley says. “If you get it wrong and can’t dial-in a colleague, you are very publicly on display.”

The key manufacturers of these technologies are making strides in simplifying both the devices used during conferencing and collaboration sessions, as well as in the setup procedures required to implement systems.

Reap Refurbishing Benefits

One way a modernized conference can contribute to increased efficiency is by facilitating faster and better decision-making. When stakeholders had to physically travel to speak face to face and view documents, cost wasn’t the only concern. It could take days or weeks to coordinate schedules to get everyone in the same venue at the same time.

A modern conference room, with video or audio collaboration capabilities and screen-sharing tools, compresses that time. It improves the chances for capitalizing on new opportunities before competitors do or addressing problems before they become unmanageable.

In addition, an organization’s meetings can now routinely include all the key staff members who may not be onsite, including sales staff, technicians and workers in branch or field locations. What’s more, close communication with customers, constituents, partners and contractors throughout the global supply chain are becoming essential for organizations that want to closely manage schedules and budgets.

Today’s conferencing technology can draw people in no matter where in the world they happen to be at meeting time — as long as they have access to a standard business-class network or viable Internet access.

Key Conference Room Technology Components

What hardware and software does a modern conference room require? The answer depends on each organization’s individual goals and budgets, but the good news is that there are enough new solutions available that organizations will be able to mix and match components to fit most specific needs.

What’s more, innovations around software-based video conferencing let IT managers install the necessary management and compression components on traditional data center servers.

One new option, the Icon Series from LifeSize, embeds capabilities for communicating with mobile devices, streaming and recording sessions, and bringing together multiple participants within the software module. The LifeSize module can run on a virtual machine in the data center.

A small set-top box connects the back-office application to conference room displays, cameras, microphones and other necessary or desired peripherals. Data flows over IP local area networks or across standard broadband Internet links.

The base price for the new series is just more than $3,000, which means some organizations can justify rolling it out to multiple locations. “With video conferencing, one of the barriers to entry has been high cost,” Dudley says. “But now we can easily equip three offices with high-definition video for under $10,000.”

Other video conferencing options include the Polycom RealPresence Group Series, which offers technology for room-based group collaboration. The system is designed to be easy to use and requires no specialized training. Plus, it includes tools for using Apple iPad tablets to start and manage video calls.

The solution supports high-definition video and content sharing, as well as high-end audio reproduction. The RealPresence series also offers native interoperability with leading unified communications platforms without expensive gateways, so organizations can build on existing UC investments.

Video conferencing isn’t the only option for a conference room makeover. For example, ShoreTel sells comprehensive UC solutions that include Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony, instant messaging, video conferencing, mobility, presence and collaboration capabilities. It also markets a lightweight system known as ShoreTel 13 that’s designed to help small- to medium-sized groups share data while speaking via telephone calls.

“Often, when we’re sharing data, it’s more important to hear other people and see a PowerPoint deck on the screen than it is to see a talking head,” says Bernard Gutnick, ShoreTel senior director of product marketing.

The solution runs on a Linux-based appliance — which can be housed in a data center — and enables sharing of desktop screens. The individual browser-based sessions don’t incur additional connection charges for data sharing, no matter how many people attend. Because it’s browser-based, the solution supports mobile users who can access the conferences and view full-onscreen presentations using both tablets and smartphones while on the road.

Peripherals Come of Age

In addition to the underlying communications and collaboration systems, a modern conference room can also benefit from next-generation peripheral equipment.

Today’s commercial-grade, large-screen LCDs offer 1080-pixel, high-definition resolutions at sub-$1,000 prices. For example, the NEC V422, a 42-inch model, sells for about $899. In addition to offering conference-room quality images, the NEC display includes built-in 10-watt speakers. For larger venues, Samsung offers the SyncMaster ME65B, a 65-inch LED-backlit LCD flat-panel screen with full high-definition resolution and two 30-watt stereo speakers.

New touch control systems take advantage of the latest touch-screen technologies to contribute to the overall trend of making it easy to manage conferencing and collaboration sessions. The best touch control systems enable users to centrally launch any of the capabilities available with video and audio systems, including initiating calls, linking in new participants and directing cameras. The onscreen controls are familiar to anyone who regularly taps icons and swipes screen inputs on tablets and smartphones.

Another essential component of the conferencing infrastructure is digital video cameras. Many cameras now support USB interfaces, which expand their ability to work with any other conference room hardware that also uses this ubiquitous standard. In addition to providing high-definition image quality, some of today’s most innovative camera designs come with built-in intelligence to facilitate communication. For example, the Polycom EagleEye Director is a tracking camera that zooms in on people who are speaking based on sound and motion.

Other important pieces range from wireless microphones, which assure that everyone can be heard without adding to a nest of wires and cables, to video projectors and interactive whiteboards. When organizations combine this mix of components, they can create conference rooms that accommodate the best communication methods based on particular attendees and the subjects being discussed.

Standards Drive Success

Experts advise IT managers to look for industry standards when evaluating technology for conference rooms. In addition to USB for peripherals, another important standard is Scalable Video Coding.

A growing number of vendors now support SVC, which is part of the H.264/MPEG-AVC protocol for high-definition video sharing and recording. Industry adoption of the standard means organizations can safely take a best-of-breed approach when choosing devices.

“Standards give the CIO the flexibility to negotiate with vendors and choose the technologies that are best for the organization’s needs,” Gutnick says. “Industry standards also enable mobile professionals to use notebooks and other devices to participate in full room-based collaboration systems, whether the data sharing is on someone’s desktop or in a conference room with people calling in from all around the world.”


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