Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the IMCCA, the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.
It has now been about three years since the pandemic lockdown. Back then, we would have thought that, after the return to the office was complete, we wouldn’t need so many video cameras. After all, everyone we’d want to meet with would be back at the office with us, right? This isn’t how it panned out.
Instead, we have a new, flexible/hybrid workforce. On any given day, only some members of a given team will be at the office. Every meeting is now a video meeting. Rather than fewer cameras, we actually need more of them.
Excitement Around Business Video
With this clear background, there is a lot of interest and excitement around business video in general and meeting-room videoconferencing systems in particular. This is because our experiences with meeting-room video must be improved. It turns out that it’s relatively easy to optimize a home office for video: A decent headset and webcam, along with proper framing and lighting, can make anyone look and sound great on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, etc. Meeting rooms, however, are another story.
At a minimum, you need more powerful audio and video to handle larger meeting-room spaces. To make things even harder, it can be tricky to capture and frame multiple participants in oddly shaped (or even standard shaped) rooms. Vendors of video gear are responding with a constant flow of new devices, features and form factors.
Let’s start by looking at the top features you might want to have for your meeting rooms. Then, we’ll look at the available form factors you can choose from to deliver that experience.
2023 Meeting-Room Features
A list of every possible hot feature, representing every vendor in the category, would be far too extensive for this article. Instead, let’s look at some of the top things that matter for your meeting rooms.
Video Software Certification
Today’s top video software services, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, offer certification programs for hardware. These companies want to ensure that, when their customers use Zoom Room or Microsoft Teams Room software, they will have good experiences and that one manufacturer’s component is swappable for another. These certification programs are rigorous, and they might require changes to devices’ actual hardware design in order to get them certified. If you make sure that your room system is certified for the service you intend to use in that room, you’ve taken a big step toward optimizing the meeting experience in that room.
Video Service Interoperability/Compatibility
One of the most common problems in business communications today is how to manage multiple services. You might choose to use Zoom for everything, put it in all your meeting rooms and give all your employees accounts. However, at some point, you will most assuredly get a Microsoft Teams meeting invitation. Many companies have actually installed multiple meeting-room systems (e.g., a Zoom Room solution, a Microsoft Teams Room solution) into each room to try to solve the problem. Fortunately, today, we’re starting to see systems that can support meetings from more than one video service. Obviously, this should be one of the top considerations for any new deployment.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
A few years ago, I thought that “smart cameras” (as we called them then) were cool and interesting. Now, I think that they’re essential. As noted, flex workers who call in from their home offices generally look good, if not great, in video meetings. A big part of this is that we generally have proper framing at home. After all, we’re sitting right in front of the camera.
We’ve always needed better framing in meeting-room solutions, and all these properly framed flex workers just made the problem more obvious. AI technologies like voice tracking or facial recognition are now being used in a variety of approaches to improve meeting-room-participant framing. Today’s cameras/systems are also able to pass information to software services to further improve the experience.
Affordability and Design
Although this isn’t often discussed, our video-system vendors deserve some credit for the look, as well as the lower cost, of today’s systems. When I first started writing about meeting-room video systems, they could be a bit boxy and expensive. They were generally reserved for high-end boardrooms, where the cost could be justified, and where the bulk of the hardware could be hidden in custom furniture.
Today’s systems are priced for mass deployment in small and medium-sized meeting rooms. They also tend to have a more modern, sleeker, more approachable design. We’ve evolved past the point of mere functionality. You can choose a system that matches your meeting-room space’s look and aesthetic, and it’s priced so that you can have it in all your meeting rooms.
Meeting-Room-System Form Factors
Keeping the previously discussed features in mind, you have several choices of form factor for your meeting-room system. The market has not yet settled on one and only one way for a meeting-room system to look. Keep in mind that any of the systems we cite can be installed as part of a room-system solution, with integrated room-system software, or as a DIY installation, where you provide a PC running the software separately.
This is where it all began. PTZ cameras continue to be the workhorse of business video. Fortunately, they have come a long way. The power, quality and resolution have gone way up, while prices and device sizes have come down. Even better, the biggest downside of PTZ cameras — namely, that no one wants to use the remote control to pan, tilt and zoom — has finally been addressed by AI, which can provide automatic framing. PTZ cameras have always been good options; today, however, they are often great options.
The video bar makes such obvious sense for today’s meeting rooms that it hardly requires discussion. If your IT team has to outfit 2,000 meeting rooms for Zoom, you could install 2,000 cameras and 2,000 soundbars and 2,000 mini-PCs running the software. Or, conversely, you could just install 2,000 video bars running Zoom Room software. It helps that today’s video bars tend to look really nice. They’re actually something you want to see in your meeting rooms. It’s not surprising, therefore, that video bars are a big winner in the current meeting-room-video marketplace.
Center-of-table cameras are a controversial entry on this list. On one hand, we’ve tried this concept in the past, and it didn’t take off. On the other hand, today’s technology and AI can do a much better job with the concept, and, in theory, it addresses some very real meeting-room-experience issues.
By having a camera (or cameras) at the center of the table, you effectively get something similar to the remote-worker experience: There is a camera right in front of each participant’s face to get that ideal framing of each person. A center-of-table solution can theoretically also provide better eye contact for in-room participants.
Mobile Videoconferencing Carts
With the need to provide video in more spaces at the office, facilities are looking for more flexible solutions. Although videoconferencing carts are literally just a way to roll around the other solutions we are describing, they are still worthy of mention. Some vendors provide a lot more than a simple rack on wheels; some design all-in-one units that have everything from cable management to touch controls carefully planned out. It might seem like a silly thing to say about a cart, but, actually, some of them are modern, feature rich and really cool.
All-in-One Display Solutions
The five things you need for video are a camera, a mic, a speaker, a display and software to run it all. Video bars, the current market darling, have four of the five. A true all-in-one would be a display/monitor (ideally, touch/interactive) with integrated audio/video/PC. Although only a few vendors are focusing on these products right now, it is an area with a lot of potential.
There has never been a more exciting time in the business-video space. Videoconferencing is now a normalized part of our daily workflow, and vendors are rapidly innovating to improve the experience. As a result, we see not only constant improvements to existing products but also entirely new approaches and technologies. The bottom line is this: You can expect a far better meeting-room experience today than ever before, and it’s only going to get better.
For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.
David Maldow is president and CEO of Let’s Do Video.
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