Videoconferencing for every budget
- 08 January, 2011 04:20
Polycom video conferencing telepresence visual communications
There's nothing like face-to-face meetings for really connecting with clients or team members, but with air travel becoming ever more expensive (and ever less pleasant), frequent in-person meetings are becoming less viable for many businesses. That means your best option is usually a videoconference.
If you can afford them, today's most immersive videoconferencing experiences are provided by top-end telepresence suites, which often take up an entire room, include highly specialized equipment and cost north of $100,000 per system, not to mention ongoing monthly fees of several thousand dollars. Some large enterprises don't blink at these costs because of the savings in airfare and the perks they provide, such as crystal-clear audio, smooth high-def video and comfortable seating.
But these high-end systems are far too pricey for many companies. The good news is that today there are countless options for holding a virtual meeting. It's possible to conduct a professional business meeting without spending big bucks, using just a computer with a microphone and a webcam, or you can step up to a midrange system that includes its own hardware but doesn't require a dedicated room.
Even free video-chat services, which in the past often provided jerky video or suffered from latency problems (such as not-quite-synchronized audio and video, or delays in both the video and audio from when the person actually spoke), have improved vastly in the past few years. Of course, free systems aren't held to any contractual uptime standards, as the recent Skype outage shows. On the other hand, pricier services are not immune to downtime.
To find out which videoconferencing option works best in specific situations, we tested a range of services at all levels: a simple Yahoo Messenger chat, multiperson Web chats from the likes of Skype and ooVoo, LifeSize's dedicated videoconferencing system, and full-blown telepresence offerings from Polycom and Cisco. I'll let you know what to expect from each type of service and which might be a good fit for your business.
IM video chat
On the low end of the scale is video chat provided by common instant messaging clients. The main advantage of IM video chat is that anyone can use it for free from just about anywhere. A colleague, vendor or customer can quickly download the tool, and you can be chatting in minutes, making instant messaging a quick-and-dirty (not to mention free) way to hold a videoconference.
I chose Yahoo Messenger to represent this category of video chat, but it's not discernibly different from or better than other IM clients that support live video chat. Other products in this space include Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Paltalk.
Yahoo's IM client supports the old adage "you get what you pay for." The service costs nothing and, no surprise, it's not exactly positioned to compete with full-blown videoconferencing systems like LifeSize.
To test it, I used Yahoo Messenger in four different places: on an airplane, at home, in the office and at a public library. Interestingly, the service adjusted on the fly to the quality of the connection. In an office with an 8Mbit/sec. cable modem connection and at home on a 2Mbit/sec. line, the video was smooth and crisp.
At a library on a 1Mbit/sec. DSL connection shared with other patrons, the video chat still worked smoothly without any interruptions or latency problems, but the image quality dropped dramatically -- the picture looked jagged and fuzzy. And on an airplane, Yahoo Messenger's video stream worked smoothly but with even more jaggies, presumably because the United Airlines service is intended mostly for lighter tasks like e-mail and Web browsing.
I find the less-than-stellar image with steady streaming a reasonable trade-off; better to have the image quality dip but maintain a smooth stream than to have crisp but interrupted video, because at least participants can keep track of what the other person is saying.
Yahoo Messenger is strictly for one-on-one chats, but it does let you send Web links, documents or photos during a chat. The video service works with those overseas -- a bonus when you consider that some midtier videoconferencing systems are limited to U.S.-only videoconferences.
Benoît Felten, an analyst at Yankee Group who covers videoconferencing, says IM video is most appropriate for ad hoc meetings where you need the visual cues and collaboration that a telephone call or regular IM chat can't provide. However, he says many large companies view one-on-one IM video chat as superfluous.
"Many businesses right now believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that person-to-person video is a gadget," he says.
Moving up a notch are Web-chat services that provide a way to include more than two people on a chat. Some of these services offer extra features, such as conference recording, high-definition video streams and some administrative functions, but they lack a network infrastructure that ensures smooth video. This category includes services such as ooVoo, SightSpeed and Skype's new five-way video chat service; I tested Skype and ooVoo.
Skype recently introduced group videoconferencing in beta versions of its 5.0 software. I tested the five-way calling that was available at the time; more recently, Skype announced that Skype 5.0 Beta 2 supports 10-way calling, although the company suggests that users limit calls to five participants during the beta period. The group-calling beta is currently available for Windows and Mac computers.
Multiparty calling gives Skype a leg up on IM chat clients, but it generally offers the same quality -- the service looks less crisp than a high-def video stream.
Skype has the largest user base of any voice carrier -- 560 million, according to its last quarterly earnings report as part of eBay.com -- so it's very likely that business clients and colleagues will already have the application installed.
To test group video calling, I connected with four other Skype video users and even added two more Skype audio participants. I was using a 3Mbit/sec. connection in my home office; most others were on corporate T1 lines.
For the most part, Skype worked well for the video chats. The color quality was not quite as high as with the ooVoo service, but it did maintain a smooth and consistent video stream at all times, without stuttering or faltering. Skype frequently sacrificed quality to maintain that connection -- i.e., the screen sometimes looked fuzzy or bitmapped -- but that's a good trade-off in my book.
The Skype interface is both familiar and easy to use -- if you are used to Skype for audio calls, the video features are just as readily accessible, with obvious buttons for starting and ending a call. Unlike ooVoo, however, Skype does not allow screen sharing during group chats or the ability to record calls; recording calls is a feature planned for a future release, according to the company.
Two-person video chats on Skype are free, while group video calling requires at least one party on the call to have a Skype Premium subscription, which costs US$8.99 per month. You can try group calling for free for seven days.
Skype also offers a business version of the service with a management tool that lets you control various features, monitor usage and dole out calling credits to employees. That version also includes a beta of the group calling feature, starting at US$8.99 per month (also with free seven-day trial). You can pay extra for business voice mail and features such as call forwarding within your workplace; pricing varies for these services.
Yankee Group's Felten says Skype is a useful but imperfect tool. For many business customers, it falls into the same category as Yahoo Messenger because it does not provide an immersive telepresence experience. And like other desktop videoconferencing services, Skype is dependent on the participants' connections rather than a centralized network infrastructure for quality and latency control, so the quality may dip for all participants when poor connections are added to a videoconference.
"Visual cues are only useful if they are in real time," Felten says. "In a classic conference call with sound clues only, it's tough to immediately grasp who is talking. Video can help there, but only if audio and video are in perfect sync. The fact of the matter is that if you cram five Skype video feeds on a regular broadband connection, the quality is usually not there."
The ooVoo video call service, which works with Windows and Mac computers, supports six-way video chats. It also lets you add up to six additional audio callers for a total of 12 participants.
OoVoo video quality was noticeably superior to that of both Yahoo Messenger and Skype. Using a 3Mbit/sec. connection, I connected to six video callers and two audio callers at the same time. The service maintained a mostly smooth stream without the jagged appearance of Yahoo Messenger, and the color quality was noticeably better than with Skype and Yahoo Messenger.
However, Skype did a better job of making sure the connection kept running, even if the quality dipped during a videoconference. OoVoo would occasionally pause the video stream for a half-second.
OoVoo adds a few features not found in other desktop-level videoconferencing tools. With high-end videoconferencing and telepresence products, you can often record a meeting and save it for training purposes. OoVoo offers this same functionality with just a quick click of a button. You can also tweet meeting invites, and even invite people who don't have the ooVoo software installed to participate in video chats using a Web browser.
OoVoo offers two-party video chats for free, with a range of pricing plans for more participants, from the three-way plan (US$9.95 per month) through the six-way plan (US$19.95 per month) that I tested. Business plans start at US$39.95 and add a few extras, such as priority customer service and the ability to share your desktop screen.
Overall, ooVoo is a good option for businesses that need good-quality videoconferencing and have a very fast broadband connection but can't afford a premium dedicated videoconferencing system or a telepresence suite.
Roopam Jain, a principal analyst for conferencing and collaboration at Frost & Sullivan, says desktop videoconferencing tools like ooVoo are a good choice for "meetings focused on content," such as showing a sales brochure to a business partner or demoing a prototype. These lower-end options are suitable for businesses "that lack the network capacity and tools to deploy high-quality videoconferencing on a broad scale inside the firewall," he says.
Modular videoconferencing systems
Unlike desktop video chat services, which run on your computer, modular videoconferencing systems use specialized hardware setups that connect to an HDTV and usually include multiple components, such as a set-top box and HD video camera.
While some modular systems are meant for individual use, others are intended to be used in a meeting room by multiple participants. As you'd expect, they're more expensive than desktop videoconferencing products but much more affordable than full-scale telepresence systems.
I looked at the LifeSize Passport videoconferencing system; some telepresence vendors, such as Tandberg/Cisco and Polycom, also offer modular systems.
LifeSize Communications, a division of Logitech, offers multiple videoconferencing products ranging from desktop video apps to eight-way videoconferencing systems. I tested the company's LifeSize Passport system, which consists of a camera that transmits 720p video at 30 frames per second and a set-top device that you connect to your own HDTV via an HDMI cable.
Because the service doesn't run on a computer, there is no software to install. And because participants aren't using their own computers, you'll need at least two systems for your company.
The Passport system supports only two-way video calls, but other LifeSize systems support more participants. When you connect to another LifeSize system, you become a client of that host and can connect to as many parties as the host supports. So even though two other testers and I were using Passport systems, we were connected to a LifeSize Express host system for a four-way video call.
The Passport unit, which costs a flat rate of US$2,500 with no additional service charges, worked extremely well. There's no extra screen clutter, because you're making a one-to-one connection between LifeSize endpoints and not using a Windows or Mac operating system. The stream quality, when I tested it on a 3Mbit/sec. connection in a home office connected to the host and two other participants on corporate T1 connections, was smoother and more consistent than Yahoo Messenger, Skype or ooVoo.
Configuring the system is extremely easy -- you just plug in the set-top box and the camera, connect to an HD display, and turn on the power. To make a call, you type in the unique IP address of the host's set-top box.
You can record LifeSize videoconferences and host them at Videocenter.lifesize.com. You can also install an app on your computer and plug it into the set-top box for screen-sharing during a videoconference.
LifeSize products are more interoperable with other videoconferencing systems than desktop video services. They support the IMTC (International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium) standard, so it's possible to use LifeSize systems with telepresence systems from, say, Sony or Tandberg. (However, the Cisco and Polycom telepresence systems I discuss later in this story do not support IMTC and therefore do not work with LifeSize.) LifeSize also includes a Skype client on the Passport system so you can call Skype users, although you can't hold a 10-way videoconference.
Companies that invest in the LifeSize Control management software can manage meetings, see reports on usage and set up security for all videoconference calls. The software also communicates with Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar (but not Lotus Notes) so users can set up meetings from a computer, automatically triggering a videoconference for all participants. LifeSize Control costs US$150,000, runs on Windows Server 2003 SP2 or 2008 R2, and works with all LifeSize products.
As easy as the LifeSize system is to use, there is one downside: This videoconferencing tool uses the traditional approach of a hardware product connected to a television, which might seem a bit quaint to the typical corporate user. While there is a management console and screen-sharing, they are add-ons to the basic product that must be installed on your computer and configured separately.
Robert Mason, a Gartner analyst who covers videoconferencing, says modular systems like those offered by LifeSize are a good fit for companies with a distributed workforce -- especially those that do not want to have dedicated videoconferencing rooms in regional offices or an HQ building. Modular systems are for those who "want to maximize the immersive quality of the experience, but not invest in the room," he says.
At the top end of the videoconferencing scale are immersive telepresence systems that require dedicated meeting rooms with an array of specialized hardware for a true face-to-face feeling. Leaders in this market include technology giants Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T and Polycom; I tested the Cisco TelePresence System and Polycom's RealPresence Experience.
Cisco TelePresence System (CTS)
Cisco has the networking infrastructure to make telepresence work extremely well. In my tests, however, I found the overall experience to rate just a notch below the Polycom telepresence offering.
I tested Cisco's midtier offering -- the six-person CTS 3000 room -- at the company's demo center in Bloomington, Minn.; the exact same LCD displays and equipment are used in its larger 18-person room, the CTS 3200. Cisco uses three 65-in. LCD screens running at 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second. In my tests, the video looked a bit lifeless and dull: Hand motions and gestures were smooth but not quite as lifelike as with the Polycom suite, and the color was not as brilliant and crisp either.
Setting up a CTS meeting is extremely easy. The CTS 3000 integrates directly into Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, so as you're setting up a meeting in either of those clients, you just add the telepresence rooms (a minimum of two, of course) to your meeting, and the back end automatically configures the connection and places a meeting notice on the phone in the room. To start the meeting, you just touch the meeting notice on the phone. (You can also dial a number that is tied directly to each suite.)
Cisco holds to more rigid specifications than Polycom for its telepresence rooms: It uses the exact same cream-colored paint in every room, with the exact same chairs and lighting. A light above the LCD displays adds a soft glow across the room, and this uniform lighting makes the participants look lifelike and crisp, as though they really are sitting in the same room as you.
A few interesting touches add to the virtual meeting experience. You can connect a laptop, but there are no additional monitors in the room. Instead, your screen is projected just below the main LCD screens, which keeps your focus pointing forward and engaged with the meeting. An icon shows up in the LCD displays to indicate that your laptop is connected.
Cisco holds 40 patents related to telepresence, including 20 just for audio (such as an echo cancellation technique that helps make audio sound true to life). Like the Polycom offering, the Cisco suite did an excellent job of making audio sound realistic; for instance, if someone is talking to your left, the audio comes from that direction.
Cisco offers a wide array of videoconferencing products, all of which tie into the CTS suite. During my demo, the room connected with another CTS suite in San Jose, a Cisco EX90 desktop system and a Tandberg T3 telepresence suite all at the same time. (Cisco acquired Tandberg in April 2010.)
Pricing for Cisco telepresence is lower than for the Polycom suites. The 18-person CTS 3210 room runs about US$340,000, the CTS 3000 room I tested costs US$300,000, and other endpoints -- such as the EX90 desktop system -- cost about US$10,000. Monthly fees for maintenance and support vary by installation and company deployment.
Felten says Cisco offers enterprise customers a distinct advantage over other telepresence providers due to the simple fact that it has so many installed systems -- about 800 worldwide. That means choosing Cisco may offer the ability to connect to more telepresence suites, including those in hotels. And Cisco is the service provider for the telepresence network backbone, even for non-Cisco telepresence systems, he says.
Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX)
The Polycom telepresence suite looked more lifelike than Cisco's and is my top pick for large companies that require the absolute best quality for their virtual business meetings.
I tested the Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX) High Definition 400 Series in San Jose. Interestingly, it uses 720p video instead of the 1080p video used in Cisco's telepresence suite, but it also runs at 60 frames per second rather than Cisco's 30 fps. At 60 frames, hand motions and body movements were just a hair more realistic than they were in the Cisco telepresence suite. (I also tested the Polycom's 1080p setting, which runs at 30 frames per second; although it looked more colorful and crisp, it was not quite as realistic for hand movements and other gestures.)
Color quality, which is extremely important for a realistic extension of one conference table to another, was outstanding. One participant had a blue shirt that popped brightly on screen. And the camera position is perfect for face-to-face meetings: I could look right into the eyes of a presenter and he looked right back at me. (The Cisco telepresence suite was just slightly off in this regard.)
The Polycom RPX 400 Series uses four 48-in. rear-projection displays connected in one long 16-foot video wall with barely perceptible seams between them. (There is also an 8-foot video wall option.) Polycom does an excellent job of syncing the lighting in each suite with the cameras, which are custom-made by Sony for the telepresence suite. This means there is rarely any flickering or lighting differences between rooms.
Each suite has four 17-in. LCD monitors mounted into the conference table itself; you can plug in a laptop, which appears in your local LCD screen and in the other conference rooms, so you can share your screen with another room. (The "talking head" video of the meeting participants, however, is always only shown on the large rear-projection screens.)
For a yearly fee, you can have Polycom schedule meetings for your company and monitor the rooms to make sure everyone is connected -- there's an extra webcam in each suite for admins to monitor meetings. Polycom does not adhere to quite the same rigid room specifications as Cisco, though. For example, Polycom doesn't require the exact same paint for each room.
Like Cisco's CTS, Polycom's RPX works with Outlook and Notes for scheduling meetings easily. However, Cisco's back-end infrastructure is, predictably, much more robust than Polycom's. In my tests, the Cisco video links were always smooth. With Polycom, I noticed a few minor glitches with its video codec (the software used to compress video for network distribution).
On the other hand, Elliot Gold, president of videoconferencing consultancy TeleSpan Publishing, gives Polycom high marks for interoperability: "Today, the advantage Polycom has is that they are totally standards-based and interoperable with not just new systems shipped today, but legacy systems shipped and installed over the past decade."
Pricing for Polycom suites is generally higher than Cisco telepresence. The 400 Series room, with a maximum attendance of 18 people, costs about US$600,000. For a room with two screens in an 8-foot video wall for about four people, the cost is about US$450,000 per room. Monthly maintenance and support costs vary; the fees are based on the system you select and the support option you choose, from light support for major problems to full support for every feature. Polycom also offers lease arrangements for telepresence suites and says the pricing varies by the exact model and service offerings.
Who should consider telepresence suites? Gold says these products are geared for the upper echelon of large enterprises that do not need portability and can afford the costs of both the HD video equipment and the room customizations.
Telepresence offerings "represent the very high end of the visual communications experience," adds Jain. "If an enterprise has the budget, network and bandwidth, immersive telepresence can deliver a stellar communication experience with a quick ROI."
Whatever your budget, there's a videoconferencing option that could benefit your business, from firing up Yahoo for a quick chat with a colleague, to using a room-based modular system for a product demo or holding a formal 20-person meeting with executives in the Singapore office.
John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about consumer and enterprise technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the last ten years.