How to choose a video conferencing solution
Video conferencing systems are getting seriously affordable for SMBs - here's how to pick the right one for you
Communication and collaboration are critical to success in business and video conferencing (VC) is fast becoming an essential part of today's rapidly evolving virtual workplace. Along with increased productivity and improved customer services, VC can accelerate decision making processes and help bring isolated remote workers back into the fold.
Huge savings in business travel costs will allow businesses to easily recoup their initial outlay in months. No more tedious road trips or expensive flights to customer sites means they can reduce their carbon footprint as well.
There's a huge range of low-cost or free VC web apps available and prices for conference room solutions are now low enough to make them a reality for SMBs. This allows them to create a central hub where they can hold meetings that bring together physical and virtual presences, allowing them to share ideas, data and presentations.
VC room solutions come in all shapes and sizes, where the lowest cost models provide the video and audio hardware components only. Some products must be connected to a computer via a USB cable where they link up with a standard VC app running on the host - such as Skype for Business or Cisco WebEx.
That's not to say they're single user solutions. Far from it, as providing the app supports it, you can invite multiple remote users to virtual meetings and share your conference room video and audio feed with them along with content and presentations on your host as well as theirs.
Due to the size and weight of the cameras and speakerphone base units, most are only suitable for permanent installations. However, some USB connected products are specifically designed to be portable so you can boost your sales pitch by taking them with you and setting up ad-hoc conferences with potential clients and linking them up with sales and support staff at the head office.
Maybe you want your VC room to have an impressive HD display. No problem, as several products have HDMI outputs, allowing the camera video feed to be piped straight to an HD monitor or TV of your choice.
Pump up the volume
Audio is just as important in a meeting, as you don't want participants straining to hear what everyone else is saying. Laptops and tablets with integral speakers and mics may be fine for one-on-one meetings but won't cut it in a big meeting room with people spread out round a large table.
Professional VC room products have this covered, as their speakerphone bases incorporate multiple directional microphones and big speakers to pump the sound out. And if the volume is too soft or loud, you don't want to be fiddling with your app to change it - so choose those with touch buttons on their surface for easy access to volume levels plus options to mute the mics.
We found that many products have an audio pickup range of up to 20ft but even that may not be enough if you're organising a big conference spread out down a long table. If this is a concern, choose vendors that offer optional satellite mic/speaker units which can be plugged into the main speakerphone to extend the range on-demand. Other features that add versatility are support for Bluetooth and NFC allowing users to connect their mobiles to the speakerphone and make hands-free calls.
Background noise such as traffic, slamming doors, footsteps in the corridor or staff in adjacent offices can also be an issue so look for systems that have noise reduction features. Polycom's Trio 8800, for example, employs triple cardioid mics which reduce pickup from the side and rear while its NoiseBlock technology cuts out distracting background noises.
Video conferencing isn't as sensitive to network conditions as Voice over IP (VoIP) but you will still need plenty of bandwidth for streaming HD video. It pays to get this right, as if your users are unhappy with the quality they will simply stop using it and go back to previous communication methods.
For a single 1080p stream at 30fps, we recommend around 1-2Mbits/sec and preferably 4-6Mbits/sec. For increased stability, use a wired network connection for the conference room system and don't connect it over wireless.
Participants joining a VC meeting also need to ensure they have a good quality network connection and to highlight this, we connected a Macbook to a Lifesize meeting over a weak wireless signal from an AP on the next floor. The 1080p video stream was too much for it - quality was appalling and our meeting connection was dropped by the Lifesize app within 10 seconds.
VC is a great business aid, but get it wrong and it can show you and your company up as unprofessional. The same mantra for interviews applies equally to video conferences that you're hosting - be prepared.
Arrive early and make sure everything is connected, working and accessible - especially if it's a client or customer meeting. Be careful with camera placement and ensure it only shows what you want participants to see.
Don't sit in front of a sunlit window as most cameras can't cope with the elevated light levels and can leave you in silhouette. Even choose your clothes carefully as bright colours and groovy patterns are just plain distracting.
And when your VC room is a success everyone will want to use it, so make sure you implement a booking system to avoid clashes and interruptions. With prices now very affordable for SMBs, there are some great VC solutions to choose from, so see which one fits your virtual workplace best.
This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 275
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