At Global Personals we have multiple offices and remote workers as far round the world as New Zealand. The challenge is to provide a quality video conferencing system that all these staff can use to connect to one another to allow effective collaboration on a variety of projects.
- Scalable: These communications can vary from two members of staff catching up over a project’s progress for 10 minutes, to department meetings involving staff in locations from around the world lasting as long as they need to.
- Multi OS: We use both Apple and PC hardware so the solution must be compatible with both operating systems.
- Desktop Sharing: It’s vital that our staff are able to communicate complex issues through this medium.
- Good quality AV: There is little point in trying to have a conversation with a remote worker that looks pixelated or with audio that cuts in and out.
- Cost effective: As with all projects there is not a blank cheque that you are handed and the solution must be shown to be worth the cost of implementation.
When you look at the video conferencing solutions in the market there are bandings in both the hardware and software cloud based solutions available. Some are cheap (or free) for a reason, providing low quality images and audio with limits to the number of users or length of meetings. Others are expensive but show little advantage over less costly solutions. There are also licensing, installation and security issues to consider.
So let’s break it up into two distinct areas – hardware and software – and give you the solutions we currently have found.
We use Google Apps, and when Google added Hangouts into its services it fit our requirements, ticking the majority if not all of our boxes. Sure, when it was introduced, it lacked some of the features we were after and at times the AV quality was questionable. Its integration with Google Calendar with a one click to join meeting makes it simple for staff to schedule meetings regardless of location, OS or number of participants (up to a maximum of 15 participants, at time of writing). We have seen these features added and the service improved to a level that allows us to use this as one of our choices.
There was one significant drawback to Google Hangouts: you had to sign in to the Mac/PC that you wanted to have a meeting from. While this is not a problem with individuals, it’s impractical for meeting rooms with the inevitable results of staff having to go through the login process in rooms and then leaving themselves logged in. So we turned to an old friend, Skype. We have Skype accounts for all our meeting rooms. They are always logged in and with the contact list and groups you can add it is simple to use for regular office to office (with additional participants where needed) meetings.
For the one-to-one conversations there is little to consider here. Apple’s laptops come with camera, speakers and mic as standard. For PCs a webcam and a decent headset with noise-cancelling mic and you are off for less than £80 all-in. If you are sat in the office the headset is better than speakers and a mic.
We have two types of meeting rooms: a standup room and a boardroom.
Standup rooms host up to 10 staff, as the name suggests standing in most part. TV, webcam, and a Jabra 510 USB speakerphone. The mic pickup and speaker volumes are good enough for the distance of the participants and the inbuilt duplex echo cancellation in the “hockey puck” prevents feedback.
Boardroom. These are larger rooms with big tables seating 10+ participants, a TV, wide-angle webcam (90+ degree field of view) and a Revolabs FLX UC 500 conference speaker system. What this has over the Jabra is scale: 4 embedded directional microphones giving a 360 degree coverage, integrated acoustic echo cancellation, full duplex audio, a decent set of speakers and USB connection. Plug this into a system, PC or Apple, in the middle of a board room and with minimal configuration you have your solution.
Does the story end there?
No… It’s a shifting market with new players coming online and older ones constantly improving the solutions offered. New hardware is always being talked about. With the ever-increasing need to communicate face-to-face with multiple people, regardless of location, the landscape will continue to change.
I now brace myself for the sales calls from suppliers offering better solution as a result of this article.