The fundamental challenge of running enterprise-wide video conferencing (VC) is keeping users happy. Happy users feel empowered, not foolish when confronted with the challenge of setting up or running a VC meeting. If you keep users happy you have most likely cut support costs while increasing utilisation – both metrics critical to any AV service manager come review time.

However for some inexplicable reason the VC industry as a whole has done a very poor job of keeping users happy. Regardless of what the respective vendor marketing departments say, most VC users consider the experience to be at best annoying, at worst completely off-putting. Integrators try to put lipstick on the vendor-grown pig, but inevitably only add cost and introduce unneeded complexity.

Recently a global financial organisation analysed the setup time required for their VC meetings. They found that on average it took five minutes for participants to get the technology operating so the meeting could commence. That’s five minutes wasted for every person in the call. Scale that across a business with over 100,000 employees and a desire to conduct more visual collaboration and the time lost to the business was staggering. Based on the average hourly cost of employees the lost time due to VC technology was measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This loss is recurring year-on-year, and scales up alongside VC utilisation. It’s a problem that doesn’t go away.

Why do smart people have systemic problems with VC meeting setup delays? What is going on in these ‘enterprise-class’ rooms that makes frequently degree-educated users unable to start on-time? This is the ‘Elephant In The VC Room’ that the major manufacturers totally ignore. I want to take the time to go through the issues and talk about a solution.

What’s the problem?

Let’s look at what people want to do in a VC call:

1. Start or answer the call

2. Share content – slides, video, or desktop

These two apparently simple tasks encompass probably 95% of VC user needs. Yet in 20 years of VC evolution the industry has not got it right. Let’s look at the problems specifically…

Start or answer the call

This may be done using a remote or touch panel, or it may be an operator dialing into the room. This is highly specific to the platform your VC endpoint is connected to – Cisco, Polycom, another OEM or a cloud service. Do you have preset address books or access to your full corporate directory? are appointments shown on the screen? does the system auto-connect? Do you use a room control system such as Crestron or AMX? You can set calls to auto-answer, but in multi-purpose rooms this can be anything from annoying to a major security breach. There are many variables affecting the end-user experience, and limited scope to change without replacing the entire core service platform.

So there’s not much we can do regarding starting or answering a call.

Share content – slides, video, or desktop

Very few rooms used for VC are for that purpose alone – corporate real estate needs to be flexible and only the most expensive immersive telepresence spaces are dedicated to that purpose. Some analysts believe 70% or more of multi-use room time is spent not in calls but rather using the screen, table, laptop connector and power sockets to facilitate collaboration with people in the room. If you have a large screen, cabling and power provided, why wouldn’t you? The days of signing out a projector and pulling up a screen are rapidly ending as large, thin displays drop in price and can be placed in any room for less than the cost of a decent projector. And with VC endpoints or PC clients now relatively inexpensive or even free, why wouldn’t you use that screen for VC? It’s a virtuous circle that has seen rooms become more productive for all needs.

People want to share. Sharing is good. However the biggest challenge now facing VC support organisations is one born of the same technological progress: the humble laptop connector.

The Tyranny Of Choice

Even as recent as five years ago almost all corporate laptop connectors were one flavour: 15-pin D-Sub or ‘VGA’ as most know it. This standard has served us well for two decades, allowing staff, customers and vendors to visit any office on any continent and share their content. No need for adapters. No need for explanation. If there was a VGA cable sticking out of the table, it would just work. Everyone knew that if you didn’t see anything on the screen you pressed Fn+F8. Also the PC was pretty much the corporate standard. A few of your design or marketing team colleagues might have a shiny MacBook but everyone else was on IBM, Dell or HP.

Now laptop design is driven as much by home use as business, ultraportables are commonplace for travellers and Apple is acceptable corporate hardware. This means there are at least 6 ‘standards’ for laptop display output: VGA, DVI, Mini DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, HDMI, mini-HDMI, plus a few more to boot and no doubt more coming over the next decade.

So now when your ad agency arrives to present the latest pitch on their new MacBook, they better bring their own Thunderbolt adapters. When your colleague on a 3-year-old low-spec Dell arrives at corporate HQ to present in the new, all-digital VC room they better have a VGA-to-HDMI adapter (that means a palm-sized box with a power supply, as a simple cable doesn’t cut the analogue-to-digital mustard required). If you are looking to have the various adapters to hand in the meeting room you better tie them to the table as at $20-$40 a go they are easily ‘lost’.

Is this thing on?

Another problem facing the modern VC room is a silent one. One that can bring meetings to a complete halt, and for which there is frequently no answer: that of laptop audio. Again harking back to the good old days of 2007 there used to be only one option for meeting room audio: The 3.5mm audio output socket. You found the headphone lead, plugged it in, and It Just Worked. Video is now commonly embedded into presentations and VC endpoints are capable of sharing them at broadcast quality. However thanks again to the magic of ‘progress’ it is frequently a showstopper. The problem is that a choice has to be made: where is the default audio path – through the HDMI connector or the laptop speakers/output socket? How do you easily expose the ability to switch between the two? Is the laptop smart enough to detect that the device it’s connected to via HDMI can even play audio? Are settings such as audio output exposed to the corporate user, or are they locked down by a brutal IT security policy? If your digital output can support embedded audio but the cable/VC hardware cannot, what happens? Are you happy with a massive HD-quality video image while your weak laptop speakers struggle to be heard over the air conditioning?

The long and the short of it

Another issue is display resolution. 1080p is commonplace, yet VGA connectors still abound. With VGA being an analogue signal the quality is very much affected by cable quality and distance, and on a big screen the slightest image quality issue is magnified. When you connect different connectors, operating systems and programs it is frequently a matter of luck as to how the image displays on a modern digital 16:9 aspect ratio screen. Would sir/madame like black bars at the top or bottom? sides? stretched or squashed? Both?

What’s the answer?

All these problems with video and audio outputs and connector types add up to confusion and frustration for VC participants, and burdens VC or IT support unnecessarily with ad-hoc but still urgent calls for assistance. Depending on who you talk to in the VC support industry anywhere from a third to two thirds of in-room support calls are for basic presentation or connectivity problems caused by adapter type, audio output and our old friend, Fn+F8. This is a problem that is not getting better – it’s getting worse.

Smart interfaces

Clearly technological evolution has not been kind to users and support organisations on the VC collaboration front. So what is required to improve the user experience and reduce support calls? We believe the answer is ‘Smart Interfaces’.

What we mean by this is an interface between the user’s laptop and the VC hardware that detects what you want to send and then ensures it gets there in the correct format to look and sound the best. Modern push-fit video connectors can easily work loose on a busy meeting room table, so the system should tell you that’s the problem. If you haven’t enabled a video output it should tell you to do so. If you need to play audio, it should take whatever you give it, automatically. If you need to turn your video off briefly (for example to check a presentation is correct before starting) you should be able to do so without pulling the cable out. You should have visual clues as to what is connected and the current state. You shouldn’t have to find a remote control and turn on a VC system just to share a presentation locally. It should just turn on automatically.

All these functions should be standard in a modern meeting room, for VC or presentation purposes. Sadly none of the major manufacturers agree, or their design departments have failed to get the memo to Make Things Better.

Our solution

GMS is proud to announce we are the sole German reseller for the industry’s only solution to the above problems: the Ashton Bentley Connect series of room systems. The Ashton Bentley systems act as a wrapper for your existing or new VC codec and camera, providing the screens, audio and physical user interface. Be it Polycom, Cisco, Lifesize, or any other manufacturer, you plug in your codec/camera and it just works. The intelligence of the Ashton Bentley interface is in how it detects and manages video and audio signals, ensuring the right image and sound gets to the screen automatically, scaled correctly to fill the screen to best effect.

If you have not plugged the cable in correctly the system will tell you. If you haven’t enabled the video output (Fn+F8 again) the system will tell you. If you are unsure if your laptop has embedded audio or needs a separate 3.5mm cable, Ashton Bentley supports both automatically.

Our own staff experience

Prior to joining GMS I managed telepresence technology for a Fortune 250 company comprising many different global businesses from mobile networks to health and beauty. After deploying six Cisco telepresence rooms at US$500k a piece (3-year TCO), management wanted to VC-enable smaller locations at a much lower price. I found the Ashton Bentley Connect Two product, and after a whirlwind trial management asked for firstly four, then six, then ten. These were deployed across five different businesses within weeks of order, each installed in an hour onsite. Fast, simple deployment is one plus, however it was the ongoing lack of support calls that was the largest benefit. There simply were none. Users could literally walk in, plug in and start work. The best thing IT managers had to say was that they never heard from VC users, because it just worked. The confidence this gave staff meant usage increased overnight. What had previously been a difficult experience got out of the way and allowed teams to do more.

It was this first-hand experience deploying Ashton Bentley systems that made me keen to see GMS take on the German reseller franchise. I believe the systems are a true game-changer for any business who wants to improve VC usage for their users and support staff alike. We have a demonstration system in our Frankfurt office and can show you the many benefits including the fact it can be completely disassembled and reassembled in less than an hour, no tools or expertise required. We can discuss how Microsoft Lync can be enabled in several ways, as well as touch-screen presenting and other features which I’ll expand on in future blog posts.

The question isn’t ‘Can I afford an Ashton Bentley system?’ – it’s rather can you afford to carry on with low usage and costly support? Remembering you can re-use your existing codecs and cameras through the end of their depreciation cycle – this isn’t a rip & replace product. It may seem strange that a company selling support services would be trying to also sell a product that reduces the need for support services. Our belief is that many companies want to use VC or use more VC, but are held back by the technology, the price and the poor experience. We want to help those companies realise their goals, and in doing so become a trusted partner for future evolution of VC hardware and service.

Contact

I’d love to talk to you about how GMS and Ashton Bentley can make your VC user and support experience better. You can reach me by email m.stead at gms-gmbh.eu, via LinkedIn or by phone +447789971749