Video conferencing – bringing together business colleagues from across the world

October 25th, 2013, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

 

State-of-the art information and communication technology (ICT) makes it increasingly easy for people the world over to communicate in real-time.  Perhaps the pinnacle of communication technology is video conferencing (VC) which enables virtual interaction to take place between business colleagues from different sites or remote sites, as if they are situated right next to each other.

What does video conferencing involve?

 

VC utilises audio and video technology to bring people in different locations together for a meeting or conference. This meeting can be between two individuals (point-to-point) or between multiple parties (multi-point). VC is the logical step after teleconferencing, introducing the aspect of video to this virtual meeting. The added dimension of video introduces the ability to share content such as documents and computer-displayed information in the conferences. VC infrastructure can vary from being as simple as an application for use with a desktop computer to entire auditoriums fitted out with multiple displays, cameras and microphones. Each application, with its different requirement (broadcasting, recording, presentation etc.) will have a unique solution, which will determine amount, complexity and orientation of equipment and software.

Key reasons many companies have moved into VC:


• VC cuts down on travelling costs by allowing meetings to happen remotely
• With content sharing, it transcends merely displaying a face on a monitor, by making it possible for either party to share documents with all participants
• It enables flexibility.  The ability to dial in from a fixed line, cell phone, tablet etc. allows participants to make a voice-call into the VC environment, making it “backwards compatible” i.e. it can work in conjunction with an older product or technology

What is required for VC?

Camera: This will record and transmit images over the network. Built-in webcams for laptops are sufficient for one to two people, but for more participants, better quality cameras will be required. Other factors to consider are lens angle, zoom functionality etc, which is influenced by room size, intended amount of participants etc. Position and orientation of additional cameras is also a key factor to consider, depending on the functionality of the installation, for example additional information to be displayed. Cameras are available in standard definition and high definition.

Display: A display is required to view images, broadcasts or content from remote parties. Depending on the content and number of participants, additional displays may be introduced. These can be used to display multiple participants or additional inputs and content such as documents or presentations. Displays can be projector driven or monitor based depending on the size and light quality of the room.

Speakers: For most point-to-point sessions, a USB headset from a laptop can suffice, but depending on requirements, additional speakers may be required. These are normally catered for in custom-built VC rooms. Ceiling speakers ensure a spread of sound allowing directional sound systems to provide life-like audio.

Microphone: Microphones and speakers are selected based on session requirements, size of venue and acoustics. Single point microphones place at the front of a room is the cost effective solution for small rooms. Alternatives are mobile microphones or noise cancelling distributed microphones installed either on the desk or in the ceiling.

Codec: For purpose-built rooms, a video coder/decoder (codec) is required. This is software running on physical hardware dedicated to: i) encode/decode audio and video, ii) compress/decompress audio and video and iii) transmit/receive data from connected parties. The algorithms on codecs improve by the day as research in the field of compression is quickly adopted. These codecs support ISDN, IP or both.

Internet connection: With improving technology and increasing bandwidth, the quality of calls is increasing. Better compression ratios and codecs have been responsible for increased performance and reduced bandwidth usage, which translates directly into better call quality.

Room: The architectural nature and interior design of the room contribute significantly to the ease with which connected rooms can integrate. Factors to consider are acoustic design, lighting, furniture heights, room depth and signage.

Automation in the VC room

Automation enhances functionality in the VR room and enables complete control of all electrical equipment. Not only does this include equipment such as a power-driven projector screen, projector, camera and audio receiver, but also encompasses facilities such as automated blinds and lighting. All these electronic devices can be operated by means of a single remote control unit, touchscreen, touch panel or iPad. At the touch of a button VC equipment comes to life and lights automatically dim, and your conference room is ready for VC. Automation allows greater flexibility. It enables conference participants to concentrate on the subject at hand, and in so doing facilitates increased collaboration and productivity.

Technological advances

H.264 AVC protocol is the most commonly used format for recording, compression and distribution of high definition video and is widely accepted as the industry standard. This “standardisation” also addresses issues with vendors designing proprietary protocols, effectively limiting their clientele to using their specific equipment. Furthermore, standardisation allows a broader community of experts in the industry to develop technologies on the same platform.

Depending on the codec, it is possible to record, stream and broadcast VC sessions, creating the capability and flexibility of remote training.

Local bridge vs hosted bridge or virtual meeting room

VC calls can be created as a point-to-point system. If additional functionality is required, the basic configuration of the codec becomes inadequate and a bridge is required. VC calls can be connected via a local bridge, where the physical hardware is installed at one of the participants’ premises, or via a hosted bridge, where a third party manages and maintains all equipment remotely, and participants connect to the bridge via ISDN or IP. A remotely-operated, hosted bridge reduces congestion on the host’s network.  It also mitigates the risk to the VC, as the local host’s network stability presents a single point of failure in the case of a local bridge. A company which manages and maintains a multipoint hosted bridge or virtual meeting room (VMR), will have staff, equipment and facilities dedicated to the upkeep thereof. They perform a managed service.

VMR addresses:
• Vendor compatibility issues. All participants dial in irrespective of hardware or software versions.
• Connectivity quality issues. By providing traffic shaping, everyone connects at the best quality that their line speed can handle, not at the slowest participant’s speed. This also reduces overall latency and deteriorated call quality experienced by the bridge host due to local congestion, as the bridge is hosted remotely.
• Reduced maintenance. As it is a remotely hosted and managed solution, the client does not need to have staff dedicated to manage and maintain VC equipment.

For a typical VC installation in a small meeting room the following technology is needed:

• Camera – the VSX 6000 camera is best suited for a small conference room. The system incorporates the use of an integrated PTZ camera and midrange speaker, a digital tabletop microphone and built-in IP network connectivity.
• Visual Concert VSX – this unit allows for PCs and laptops to share digital content with participants via LAN.
• Presentation switcher/scaler – this device scales the video, embeds the audio and outputs to various formats such as HDMI, RGBHV on BNC connector and VGA, as well as resolutions such as 1024 x 768, 1600 x 900, 720p, 1080i/p simultaneously.
 Media controller –  the media controller is the heart of the automation environment, controlling inputs from and outputs to the various systems, which include AV, VC, air-conditioning, blinds etc. This unit is furnished with two built-in COM ports, for IR/Serial ports, four, I/O Versiports, four isolated relays and Ethernet for control of video projectors, plasma displays, switchers, DVD players and screens. Additional control ports may be added by using expansion modules or by slaving additional control processors.

The fully immersive VC experience

The next step is the fully immersive video conferencing and telepresence experience.  It combines the highest quality voice and video technology to provide a real-as-life collaboration experience with support for a wide variety of viewing devices, including the ability to view full high definition from a PC.  Telepresence has already been introduced by many big companies with great success. Because of the big capital investment associated with the implementation of a system such as this, service providers are also making this available by offering the rental of equipment and facilities. The requirements for a telepresence room are far more stringent than that of a VC room.

VC has made huge inroads into business, education, medicine and media.  Whether it is used in board meetings, university lectures, surgery tutorials or production meetings, VC provides eye to eye contact across a virtual desk with remote participants, who feel as though they are communicating and collaborating while sitting at the same table in the same room.

Contact Ludwig Sabor, Eaton, Tel 021 702-8346,ludwig.sabor@eeslive.com

 

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