14 May 2011

HD Video Conferencing

Something old, something new, something borrowed, but what’s right for you?

At Interop this week, while squeezing in-between the clouds, I had a chance to see the coming rethink of video conferencing from Alcatel-Lucent.   Like many things from Alcatel-Lucent, it’s overdue but really quite smart.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We all know the story.  In the Flintstonian era of video conferencing, there was more preparation involved than the average royal wedding.  Everything had to be setup and pre-tested days before with doors barricaded lest overzealous cleaning personnel breathe on something.   Flash forward to 2006 and Cisco’s TelePresence makes it easy to “dial” and instigate video conferences – conference room dust bunnies became extinct. 

Bandwidth capacity and usage have expanded in lockstep.  Enterprise video is one of the technologies benefitting from and pushing capacity.  During the five years since Cisco’s TelePresence wowed us, video has become one of the market’s top over-buzzed words (happily, unlike UC and cloud, we all understand what video is). Those standing to make the most money from video proclaim it is the new dialtone. While part of an organization’s communications mix, video won’t be added anytime soon to the list after “food, clothing and shelter.”

Skype can be partly blamed for people’s interest in seeing other people located far away.  Microsoft’s purchase delivers application ubiquity if not leading technology (so Skype fits right in). Personally, I think Skype has made a subtler impact on communications by dropping the annoyance barrier to speakerphone conversations.  Skype may not put a video chicken in every pot, but it may place the deskphone handset in hot water.

Something old:  Polycom, Cisco TelePresence, LifeSize, et al.
When Cisco’s TelePresence debited in 2006, in addition to its ease of use, the market was agog seeing the level of thought put into the experience as much as the technology.  You remember?  The new CCIDs (Cisco Certified Interior Decorators) creating those fabulous matching TelePresence suites making everyone appear in the same room?  Polycom and Tandberg quickly followed suit offering their own flavors and fabric swatches.  LifeSize, Vidyo, etc. entered the market as skin-and-bones options for HD Video without the matching hotel artwork in the background.

Flash-forward to 2011 and video has become entwined with today’s nascent mobility boom (Leaving the over-hyped need for mobile video for another time – none having yet mastered basic walking and texting). The thought of getting everyone together to meet in a special room for a video conference with far-flung colleagues borders on the quaint.  And once you bring in other video feeds from mobile or desktop devices, the “magic” of being in the same room is shattered.  I suspect those interior designers aren’t as busy as they once were.  (Note:  Tablets are mostly about the hardware and making the conferencing GUI mobile.  It was the topic of my first blog)

I have no doubt room-based HD video conferencing solutions will continue to sell well, but the thrill is gone.  In the years to come, those dedicated video shrines may become as unused as their over-complicated predecessors, albeit for completely different reasons – no one will be in the office to turn them on.

What I like about these systems is their unclouded ownership.  Buy it, install it, it’s yours.  Upkeep is pretty minimal.  For power users, this is the way to go; hosted video will eat you alive. 

Something new:  Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise Immersive Video
It’s not even released, and yet Alcatel-Lucent’s Immersive Video (IV) is the future.  Gone is the need for the matching oak credenzas and plastic flowers required by the telepresence movement.  This new gem uses software to identify a participant’s silhouette, strip off the background and project only that onto a user-selected electronic wallpaper; regardless of device or location.  Drag and drop controls make it fairly idiot-proof to setup and participate in conferences.  IV also eliminates the love-hate of watching your own video reflection (a la Skype). IV places you at the head of the table as an unobtrusive shadow.

Why is this better?  It’s inherently mobile. It’s software. It expands on the “common experience” pioneered by the room-based telepresence systems without the need for interior designers.  It only shows what’s relevant and that’s powerful.

Initially, Alcatel-Lucent may self-host the first few demo systems for prospective customers and carriers.  The plan is for IV to be sold lock, stock and barrel to service providers and large organizations.  Smaller organizations have can get the functions without the large up-front costs while larger users can own it.

I have only two caveats. First, it’s not production-ready.  The demo is Flash.  It’s a concept where creative types were encouraged to joyfully run amok.  Once bean counters and reality set in, the end product could be materially different, or like the BlackBerry Playbook, half-baked.  Secondly, we’re talking about Alcatel-Lucent, not known for cutting-edge or keeping to a schedule.  By the time this comes out others could leap-frog.

Something borrowed:  Avaya web.alive
Nortel acquired DiamondWare in 2008 whose business, since 1994, was creating 3D gaming and tactical interfaces for consumer gamers and military (a large overlapping market I’d hazard a guess).  Perhaps it was a hangover from the previous year’s success of Super Mario Galaxy or the Lion King that made Nortel think animation was a foundation for business communications.  More likely it was just another feeble attempt to right a sunken ship.  At any rate, what may have appeared interesting all those (3) years ago continues to be an ill-thought out skid mark for Avaya.

At its simplest, web.alive is a cartoon conferencing world based on gaming.  In my opinion, animated avatars remove the import of business communications.  Secondly, the controls, while clearly built with a joystick in mind, are (I’m being nice) clumsy on a keyboard.  Participants must move their avatars around the virtual environment by clickity clacking commands (left arrow, left arrow, control, shift, up arrow, oh forget it!).  And like a Roomba, participants continually run into walls, furniture and each other (but with web.alive the carpet remains dirty).  Sound quality and data presentation are also fairly bad with participants clustering around either the speaker to hear or the data screens to see (screens can’t be enlarged).  It’s like that winter scene from March of the Penguins where the male penguins are huddled together against the Antarctic cold.

Web.alive is offered only as a hosted service which in this case is a boon for users who can pay for a conference once and then decide to use something else.

What’s right for you?
Regardless of whatever decision needs to be made, research is key.  Businesses must first understand what their needs truly are (and will be) with respect to HD video conferencing (or have a VP with budget and weakness for shiny new things). 

I suspect most will have limited needs and will either opt to purchase a basic federatable video conference solution from the likes of Vidyo or LifeSize (why pay the Cisco premium?).  The way technology is changing (hopefully) towards something like the Alcatel-Lucent solution, these pieces will be reusable within a more encompassing and mobile option.

Those working for a game publisher like Nintendo, EA, Activision or Ubisoft may find comfort and familiarity in the Avaya web.alive solution. 

For those operations that see a focus on collaborative video communications, keep very close to Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (wherever they wind up).  For right now, at this minute, they’re sitting in the cool chair.