How to get the ultimate videoconference centre together

With the rise in adoption and availability of enterprise videoconferencing systems comes a warning from IT pioneers: Thinking this technology is simply plug-and-play will lead to disaster.
“If you’re going to spend all that money on videoconferencing, especially HD which isn’t cheap, don’t cut corners. Otherwise users will turn videoconferencing off and you’ll do damage to your business,” says Sergio Soto, videoconference technician supervisor at commercial real estate information provider CoStar Group in Bethesda, Md.

Soto says IT teams should do their homework ahead of time and focus on all elements of building a broadcast-quality videoconferencing system such as bandwidth allocation, traffic shaping and end-user training.

“You don’t want to say to your users, ‘Here’s a camera and you might look fuzzy.’ Instead, take the time to get the [broadcasting] room ready, determine the right lighting, make sure the sound is good and that you have enough bandwidth,” Soto says.

No detail too small

In fact, according to Soto, who uses a blend of high-definition and standard videoconferencing to connect 3,000 workers in the U.S. and abroad, there are no details too small to consider. He found out early on that something as seemingly mundane as wall color in a conference room can have a profound effect on the user experience.

“We noticed that the person on-camera was getting washed out by the white walls and that the camera would start to focus on other things,” he says.

This distracted users and posed a threat to his company’s significant investment in high-definition conferencing equipment.

“We painted the walls a couple different colors before we settled on light blue,” he says, adding solid colors like green also work well.

Another lesson: Be careful with plasma TVs and videoconferencing. “While plasmas look very nice, you have to stretch the image and the images can quickly get burnt in unless you turn the sets off every night,” Soto says. Instead, he recommends LCD TVs, which he warns have tradeoffs. “The screen images don’t get burnt in, but they do have a little delay and less color.”
An industry on the rise

While Soto might be ahead of the learning curve, a 2007 study by the Nemertes Research Group showed that the industry isn’t far behind.

Not only had more than two-thirds of respondents already deployed IP video to connect room-based systems, but, like Soto, almost 50% were evaluating or deploying high-definition and telepresence for those systems.

Nemertes credits this uptick in interest — only 22% had room-based or desktop-based in 2005 — to a growing comfort level with videoconferencing among business units.

“There is a perceived value in the of use of video for group communications as people in group settings stay more focused on meetings when they know they are on camera. They’re less likely to get distracted surfing the Web or checking e-mail while others are talking,” says Irwin Lazar, principal research analyst at Nemertes.

Soto has seen the warming trend among his own users. “When we first started with videoconferencing a few years ago, we simply wanted a way to reduce travel costs for our sales team. Now we have developers and researchers on both coasts who use our videoconferencing rooms eight hours a day,” he says.

Charles Shairs, senior special projects coordinator at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, has also seen a rise in interest for enterprise videoconferencing. In addition to his users, Shairs lets high school and area university students hook onto his IP network to attend classes.

For example, he has partnered with Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., to offer Bunker Hill students the chance to participate in a rare pharmacy program. “Videoconferencing has given us the opportunity to put students through this program without hiring faculty here or having students drive there,” he says.

He also uses the technology to enable area high school kids to gain advanced placement credits college through an after-school program on their own campuses.

Like Soto, Shairs has found the learning curve to be difficult on occasion. “But if you take your time and pay attention, it’s not rocket science,” he says. The biggest thing, he says, is to be attentive to little things in the network.

For example, he found that he was getting a lot of feedback during conferences and quickly added ancillary equipment such as echo cancellation to mitigate the problems.

He also finds he has to be careful in scheduling conferences so that the Bunker Hill network performance doesn’t suffer during regular school hours. He’s hoping that adding a 10MB pipe within the next six months will alleviate the current capacity strain.

Similar to Shairs, the CoStar team has worked hard to build out the network and keep users satisfied with the system. “There have been growing pains, but as soon as something is noticed, like feedback or delay, we fix it right away,” Soto says.
He’s also had to react to the need for increased bandwidth and better traffic shaping for high-definition calls.

“We’ve noticed a three-fold increase already between the locations that have high-definition. We’ve gone from making 768Kbit/sec. calls to 2Mbit/sec. calls. And that’s for several hours at a time. We had to be careful on Tuesdays because the sales people were having their calls and could bring the network down,” he says.

To better handle these surges, he purchased a Codian HD videoconferencing bridge, which works with his Polycom HD gear to connect the calls together.

He also is a proponent of close communication with the networking team to ensure enterprise performance as a whole doesn’t take a hit from the demands of conferencing. “You can’t just say I have a videoconferencing guy over here and a networking guy over there. It takes a big team effort to get this technology out there and working,” he says.

His current challenge is moving over to an MPLS network so he can easily prioritize applications and improve latency. Already he’s brought 95% of his sites online and is hoping to be completed by year-end.

The art of being onscreen

The final piece to the videoconferencing success puzzle is user training, according to Shairs. He says you could have the best equipment in the world and if the users aren’t comfortable on-screen, the project will fail.

To avoid this, Shairs offers teachers training. “Early on we rounded up folks from different colleges and had professional coaches train them to be on television,” he says. He also gives them access to props and backdrops from the campus television station. “We try to prevent the talking head syndrome as much as we can,” he adds.

Soto also is a fan of user training. “We train them on how to use the equipment, how to center their image in the picture, and how to adjust the lighting,” he says. “The best advice we give them: Don’t worry about being watched. Just zoom in and act like you’re’ in a normal meeting,” he says.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston. Former events editor and writer at Network World, she developed and hosted the magazine’s technology road shows. She is also the former managing editor of Network World’s popular networking site, Fusion. She has won several industry awards for her reporting, including the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ prestigious Gold Award. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

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