Say Cheese! The Past and Future of the Videoconference Room Camera

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By David Danto
IMCCA

This article originally ran in my my Network World column “Workspaces for Tomorrow” earlier in the year.

Enterprise videoconferencing has been around in one form or another for decades. The space has been – and continues to be — owned by many diverse silos (facilities, AV, IT, UC) which is one of the key reasons it is still “seeking its potential” all these years later. While the latest thinking has videoconference room systems playing a much smaller role in the world of Unified Communications (smaller both in importance and the size of the typical room) it is still an essential tool in an organization’s collaboration ecosystem. All of which makes one wonder why the approach to these systems is still so confusing and… well… FUBAR is really the only term to describe it. In this first of a few bogs where I’ll address this space, I’ll focus on the videoconference room camera.

The first videoconference room systems used cameras on top of carts that could move around and zoom-in on whatever the users wanted. This style of camera – the PTZ (for Pan-Tilt-Zoom) is still in use, and represents the bare minimum that should be used in a videoconference room of any size. Regrettably there are a number of manufacturers — from start-ups to major players — that ignore this minimum and try to get away with fixed-focal-length cameras (webcams) in videoconference rooms.

The webcam is meant to work on a personal device. You’re reading this on a PC, tablet or similar device. Can you touch the camera? If you can then the webcam is perfect to use for videoconferencing. That “arms-length” is the maximum distance where a webcam can convey body language, facial expressions, and all the important non-verbal communication that visual collaboration can provide. However, stick it in the front of the room and it’s just a joke.

The hierarchy of cameras for room videoconferencing starts with those two, takes us into better solutions available now, and then peeks into the future:

  1. Webcams — Great for personal devices, maybe on the edge of acceptable for small “huddle rooms” that have a handful of people at arms-length from it, but a poor choice absolutely everywhere else. You can look at manufacturers’ claim of how many “room systems” they’ve sold with these poor fixed-focal-length cameras and debunk those claims by analyzing how infrequently they are used for videoconferencing. People hate the experience.
  2. PTZ Cameras — The bare minimum that can be used for room based videoconferencing systems. While these systems can get images close enough to a person to convey the expressions and body language required for effective visual collaboration, they’re often a pain-in-the-neck to operate. Users frequently don’t take the time to set-up the needed shot correctly and/or move the camera around as various people in the room take turns speaking. While they are still the bare minimum, they are quickly being obsoleted by the next level.
  3. Dual Tracking Cameras — Two camera auto-switching systems that follow the conversation. A space begun by Polycom and its Eagle Eye Director, followed by Cisco and its SpeakerTrack system, this represents current best practice in all conference rooms that aren’t huddle rooms. These systems automatically “hear” who is speaking, move a camera to get a good shot, switch to that camera, and get the other camera ready to get the next person speaking. If everyone starts speaking over everyone else it takes a wide-shot and waits ’till one or two people become the focus again.
    danto-polycom-1115People who use these systems experience just about the same level of quality and communication that used to require expensive immersive telepresence – at a fraction of the cost and with no special rooms needed. The first camera manufacturer that builds one of these dual tracking systems that is manufacturer and codec agnostic will severely disrupt the industry.
  4. Electronically Tracking Cameras — Representing the next era in visual collaboration, these systems use one or more high resolution image capture devices and process the images to look like individual camera shots. A new company — Array Telepresence — uses a nascent version of this by placing small cameras between two displays and assembling an immersive telepresence type image in a processing box that connects between the cameras and the codec device. They are able to digitally manipulate the picture and resize the participants to their liking.Cisco also does an early form of this on their immersive IX5000 system, using 4K cameras and electronically manipulating the combined images. In the future, videoconference rooms will use a camera or cameras with a very high resolution (8K or higher sensor) and electronically “zoom” and “switch” just like the dual tracking cameras above do.eip-1115
  5. Invisible Cameras — Taking the above concept to the next level, imaging systems in the future will be able to be comprised of an array of cameras (ranging in size from what we have on smartphones now to the size of fiber-optics) embedded around the bezel of room displays. These camera images will be connected to a processor that can create close-up images of anyone in the room — either seated in at a table or standing in front of the display. These advances will allow for room collaboration systems to become “electronic windows” with two locations able to use them as if they are standing on opposite sides of a big piece of clear glass.
See related  Avocor Partners with Logitech for Zoom Room Touch Solution

As room collaboration systems continue to evolve they will still have an important place is the expanding world of unified communication. Selecting appropriate cameras for these rooms is an important part of ensuring that they remain a useful part of any collaboration ecosystem.

This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has had over three decades of delivering successful business outcomes in media and collaboration technology for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds — including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as their Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology. David can be reached at David.Danto@Dimensiondata.com or DDanto@imcca.org and his full bio and other blogs and articles can be seen at Danto.info. David is also the co-founder of Masters Of Communication. Please reach-out to David if you would like to discuss how he can help your organization solve problems, develop a future-proof collaboration strategy for internal use, or if you would like his help developing solid, user-focused go-to-market strategies for your collaboration product or service.

All images and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.