Technical solutions for communication and collaboration in meeting spaces
From sending short text messages and group videoconferences to working together on digital whiteboards, the technical possibilities for interacting with other people in meeting rooms are virtually unlimited today.
Unified communication and collaboration, UCC for short, pursues the approach of creating a system that sensibly combines all these forms of communication with each other. The intuitive operability of professional AV technology is of great importance, especially in the work environment.
Without a stringent concept for sharing the various forms of media, efficiency in the workplace can suffer considerably. UCC therefore describes more a concept than a technology. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at the concrete products with which such an infrastructure can be built.
The following text gives an overview of how different solutions can be meaningfully categorized and how they differ from each other in terms of functionality and price. We differentiate between four technical solutions.
BOYD – Bring Your Own Device
Two employees of a company have booked a meeting room for one hour. Both have their laptops with them and want to present their designs for a new project to each other. They also wanted to inform their boss, who is currently on a business trip, about the results. A classic case for a BOYD environment.
For devices of this category it is absolutely necessary that the user has his own laptop with the corresponding software. First, it must connect to the BOYD base unit, either wirelessly or via a single USB cable.
The core task of these basic units is the extension of the computer with input and output media. A video conference can be set up on the laptop itself, for example via “Skype for Business”. However, the sound is recorded via microphones in the ceiling. The conversation partner can be seen via a large-format wall-mounted display and heard via permanently installed loudspeakers. Your own picture however, is again taken via a webcam above this display.
Other BYOD basic units are already equipped with webcam, microphones as well as loudspeakers. The advantages are compactness and easy installation. However, such a system cannot be placed freely in the room, but must be installed above the display. Another disadvantage is the lack of scalability: higher quality cameras and microphones are often required, especially for larger rooms.
Most devices do not require a graphical user interface, which is why the presentation must be controlled directly from the laptop. Caution is advised when it comes to compatibility with the hardware you bring with you. Basically there is the danger that a laptop is not recognized or that the necessary drivers have to be installed on it first.
- Use of personal devices
- Extension by AV infrastructure of the room
- Single-cable or wireless connection
- Limited flexibility with built-in input and output media
- Compatibility problems possible
- Small to medium rooms
- Heterogeneous user groups and requirement scenarios
Thin clients with soft codecs
If a room is to be operated autonomously and a video conference also is to be started without brought-along devices, so-called “thin clients” offer a possibility. They have the computing power to establish the connection and are installed in the room as hardware.
The description „thin“ stems from the fact that the range of functions is limited to establishing the connection. Therefore, additional software corresponding to the “soft codec” is required for operation.
The advantage is that any desired software for Voice-over-IP or video conferences can be selected and installed during setup. The downside is, that additionally a server has to be provided.
End users don’t see these technical details. Usually, they find a touch panel, via which they can access the functions of the room infrastructure.
The strict limitation of this product category to one function means that all AV devices (display, camera, microphone and speakers) must be connected. However, this also ensures a good adaptation to the desired room size. The possibility of dual-display operation through two separate image signal interfaces on the device should be emphasized here.
- No further setup by users necessary
- Dual display functionality
- Free choice of VC software
- „Thin“ client is only responsible for connection build-up
- Additional server is necessary
- Medium room size
- Conventional video conferencing
For larger room types and meetings with many participants, hard codecs are clearly recommended. They combine computer hardware with pre-installed software and thus offer the largest number of interfaces for the integration of input and output media. For example, for high speech intelligibility within a conference room it may be necessary for each participant to have his or her own microphone in place.
Therefore, only a few products in this category already have a camera or microphone permanently integrated. On the other hand, touch panels are usually included in the delivery. However, these are equipped with a predefined, non-configurable user interface.
The advantage for the user is that no incompatibilities are possible and video conferences are possible with the existing room infrastructure. Although the software for this cannot be freely selected in advance – you are limited to the pre-installed possibilities- however, open protocols for Internet telephony are consistently supported.
The most important representatives are SIP and H.323, which transmit multimedia content and Voice-over-IP in real time.
- No incompatibilities possible
- Large number of interfaces
- Support of open protocols for video telephony
- Software not freely selectable
- Connection of peripheral devices absolutely necessary
- Medium-sized to large rooms
- Videoconferencing with a lot of participants
All-in-one devices are probably best suited to the holistic claim of “communication and collaboration”. They combine computer hardware and software to establish connections with peripheral devices such as displays, cameras and microphones. This dispenses with the need to connect any AV device.
The heart of the system is a large-format touch screen, a digital whiteboard offering interactive input forms with finger and pen. This screen can be mounted either on the wall or on a mobile media furniture, allowing flexible use in the room.
Any kind of collaboration application can be installed on the integrated computer. They combine all media formats: Handwriting, post-its, graphics and images can be collected on a virtual canvas.
Some devices offer additional interfaces for targeted expansion, but products in this category are primarily suitable for use in smaller project teams due to their compactness.
- Collaborative working is possible
- Devices already contain all input and output media
- Flexible installation within the room possible
- Few scaling options
- No changes to user interface possible
- Small rooms
- Interactive forms of use
- Work in project teams
As with any other technology, no blanket recommendation can be made for a particular category. The choice of a product rather depends on the specific use case. While thin clients and hard codecs are better suited for the classic communication channels like video conferencing, BYOD and all-in-one devices are targeting more innovative forms of use. The former enable the connection of personal devices like laptops or tablets to the AV infrastructure, ideally single cable or even wireless. The latter are focusing on interactive collaboration in small groups.
Another important argument for the choice is the scalability of a solution. Not every system is suitable for the same room size or number of people. The number of interfaces for external AV devices is an objective indicator here. Compact systems with integrated cameras and microphones facilitate the set-up of the system. However, they are more suitable for smaller rooms. When in doubt, it is therefore better to choose a modular system with appropriate options for expansion in order not to be limited by the central element of the room infrastructure with regard to possible future requirements. Only that way can UCC’s claim to maximize efficiency and productivity at the workplace through the combination of all media forms be fulfilled.
Jan Bohacek, student of the bachelor programme Audiovisual Media at Hochschule der Medien, Stuttgart
Immanuel Roß, AV consultant and project engineer, macom GmbH
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