A New angle on meeting room videoconferencing
Videoconferencing has finally become democratized beyond the meeting room. We now regularly use video on our desktops, and even our mobile devices. However, meeting rooms are still the hubs of our videoconferencing environment. The majority of business video sessions include at least one meeting room. This makes sense as meeting rooms (and now huddle rooms) are where work is done. Video is how we allow people who can’t be there in person to attend these meetings as a productive and engaged team member (as opposed to a passive phone attendee).
Ironically desktop video, which was originally seen as a secondary usage to meeting room video, actually provides a superior experience in many ways. When I appear on desktop video, I am perfectly framed in the video window. My face and torso are an appropriate size for the display so people can see my facial expressions and body language. The angle and presentation resemble a TV newscaster. Even better, my presentation reasonably approximates what you would see if you were in my office, sitting across from me at my desk (aside from the fact that I am two dimensional on screen and three dimensional in person). In other words, desktop video creates a relatively natural face-to-face meeting experience.
Meeting room videoconferencing, on the other hand, often offers a very compromised experience. In many meeting rooms, the video camera is placed up on a wall, looking down at the meeting attendees. Ideally, meeting attendees would use the pan, tilt, and zoom (PTZ) features of these cameras to properly frame the active speaker during meetings. In reality, most users find these controls too difficult to manage and just leave the camera zoomed out to capture the entire room. The result is that speakers look small and distant. Facial expressions and body language are harder to read, which means discussions are less engaging and impactful.
The visual collaboration community has long sought to remedy this weakness of meeting room video through new technologies. For example, there are cameras that use facial recognition to zoom in on active speakers. Other solutions require the speaker to clip on a small pendant, which the cameras use to track and follow. These solutions do work, but often come with a bit of compromise. They can be expensive, and attendees can be distracted by the constant motion of the cameras. What we need is a simpler way to provide the desktop video experience in the meeting room.
A seemingly no compromise solution would be to put the videoconferencing solution in the middle of the table. If there was a camera in front of each meeting participant, it would provide that nicely framed desktop video view of each participant, without the need for moving/PTZ cameras. Unfortunately, previous attempts at this dynamic have been suffered from a few fatal flaws. One center of table (COT) design in the past had the cameras in the middle of the table, but the monitor was still up on the wall. If everyone in the room is looking to the right or left to see the monitor, they certainly won’t be providing good eye contact. What is needed is a real COT solution, where the cameras and monitor are all in the center of the table. The final experience would be as if each participant had a laptop open in front of them, providing a nicely framed view of them, but with a higher quality camera than you would expect from the typical laptop and more meeting room functionality.
I recently became aware of a solution called the Silex PTE from SilexPro, which does exactly that. This device is a COT solution that comes in two, three, or four-sided form factors. The Silex PTE operates on Windows 10, allowing it to natively run any desktop or meeting room video software. It was purposely designed to be unobtrusive and to not disturb the in-room participants as they meet. It is approximately 11.6″ high, no higher than a laptop. During a typical meeting, people often have laptops open and it never disturbs or impedes the eye contact or discussions of the people in the room. Similarly, the Silex PTE will not detract from the in-room meeting experience.
Remote meeting attendees are provided with views of the in-room attendees that are very similar to what you see from desktop videoconferencing. In other words, instead of feeling like a spectator up on the wall (as you feel with typical wall mounted camera solutions), you get a nicely framed, face-to-face view of the meeting attendees. The screens are touch enabled, allowing for easy interactive multi-sided whiteboarding and annotation. As it is a Windows 10 device, it runs all of your essential workplace applications, supports wireless sharing from your mobile device, allows for easy meeting recording, and is compatible with all standard desktop or meeting room video software, including Skype for Business and WebRTC based solutions.
One aspect of the Silex PTE that I particularly appreciate is the improved eye contact, compared to typical meeting room solutions. The cameras are embedded at the top of the device, so that when meeting participants are looking across the table at other local meeting participants, they are looking towards the cameras, giving decent eye contact to remote participants. I also like the fact that the cameras are somewhat hidden in the bezel, reducing the self-consciousness of camera shy attendees.
After many years of trying to solve the PTZ problem in meeting room video, perhaps what we really needed was to approach the problem from a different angle. The COT concept may just be this new angle. As the Silex PTE enters the market, I will be sure to follow this story to see how users take to this new approach.