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Video Conference & Huddle Rooms: Bring us Your Huddled Masses

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

Like “punt” and “Hail Mary pass,” the huddle room draws its name from football terminology embedded deep in the lexicon of American business. It’s also the outcome of a long-term trend in corporate architecture by which traditional, closed-off offices have faded from favor, while wide-open workspaces pioneered by high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and SoHo have grown popular.

Intended to encourage collaboration, these spaces eventually became so wide and so open that workers began to feel the primal pangs for someplace to get together and shelter themselves from the office environment buzzing around them. That space became the huddle room, or huddle space, a concept that’s been around longer than we’ve had a moniker for it (although NewVista Advisors, a New York City IT management consulting company, staked a claim to it in 2003).

If the need for a huddle room is clear, its definition, particularly in terms of audio and video technology, is less so. One of its defining characteristics is its ad hoc availability, free from rigid automated scheduling systems. Yet a huddle room or space still has to contain some basic AV and IT components to be useful. What those components are exactly server to underscore how the technical definition of a huddle room is a moving target.

‘Not a Downsized Boardroom’

“A huddle room is a formalization of something that’s supposed to be informal, which is pretty ironic,” says Bruce Kaufman president and CEO of Human Circuit, an AV design and integration company based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Kaufman says there’s a tendency to look at huddle rooms as simply smaller versions of boardrooms or even video teleconferencing suites. That, he believes, is a problem that cuts more than one way. When it comes to those larger, conference room-style spaces, Kaufman warns against the perception that huddle rooms could simply replace them. And when it comes to huddle rooms themselves, he says such spaces would lose the immediacy and intimacy that spawned them in the first place if they were to be too elaborately outfitted with technology.

“A huddle room is not a downsized boardroom,” Kaufman says. “But with shrinking office-space budgets, people sometimes look at it that way. I’m hoping that integrators and their clients see the huddle room for what it is: an adjunct space to boardrooms and meeting rooms, not a replacement for them.”

AV manufacturers have certainly noticed the huddle-room trend. Companies such as AMX, Barco, Christie, and Crestron used the most recent InfoComm show to demonstrate solutions, some of which are scaled for the huddle-room concept, such as Barco’s ClickShare, and others developed especially for it, like Crestron’s AirMedia wireless HD presentation solution, which was designed for small conference rooms and spaces that don’t have an AV system.

These solutions specialize at getting documents and other media from BYOD users’ laptops and smartphones to shared displays. For instance, using AirMedia, users can enter the huddle room, connect to the existing display over Wi-Fi and wirelessly present HD content from their own device. Content from up to four devices can be shown simultaneously on one room display, and up to 32 users can connect at once. Barco’s ClickShare now works via Apple and Android apps, which support JPEG images and PDF documents; iPads can share video content from the tablet to a shared screen via Apple’s AirPlay using ClickShare Link.

Keep in mind, however, that integrators and technology managers should pay attention to solution costs and how they affect the huddle room’s identity. Derek Holbrook is principal sales engineer at Verrex Corp., a New Jersey integrator that specializes in high-end corporate meeting spaces. Recently, Verrex has also integrated scores of huddle spaces to go along with its corporate projects. He says the AV budget for an average huddle space is around $6,000, with a few approaching $10,000. Depending on the huddle-friendly presentation solution and related AV equipment, you can eat up that budget in a hurry.

“Some of the products being marketed to this segment have pretty high costs, but they’re targeting a segment that is emphasizing quantity over quality,” says Holbrook. Customers often don’t want a few huddle rooms—they want several, which add up.  Verrex recently installed a dozen huddle rooms in the Global Services Center of law firm Bingham McCutchen in Lexington, Ky., where it also also built three conventional meeting rooms.
“Most of these spaces are pretty basic, with a 42-inch LCD display mounted on the wall and some cable for connecting laptops,” Holbrook says. “There are a couple speakers mounted next to the screen and maybe a webcam on top of it. And for many of these kinds of huddle rooms, that’s really all they need. There are workplace strategists who believe that the audio and video don’t really have to be much better than the iPhones we also use for work.” Holbrook says in certain situations, he’s found that Extron’s TeamWork collaborative system fits both the cost and functionality requirements of huddle spaces.

Continual Development

The proliferation of huddle rooms has prompted changes in the way companies think of presentation solutions. David Silberstein, Director of Commercial Marketing at Crestron, whose AirMedia platform was priced with the huddle room in mind, says that although the huddle room concept has been around a while, a drop in the costs of displays and broadband is what precipitated manufacturers’ rush into the market with flexible, easy-to-install solutions. “It’s become affordable to the point that you can no longer do your job without that kind of technology being available throughout your workplace,” he says.

AMX introduced its app-and-cloud-based Enzo system at InfoComm 2013, a content-sharing and meeting-scheduling system that will ship in December. AMX Vice President for Global Marketing Joe Andrulis says Enzo grew out of the realization that even as traditional AV meeting products and systems have grown more affordable over time, they would not be able to reach a price point that the huddle concept demanded. Huddle spaces require new designs.

“What we’re seeing, from a work-style point of view, is transitioning from a structured model of collaboration to one of continuous collaboration,” he explains. “That changes the relationship between the space and the technology.”

Huddle-room systems aimed at impromptu meetings must still take into account the fact that not all of the participants may be physically present, even for quick huddles. Christie’s Brio presentation system, also introduced at InfoComm 2013, uses wired or wireless connections to share up to five simultaneous audio and video presentations on one or two meeting-room displays. All users, even those not physically present in the room, can collaborate on and annotate the material.

Ultimately, the definition of a huddle space will differ by user. Some want only the most basic solutions, including no AV at all, but just a conference phone and access to the building’s Wi-Fi cloud for presenting on a laptop screen. While others will want huddle rooms that resemble mini conference rooms, with multiple screens and short-throw projectors.

Either way, huddle rooms won’t be going away any time soon. Businesses operating smarter since the recession, plus the exponential growth of mobile devices, have led to the current dynamic — AV integrators report that office designs increasingly have huddle spaces included in the architects’ blueprints. In other words, the huddle room has quickly become an institution of American office culture — like the water cooler, and Monday morning quarterbacks.

Nuts & Bolts of Using WebRTC in ProAV

By Tim Kridel, Special to InfoComm International®

WebRTC is one of the hottest topics in pro AV, with plenty of hand-wringing about whether it will commoditize video conferencing or grow the market by creating more endpoints that SIP and H.323 systems can connect to. Either way, it’s clear that there’s already enough customer interest that AV pros need to figure out how to support it.

“Everybody under the sun is asking about WebRTC these days, but the reality is that adoption is in the early stages,” says Ami Barzelay, Vidyo solutions architect, business development.

One fundamental difference between traditional SIP/H.323 video conferencing and WebRTC is that the latter uses a mesh architecture. That’s fine for one-on-one conferences, such as a financial advisor using WebRTC to provide white-glove service to a high-value client.

Mesh starts to cause problems when there are several participants because each one gets a separate video feed from everyone else. That adds up to a lot of bandwidth, which is an obvious problem on, say, a corporate LAN that’s already overloaded or when some participants are using mobile devices, where video can quickly drain a data bucket.

But mesh also shows how problems sometimes are opportunities. AV vendors and integrators can offer customers the option of using a traditional video conferencing bridge, which would collect the WebRTC participants’ feeds and send a single, consolidated stream down to each endpoint.

Some of those customers might already own a bridge. The integrator or vendor can add value in their eyes by showing how it can be extended to support WebRTC. Those that don’t own a bridge could be sold one, either as an on-premises solution or as a hosted service. Either way, mesh’s drawbacks are an example of why WebRTC won’t necessarily cannibalize sales of traditional video conferencing hardware, software and services.

“WebRTC is a subset of people who need to use video communications,” says Michal Raz, Vidyo vice president of business development. “There’s still going to be people with SIP, H.323 and other codecs.”

Some integrators agree.

“People will continue to buy Lync-optimized endpoints and 323/SIP endpoints, but a new market segment will likely emerge and begin to grow,” says Brad Johnston, Solutionz Conferencing COO.

Bridging the Differences

A bridge or some other piece of infrastructure also is required to connect one WebRTC user with another. Unlike traditional video conferencing systems, Lync or Skype, WebRTC―at least in its current form―doesn't have address books, so users have no way of finding or connecting directly to one another. Something has to provide a meeting room for them to dial into or a way for others to dial out to them.

“You need some infrastructure to make it all work because people are going to meet somewhere,” says Simon Dudley, LifeSize video evangelist.

One example is LifeSize's UVC suite, which includes a product that provides address books and recording for up to 25 concurrent WebRTC participants. Enterprises could install it on their own server in a VMware environment, or they could buy a standalone node.

“A lot of our resellers love selling a 1RU box,” Dudley says. “Now you can see why the video conferencing industry is excited by this. The number of people who can get involved goes through the roof. Instead of making money selling $100,000 meeting rooms, we start selling $20,000 pieces of infrastructure, but a lot more people get involved.”

Another way that AV pros can stay relevant in WebRTC is by helping customers overcome interoperability challenges.

“Not all WebRTC client implementations are going to be the same, so you want to look to the people who are already doing desktop video conferencing and [can] apply that knowledge to WebRTC.” Raz says. “One WebRTC client might not be able to talk to another WebRTC client because they use different signaling.”

WebRTC doesn’t require clients to use a specific type of signaling protocol, such as Jingle, because that would limit developers’ ability to innovate. When WebRTC is used for B2B or B2C communications, the enterprise’s session border controller (SBC) becomes a factor because they have their own protocols. So when helping a customer implement WebRTC, it’s important to see which protocols are used by its SBC vendor and its WebRTC client vendor.

“The integrator is going to have to follow whatever recommendations the vendor has,” Raz says.

One common issue with any standard is that if all vendors did was follow the standard, they wouldn't have many market-differentiation opportunities aside from price. It’s possible that vendors will add more collaboration features to make their WebRTC solutions stand out from the pack. Whether that will create additional interoperability issues remains to be seen.

“The WebRTC standard itself is only going to be implemented by a limited number of vendors as it is a browser API and associated media plane functionality implemented in browsers,” says Andrew Hutton, chair of the International Multimedia Telecommunications Consortium’s WebRTC Interoperability Activity Group. “Therefore I don’t believe we will see the same type of proprietary extensions. The opportunities for differentiation come from building innovative applications based on the functionality provided by the browser, as we have seen with other Web technologies.”

Firewall Déjà Vu

WebRTC is the latest example of how AV, IT and telecom are converging.

“If integrators want to play in this space, they’re going to have to expand their knowledge base to the underlying network technologies, [such as] the firewall,” says Nick Hawkins, Polycom senior director of advanced technology for the APAC region. “There are technologies defined in WebRTC to enable firewall traversal—such as STUN, ICE and TURN—but they still need to be configured as part of the deployment.”

Years ago, firewalls were a challenge for traditional video conferencing systems until vendors developed traversal solutions. WebRTC benefits from that work.

“It was recognized as an issue due to all that past experience and addressed in the standard,” says Val Matula, Avaya Labs head of multimedia research. “The standard calls for a STUN TURN server to be positioned straddling a firewall or a network address translation (NAT) [node] inside and outside.

“It’s the function of the STUN TURN server to help negotiate a media path across a compliant firewall or border control device. Inside the browser, they specify that if you can't make a direct connection, go back and ask the Web server where the STUN TURN server is that you [should] use to make the connection.”

If setting up the connection involves a straight shot through an SBC or firewall, the process takes only a second or two. If the STUN TURN server is involved, set up can take 5 to 15 seconds. To participants, that delay can be annoying or prompt them to try restarting the session.

The speed and latency of the network also affects the user experience. So like other examples of AV-IT convergence, WebRTC can mean that integrators will have to assess and upgrade the customer’s LAN, MAN or WAN – assuming that the IT department doesn’t want to take on that task.

“A ratty network is going to create a problem, as it does with all video,” says Solutionz’s Johnston. “You want to make sure you’ve got adequate bandwidth.”

If there isn’t, the user experience can suffer because WebRTC isn’t as flexible and forgiving as traditional video conferencing technologies.

“You get what you get on WebRTC,” Matula says. “[There's] none of the sensing, auto adjusting and tradeoff between voice and video priority in terms of which packets are sent out. It assumes that you have a good enough channel to get the job done. If not, you’ll renegotiate the whole session down to a lower parameter.”

Are you already working with WebRTC? Not yet, but planning to? Share your experiences and questions with InfoComm’s LinkedIn Group, Facebook or Twitter (@InfoComm) communities.
 IVS Imaging is a distributor & manufacturer of PTZ cameras specifically for the WebRTC markets. Please visit our website or Facebook page for more information on how IVS Imaging can help you transition.

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