This month we were invited to present our views on market trends at an AV User Group meeting in the UK. This got me to sit and try to formalize my thoughts on the subject.
Before writing this piece, I browsed through many articles discussing different views and opinions on videoconferencing market trends. It’s clear that the industry is adopting cloud based applications as a cost effective alternative to dedicated services. Software based solutions are taking larger chunks of market share from traditional codec based solutions. Mobile applications, as well as cross compatibility, allow users to talk with different entities. This frees them from the need to commit to one service across the board.
There are more trends that are not necessarily relevant to audio endpoints. These are more relevant to the way videoconferencing services are being implemented. From the audio point of view, it makes no difference if the service is cloud based or not. Same goes for cross compatibility and other trends discussed widely in different forums. So which trends relating to audio do we see (or foresee) in the current market? And what features do we need to develop in order to be prepared and support future implementations of videoconferencing?
1) Get Off the Table!
Clearly most of us would like our conference table to be free of any devices or wires. This is particularly true for huddle rooms, but applies to other room types as well. The whole idea behind huddle rooms is that the setup is minimalistic. These rooms often do not have someone in charge of setting up and maintaining. Therefore, there is a real concern that products will “walk away” or be misplaced. In some cases the whole setup needs to be portable (on a cart), because the rooms themselves are set up ad hoc.
A device (speakerphone) sitting on the table does not fit well with any of these concepts. You can ask participants to bring in their own devices, but this is hardly the perfect solution. You would have to make sure that every potential participant has a personal unit, that it’s available and ready for use, and that it can handle conference calls with four or more participants. In larger conference rooms, a fixed device sitting on the table is less of a logistic concern, but more of an esthetic one. Modern room designs call for a cleaner approach with as little clutter as possible on the table.
Wires are even more of an inconvenience. Why? Well, wires are ugly, they need to be tucked away, and they require drilling holes in the table and running things under the floor or carpet. It’s a mess, and you have to put a lot of effort into hiding it. Wireless solutions (Bluetooth or other) eliminate the wire problem, but introduce other issues. These units need to be charged (and remember – in huddle rooms there usually isn’t anybody who takes care of the units). Also, many times there are bandwidth and reliability issues. On top of everything, wireless devices can create security concerns.
In future rooms (huddle or not), solutions that are installed away from the table will be more favorable. Right next to the TV monitor seems like the perfect location, as you already have “stuff” there. Other locations like the walls or the ceiling can also work. The challenge is to deliver uncompromised audio performance even when the audio endpoints are not on the table. This will support current trends of using more ad hoc setups, like huddle rooms, and in larger rooms putting a lot of emphasis on clean and modern designs.
2) Conferencing in Open Space Environments
This is a demand that is encountered quite often. This is a step further from the small room designated as the huddle room. With all the employees sitting in an open space setting, some users want the huddle to take place right in the middle of the office, within the open floor design. They envision employees sitting on a couch in the middle of the space, using their own laptops synchronized with a local monitor, and having a videoconference call. This poses a challenge for the microphone as it’s exposed to all the audio traveling across this open space. Ideally, for this kind of setting, you want to have a solution that will pick up the participants’ voices and not the people around them or behind them that are not part of the call. Similar requirement exist for the speaker part of the speakerphone. You want the participants to hear the far end, but you’d prefer not to expose the rest of the open space to this interference. We believe that this feature will be appealing to future open space designs and we foresee several solutions addressing this need becoming available in the near future.
3) Collaboration and Whiteboards
This is not new, but is expected to gain momentum. These solutions are now being promoted and pushed by Microsoft (Project Rigel and the shipping of the Surface Hub), Intel (Unite), Crestron, Smart Technologies, Promethean, and many others. They will become more affordable and more popular and they will all include videoconferencing elements. How does that affect the design of the audio endpoint? The traditional place for the speakerphone, on the conference table, is far from being optimal for picking up the voice of the person standing next to the board. After all, this person will not be close to the speakerphone and on top of it will have his/her back to the device. Keep in mind that of all the participants, we would want this person’s voice to be the least compromised.
One obvious location that will work very well for the presenter is next to the board. One possible solution is to place a microphone in that location which could then be connected as an extension to the table mount speakerphone. A better solution would be an array that will pick up the audio from the entire room and eliminate the need for a device sitting on the table. However, this array has to be designed to work from close proximity (not trivial for an array) as well as from far away. An array capable of addressing this need, and being able to handle not just far field audio, but also close proximity, will be a perfect complementary solution to collaboration boards. We noticed that the market would also like to see a loudspeaker integrated with the microphone, even though most monitors already have built in speakers.
4) Remote Control and Remote Dialing
Most non-USB speakerphones have a dialer and display. What’s wrong with this? For one, if your table is rather large the dialer might be out of reach for some of the participants. This holds true for the display as well. It’s not a huge inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless. It takes up real estate, makes the speakerphone bigger, and it costs money. In the age of the Internet of Things there is no reason to have any controls on the audio device itself. It needs to be networkable and controlled through an app on your phone, tablet, or PC. I expect some pushback due to security concerns and other considerations, but eventually I believe that audio endpoints will not need the local controls. Ideally, the audio pickup will allow the speakerphones (or microphones) to be placed on top of your monitor, on the ceiling, on the walls, and basically hidden away anywhere but on the table itself. These concepts require that conferencing endpoints, including the speakerphones, be controlled remotely as they will be out of reach.
5) Improved Processing
A person with proper hearing can pick up and process audio using his/her two ears much better than any speakerphone or microphone. We, using our ears, eyes, and brain, can tolerate reverberations much better that any existing de-reverb algorithm. We can ignore noises and we can understand someone even when others around him/her are talking at the same time. To me, this means that we still have a long way to go in terms of digital audio processing. In my opinion, progress can be achieved in two ways. First, current commonly used algorithms can be improved. Fortunately, advancements in the electronics field allow for more powerful DSPs, higher resolution codecs, and wider bandwidth elements. These improvements are sometimes not easily detectable, but they are there. The second way is by introducing new and more revolutionary approaches. These approaches could involve artificial intelligence, the assistance of vision for speech intelligibility, psychoacoustics, and more. This evolution is not necessarily a current trend, but more of a natural force leading to progress. These innovations are expected from audio endpoints so that they can continue to support the advancement in video and communication technology.
I welcome any comments, suggestions, or proposals for future developments. Please use the comment fields below.