Dolby Laboratories recently sent me one of their new Dolby Voice Room solutions, provisioned with the Highfive cloud video service to review. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any surprises. I knew the components would all be high-quality hardware as I’ve previously spoken with Dolby’s product development leads about this solution’s specs and manufacturing. I am also very familiar with the Highfive video service, and the fact that all Highfive video calls now have Dolby Voice audio, regardless of device or connection. Yet, I must admit that this integration did surprise me with its unexpectedly simple and welcoming workflow.
We all know the key to ROI for video systems is usability. If your working teams can easily get calls started and use the key features, they will see the benefits of video and you will have the adoption you are looking for. It has taken the industry a long time to learn this, and the Dolby and Highfive integration teams clearly made it a priority in this solution. I believe the Dolby Video Room is a solution to watch based on its specs and performance alone, but this kind of workflow is going to make it a worker favorite at the office.
When Dolby entered the videoconferencing space in 2018, the industry took notice for several reasons. Dolby has decades of experience with communications technology, a track record of success, and a legendary brand name. What most excited me about Dolby joining our space is the simple fact that audio is the most important part of any video meeting, and Dolby audio offers exceptional audio quality with unique benefits.
We all appreciate high quality video and understand that lower quality video can impact a meeting, but we can tolerate it. Low quality audio is another story. Low quality audio is straining and exhausting to meeting attendees. It doesn’t just make it harder to focus on the meeting content, it can literally give us a headache. Furthermore, advanced Dolby audio features; such as background noise reduction, dynamic leveling, and spatial audio, can bring meeting productivity to even higher levels.
It wasn’t surprising when Dolby’s first entries into the business video market met with great success. Their model of partnering with cloud video services made sense right off the bat with providers like BlueJeans and Highfive now using Dolby Voice audio for their video calls. These partnerships were further extended by integrating the Dolby Conference Phone with room software from cloud vendors. One example can be seen in LDV’s evaluation of BlueJeans Room Kit, which consists of the Dolby Conference Phone device, an Intel NuC to run the BlueJeans Room software, and a Logitech webcam. Notably, the Dolby Conference Phone doesn’t just serve as the audio device for the kit, but as the primary user interface, which makes sense considering its place at the center of the meeting room table.
These types of affordable and manageable “kit-based” solutions offer several benefits over traditional meeting room video solutions. However, they require working with hardware from several vendors. This makes the Dolby Voice Room particularly compelling as the entire kit is designed and manufactured by Dolby. It doesn’t all just happen to work together nicely, it’s designed to work together. It’s unfair to even call it a kit. It works as one internet-based appliance, with three physical elements; the Dolby Voice Hub, the Dolby Voice Camera, and the Dolby Conference Phone (See this customer unboxing video). Another major differentiator from kit-based solutions is that the Dolby Voice Room was designed from the ground up to support cloud video partners like BlueJeans and Highfive. While cloud video room software can certainly be run on a NuC, they can achieve a greater amount of customization, and a more ideal workflow, as a result of Dolby’s partnership program’s APIs and integration options.
The Dolby Voice Room Physical Setup
The solution arrived pre-configured for the Highfive video service. The kit consisted of three components. The Dolby Conference Phone, the Dolby Voice Hub and the Dolby Voice Camera. One of the major benefits of the typical NuC based video room kit is the ease of installation and configuration. The Dolby Voice Room was even easier to install and configure. You can view this Highfive customer video to see the complete setup in 3 minutes, including discussion.
I usually include detailed installation/configuration instructions in evaluations. In this case we can do it in one sentence. The camera, conference phone, and my monitor connect to the hub, which itself is connected to power and internet. That’s all there was to it. The required cables were all provided, and the one-page instruction sheet (which itself only had two pictures) was not needed. I literally spent more time looking through the packaging for a detailed setup guide (there isn’t one, because none is required), than I spent setting up the system.
The Dolby Voice Room Software Setup
When I first started up the system it immediately did a software update, which was nice as the first step in these reviews is usually to manually check the software version. After the update completed, I settled in for the configuration and setup. I was a bit surprised to see that there was no configuration or setup. The solution simply starts up ready for my first call. Nothing to log in to, no accounts or passwords to key in. How is this possible? By implementation of a very clever workflow for meeting creation.
The Dolby Voice Room Workflow
When the Dolby Voice Room is not being used, the connected display shows the image above. Putting workflow aside for a moment, just the presentation of the message is welcoming. It lets people in the room know that this is a shared resource and they are welcome to start a call. Everyone understands how to go to a web address.
The URL brings you to a webpage with instructions to connect to your nearby Dolby Voice Room. You enter your room name on the website (on your laptop/device) and a code appears on the meeting room screen. You enter that code, the meeting starts on the Dolby Voice Room, and your browser opens to the meeting control page with simple options allowing you to share your screen, join the meeting chat, leave the meeting, etc. The URL of this page is the URL of the meeting. To invite remote attendees, just share the same URL. The fact that the Dolby Voice Room is connected using the same URL that you use for any attendees on ANY device is the attention to workflow detail that makes the difference in workplace adoption. Every point of confusion or headache that you eliminate in meeting creation is a massive win for productivity.
As a result of this workflow, the solution feels like a group resource. I think working teams will be comfortable using it, without a lot of training or the heavy traditional adoption programs that it often takes to get ROI from technology spends. While meeting startup may be the most important thing to get new users on board, the Dolby and Highfive teams also get a lot of credit for the ease-of-use of all the in-meeting controls.
During the meeting, the few required functions are on the Dolby Conference Phone display (Highfive’s UI). Huge points for the fact that there are only three buttons. More is not always better. If you have 10 buttons, casual users will feel overwhelmed and not want to touch it. No user will be intimidated by the UI shown above. The three simple options are to add a phone caller (using a typical dial pad), controlling the zoom (see section on intelligent framing below), and using the whiteboard function (also see below).
Dolby Voice Room Power Features
Often, there is a tradeoff between simplicity and power. If you want to make the UI easy for casual users, you need to remove the advanced features from the power users. Not so in this case. The Dolby and Highfive teams managed to include a few serious power features, in a way that won’t scare off regular users.
The first power feature is the whiteboard view. Using the Dolby Conference Phone display, you can quickly set up the system by showing it that you have a whiteboard on your wall. After that, whenever you select “Whiteboard View” the system will not only zoom in on your whiteboard, but also corrects the perspective so that it appears as a readable, flat view. In other words, your remote meeting attendees can finally read the whiteboard. No more emailing iPhone pics of the whiteboard to remote workers.
Another power feature that requires nothing from the users is the power of Dolby Voice audio itself. For example, Dolby’s “Dynamic Leveling” technology understands the difference between human voices and other sounds. This lets it mute out background noises, while boosting the sound for quiet speakers and lowering the volume of loud ones. Similarly, Dolby’s “Voice Placement” technology allows for more natural feeling meetings, by isolating different speakers and making it sound as if each is coming from a different location in the room. This is more natural, and requires less mental energy to follow, than a typical solution where the sounds of all meeting participants are blended into one source.
With yet another surprise, Dolby’s most notable power feature for this solution may actually be on the video side. The solution supports “intelligent scene framing”, which is a huge 2019 trend for the business video industry as it addresses decades of user concerns. This feature is so new to the industry that Dolby created their own “machine learning” algorithm to make it work. This means of course, by the nature of machine learning, that the feature will continually improve in performance over time. So, what is intelligent scene framing? The short story is that no one likes manually adjusting the pan/tilt/zoom of a camera during a meeting. Generally, cameras are set up once to capture the entire room, and then left alone. If two people are in a 6-person meeting room, the camera is zoomed way out and the people are very small on screen. Intelligent scene framing solves this problem.
The system is “smart” and it is able to understand where people are and adjust itself during the meeting to best frame the room. If you stand up and walk to the other side of the room, you won’t just be off camera, the system will follow you. If you are alone in the room and 4 people join you, the system will zoom out to get everyone in frame. The beauty is that this is all done automatically and digitally (like how you zoom and pan images on your phone). There are no moving parts or whirling gears to distract meeting attendees.
The intelligent scene framing worked well in my testing. It isn’t too aggressive, it doesn’t readjust every time I moved my head or swayed in my seat. That would be extremely distracting. But on the other hand, it doesn’t take too long to adjust when the situation called for it. While I was pleased with its performance, I expect it will continue to improve through machine learning, and as we gather more data on how users want/expect these types of solutions to perform.
The Dolby Voice Room Component Configuration
The Dolby Voice Room is designed to be flexible and accommodate a variety of room shapes and configurations. There is no one template for setting up your huddle space or meeting room for video. However, by its very design, the Dolby Voice Room addresses many common room setup issues. For example, one extremely common issue is cable management. The Dolby Conference Phone on your meeting room table only has one cable (power over IP), which keeps things clean.
The system also addresses the issue that some rooms are better off with the video camera on top of the monitor, while in others you get better coverage and eye contact with the camera at the bottom of the monitor. The camera for the Dolby Voice Room can be mounted on the top of any standard monitor, or on the hub component to sit as a traditional counter top video system.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of the system when setting up a room, is the fact that its Intelligent scene framing capability (described above) removes much of the stress of camera placement. With traditional solutions, know users will not use the pan/tilt/zoom function to customize the view per meeting. Therefore, it was crucial to initially place the camera in the best “compromise” position that will serve most meetings well. With the Dolby Voice Room, the camera will automatically pan/tilt/zoom during each meeting to best frame the participants. You don’t have to stress over finding the ideal compromise position for the camera, just put it near the monitor so you have decent eye contact and let it do its job.
There really is a lot to like about the Dolby Voice Room. At a high level, the agnostic platform approach makes a lot of sense. They are giving the growing field of cloud video vendors the opportunity to offer customers a hardware room solution customized for their video service, with more control and less risk than the typical 3rd party peripheral based kit. As far as the system itself, all three components show great design and functionality, and the conference phone element is already tested (and successful) in the market.
To top it off, the workflow of this particular integration really hits the mark. Customers won’t just use this product, they will like using it. As we know, in the world of business video; ease of use = adoption = ROI. With that in mind, it seems that Dolby Voice Room based deployments will be money well spent.