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Visual Communications at Infocomm 2013

Jun 18, 2013, by Ben Fineman
Tags: Advanced Network Services, Advanced Networking, Blue Jeans Network, Box, imported, Video Services, Vidyo

I spent a couple of days last week in Orlando with 35,125 of my closest friends, alternating between the sticky pre-summer air of Florida and the astringent chill of the Orange County Convention Center's powerful air conditioners. Besides answering the question of "does Infocomm still matter?" (with an all time attendance record, it looks like it does) I was able to pursue the more important question to me - where are visual communications technologies going?

I'll break it down into three themes, which coincidently many of you have heard me talk about before: Ease of Use, Ease of Deployment, and Cost.

  • Ease of Use. With a few exceptions, gone were the many-buttoned remote controls of yester-year. Instead, endpoints are now controlled by touch screens, desk phones (with touchscreens), or simple remotes that navigate an AppleTV-like icon driven interface. BYOD plays a significant role here as well, in the context of "bring your own controller" - plentiful were the systems that were controllable via a custom iPad or Android app. Along with these tactile changes, graphical user interfaces are being refined and simplified, distilled into task-based icons and fields that make it easy to dial a number (or a URI!), or access your directory. On the MCU side, functions that were previously only available to bridge administrators are now easily accessible to end user meeting conveners, who can now add/remove/mute/unmute and other essential tasks, all from a web browser (or BYOD app). And very importantly for bridges, there is a push away from scheduled MCU sessions which in my opinion is critical to ease of use. Vendors are pushing toward highly scalable virtualized transcoding/switching MCUs, with the goal of making the resource cheap enough that organizations can just give each person their own virtual meeting room and be done with it. Finally, software clients themselves are not long for this world - when bother installing a stand alone application or downloading a plugin when you can join the video call right from your browser? WebRTC is still not completely baked, but that hasn't stopped many would be bakers from rolling out their own solutions (but don't buy quite yet, they're still a little doughy on the inside).
  • Ease of Deployment. The cloud is here. And not just in that vague, market-y, I'm-not-sure-what-this-means-but-it-sounds-cool way, but in a very tangible this is the right thing to do way. Hosted visual communications services are robust and getting cheaper all the time. And even if you're not quite ready to go full cloud yet, it's unlikely that you'll be buying big hardware MCUs with dedicated circuits a year or two from now - everybody and their brother is virtualizing their MCU into a something that will live quite happily on your VM farm, tucked away between the database server and your instance of Lotus Notes for that one guy in accounting that just won't let it go.
  • Cost. Software-ization of both bridges and endpoints has the happy side effect that everything is getting cheaper. For endpoints, the plethora of fast processors nowadays makes it less necessary to use dedicated hardware for your room systems, and more and more solutions will let you build something using whatever PC you want. That said, you're always going to need decent cameras and mics, and while those are getting cheaper there's still a bit more to it than just plopping down a Mac Mini and calling it a day. On the bridging side, the benefits of SVC layered-switching that Vidyo has been capitalizing on for a while now are become more broadly available, which is largely what is enabling the mass MCU virtualization trend: no transcoding means much less processing. Many of these solutions are now promising interoperability with proprietary clients like Lync 2013, in addition to the usual H.323 and SIP customers.
This is all great stuff, and is what we need to see even more broad adoption of the advanced video technologies many of us are already using. I was also able to spend some time with each of our Internet2 members in the visual communication space; here's what I saw at their booths.
  • Blue JeansHappy 2nd birthday! Blue Jeans was celebrating two years since launch. There was no cake at the booth, only a picture of one. Beyond that, they were showcasing their WebRTC-based browser connection (I think it actually uses a plugin to bypass the Chrome/Firefox exclusivity), Microsoft Lync interop, and their partnership with low cost endpoint maker Tely. It seemed like Blue Jeans was doing well, with an active and packed booth - if you don't know Blue Jeans, their main selling point is built in Skype interoperability with their cloud bridging service - something that is still going strong in a post-Microsoft acquisition world.
  • CiscoThere was much to see in Cisco's sprawling booth, with nooks and crannies filled with interesting technology and enthusiastic product managers. Some high points were the WebRTC version of their popular Jabber client (named JabberC), the introduction of H.264 SVC and H.265 in their endpoints, virtualization of nearly all their video infrastructure appliances, and a telepresence robot in partnership with iRobot. This last one was particularly fun -  the Ava 500 telepresence robot was like a Roomba that grew to 6' tall and sprouted an EX60 from its head. The videoconference part is nothing new, but iRobot's environment scanning and navigation capabilities position the Ava on the good side of the usability spectrum - touch where you want to be on the self-generated map of your office, and it will drive itself there and call you when it arrives. Now what will happen when you come lumbering up behind your coworkers in something straight out of a 1960s episode of Dr. Who is another story.
  • PexipPexip is a brand new industry member of Internet2, and we're pleased to have them as this startup hits the ground running. Bringing the talent of a crack team of ex-Tandberg minds, Pexip is focused on offering the best possible multipoint video experience, with an all VM architecture that supports all the major protocols (H.323/SIP/SVC/WebRTC/etc) including dynamic geographic distribution and resilience, all wrapped up with a pretty tablet-controllable bow.  Pexip is disruptively going after the historical hardware MCU market, and not just making it cheaper by going to software but also adding features to make it easy to use and deploy. We'll be watching this one closely.
  • PolycomOur friends at Polycom had the full spectrum of their RealPresence offering on display, from the WebRTC-ish CloudAXIS browser client, to the new sleeker room systems, to the ingrained Microsoft Lync interoperability. The virtualization trend was alive and well in the Polycom booth, as almost all of their infrastructure offerings are now available without the proprietary physical box. The ease of use trend was here too - the new room systems are not just sleeker physically but also interface-wise; everything is icon driven and task oriented. Their new remote has shed a few buttons as well, although it could still shed a few more. That will be a moot point for people leveraging the ever more usable touch panel control.
  • SeevoghOur friends and NET+ partners have been busy, and were showing their comprehensive and interoperable cloud video solution. Besides their usual fare, I had the privilege of recently participating in a Seevogh demo of multiscreen telepresence using the Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP) running on an off the shelf PC. More of that later, but let's just say the you can finally set up a three screen immersive room for less than a couple of first class tickets to Asia.
  • Vidyo. Vidyo has been growing with leaps and bounds, but they are not resting on their laurels. They are stepping up their user interface game with Vidyo 3.0, which adds a persistent participant roster amongst other refinements. The biggest change is in the Vidyo room system, with the new Room HD-40 based on the diminutive Intel Nuc. The smaller form factor is counter balanced by the bigger "10 foot" user interface, which is finally meant to be driven from a room environment. Next, the multiscreen (six screens!) room system not only requires one computer to run, instead of seven, lowering the cost quite a bit. For you Microsoft users, Lync interoperability is here with a native Lync plugin (I haven't tried it yet, but it looks much better than the dubious Adobe Connect collaboration from a couple years back). Finally, Vidyo is looking to the future with 4k capabilities (display only, not encode) an upcoming H.265 compatibility.
It was a whirlwind tour, and there was certainly more to see at the show than just from our Internet2 industry members, although between them these six well represent the major trends for visual communications at the show. I'm optimistic that we're moving toward the future that we've all been talking about for a while now - the one where high quality video collaboration is ubiquitous, because it's so cheap and easy to use that there's no excuse not to.