This content is part of the Essential Guide: Reaping the business benefits of collaboration tools

Video conference hardware simplified, affordable for huddle rooms

Video conferencing vendors have aimed to simplify deployments with cost-effective kits that include cameras and audio peripherals for small meeting rooms.

The history of video conference hardware begins and ends in the boardroom. In the past, video was complicated, expensive and limited to the C-suite. Several video vendors did well, however, and made a lot of money serving this limited market for the last 20 years.

More recently, though, analyst reports have cited a massive market for video conferencing in small meeting rooms, which dwarfs the big boardroom market. With these smaller meeting rooms, or huddle rooms, vendors face less profit per room, but millions of more rooms. As a result, video conference hardware vendors have been quick to market new products geared for huddle rooms.

To support huddle room video -- or any video for that matter -- you need the video conference hardware trinity: camera, audio and some sort of computer to run the software. This setup assumes your huddle space has an existing multipurpose monitor that can be used for video conferencing.

Some vendors offer an all-in-one appliance, while several software video vendors have partnered with peripheral hardware vendors to create huddle room kits. These kits include the above-mentioned hardware trinity and a monthly subscription to video software, so you can design your kit to meet your needs.

Customize rooms with video conference hardware

Companies need flexibility in their conference and huddle room hardware, said Nick Chong, head of global services at Zoom Video Communications Inc., based in San Jose, Calif. 

"Not every room has the same setup, and not every team has the same needs," Chong said. "Customizing your rooms with different hardware allows you to meet diverse environments and needs across your organization."

Many video conference hardware appliances and kits are available for huddle rooms, including BlueJeans Rooms with Dolby Conference Phone, Cisco Spark Room Kit, Logitech MeetUp Kit with Intel NUC, StarLeaf's GT Mini 3330 and Zoom Rooms.

Whether you're choosing a pre-bundled kit or assembling your own, you'll need to consider each of the essential elements of camera, audio and computer.

Huddle room series

This article, part two of a three-part series on huddle rooms, examines video conference hardware. Part one focused on huddle room costs. Part three will address software considerations.

Cameras become smarter, more affordable 

USB camera technology has seen rapid development in recent years. Cameras are now easier to set up and use. They're also higher-quality, more reliable, smarter and more affordable.

Over the last decade, video conference hardware costs have dropped from tens of thousands of dollars to a few hundred dollars, said Joan Vandermate, head of marketing for the collaboration business unit at Logitech, based in Newark, Calif.

"Today, you can buy a high-quality, Ultra HD plug-and-play conference camera for less than a thousand dollars, and it works with virtually any collaboration platform," she said. "It doesn't get much simpler or cost-effective than that."

The rule of huddle room video conference hardware: Just say no to webcams. Even webcam vendors say their products are designed for desktops to capture one or two people. If you need to cover more people in a larger space, you need a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera to cover a room properly, even a huddle space. If meeting attendees are not framed properly, you'll get a less immersive experience.

However, many users are uncomfortable with remote controls to manipulate PTZ cameras. If meeting attendees always sit in the same spots, theoretically, you can set up a PTZ camera and leave it alone. But if you have more dynamic meetings, you may have to consider some PTZ controls.

One solution is PTZ presets. IT can program the camera so the preset zooms in on the main speaker, and the second preset focuses on a whiteboard, for example. In this setup, users can simply press a button to switch camera views.

Overcoming user concerns

Many vendors have cameras that recognize the active speaker via voice and facial recognition, and then frame the speaker with no human interaction. Some of these systems physically move the camera for PTZ, while others have a wide field of view to capture the entire room and frame the image without moving camera lenses.

This technology makes cameras less intimidating and friendlier in appearance and usage as users become more comfortable being on camera. Some users, however, may still feel uneasy with a camera pointing at them. Ideally, users should be comfortable and act naturally on camera.

Large camera lenses, in particular, can bother users. And if users are uncomfortable, they will find less efficient ways to collaborate, said Dan Freeman, founder and CEO of VDO360, a video conference hardware provider based in Edgewater, Md.

While many cameras are available, fully research all your options. Some USB huddle room video cameras include ClearOne Unite, Huddly GO and Logitech MeetUp. Some auto-tracking and -framing video cameras include Cisco Spark Room Series, Lifesize Icon 450 and Polycom Eagle Eye Director II.

Audio needs to be reliable

Audio should not be an afterthought when choosing video conference hardware. The audio needs to be functional, reliable and high-quality.

Audio should not be an afterthought when choosing video conference hardware. While video transforms an audio call into a fully interactive meeting, the audio is still crucial.

If the video stops working during a meeting, we might complain and continue with the meeting. But if the audio stops working, the meeting is a failure. The audio needs to be functional, reliable and high-quality. A long meeting with low-quality audio will exhaust and frustrate attendees.

Typically, you could choose a camera with embedded microphones and speakers or buy USB speaker pods to put on the conference table. Speaker bars are also becoming popular options, as they emit the sound from the same location as the image of the remote speaker.

Fortunately, for buyers of audio hardware, they have several options from well-established vendors and newcomers to the market, which means quality is improving, features are advancing and prices are dropping. Some video conference hardware audio peripherals include Dolby Conference Phone, Logitech H820 Headset and Polycom Trio.

Simplify the computer component

Today's generation of cloud-based video conferencing software is relatively light and does not require a powerful PC for optimal performance. You don't need much horsepower to run meeting-room video.

If your huddle room has an existing general-purpose PC or laptop, you are already set. Just install your video software and plug in your USB camera and speakerphone. You can use the laptop to run the video software, but you don't want to use the laptop's camera, speaker or microphone for the meeting. A laptop camera fails for the same reason as a webcam, and laptop audio is generally insufficient, as well.

Many video conferencing kits include an Intel NUC -- along with the camera and speakerphone -- to run the software. The NUC is a full Windows PC, which means you can use it as a general-purpose PC in the room for all your collaboration software, in addition to handling video. IT might prefer this option, as it simply becomes another Windows machine to manage. Otherwise, IT would have to manage a single-purpose video codec running on a proprietary operating system.

With huddle room video conference hardware, quality absolutely matters. If you settle for cameras that don't properly capture speakers or you have weak audio peripherals, users will not have a great experience. As a result, meeting productivity will be affected, and it will be difficult to achieve full adoption of your technology spend.

Fortunately, high-quality video conference hardware is readily available and increasingly affordable. In other words, IT teams are now empowered to provide positive huddle room video conferencing experiences for their teams.

For a comprehensive rundown of current video conferencing products, check out Let's Do Video's recent Readers' Choice Awards.

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