Selecting the right collaboration solution

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According to the World Bank Institute, collaboration technology is: “software, platforms, or services that enable people at different locations to communicate and work with each other in a secure, self-contained environment. This may include capabilities for document management, application sharing, presentation development and delivery, whiteboarding, chat and more.” But which combination of these features will suit your customer?

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Introduction

However you define it, there’s an awful lot of collaboration about – most of it is informal and ad hoc, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. When we at AV News talk about a collaboration solution, we are talking about something more reliable and more professional, with security, compliance and proper commercial quality, with performance and quality levels assured.

Now that solutions are available that deliver on these issues, the challenge now is to match them to organisations and infrastructures – and to deliver quantifiable business benefits. Darren Aspinall, Head of AV Sales for Square 1 Products believes that: “Business users are looking to share information with colleagues or contacts to gain measurable business benefits. This can save time and cuts costs as well as developing relationships.

As an analogy, the visualiser was at its peak when there was an acute need to bring analogue documents and objects into the digital environment. Now that just about everything is available in digital format it’s bad news for the visualiser, but in its heyday it carried out the valuable task of converting one standard format (analogue) into a relatively small number of digital formats (JPEG, PDF, MP4 etc.).

Today’s digital equivalent to the visualiser is the presentation  gateway, which takes the output from a variety of devices, operating systems, applications and file formats and renders them into formats that enable sharing. Scale this task up to a wide area network, where you probably won’t even know what the remote sources are, and it highlights the challenge of specifying an end-to end collaboration solution.

To start the process, we have compiled a list of basic information that you will need to know – in more detail that our list suggests – to specify a solution for your customer. We then go one to discuss some potential solutions for each category of product you might use in your solution.

Checklist for collaboration

This is a basic list of questions that should be asked and answered before designing a customer’s infrastructure for collaboration and specifying solutions:

□ What is the nature of meetings to be supported – local participants only, remote participants only or local and remote participants?

□ How many participants are to be involved?

□ How can these meetings be categorised: formal / informal; strategic / administrative?

□ What provision has to be made for third parties – e.g. suppliers, partners, customers etc?

□ Is there a requirement for non-participatory observers?

□ Which communications media are to be used – voice, data, video?

□ What is the nature of the content to be shared?

□ Is this content accessible on a network or on personal devices only?

□ What devices are to be used for storing and sharing this content?

□ Does the customer organisation have a BYOD policy?

□ What degree of security is required for this content?

□ What level of audio / video quality should be prescribed for each meeting category

□ Should there be provision for recording collaborative meetings to satisfy compliance requirements and to provide an audit trail?

□ Is the customer’s network infrastructure adequate to support the solution?

□ What legacy solutions does the customer want to integrate into the solutions?

Presentation gateways

For our discussion of collaboration solutions, we are starting from the inside and working out – from the customer meeting room to the remote environment. The use of mobile devices in meeting room applications is growing exponentially. The reality of today’s meeting culture is that, even if your customer does not support a BYOD policy, there is little or nothing they can do to rationalise the variety of mobile devices that visitors bring to their premises, and that they will expect to be able to use.

Five years ago, this was much less of a problem. Almost everyone used laptops or notebook PCs, with pretty much standard interfaces, operating systems and applications. The emergence of smartphones and tablet PCs as presentation, content sharing sources and control devices has rewritten the rule book. A good indicator is the pace of development in Barco’s landmark ClickShare meeting room collaboration system.

When ClickShare was first unveiled it was aimed at the laptop generation, with assumptions based on the familiar issues that arose when several presenters needed to hook up their machines to an AV solution installed in the meeting room. Even while ClickShare was in development, the technology landscape was evolving, and by the time it was launched BYOD had arrived. Barco responded quickly and ClickShare support for mobile devices was introduced, starting with Apple’s iOS and later Android

Christie joined the market with its Brio meeting presentation and content sharing solution. Brio enables multiple attendees at meetings to run audio and video presentations from their own devices, without scrambling for matching display cables and adapters, plugging in dongles or installing and configuring new software to get it working.

Brio ‘nodes’ route up to five presentations to meeting room displays. Once the content is processed by the node, it can also be made available to other Brio nodes, via a shared network. In this way a variety of content – including PowerPoint, audio, whiteboarding and videoconferencing sessions – can be pushed to any display attached to the Brio node.

Brio nodes can be connected to other on an extended network and hence to multiple worksites on a corporate campus, or across the country. All Brio nodes added to a meeting will see the same presentations, and any Brio user can add a presentation to the meeting. Brio is said to make interactive content sharing across multiple rooms and offices straightforward. Brio also takes full advantage of interactive whiteboard collaboration. Users in multiple locations can work together on notes and sketches.

For those with less complex requirements, there are a number of solutions that don’t require a full ClickShare or a Brio installation to get a presentation on screen. Barco itself has added a second, lower-cost alternative to the classic ClickShare Conference (or CSC) with a lower-cost, small meeting room version called ClickShare Meeting (or CSM).

The CSM Base Unit displays images up to Full HD resolution – via its HDMI or VGA output – and is fully compatible with both the ClickShare Button and the free apps for iOS and Android. Only one user can share content on-screen at a time, but eight Buttons can be connected wirelessly to the base unit, ready to share. A standard CSM set consists of the CSM Base Unit and two ClickShare Buttons.

Others vendors have been tempted into the market for collaboration solutions. ViewSonic, for example, has introduced the ViewSync WPG-370 presentation gateway that provides wireless connectivity for meeting room displays from devices such as desktop computers, laptops / notebooks, tablets and Smartphones. Whether the user is projecting from Windows, Mac, iOS or Android, the product provides the ability to share content on a larger display. While it’s not a Christie Brio, it is an affordable and useful addition to a meeting room.

Unified solutions

If your customer is in an environment which is heavily networked focused, and content resources are accessible from the network, the choice of collaborative solution becomes much more straightforward. Yes, there still has to be some provision for taking content for third parties, but the bulk of the content requirement can be satisfied by one source. When Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Lync Room System it was building on existing network infrastructures and a set of desktop communication tools.

The Lync Room System provides a platform for face-to-face meetings, supplemented with remote participation and network resources, all within the familiar Lync environment. So successful has Lync been that Steljes, the UK distributor of the SMART implementation of the Microsoft Lync Room System. has described it as: “the defacto technology for the meeting room in the next few years.”

“We are entering the era of personalised working” comments Martin Large, the CEO of Steljes. “Our technologies enable people to work in a collaborative way with their colleagues from anywhere in the world as if they were in the same room together. The SMART Room System takes this one step further by bringing Microsoft Lync unified communications software into the meeting space to provide a seamless online collaboration experience through sharing of real-time video, voice and data.  I believe that the SMART Room System is set to become the defacto technology for the meeting room.”

Fellow Microsoft Lync Room System developer Crestron has differentiated it’s version of the base technology, Crestron RL, with close integration with the company’s room control solutions. By linking RL to all the systems in the room, users can control the entire space from the same touch screen, even the lights and blinds. Crestron RL can be purchased as a complete system package or as standalone components that can be paired with Crestron tested and approved accessories.

The dual display package, for example, is said to be perfect for medium to large conference rooms, and includes two high-definition 65″ touch screen displays. The single display package includes a 65″ touch screen display and is ideally suited for small to medium sized conference rooms, executive offices and ‘huddle’ rooms. A “no display” package is also offered, allowing select third-party touch screen displays to be substituted for the standard 65″ models. Each package includes an HD collaboration system codec, HD camera and microphone, soundbar, 10” tabletop touch display, wall mount kit(s), cables and accessories.

For complete flexibility, customers can tailor their Crestron RL system to fit their needs perfectly with optional accessories such as the mobile cart, table speaker and the new 360° HD camera, microphone and speaker. The camera provides a panoramic view of the entire room, as well as an “active speaker” view that automatically tracks the flow of the conversation and focuses on the person currently speaking. If your customer already has a Lync server, no additional licenses, fees, or infrastructure expenses, such as MCUs or gateways, are needed.

“As a scalable, appliance grade, turnkey solution, Crestron RL can be implemented in practically every collaboration room across a global enterprise,” says Fred Bargetzi, Crestron Vice President of Technology. “Adding room control of other devices and systems, such as lights, shades and thermostats, is easy. Add Crestron Fusion software and remotely schedule meetings, manage resources, and collect data.”

Device-centric solutions

Before the Microsoft Lync Room System cam on the scene last year, substantial progress had already been made in collaboration solutions based around particular classes of device. SMART was the leader in the field, linking its SMART Board interactive whiteboards together through local and wide area networks, enabling project teams to work collaboratively across remote locations.

While other developers of interactive solutions chose to concentrate on the education market, SMART blazed a trail in corporate. Using a combination of SMART Boards, SMART Meeting  Pro, SMART Ink and SMART Unbound Workspace non-Lync users could, and still can, build solutions for collaborative workgroups in remote locations.

SMART has had the market in this category pretty much to itself over the last few years, but as the education market reaches maturity for interactive whiteboard solutions, other vendors are moving into the corporate space. Promethean’s ClassFlow and ActivWall, both launched at BETT 2014, both have potential for commercial applications. ClassFlow, in particular, described by Promethean as a “transformative, cloud-based classroom orchestration tool” is basically an authoring and presentation screen that places all the resources (web pages, images, videos, documents etc) in windows on the display. This is clearly a useful product for the meeting room, and Promethean has discussed plans for introducing a commercial version before the end of the year.

Elsewhere, Square 1 Products has brought together a group of its vendors to create a collaborative solution based on its Triumph Board range of IWBs. Vidyo Hosted Video Conferencing is now available for the Triumph whiteboards and touchscreens via the NeoCloud cloud service. The NeoCloud platform, powered by Vidyo, offers Triumph Board users complete HD video conferencing for universal visual communication, bringing together participants regardless of the device they are using – from smart phones to tablets, desktops to video room systems.

Aspinall explains: “When NeoCloud demonstrated the potential to incorporate video in to our offering, with complete flexibility and interoperability, we just knew we had to have it in the package we offered to our customers. By enabling our Triumph Boards with NeoCloud before dispatch, our customers are just a few steps away from HD quality video conferencing, which connects them globally.”

A further factor in the progress of device-specific collaboration solutions is the introduction of interactive touchscreens with built-in intelligence, increasingly powered by the Android operating system in place of the traditional PC. InFocus was a pioneer in the touchscreen category, with its Mondopad range. Other vendors active in this field including Sahara, BenQ, ViewSonic and CTOUCH.

CTOUCH Smoothboard Air, for example, allows presenters to share their screen among multiple participants with mobile devices such as iPads, Android tablets and smartphones. Using the QR Code projected on the screen, or displayed IP address and PIN, participants within the room may scan and access the screen from their mobile device without any app installation.

Smoothboard Air will stream to up to 30 devices simultaneously, Participants invited to join and start collaborating instantly. Each mobile device becomes an interactive whiteboard surface where both presenter and participants can annotate on any application simultaneously.  Smoothboard Air also allows remote desktop control directly from the device. The presenter may assign permissions for each participant to have access to annotation or remote control functions.

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Video-conferencing solutions

Infonetics’ Research reports that the video conferencing market will continue to grow at a rate of  6% throughout 2017. Rich Costello, senior analyst for Enterprise Communications Infrastructure at IDC, believes that the video conferencing market is going through a significant transformation due to virtualisation, software-centric solutions and real-time browser-based communications.

These factors are expected to drive an emphasis on cloud-based video solutions. Petr  Jirovsky, senior research analyst for Worldwide Networking Trackers Research, asserts that many enterprises still see video as a ‘key component of collaboration.’ “We still see video adoption being driven by interest in doing video integrations with vendor portfolios and business processes, as well as the increasing use of video collaboration for small workgroup, desktop and mobile users,” Jirovsky concluded.

Will virtualisation and the move to the cloud see the traditional, hardware-based proprietary VC solutions fall away? Perhaps not immediately, but, says Darren Aspinall, Head of AV Sales for distributor Square 1 Products: “I am sure that there is still a place in the right circumstances but as innovation continues to move forward at a pace it makes clear sense to look at all options available.”

Darren Aspinall, Head of AV Sales for distributor Square 1 Products: “I am sure that there is still a place for traditional video conferencing in the right circumstances.”

Darren Aspinall, Head of AV Sales for distributor Square 1 Products: “I am sure that there is still a place for traditional video conferencing in the right circumstances.”

Conclusions

It is not just corporate organisations that are deploying collaborative technologies to improve their business processes and reduce costs. With so many collaborative technologies to choose from, organisations need the consultative services of industry experts to help them decide on the right solution for them. Martin Large of Steljes says:

“At Steljes, that process starts with understanding what the key customer drivers are and getting an overview of their hardware and software estate. If, for example, the customer has Microsoft Lync, our consultants would discuss how SMART Room System would enhance their existing investment in Lync and bring Lync into the meeting space. For other customers, SMART’s visual collaboration solutions would be more appropriate.”

“Often customers use our Steljes proof of concept service which offers a ‘safe option’ that enables organisations to ‘try out’ the technology in their premises and assess whether the technology will deliver the benefits they expect. Each proof of concept is tailored to meet our customers’ specific requirements using our industry expertise to help with both the technical evaluation and the end use adoption to justify a larger scale deployment.”

Darren Aspinall of Square 1 Products fully support the idea of ‘trying before you buy’; “Lync is a great solution for some, especially larger organisations that have a installed MS user base that they want to work more closely together. SME businesses may require a different solution. As well as Lync based solutions Square 1 also offers a cloud based collaboration solution that allows up to 20 users to communicate over a video link  and share documents that they can each work on and share with the group.

“Interest in collaboration solutions is certainly growing but further marketing and education is required to help end users fully understand the real business benefits that this technology can offer. We are happy to work closely with our resellers partners from the outset to ensure that these benefits are demonstrable. We also offer a free 30 day trial service so users can take advantage of the system before parting with any of their hard earned cash.”


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