The proliferation of unified communications solutions, such as Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber and IBM Sametime, has extended collaboration to employees around the world. These solutions offer many advantages, including ease of use and enhanced mobility; however, they also present a few key challenges including moving the UC experience from the desktop into the conference room.

Trying to connect a team of local participants with remote participants can be difficult using a desktop video solution. Crowding around a colleague’s PC gets extremely uncomfortable, not to mention it deteriorates the audio and visual quality of the meeting. On the other hand, having each participant join individually can become overwhelming and push the limits of cloud video bridging solutions.

After hearing these issues, our engineering team created a unique solution to easily bring unified communications to the conference room. UC Group systems are configurable, PC-based solutions that allow an organization to extend their desktop video client into a conference room setting. Anything from screen sharing to video conferencing can be accomplished with the click of a button.

Video is obtained through a PC card located in the display or from a local laptop or PC connection and displayed on the screen. Essentially, end users would connect to a video call in the same way and with the same application they would use on their computer. Then participants partake in a video conference with audio and visual quality similar to that of a traditional video conference room.

Enhanced mobility features allow end-users to connect their laptop and wheel the cart between rooms. As a result, any conference room can become a video-enabled room! Plus, with easy content display options, UC Group systems can double as presentation rooms when video is not in use. Additional features include:

  • Power management capabilities that automatically turn the display on and off
  • Fixed or pan/tilt/zoom camera to accommodate smaller or larger groups
  • Table or ceiling microphones for enhanced audio
  • Cisco WebEx integration for webinars or other web conferences
  • Connect up to 25 software or hardware video systems with Multipoint Experience

The UC Room and UC Mobile are platform agnostic and can run on any software video client including Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber, Polycom CMA/m100, Skype and Google Video Chat. These solutions enhance an organization’s UC platform or consumer video solution by accommodating larger groups and allowing participants to reap the benefits of a traditional video conferencing room without significant upfront investments.

Why Unify Your Communications - What's In The Box

With all the buzz around unified communications including new product releases, features, acquisitions and more, it’s easy to forget the why of UC and how it can benefit an organization. In this series of posts we will examine some of the key areas of UC and what the business benefit can be.

To understand what UC solutions can do for an organization it is important to understand what features and functions are included in the solutions available today. Some may think of UC as just video conferencing or web conferencing; however, it is a collection of many different technologies that are seamlessly integrated together.

Presence
Presence is a feature that is at the heart of a unified communications solution. It allows a user to communicate their availability (on the phone, away, in a meeting) while also allowing the system to provide location information (in the office, working from home, etc). How many times have you tried to reach a colleague only to learn that they are working remotely and only available on their mobile phone? Presence can provide the information need to connect to someone in the fastest manner possible.

Instant Messaging
Instant messaging makes communicating with a colleague as simple as a point and click. Clicking on a user can initiate a text conversation, similar to a text on your mobile phone that can allow for quick catch ups on key items and to also check availability for meetings down the road.

Audio Conferencing
With UC solutions it is incredibly easily to upgrade an instant messaging discussion to an audio conversation. Simply click on the users name, select the call feature and the application will dial the number stored. These calls can be a point-to-point audio discussion or include multiple audio participants in a session (similar to an audio bridge).  The connection can occur over standard phones or via the UC application directly on the user’s desktop.

Screen and Document Sharing
During an audio or IM conversation it might be necessary for parties involved to share a document or participate in a white boarding session. A UC application can upgrade the interaction by providing a visual content sharing session. Users can view each other’s screen and collaborate on a key document or deliverable together.

Video Conferencing
UC solutions offer the ability for users to meet face to face via video conferencing. All of the UC applications available offer some form of video conferencing. In some cases it may be calls limited to two participants, in other cases it can be large scale multi-party calls. In either case, the power of visual communication is enhanced as each participant can see each other while collaboration.

Mobility
The final major functionality of most UC applications is the ability to access some or all of the functions listed above via a mobile device. This could be a smartphone or a tablet such as the iPad. Either way the goal is to provide a seamless experience whether the user is on their computer or traveling with their mobile device.

It is clear that UC applications offer a robust feature set that can help organizations collaborate in new and exciting ways. Not all UC applications are created equal, so make sure to understand the entire breadth of feature set before moving forward with an implementation.

This post is part of a series on unified communications solutions.

Part Two: What’s Out There?

Video conferencing solutions are quickly replacing the frequent high-level meetings that are standard in most organizations. Executive teams typically meet with the managers of different business units or locations to discuss business strategy, profitability and other key deliverables. However, many times these managers are scattered across the globe making frequent in-person meetings costly and time consuming. While video is great for meetings with two to three sites it can be difficult to hold a group meeting with several worldwide sites over a video bridge.

In many instances, the active speaker view limits the continuous presence of the remote sites. When the CEO speaks he cannot gauge the reaction of the site he is addressing until they speak and the view shifts. Even more frustrating is when a member of the Executive team is speaking but the view keeps shifting between sites where participants are rustling papers or murmuring agreements. Despite all of the audio visual components, these meetings just don’t provide the same experience of having the meeting in-person at headquarters.

A global Real Estate firm faced similar challenges and wanted a solution that simulated their quarterly management meetings; from eye contact to speaker priority. They wanted the ability to customize the way remote sites were displayed in continuous presence views plus a concurrent view of the active speaker. Additionally, they wanted to give the CEO and other Executives speaker priority; whenever they spoke the active speaker would switch to them regardless of whichever site may be speaking.

Since a standard video bridge did not provide the flexible windowing capabilities, the ability to place sites in a specific location on screen, our engineering team created a bridgeless video bridge.

With the help of three displays, three Cisco C90s, an array of audio visual equipment and a lot of programming; a new Executive Boardroom was created. The left and right displays featured continuous presence of each site, unless content was being displayed, while the center display switched with the active speaker. Additional programming gave headquarters speaker priority; anytime the CEO spoke the active speaker would automatically revert back to him.

Since most of the remote sites did not have three displays, the continuous and active presence capabilities needed to be condensed into one video feed. A little extra programming created the layout below. This allowed remote sites to continuously and easily view the headquarters location while still having a larger view of the active speaker and the presence of all sites.

Watch the video below for a quick demonstration on how this amazing technology works!

The video conferencing industry is changing faster than anyone can keep up with. The technological innovations are staggering and many have led to greater reach and lower cost, higher quality video solutions.

One of the latest trends emerging is video conferencing directly within the web browser.  HTML 5 and a new standard known as WebRTC are making many of these solutions possible. WebRTC allows browsers to facilitate real-time communication; including voice, video, and point-to-point file sharing. This new technology will soon be standard in all popular browsers.

This standard is still in a “draft” format from the Web Standards Body but many of the applications that have experimented with it have been quite impressive. Small software companies to major manufacturers of hardware based video conferencing systems have been working with web clients for some time. The advantages of this approach are:

  1. Users can be connected to a video meeting with little to no download and setup time. Currently WebRTC is not finalized so small plugins must be downloaded the first time a user enters a video meeting. In the near future this should be eliminated and the browser will be able to launch directly into the video call.
  2. Beyond a web camera, there are no hardware requirements to participate in a video meeting.
  3. Browsers exist on devices beyond PCs; mobile devices, televisions, tablets, and more. Soon these devices will be video conferencing ready out of the box without any configuration.

There have been a number of announcements that have centered on video conferencing in the web browser including:

Blue Jeans:  This service has bridged the gap between consumer and professional video conferencing offering “meet-me” rooms in the cloud that allow users of pretty much any traditional VC system  to connect with users on Skype, Google Video Chat and Microsoft Lync. Last month, Blue Jeans added a browser-based option to their service. When a user receives an invite to a Blue Jeans meeting, they can click a link and attend via their web browser.

Polycom:  Last year Polycom acquired ViVu, a small organization that had been offering “embeddable” video conferencing into web applications. This week Polycom announced the first initiative based on that acquisition. HP is now shipping a Polycom HD video application with their new web cams. The app makes it easy for users to connect, via video, to any of their contact lists from Facebook, Skype, Google, etc. When a user invites a contact, the receipt simply clicks a link and is immediately launched in a web based video call.

Cisco: A few weeks ago Cisco announced some significant updates to their Quad social portal. The newly branded Cisco Webex Social features integrated video calling that all happens in the browser.

There are sure to be many more announcements and releases around web-based video conferencing. Its impact on the industry remains to be seen, but it is sure to be significant and will only make video even more accessible for everyone.

The last year has been quite interesting with a constantly shifting landscape of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications. Social collaboration, a combination of these, is becoming a significant trend and driving the behavior of key manufacturers and software companies. At the same time, businesses of all sizes are beginning to see social collaboration as a key component of their communications strategy.

Point in case, Cisco announced Cisco WebEx Social earlier this week. Originally marketed under the Cisco Quad brand, WebEx Social is an attempt at 2 key things: 1) Expand the incredibly well known Webex brand into the social enterprise space and 2) Create a “hub” for an organization’s collaboration efforts. At the same time, there are rumors of Microsoft looking to acquire Yammer, another provider of social enterprise software.

Cisco and Microsoft are following suit behind Salesforce.com’s continued expansion of their Chatter social platform, Jive Software’s IPO and popularity (another social software company), and about a dozen or so smaller companies vying for a company’s social business.

The key trend emerging is about interaction and communication. As organizations continue to explore social collaboration, they have to ask themselves a key question. What kind of interactions do we want to foster? Organizations can either focus on internal communications by making sure employees can collaborate in the most effective way possible. Or, they can expand those interactions outside the company, making collaboration with partners, vendors and customers possible.

With those questions answered, a company can look to implement the aforementioned “hub.” With this in place, employees have a single starting point for all of their interactions; they can interact with people through IM, chat, and ultimately launch a web conferencing session, voice call, or video conference. This level of integration provides a seamless way for employees to move from one form of collaboration to another. It provides a new meaning for unified communications and will help drive adoption of the technology in addition to foster a team environment.

At the end of the day, all of these technologies are pretty amazing. But, what are the true business benefits? How do employee interactions increase productivity and aid the bottom line?

For one, the cliché “two minds are better than one” holds true; employee interactions with partners, customers and other employees increase productivity through knowledge sharing. As employees interact, they share different tips, think creatively and produce ideas that can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation. All of these aspects have a direct, and dramatic, impact on a firm’s bottom line.

In the coming weeks we will explore in more detail how these different types of interactions can improve an organization’s performance.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Three: The Power of Business Partnerships
Part Four: Using Collaboration to Increase Customer Lifetime Value