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Multiway video collaboration turns everyone into a presenter

Vendors are evolving the screen-sharing features of their video collaboration products from a one-way, pass-the-ball experience to a multiway model that makes all participants presenters.

The real-time collaboration tools native to video conferencing platforms have traditionally required a "pass-the-ball" approach to video collaboration. Most systems are limited to one-way screen sharing, requiring users to shuffle presenter privileges anytime a participant wants to edit a document or control a presentation. Some unified communications (UC) vendors are partnering to create a multiway screen sharing experience for video collaboration that allows all participants to be presenters.

"The interactive whiteboard is something that's been around for a while, but integrating it with real-time conferencing tools is a shift. It's sort of an evolution for both types of tools," said Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "It closes the gap between the audio description and the visual [representation] and enriches it with [collaboration]."

Alcatel-Lucent recently announced partnerships with Radvision, Logitech LifeSize and interactive whiteboard vendor SMART Technologies for an integrated product called Visual Collaboration, which enables all video conference participants to alter a shared piece of content and see each other's alterations in real time.

I think you only invoke that kind of [multiway video collaboration] capability when you have a specific thing you want to convey.

Rob Arnold
Senior Industry Analyst
Frost & Sullivan

"One of the things we think is really going to be the breakthrough that spurs adoption is making [video] a collaboration element—not a conferencing element," said Joseph Heinen, vice president of corporate marketing at Alcatel-Lucent. "I can have a [video] collaboration session where you do the high-end note taking and graphic design on a whiteboard ... and I can see it and annotate it using a tablet in my home office in real time."

Users need training for multiway video collaboration

UC managers must help users to understand how and when multiway screen sharing can improve video collaboration, Arnold said.

"I think you only invoke that kind of capability when you have a specific thing you want to convey," he said. "If I want to show you some diagram or a feature on a product ... you can actually draw a circle around something specific while we're talking about it, like John Madden does with football plays. The concept is to focus on specific points."

UC managers must also train users to use multiway video collaboration effectively so that the display doesn't erupt into a dizzying flurry of edits, additions and drawings all popping up at once, Arnold said.

"You have to know how to use the tool, and you have to also have an etiquette that's understood by users," he said. "It's like if you're dialing into a Web conference and you hear a chime every time someone joins, and every single user announces themselves.... It can certainly be a distraction and be counterproductive."  

Multiway video collaboration requires multiple investments

Although any video endpoint can be used for Alcatel-Lucent's Visual Collaboration system—LifeSize is named in the partnership because Alcatel-Lucent resells its products—the multiway interactive whiteboard requires use of a Radvision multipoint conferencing unit (MCU), SMART Technologies' touch-screen SMART Board 685ix monitor and Alcatel-Lucent's UC software, My Teamwork.

The Visual Collaboration suite also enables UC managers to archive the session and save each version of the shared and altered content, allowing users to flip through them like presentation slides, he said.  

Visual Collaboration will eventually be supported on OpenTouch, a new, forthcoming UC architecture from Alcatel-Lucent that includes MCU capabilities, Heinen said. OpenTouch will be available in the fourth quarter of this year and will serve as an alternative to Radvision MCUs for multiway video collaboration, he said.

Polycom recently partnered with Microsoft to announce the CX 7000, a video conferencing platform purpose-built for Microsoft's Lync Server 2010, which also enables multiway video collaboration through the platform's embedded Lync client. Polycom's mainstream product lines, including its HDX telepresence products, only support one-way screen sharing via Polycom's People+Content feature.

"[Users are] able to have true multiway collaboration just as though the person's sitting right next to [them]," said Jim Kruger, vice president of marketing at Polycom.

The CX 7000 supports one- or two-screen sessions at high-definition (HD) 720p for point-to-point calls and at standard-definition VGA quality (640x480) for multipoint calls, according to the product's spec sheet. Polycom plans to support it on Microsoft's cloud-based Lync Online within Office 365, Kruger said. General availability is slated for the fourth quarter of this year.

Multivendor partnerships for multiway video collaboration has its drawbacks

 While these joint product announcements indicate that vendors are responding to increasing demand from UC managers for tighter integration among their products and features, this integration also has a downside, Arnold said. He cautioned that multiple vendors often lead to multiple management and administration tools, requiring UC managers to learn and support each platform.

Polycom circumvented this with its native Lync support on the CX 7000, enabling UC managers to configure and manage the platform through Lync Server, Kruger said.

But that purpose-built approach may require vendors to sacrifice certain advanced features and functionality, such as in how the CX 7000 supports multipoint video collaboration, Arnold said.

"Basically, you're conforming to adapt your product to someone else's technology, and sometimes that leaves a gap in the features you can deliver," he said. "The CX 7000 uses [Microsoft's proprietary] RT codecs for audio and video, and I don't want to say it degrades [the quality], but ... it inhibits the ability to do multipoint video in HD because then you'd need an MCU for that. There's no MCU for the CX 7000, so you'd have to deploy a Polycom conferencing product, and then you lose some of the seamless experience."   

Although the CX 7000 can interoperate with standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)- or H.323-based endpoints, the multiway video collaboration features are lost for participants who aren't using Lync-embedded platforms, acknowledged a Polycom spokeswoman.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Senior News Writer.


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