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Desktop video conferencing software's Web client ups flexibility

UC pros at a Chicago law firm deployed desktop video conferencing software they call "business-class Skype" to keep up with the demands of their highly mobile workforce.

Users love the ubiquity and ease of use of Web-based consumer desktop video conferencing software such as Skype, but unified communications (UC) pros demand platforms with more control, consistent call quality and improved reliability. High-end telepresence suites and modern high-definition (HD) video conferencing rooms meet those enterprise-class needs, but they aren’t always flexible enough for a highly mobile workforce, as one law firm learned.

"Our users were coming to us and saying, 'I do this at home. I can do it on my Xbox. Why can't I do this here?'" said Maureen Durack, director of management information services at Vedder Price P.C., a Chicago-based law firm that serves business clients locally and abroad. "They need the flexibility to be able to—even on the spur of the moment—participate in a video conference. The telepresence rooms are great ... [but] it's pretty hard to make that experience portable."

Traditionally, Vedder Price’s lawyers traveled extensively to take depositions from witnesses or interview clients, but the firm deployed Polycom's room-based video conferencing systems years ago to cut travel costs and improve productivity. End users pushed back against the Polycom system, particularly because they had to be in the conference rooms to use it, Durack said.

I had to take that [user] out of his office and put him in a video conferencing room, he wouldn't have access to his computer, he wouldn't have access to email, and he wouldn't have access to the documents he needed to talk to the client.

Lonnie Horvat
A/V and Multimedia Specialist, Vedder Price P.C.

"We had an attorney whose client was in Dubai, and he wanted to Skype with him," said Lonnie Horvat, A/V and multimedia specialist at Vedder Price. "We discouraged that ... but if I had to take that attorney out of his office and put him in a video conferencing room, he wouldn't have access to his computer, he wouldn't have access to email, and he wouldn't have access to the documents he needed to talk to the client."

Desktop video conferencing software opens up 'infinite possibilities' versus hardware

Durack and Horvat recently deployed desktop video conferencing software from Vidyo Inc., which internal and external users access through an Internet connection and browser-based client. Users see it as "a business-grade Skype," Durack said.

"When we invite people to video conferences, we send them a link and they have a plug-in that they download to [join]," she said. "The [competing] Polycom [desktop video conferencing software] solution at the time was a software install, and we would've had to package that for our clients. Their IT departments never would've let that happen, and it just wasn't as easy or seamless to support that."

A software-based architecture provides "infinite possibilities in terms of portability and flexibility," as opposed to video conferencing systems based on proprietary hardware, Durack said.

"Attorneys who are traveling, even out of the country, are able to join meetings [through desktop video conferencing] from hotel rooms and other locations," Durack said. "Even via wireless connections ...  [they] have high-quality video connections."

Vidyo desktop video conferencing software eliminates need for MCU, third-party bridge

Prior to the firm's Vidyo deployment earlier this year, UC pros struggled to support lawyers who wanted to meet with clients or witnesses via the legacy Polycom system. If clients couldn't come to one of the firm's offices in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., they would have to rent a public video conferencing room, which connected to Vedder Price's Polycom units through a third-party bridging service, InterCall.

Aside from being inconvenient and expensive, passing the traffic through a third-party bridge degraded the audio and video quality, Horvat said. However, the capital and operating expenses of buying high-definition (HD) multipoint conferencing units (MCUs) didn't seem scalable, he said.

Vidyo provides bridging capabilities without the use of an MCU. Instead, participants connect through a server—dubbed VidyoRouter—which feeds the traffic to all participants. Whereas MCUs typically transcode the audio and video feeds to meet the different capabilities of each endpoint, VidyoRouter sends the highest-quality feeds to every client.

However, the server slices those feeds into multiple "layers" of resolution, leaving it up to the client to decide how many layers of resolution to display based on the current network conditions, according to Young-Sae Song, vice president of product marketing at Vidyo. As network conditions improve or worsen, so does the image quality to ensure the best image quality is displayed without interruption, Song said.

On a multipoint call, the server also intelligently allocates varying amounts of bandwidth to the participants, based on network conditions and the dynamics of the call. When an active speaker's display occupies a larger part of the screen, the VidyoRouter will allocate more bandwidth to the active speaker's stream to optimize the resolution of that image, according to a company spokeswoman. Conversely, the server tightens up the bandwidth allocated to the silent participants who appear on the screen as smaller, lower-resolution images—thereby freeing up bandwidth for the active speaker's display. Once a new active speaker takes over, the server reallocates the bandwidth again to optimize the image quality for the new speaker, the spokeswoman said.   

The technique, which Vidyo calls "adaptive video layering," uses H.264 Scalable Video Coding (SVC). Vidyo provides interoperability through its VidyoGateway device for H.264- and H.263-based video conferencing endpoints that use H.323 and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) signaling. Although the desktop video conferencing software is ideal for supporting the firm's internal and external laptop users, Horvat said he has run into no problems connecting attorneys on laptops to external users using Tandberg, Polycom or LifeSize room-based endpoints.

"We've been doing interviews with people [dialing in] from Starbucks, and it's a high-def experience," Horvat said. "We couldn't do that type of stuff with [our legacy] Polycom [equipment]. We'd have to ask the interviewee to go to a public room."

Desktop video conferencing software collaboration tools fall short

Although Durack and Horvat have been pleased with the deployment, they see some room for improvement in Vidyo's native collaboration capabilities.

"All of those [desktop video conferencing] systems have the same problem: They're really good in terms of faces and audio, but when you share a PowerPoint presentation ... a lot of the transitions that you would normally see go very quickly on a laptop—because it's a video session—[experience] a lag," Durack said. "A lot of people have grown used to that ... but technologies like WebEx have made [that experience] better, so I think the bar for expectations has been raised. We just want this to be as seamless as possible."

Durack and Horvat are currently working with their value-added reseller (VAR) and systems integrator to integrate Adobe Connect—the software giant's Web conferencing service—into their Vidyo clients.

"I understand the limitations with this, but I hope [Vidyo engineers] work on their content sharing [capabilities]," Horvat said. "The phrase is what it is—content sharing. It's not really a collaboration tool."

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

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