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Multi-Point Video Conferencing

7 Tips for Using Skype, Webex, Google Chat, or Citrix GotoMeeting

Always check that you are centered on the camera, and make sure your dishes are done before the call.

Web-based “video chat” applications were initially popular with college students looking for a cheap way to call home, or international friends trying to keep in touch. These services are beginning to become more commonplace in conference rooms, higher education, software corporations, and television broadcast studios. Skype, Google, Spirit, and Citrix are all releasing some form of multi-point video conferencing, with up to 10 participants simultaneously chatting and sharing content like spreadsheets. Skype calls it Group Video Calling, and right now, you can try it for free for 10 days. (Don’t you just love free?)

Don’t get me wrong: there is still the need for secure, reliable, robust video conference systems like Polycom, Lifesize, Cisco, and Tandberg (or Cisberg). These server-based solutions will always have their place in government, law, financial institutions, executive boardrooms, or when hundreds of employees need to attend the same video conference meeting. But many smaller companies just can’t afford to invest in a $25,000 video conference cart or $250,000 Telepresence Suite, so the option of paying a low monthly fee for multi-point video conference calls is very appealing.
Before you decide to address your next annual stockholders meeting via Skype, here’s a list of seven things to keep in mind:

  1. All HD cameras are not created equal – There is a reason that the typical video conference camera costs about $3000, and your USB camera costs $50, and its not just the Pan-Tilt-Zoom control. Consumer video cameras (like the one built into your laptop) were made with the cheapest components available, including the lenses. If two cameras are listed as HD 1080p resolution, it does not mean they will produce the same high quality video. To improve your camera’s video quality: sit closer, close the blinds, and turn on all the lights in the room except those directly behind you. If that doesn’t help, consider buying special video conference lighting fixtures for your computer. Please, Santa?
  2. Your laptop sound system is not a PA – Laptop speakers are designed for a person sitting directly in front of them. Considering spending a few bucks and bumping up your audio quality with a wired or wireless computer speaker system. If you can, hire an AV integrator to add ceiling speakers or subwoofers to your conference room, or turn your conference room table into a giant speaker. (It’s cheaper than you think.)
  3. Your microphone was not designed for panel discussions – Most conference rooms have long oval tables. Some conference rooms have flexible furniture with six or eight foot tables arranged in O, U, or V shaped configurations. If you are going to attempt to use Skype, Google Talk, or GotoMeeting in a larger conference room like this, you should consider a tabletop microphone system specifically designed for larger groups. These come in single units, or multiple pods that can be linked together. Some models plug directly into a phone’s headset jack, but if you are going to send the audio through the computer, be sure to get a USB enabled speakerphone. Smaller round tables can benefit from the wireless Revolabs Solo USB. It may be acceptable if a few people are not captured on video, as long as everyone can hear clearly, and be heard.
  4. Bandwidth is critical – Just like the more expensive video conference systems, the quality of the video on these web based video chats is largely dependent on the available bandwidth between the endpoints. If possible, use a wired connection, as they tend to be faster and more reliable than wi-fi. (There are exceptions, of course.)
  5. Your conference room is not an anechoic chamber. The ceiling tiles in your conference room were probably chosen based on their looks or their cost, NOT their acoustic absorption properties. Any microphone in a poor acoustic environment will pick up the bad reflections and reverberations, which makes the conversation more taxing because its tougher to understand. Next time you use a speakerphone in your conference room, ask the far end call participants to rate the audio quality on a scale of 1 to 10. If they say anything less than 9, you should seriously consider upgrading the acoustics in your conference room by adding fabric wrapped fiberglass panels and/or higher quality ceiling tiles. Also, be sure to close the windows and doors before you start any phone call or video conference, as it will greatly reduce the background noise.
  6. Just because it worked this week, does not mean it will work next week. You may have the best Skype video conference call on a given Friday, and then be surprised the following week when you experience poor audio and video quality. The reason is because of bandwidth limitations, network traffic (on either end), and something called Quality of Service (QoS), which is outside of the scope of this article. There are also special video conference border proxies that will help remote users traverse firewalls and make the systems more reliable.
  7. There are many video conference options to consider. Some businesses rent a bridge service for larger multipoint calls. Others use a concierge service to make sure the calls are setup correctly and automatically dialed.   Whatever you do, be sure to test out your system thoroughly before any important calls, and always have a backup plan in case the video conference system suddenly fails. I remember one recent video conference call that suddenly ended, and the table phone would not work, so we quickly resumed the call using a Blackberry set to the “speaker phone” setting.  The meeting continued just fine, until the Blackberry battery ran out. :)
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