Changing Technology of the Huddle Room: Our InfoComm Takeaway

Huddle rooms are nothing new, but in the past few years we’ve worked on a ton of office build-outs with a new emphasis and dedication to these little collaborative work spaces. According to research from Gartner, the proportion of video systems purchased for huddle rooms doubled from 10 percent in 2015 to 20 percent in 2016. This same research predicts a 400 percent growth in group video conferencing usage by 2019 (1).

A quick trek around the InfoComm showroom floor confirmed suppliers are stepping up their game in the world of huddle rooms, and there is a lot of new technology for adding high quality, software-based codec video conferencing features to these rooms.

Audio
For high-end audio installation solutions, many small Digital Signal Processors (DSP) are making their way to the market. Here are some products we’re excited about:

Biamp has a new 4in/4out DSP with a broad selection of audio components, routing options, and signal processing. It can handle the open standard Audio Video Bridging (AVB), or Audinate’s proprietary Dante. Plus, it supports Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) audio codec – Available October 2017.

Shure has an affordable Dante enabled 8in/4out DSP with Acoustic Echo Cancellation (AEC), made to pair with their ceiling array microphone, or two table array microphones. Shure also has a 4in/4out for soft codecs that supports one table array mic, however, this unit does not have AEC built in.

Application of either of these products allows a broader selection of microphones and speakers for installation, and for precisely tuning a room for the best audio performance. This can create a no-compromise professional audio experience in huddle spaces as they become a larger part of the day-to-day work experience.

The Biamp and Shure products operate as standalone DSP deployments. Meanwhile, QSC Audio Products is encouraging integrators to centralize DSP resources and allocate portions of large DSP servers to support several rooms, which may be more cost effective in certain deployments.

For mid-range installations, products like Biamp’s Devio and Sennheiser’s TeamConnect are designed to add quality audio into Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) spaces with minimal fuss by reducing connection requirements to a simple USB cable.

Finally, for quick, simple integrations, products like the Yamaha CS-700 and the Logitech Meetup integrate cameras, speakers, and beamforming mic arrays into a soundbar-like USB device that mounts below the display.

Video
On the video side, Atlona showed their new small presentation switchers for huddle rooms. Crestron and Extron are well established in this space, but Atlona is a new player, bringing an interesting perspective to the fold.

Atlona’s HDVS-300 incorporates a USB hub to allow BYOD equipment shared access to installed webcams and other USB hardware — a feature that’s typically anchored to a fixed PC. It also eliminates the need for a separate USB extender in more conventional builds. Additionally, Atlona’s UHD-SW-510W attempts to remove the need for wires entirely by incorporating AirPlay, Google Cast, and Miracast into one device; this allows wireless display mirroring without the need to install an extra application or driver. The unit is also one of the first – if not the first – to feature a powered USB-C port, which can be used to charge laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

Solutions for huddle rooms should be easy to install and cost effective. As always, Presentation Products is here to help you wade through the changing trends in AV conferencing. Contact a PPI Account Manager to take the conversation about your business’s huddle room implementation and strategy to the next level.

PPI Huddle Room Portfolio Examples
BuzzFeed
Horizon Media
Viacom
Dropbox

Related articles
An Analysis and Comparison of Software-Based Codecs Against the Landscape of Video Conferencing 

 

(1)     Gartner, “The Rise of the Video-enabled Huddle Room in the Digital Workplace,” December 2015

The Advantages of Lamp-Free Projection

Front projection has been a key element of the AV industry for decades. Even in recent years, as flat panel displays have gotten larger and more popular, projection still has still maintained a solid footing in the industry (particularly when seamless images of larger than 90” are necessary). Throughout the years, one aspect of projectors has remained consistent: lamps have always been used to create the light that shines out of the units. A few years ago, however, projectors with solid-state light sources began to hit the market. And what at first was a prohibitively expensive technology in its infancy has recently emerged to become a viable option. As of early 2016, lamp-free projectors are a main focus of almost every projector manufacturer, and solid state projection has emerged alongside the likes of 4K UHD resolution and digital audio as one of AV’s next big things. But is the hype real? Are lamp-free projectors actually worth the price tag? And how does a lamp-free projector even work? Read on for a detailed analysis of solid-state projection.

A basic understanding of projection is necessary in order to realize the differences between traditional and solid-state units. Traditional projectors rely on one or more lamps to create light. This light is then processed to turn it into an image. There are three common styles of light processing: LCD, single-chip DLP, and three-chip DLP. Rather than getting into the specifics of those technologies, we can simplify things by saying that, generally, image quality improves as you go from LCD to 1-chip to 3-chip. Regardless of the type of projector, the final step in the process is for the light to be sent to a lens that enlarges the image and shines it onto the screen.

Lamp-free projectors use the same series of processes, with one large difference: rather than using a lamp to create the light, they use a solid-state source. Specifically, there are four common types of solid-state light sources:

  1. LED: The LED projector has actually been around for a while. Though it has the advantage of a roughly 30,000-hour life cycle, it also has a major brightness limitation. The vast majority of LED projectors are around 1,000 lumens, which is only appropriate for use in a room with all the lights off. A survey from 2015 found that of 232 LED models, over 90% come in at 2,000 lumens or less.
  2. LED/Laser Hybrid: These projectors use a combination of LEDs and a laser diode, which we will describe next. A step up in brightness, these are also typically a step up in price as well. LED/laser hybrid projectors usually come in around 3,000 – 4,000 lumens.
  3. Laser Phosphor: This newer technology is the reason for the recent boom in laser projectors. Laser phosphor projectors use a single blue laser that shines into a phosphor wheel that creates yellow light. The blue light passes through, and the yellow shines into a color wheel that creates red and green. Laser phosphor projectors usually range between 5,000 and 13,000 lumens of brightness, which is an excellent fit for corporate, educational, & other professional use. Laser phosphor projectors are usually either single-chip DLP or three-chip DLP, and are typically rated for 20,000 hours of use.
  4. RGB Laser: Also called direct laser projectors, these models are used when extreme brightness is necessary. This technology uses three individual lasers – one each for red, green, and blue. These models can provide brightness upwards of 20,000 lumens, and typically carry MSRPs well into the six figures.

So, we’ve gotten technical and described what the differences are between the insides of lamp-based and lamp-free projectors. But what are the actual, noticeable differences to projector owners? Indeed, there are many implications that a solid-state light source brings with it, almost all of which are productive. Let’s take a look at the advantages of lamp-free projectors:

  1. Reduced cost of ownership: The number one advantage of a solid-state projector is the fact that you aren’t ever going to have to change a lamp. Most laser phosphor projectors are rated for 20,000 hours of use until they reach 50% brightness. Comparable lamp-based projectors are usually rated for 2,000 – 3,000 hours of use until 50% brightness. We’ll get into a detailed price analysis later, but off the bat it’s evident that throughout its lifespan a solid-state projector will you 9-10 sets of replacement lamps and the labor cost that goes along with changing them. This is a significant savings that in concept can be applied to every single laser phosphor projector.
  2. Higher perceived brightness after day one: Let’s say one boardroom has a lamp-lit projector that has 1,000 hours of use, and a second has a solid-state projector with 1,000 hours of use as well. Boardroom A is halfway to replacement time, meaning the brightness will be at 75% or less of what it was on day one. Boardroom B is only 1/20 of the way to replacement time, meaning its brightness is still 95% of what it was on day one. So while the brightness of lamp-lit projectors will dip significantly below specification before the “change bulb” notification appears, solid-state projectors will output far more consistent brightness levels for years on end. Now, it’s fair to make the argument that the end of a lamp life cycle means a new bulb and the end of a solid-state life cycle means a new projector. The numbers, however, show this to be a relative non-issue: 20,000 hours of use is a very long time, equivalent to 10 years of 40 hours / week use. Most AV technology becomes obsolete in 6-8 years anyway, meaning your projector will probably be replaced for other reasons than end of life due to half brightness.
  3. Rapid on/off: As owners of traditional projectors surely know, these models usually take over one minute to achieve full brightness, and about half that to turn off. Lamp warm up and cool down can cause annoyance and frustration during a busy day. Lamp-free models take about ten seconds to get to full brightness, alleviating this issue almost entirely.
  4. Consistency: In multi-projector applications, such as a wide-aspect ratio image that uses edge blending, consistency is key. Lamp-lit projectors introduce inconsistency through their life cycles, which can lead to images that showcase a number of different brightness levels: lamps can progress at inconsistent rates, they can blow out, etc. The consistency of a solid-state projector helps to alleviate that problem.
  5. No worries: Quite simply, lamp-based projectors can fail. Ask any projector manufacturer: they all have contingency policies for when projectors “go dark.” With solid-state projectors, there is much lower risk of your important meeting or seminar suddenly losing an image: lamps, one major failure point that causes outages, are taken out of the equation.

So far, we’ve shown that solid-state projectors have their advantages over traditional models. We’ve also mentioned that they’re more expensive. Every facet of the AV industry – and all industries, really – provide options that give better quality for a higher cost. The real question is the following: are lamp-free projectors worth the increased price tag?

For starters, we need to say that the projector world is a tough one to navigate when looking at prices. MSRPs on projectors are typically thousands of dollars higher than what the units end up actually going for. So we’ve come up with a metric called “actual value,” which is 70% of the projector’s MSRP. This will give a figure that is pretty close to what the projectors are actually selling for.

To analyze the value, we’ve taken a look at six sets of projectors made by three prominent manufacturers. Each set contains two projectors – one lamp-based, and one solid-state – with nearly identical specifications. All projectors in the comparison feature the same resolution: WUXGA, 1920 x 1200. See the below chart for the difference in price between each model. Please note: all pricing is for example purposes only & may not reflect current market value.   A

So far, it’s clear that – to varying degrees – laser projectors are more expensive than lamp-based projectors. What we’ve done next is evaluate the approximate maintenance cost of lamp-based models. The next chart shows the value of lamps for each lamp-based model, and the number of hours the unit is rated for until it reaches 50% brightness. All the laser projectors in the chart are rated for 20,000 hours. We’re figuring that a typical service call to change a lamp costs $500 – a good value, for sure. So, we’ve divided 20,000 by the number of hours each lamp-based projector is rated for, and then multiplied that by the number of lamps in the unit, the cost of each lamp, and tacked on $500 to each replacement lamp (or set of lamps) to account for labor. This gives us a “total maintenance cost” on the unit over the 20,000 hour span that its solid-state counterpart is rated for. Tack that number onto the cost of the projector itself, and we arrive at “total projector cost.” We can compare this number to the total cost of the solid-state projector.

B

The verdict? In five out of six cases, the total projector cost is lower for the solid-state model – in some cases by over $20,000. In the most extreme case we looked at, the total projector cost of the lamp-based model ended up being 65% more than that of its solid-state counterpart. This is a massive savings, and speaks clearly to the value of solid-state projectors over their lamp-based counterparts.

Furthermore, it’s clear that this technology is becoming more affordable. We’ve also included a release year column in our chart. Half of the projectors we looked at were released in 2014, and the other half in 2015. The average difference in actual value – before maintenance costs – between the 2014-released solid-state projectors and their lamp-based counterparts is 39%. For projectors released in 2015, that number drops to 12%, a huge decrease. It’s evident that the cost of solid-state projectors, thanks primarily to developments in laser phosphor technology, has decreased significantly over the last two years.

C

Based on the data, it’s clear – in almost every case, solid-state projectors using laser phosphor technology will provide better value than their lamp-based equivalents. This means that if you’re looking for a projector between 5,000 and 13,000 lumens, you should be looking for a lamp-free model. That being said, choosing the right projector is a complicated decision, and a good AV designer will take many additional factors into account before arriving on a specification. Contact a PPI Account Manager today to begin the discussion about your next projector.

InFocus JTouch: A Well-Rounded & Affordable Interactive Display

Though perhaps not the most historically ubiquitous name in the interactive display market, InFocus has brought itself to the fore in recent years with the Mondopad, the BigTouch, and our most recent favorite: the JTouch. A well rounded, affordable interactive whiteboard display, the JTouch offers a unique array of features that make it appropriate for both corporate and educational deployments. Here’s what makes it stand out:

Configuration Flexibility: The JTouch’s primary functionality is to act a large, touch screen display for your computer. Connect your Mac or PC to the display via HDMI and USB – the standard connections for this type of functionality – and you’re good to go. The cross-party, Mac/PC compatibility is a plus in the flexibility column – many competitive products can only provide robust touch experiences when connected to a PC. 4 HDMI inputs is also an unusual plus for interactive displays – this allows integrators to connect a variety of sources to the display without bringing in additional switchers. But the most notable feature that the JTouch offers in terms of flexibility is that you don’t have to connect a computer to it to use it. Out of the box, the JTouch offers digital whiteboarding functionality without anything connected to it. This allows the JTouch to be installed without the requirement of a dedicated, in-room PC – and at once, IT support personnel everywhere smile.

Size Flexibility: The JTouch comes in a number of sizes, making it appropriate for huddle rooms, classrooms, and large conference rooms. 40”, 57”, 65”, 70”, and 80” models are all available, which allows integrators to more accurately specify the proper size display for a particular room. With other interactive displays that only come in two or three sizes, you’re often forced to round up or down to the nearest one. This always costs you – either in dollars spent, or in screen size lost.

images

The five different JTouch sizes offered by InFocus

 

Wireless Functionality: JTouch’s newest feature is LightCast, a way of wirelessly sharing content from your device to the JTouch. LightCast uses your device’s native protocol – AirPlay for Apple and Miracast for Android – to wirelessly share content. Not every JTouch model comes with LightCast, but those that do further de-emphasize the need for an in-room PC. The LightCast home screen, with no source connected to it, offers you three options: whiteboard, web browser, or wireless sharing. This is robust functionality for a standalone device.

InFocus -JTOUCH-LIGHTCAST

The LightCast home screen

Price: The most notable JTouch feature of all is its price. Compared to other interactive displays on the market, the JTouch provides extreme affordability. The InFocus page provides detailed pricing on all models, but we put together a table below for a few highlights:

 

Model MSRP
65” JTouch $2,899
65” JTouch with LightCast $3,299
70” JTouch $3,999

 

For comparison’s sake, the MSRP of a 70” Sharp Aquos Board is $7,695, and a 65” SMART Technologies Interactive Display comes in at $8,799. Now, the SMART display comes with advanced whiteboarding software, and the Aquos Board has its own features as well. Additionally, the JTouch isn’t perfect – we’d love to see more advanced whiteboarding features, and for the display to come with a stylus or two. But there’s no denying that the JTouch offers similar functionality to its competition at a significantly lower price point. For users looking for a simple, reliable interactive display without breaking the bank, it’s a great solution. Contact an Account Manager today to talk about your next interactive display.

Planar Unveils Next Generation of 4K Displays

Planar UltraRes

Planar Systems, a leading manufacturer of digital displays, announced last week the next generation of its UltraRes line of displays. These large format displays, which already were capable of supporting 4K ultra high definition (UHD) resolution (3840 x 2160), now boast several new impressive features. For a full list, take a look at Planar’s website. Here’s what’s caught our eye:

  1. A New Size: Previously available in two large sizes – 84” and 98” – Planar has added a third size to the mix: 75”. This size makes this line of displays appropriate for smaller conference rooms, where the 84” or 98” may previously have been prohibitively large or expensive.
  2. Improved 4K Support: As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, all 4K is not created equal. Frame rate, color bit depth, and chroma subsampling all play a big role in 4K image quality. And while the old generation of UltraRes could support 4K at 30Hz, the new generation supports it at 60Hz over a single HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2 cable. This means a smoother image with more frames per second. Color bit depth and chroma subsampling specifications at 4K60 have yet to be released by Planar – we’ll let you know when they are.
  3. Advanced Built in Multi-viewer Options: Built into the display’s processor is an expanded version of something called a multi-viewer, which allows multiple sources to be displayed in various configurations across the single display. Previously, the only multi-source layout available was a 2×2 quad layout. The new generation now supports dual, triple, quad, or picture-in-picture layouts, allowing much greater flexibility of use. Furthermore, these configurations can be controlled and presets recalled from an app on your mobile device. Though it still won’t offer you the same flexibility that a dedicated multi-viewer will, it’s a significant upgrade from the first generation, and one that can save you thousands of dollars.
  4. Compact Mounting System: One unique component of the first generation UltraRes line was its ultra-slim Planar Profile Mounting System. This is a key part of the new series as well. This mounting system is the slimmest in the industry: the total depth, including the display and the mount, clocks in at under 4”. The combination of up to 98” diagonal image size at less than 4” of depth creates a stunning image on a wall.
  5. Touch Screen Support: Like the previous generation, the new models also all come in touch screen versions. With 32 simultaneous touch points, the displays provide a robust and accurate touch screen experience. The touch models are only .5” deeper than the standard versions, making these the thinnest large format touch screen displays on the market.

Planar Multi-viewer Control

Control of UltraRes multi-imaging is easy via a free app for mobile devices

PPI has successfully installed Planar UltraRes displays for clients like VICE Media, Horizon Media, and more. Contact an Account Manager to talk about your company’s 4K implementation strategy today.

New Product Spotlight: Extron SMP 351 Streaming Media Processor

Lecture capture, distance learning, archival, overflow support, switching, multi-window processing… all in one affordable box.

 

Extron SMP 351 Streaming Media Processor

List Price: $4,790 (not including camera, content, or any installation and integration with existing or new AV system)

Lecture capture and distance learning have long been key components of classroom and theater audiovisual systems, but never before have they been available in the same unit. Extron’s streaming media processor changes this, and does it without breaking the bank.

A one rack-unit device, the streaming media processor’s core feature is the ability to record and stream simultaneously. The device can stream at 1080p / 30 frames per second so that students who aren’t in class – whether they’re in the overflow room next door, sick at home,  or in the sister school around the world – can still attend. Concurrently, the device can record (at an identical or independent resolution) 32 hours or more of content to an internal solid state drive, to a USB thumb drive, or to a designated network directory, so that students who aren’t available during class time can access lectures after the fact. The device is also a two input multi-window processor, allowing recording and streaming of a combination of two inputs – typically a camera feed of the teacher and a content feed – in any configuration. A preview output allows the device to connect to a local TV or projector to power your local presentations as well.

The Extron Streaming Media Processor replaces a rack’s worth of gear with one unit from a reliable manufacturer, but it also is not the only option available for extending lectures beyond the confines of the classroom or the auditorium. Contact PPI to talk about your AV system – whether its lecture capture, distance learning, or anything else – today.

POSITIVES NEGATIVES
Simultaneous recording & streaming at variable independent resolutions & bit rates Requires third party content distribution network for widespread access to streams
Can record to internal drive, thumb drive, or network directory Once recorded, files are compressed .MP4, not full color space, professional video files
Built in two input switcher and multi-viewer with up to five input connectors Cannot simultaneously stream one input channel and record the other input channel
List price under $5k – separate recorder, streamer, switcher and multi-viewer can total $10 – $20k or more

PPI Tips- Best Practices for Audio Conference Calls

Audio Conference Calls in an Integrated Room

Call quality is best when attendees on both sides of the call are using integrated audio/visual rooms with built-in audio conferencing technology. If an attendee does not have a conference room built for audio conferencing, a standard desk phone with handset or wired headset will suffice. Cell phones, speakerphones, or a desk/cell phone on speakerphone is never recommended. Call quality is only as strong as its weakest link.
Housekeeping Notes:

Before the Call

Be respectful of everyone’s time.

  • Test call with the far end. Preferably with the room you’ll be dialing for the actual call. If that’s not possible, call someone at his or her desk either at the other end of your call (aka far end), or alternatively, in the office you’re located in.

Prep the Room for the Call

  • Close the windows and the shades.
  • Close the door.
  •  Make sure to set the HVAC so it doesn’t turn on while in a call.
  •  Set the volume to a comfortable listening level for the room.
  •  Dial in and initiate the call at least 5 minutes before the scheduled start time.

During the Call

  • The meeting organizer should introduce all conference members and then list best practices.
  • Use the mute button when you’re not speaking to alleviate unneeded noise on the call.

 Do Not

  • Use the “HOLD” button to avoid having the entire group listen to ON Hold music.
  • Block table microphones with laptops, notepads, sheets of paper, etc.
  • Have side conversations or rustle papers or tap the desk. These sounds will be audible to all attendees on the call.

After the Call

  •  Ensure that you have disconnected from the conference call before discussing the events of the meeting.

Overcoming the Challenges of 4K Resolution

Overcoming the Challenges of 4K Resolution

If you’ve thought about upgrading your video system in the past year, or even just considered buying a new TV, chances are you’ve stumbled across the term “4K resolution.” Previously, 1080p resolution was known as “Full HD,” so the name 4K immediately begs the enticing question: is it really possible to have a resolution four times greater than full HD? The answer is yes – but it isn’t quite so simple. 4K is in its infancy, and there is plenty to wrestle with when considering implementing this resolution into your AV system. Here’s what you need to know.

What is 4K? A Tale of Two Resolutions

Off the bat, 4K is a little trickier to understand than the previous standards of 720p (high definition) and 1080p (full HD). 720p has a pixel count of 1280 x 720, and 1080p is 1920 x 1080. Each resolution has an aspect ratio of 16:9, which is the standard for televisions and most displays. A common aspect ratio makes system designs for AV professionals as well as purchasing decisions for consumers easier – pretty much everything is compatible with everything else. 4K, on the other hand, is the common vernacular for two different resolutions. The first, 4096 x 2160, is the resolution that was adopted by Digital Cinema Initiatives in 2005 as “4K.” This resolution has an aspect ratio of 17:9. More recently, 4K has made its way to the consumer TV market. TV’s version of 4K is a slightly different resolution – 3840 x 2160 – making 4K a bit of a misnomer, technically. This resolution is technically called Ultra HD. UHD simply doubles both the vertical and horizontal pixel count of 1920 x 1080 and thus maintains the standard aspect ratio of 16:9.

Though the fact that the name refers to two different resolutions is confusing, it’s really only something for AV designers to worry about. Professionals like PPI will specify the right equipment to handle whichever version of 4K is right for you, and more likely than not, this is 3840 x 2160. Only in special cases – and in movie theaters – would you want to introduce a 17:9 aspect ratio into your system. Henceforth, when we refer to 4k, we will be referring to 3840 x 2160.

1

Does it Really Make a Difference?

4K is four times the resolution – twice the pixels in height and twice the pixels in width – of 1080p. So what does that actually look like? In many cases, the difference is less stark than you’d think. In order for the human eye to actually notice all those pixels, it needs to be quite close to the screen. See the chart below. Even on a 90” TV, you can only begin to notice the difference of 4K vs. 1080p at around 12 feet away, and you need to be within 6 feet of the screen in order to perceive the full effects of the higher resolution. A 4K display puts a much greater emphasis on a proper screen size specification – otherwise, you quite literally will not see the benefits of your purchase.

The Challenge of 4K: High Bandwidth

4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, which means four times the number of pixels in each frame. Not surprisingly, significant bandwidth is required to accommodate such large amounts of data. Here’s where it gets tricky. There are four factors that affect bandwidth for a video signal: resolution, frame rate, color bit depth, and chroma subsampling. We already know our resolution: 3840 x 2160. 60 frames per second is the frame rate we’ve grown accustomed to today – anything less can start to look choppy. Color bit depth and chroma subsampling are less referenced metrics, but still important: both reference the level of detail and intensity for color and brightness. An optimal 4K video signal would feature a 60 frames per second (fps) frame rate, 10-bit color depth, and 4:4:4 chroma subsampling. This combination would require 22.28 Gbps of bandwidth. Most common HD cables, including HDMI 1.4, HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.1, HD-SDI, and 3G-SDI, cannot accommodate this much bandwidth over a single cable.

So, how do you make it work? Do you reduce your frame rate to 30 fps? Your color depth to 8-bit? Your chroma subsampling to 4:2:2? Or do you use more than one cable? The answer is… bring in an integrator to do this work for you. Even systems as simple as hanging a 4K TV on the wall are easy to mess up. If you’re going to spend the money, make sure you do it right.

Other Challenges

4K presents a change in cable distance requirements as well. Gone are the days of 50-foot HDMI cables – with 4K, any cable run greater than 10-15 feet brings about the possibility of signal loss. Twisted pair signal extenders, already extremely prevalent in the professional video world, become necessary in almost every 4K setup, making the successful “do-it-yourself” solution of hanging a TV and plugging in an HDMI cable all the more rare.

Another obvious challenge was hinted at earlier in this article – 4K is not just one resolution. This is more of a challenge for integrators and manufacturers than for end users, but 4K systems now must manage multiple resolutions. Beyond just the two referred to earlier, “tweener” resolutions like 2048 x 1080 (2K DCI), 2560 x 1600 (Apple’s Retina) and more must be accounted for. Some 4K-compatible products can switch between these resolutions, and some cannot. In either case, it falls on the integrator – whether it be the technician in the field programming the device to the correct setting or the designer in the office specifying the device with the correct resolution – to get it right.

4K Content

So, you’ve decided on a 4K TV as part of your professional AV system. You’ve contracted your integrator, and you’ve got your screen size specified. Great! But what can you actually show on it? On a consumer level, the answer is… as of now, not very much. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video offer select shows in 4K, and YouTube actually has a few 4K videos as well. 4K players, which offer a bit more 4K content than any online service, are becoming more prevalent as well. Other than these options, though, there isn’t much else out there for 4K content as of yet.

What about on a professional level? It’s important to remember that if you want a system that can handle 4K, everything in the chain – from sources, to processors, to displays – must be 4K ready. We know that the TVs are there, and sources, as mentioned above, exist in limited capacity. Processors and infrastructure, thankfully, are now available from companies like Crestron and Extron – switchers, extenders, and many other components necessary for fully featured AV systems now support 4K. So a fully functional professional 4K AV system is possible today. Additionally, 4K video cameras are readily available, so live event systems can be good to go exclusively in 4K today. 4K capture cards are also available for recording and streaming. And of course, if your company creates its own content, having a system that can accommodate a higher resolution is a no brainer.

Still, almost any logically implemented 4K system in today’s world is more focused on being equipped for the future than for the present. The vast majority of 4K content is yet to come – Blu-ray players will be coming soon, and laptops and computers, while not to 4K yet, are already beyond 1080p. Resolutions have evolved over time – in the last ten years, we’ve seen standards shift from 640 x 480 to 720 x 576, from 1024 x 768 to 1280 x 700 and most recently to 1920 x 1080. It’s only logical to expect the standards to continue to shift as they have, and it’s more than evident that 4K is next up.

Moving Forward

So what does all this mean? All this information can be reduced to two simple takeaways.

First – if you’ve implemented a new AV system in the last couple years, don’t upgrade to a 4K system just to have it. In most cases, going from 1080p to 4K shouldn’t be the main reason for the upgrade, because there isn’t enough content to display yet. But, if you were planning on upgrading already, then go for a 4K ready system. Prices are falling rapidly, and more and more 4K content is becoming available by the day. Simply put – why purchase a new system that is already behind the times?

Second – consult an AV integrator like PPI before making any decisions about 4K. Though cost is indeed decreasing, anything 4K-related is still expensive. So if you’re going to do it, do it right. PPI can make sure you do  – contact an Account Manager today.

An Analysis and Comparison of Software-Based Codecs Against the Landscape of Video Conferencing

An Analysis and Comparison of Software-Based Codecs Against the Landscape of Video Conferencing

An Evolving Video World

These days, video collaboration in the workplace isn’t a luxury, a rarity, or a perk. It’s simply expected. An array of evolving phenomena has cemented this reality: the workforce is more globalized than ever; working from home is increasingly common; the necessary technology is more readily available and less expensive than ever; workers are more and more tech-savvy and use video in personal capacities regularly. These trends are confirmed in a 2014 study by Wainhouse Research, a research firm specializing in Unified Communications: now only 54% of employees in small-medium businesses and 56% in mid-large work out of headquarters. Because of these developments, the case for the importance of video collaboration no longer needs to be made: it is now common knowledge. Along with this common knowledge, however, comes a cascade of questions and decisions the answers to which are anything but common knowledge.

Which video provider makes the most sense for which type of business? What are the differences between the various options? What are the differences between hardware-based and software-based systems? Can different systems communicate with one another? What do the various solutions actually cost? These are all extremely important questions that those responsible for the deployment of these systems are asking every day. This article won’t examine them all in detail – a book would be a more appropriate length for that. Plus, hardware-based codecs like the SX80 have been around for a long time and examined in detail already. Rather, the article will give a basic overview of different video solutions and will delve deeper into a newer and increasingly relevant subset of the world of video: software-based codecs.

The Traditional Solution

To establish context, let’s start by taking a quick look at the traditional video solution for businesses: standards-based, H.323 video conferencing hardware codecs. Short for “coder-decoder,” a codec is the video processor behind any video conferencing system. Codecs can be pieces of hardware (hard codecs) or software (soft codecs). Traditional hardware codecs are generally made by one of only a few companies (with Cisco and Polycom at the fore) and live in a rack in a conference room (or an “endpoint”). These processors allow high-definition, point-to-point video calls with any other endpoint following the same standards. The advantages of this type of solution are plentiful: the quality is very high and very reliable; the hardware is purchased in full upfront as opposed to an indefinite monthly fee pricing structure; and you can communicate with any other business that owns a similar endpoint (and many do). So, this solution has made and continues to make sense for conference rooms that communicate primarily with other conference rooms of partner companies. It also makes sense for large organizations in enterprise-wide deployments across many conference rooms (although a significant investment in both hardware and software infrastructure is necessary to support such a deployment – more on that later). When installed inside of a company firewall, these units also offer a high degree of security. Depending on their features, codecs can cost around $10-$20K or more per unit, but for companies using video in a traditional, conference-room-to-conference-room format, they often make a lot of sense.

Traditional, standards-based video conferencing starts to become less cost effective when it is brought outside of the conference room. In order to allow desktop and mobile users to interface with a conference room endpoint or with each other, the same infrastructure investment mentioned above would need to be made. This is typically a six-figure investment – see the section at the bottom of this article for details. Even with such an infrastructure investment, it is expensive and challenging to integrate an H.323 system with Microsoft Lync. and it is not currently possible to integrate with an H.323 system with Skype, Google Hangouts, and other less formal platforms.

A Newer Perspective

Over the last decade, video has permeated the personal, consumer landscape in a big way.  Platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple’s FaceTime have become woven into the fabric of the new millennium. In the last few years, these types of platforms have found themselves relevant in the business world as well. Each one uses a soft codec, meaning no hardware – other than a computer, tablet, or phone – is necessary. The major advantage of a soft codec lies in its price tag, which is usually either inexpensive (made-for-business platforms like Cisco WebEx, Lync, Citrix GoToMeeting), or entirely free (Skype, Hangouts, FaceTime). Some soft codecs now accommodate for multi-point conferencing out of the box, which can be an expensive add-on in hardware-based systems. Enterprise-focused products like WebEx and Lync also provide additional features such as content sharing, annotation, call moderation, and other features designed for training and collaboration. Most soft codecs have apps for tablets and phones as well, making mobile connectivity extremely easy. These advantages make soft codec platforms an extremely common choice for small-to-medium businesses and start-ups, particularly those connecting with users at home, in the field, or on the road.

Soft codecs, however, have a number of disadvantages as well. As anyone who has ever used Skype can likely tell you, it is not always entirely reliable. Loss of quality and dropped calls, particularly for the free services, can be major issues and can reduce productivity. Security is another concern – Skype claims to use encryption, but its security has been called into question a number of times. Due to these reliability and security concerns, soft codec systems are not usually deemed appropriate for formal presentations with sensitive information. Additionally, they are designed for use with a computer or a phone, not a conference room with TVs, mics, and speakers, which means extra integration is necessary in order rely on them in a conference room (see design considerations section below). Soft codecs are usually proprietary, which means unlike the standards-based H.323 family, they cannot communicate with one another. This creates the “walled garden” effect, which sends a company down a narrow path with an increasing reliability on one manufacturer/service and an inability to communicate with any company that does not use the same product. Lastly, a reliance on free soft codecs creates a situation many businesspeople are familiar with: some employees use Skype, some Google Hangouts, some use FaceTime, everyone has all three installed, one has better video, one has better screen-sharing, and some employees use nothing at all.

Soft Codec Comparison

With so many soft codec options out there, it’s tough to know which one, if any, is right for your business. In such a rapidly changing landscape, there are very few places to go for an overall comparison of the popular options. The chart below outlines four of the most popular soft codecs – Skype, Hangouts, Lync, WebEx, and BlueJeans – and how they fare against some of the most important features for video conferencing (see the last section in this article for more details on BlueJeans). A few notes on the chart:

  • Video quality is not just about resolution. It’s hard to quantify based on available information, but the quality of free services tends to struggle adapting to variable available bandwidth.
  • The Lync offering referenced here is Lync Online Plan 2. Lync has three offerings: Lync Server, Lync Online Plan 1, and Lync Online Plan 2. Lync Server is recommended for enterprise-wide deployments: it’s the most robust, feature-rich platform, requiring a dedicated server and a third party partner to integrate it. Online Plan 2 is the more extensive offering of the two online editions, which are both cloud-hosted. See a comparison between the three here.
  • Since Microsoft Lync purchased Skype, an initiative has been ongoing to make them compatible. Video compatibility is not yet there, but according to Microsoft, it will be.
  • These are not the only four options: Adobe Connect, Citrix GoToMeeting, Fuze, and many other software-based codecs are available and widely used.
  • These are also not the only categories worth examining. Read the full specifications and features list of any platform you’re considering.
Skype Google

Hangouts

Lync Online (Plan 2) WebEx BlueJeans
Video quality Up to 720p Up to 720p Up to 1080p Up to 720p Up to 1080p
Multi-point Host-plus-9 (host-plus-4 recommended for best quality) Host-plus-9 Host-plus-5 (up to 250 can still be in the meeting, most recent 5 talkers shown on video) Host-plus-7 Host-plus-9 (up to 100 can still be in the meeting, most recent 9 talkers shown on video)
Mobile Integration Yes (point-to-point only) Yes Yes Yes (point-to-point only) Yes
Data-sharing Document, desktop Desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control Document, application, desktop, remote control, video
Annotation No No Full whiteboarding Annotation over shared documents No
Recording No No Yes Yes Yes, and online storage
Compatible with Standard Phone Lines Yes Yes (must have Google Voice for inbound) Server version only (requires purchase and integration) Yes Yes
Extra Integration Audio, chat, and presence with Lync None Audio, chat, and presence with Skype Video with Cisco hardware systems (requires infrastructure) Compatible with almost every major platform
Pre-Configured Room System No Chromebox SMART, Crestron, and Polycom Lync Room Systems No No (but compatible with pre-configured systems)
Price Free Free $5.50/user/month $24/host license/month (more hosts and larger meetings increase price) Starts at $12,000/year

Bringing It Into The Conference Room

Let’s say your company decides to go with Skype. It’s free, and it works – in many cases, those are reasons enough to go for it. All your desktop and mobile users are set, but how do you communicate with a conference room? Integrating hardware systems into conference rooms has been done for years. Integrating software-based systems, however, is a much newer practice. Let’s take a closer look.

Integrating a software system into a conference room generally means using a computer, rather than a video conferencing unit, as your processor. Thus, USB becomes your primary connection. USB cameras replace HDMI or HD-SDI units. Audio digital signal processors, which are still necessary because of their acoustic echo cancellation, must have a USB terminal. Thankfully, because of the increase in popularity of soft codecs in recent years, many new units available to AV integration companies do feature these accommodations. Your AV integrator can help you down this path.

Soft codecs have also furthered the “bring your own device” – or BYOD – trend that has risen so drastically in the last few years. Many integrators are designing conference rooms featuring laptop inputs at the conference table that allow users to walk in, plug in their laptop, and host a room-based videoconference. “Huddle rooms,” or small, 3-6 person conference rooms, are becoming popular places for room-based soft codec systems as supplements for large conference rooms with hardware. Manufacturers are producing small pre-made systems, including a camera, a microphone, speakers, and a controller, in order to facilitate style this as well – these are fine for smaller, informal rooms, but quickly break down in larger, non-standard, or acoustically challenging spaces.

Manufacturers are also producing larger, pre-made systems that are entirely self-sufficient based around Microsoft Lync. These Lync Room Systems, made by SMART, Crestron, and Polycom, include a touch-screen display (or two displays, depending on the model), a codec (making them technically not soft codec systems, though really this is just a product-specific PC), a camera, microphones, speakers, a control unit, and cabling. These units are ready-to-go from the hardware side, though they still require the IT configuration any Lync deployment would, and are designed to bring Lync to the conference room with little integration required. Such a product-specific offering is a rarity in the AV world, and it highlights the consensus that Microsoft Lync is here to stay.

Alternatives

For all the pros that have been mentioned for both hardware- and software-based codecs in this article, we’ve covered a good number of drawbacks as well. So what if nothing described so far sounds robust enough for your business? Thankfully, there are a few alternatives to committing to solely software-based or hardware-based systems:

Video Conferencing Infrastructure

The video conference infrastructure mentioned earlier in conjunction with hardware-based systems was described as being an expensive, six-figure investment requiring a lot of coordination with the IT department. But what if your business can afford it? In a number of ways, the investment certainly makes sense. According to Fortune, 75% of its top-500 uses Cisco video conferencing with infrastructure. A successfully deployed video conferencing ecosystem with infrastructure can include both conference room endpoints as well as corresponding desktop and mobile software licenses (like Cisco Jabber and Polycom RealPresence), creating a robust solution. Video quality is high, content is secure, interoperability with other standards-based systems is there, and your business has a standard, unified communications platform for video, data sharing, and messaging. Multi-point calls and recording are options as well. The only thing missing is interoperability with proprietary, software-based codecs: as stated before, no matter how successful an infrastructure deployment, your Cisco codec will not be able to talk to someone using Google Hangouts on a computer.

Another option is a hosted version of the same infrastructure. Many companies offer to store and configure all the hardware for you, and will charge a monthly fee rather than an outright purchase. This option offers something different in terms of financing, location, and management, but the hardware, software, and end-user experience are exactly as described above.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Over the last few years, a new type of system has risen to prominence as well. Cloud-hosted services are now available that aim for the “best of both worlds:” H.323 quality video, the collaboration features and convenience of a soft codec, and transcoding – or bridging across platforms. With these services, true “any-to-any” video conferencing, unlike anything mentioned in this article so far, is possible. Users from almost any popular platform, be it hardware-based or software-based,  join a hosted meeting that can bridge them together. In addition to the bridging and 1080p video, these services also offer collaborative features including high-count multipoint calls, data sharing, and recording. All this allows unprecedented collaboration  for small-medium businesses.  For larger companies that have already made the H.323 system investment, it adds functionality and interoperability, greatly increasing return on past investments and furthering video adoption.

BlueJeans is the leading provider of cloud-based video conferencing services. BlueJeans provides bridging between H.323 systems, Hangouts, Lync, and many more popular systems. It also has its own browser-based and mobile video conferencing platform, making it a comprehensive, unified offering. As any product does, it has its challenges – it requires an annual subscription, for one. But with its combination of features and its unparalleled ability to unify the entire landscape of video conferencing, its no wonder that the BlueJeans customer list looks like it does. Read more about BlueJeans in our post here.

Conclusion

The world of video collaboration is changing rapidly. This article provides a solid start, but no decisions like the ones covered today should be made without the help of a professional. Contact a PPI Account Manager to take the conversation about your business’s video solution to the next level today.

Product Evaluation: BlueJeans Network

Product Evaluation: BlueJeans

The Challenge of Successful Video

Building a successful video collaboration environment for your business is not easy. Thanks to a workforce rich with young, tech-savvy workers used to good quality video in the consumer world, expectations are higher than ever. Yet due to a rapidly changing landscape over the past few years, many businesses feature a patchwork of solutions, leading to confusion and inefficiency rather than increased collaboration.

As the person in charge of your company’s video solution, where do you turn? The article in our knowledge base covers a variety of options: hardware-based endpoints offer high quality video but are expensive and still lack key features including mobile and desktop integration; infrastructure-backed hardware systems, while more feature-rich, are extremely expensive and complicated to deploy and manage; and software-based systems are affordable and come with many collaboration features but lack the reliability and security a business situation demands as well as interoperability with other systems.

An ideal video solution, then, would combine the “best of all worlds” mentioned above:

  • High-quality video
  • Collaboration features
  • Mobile & desktop integration
  • Interoperability with other systems
  • Easily deployable & manageable
  • Reliable, secure & professional
  • Cost effective

A Single Solution?

BlueJeans is a video collaboration service that offers multi-party bridging as well as its own software-based conferencing platform. Let’s take a look at how it fares in those seven key categories (and for reference, here’s a link to our matrix comparing other popular software-based solutions):

  1. High-Quality Video: BlueJeans offers 1080p video, which is as high a resolution as is offered by any video conferencing platform today. Hardware solutions from companies like Cisco and Polycom often offer a “high resolution upgrade” to get to 1080p – with BlueJeans, it comes standard.
  2. Collaboration Features: BlueJeans provides many features that enhance efficient collaboration with other users.
    1. Multipoint: 25 users can join a meeting (an upgrade is available to allow up to 100), and the most recent 9 speakers will be shown on the screen. Skype and Hangouts max out at 10 users per meeting, and a even a 10-port multipoint control unit (MCU) from Cisco or Polycom would cost around $50k. The upgrade option provides easy day-two scalability, a rarity in the AV world.
    2. Recording: BlueJeans offers the ability to record meetings and store up to five hours of downloadable, mp4 video in the cloud as part of its basic package. An upgrade provides unlimited storage and other features.
    3. Content sharing: BlueJeans offers the ability to share content, including videos, to the far end of the call in a separate 1080p stream. While content sharing is pretty standard across video collaboration solutions, high definition video sharing is not.
    4. Advanced collaboration: BlueJeans also offers other collaboration features that are generally only seen in products focused more on data conferencing like Webex. These include chat and moderator controls.
  3. Mobile & Desktop Integration: BlueJeans is fully compatible with desktop, tablet, and mobile use. If users have previously-installed desktop or mobile systems, they can simply dial their BlueJeans number and use BlueJeans as a bridge. Or, they can use BlueJeans’ own software, available on browsers and as mobile apps.
  4. Interoperability: BlueJeans rose to popularity as a cloud-based meeting host and bridging service, providing transcoding that enables any platform to talk to any other. This is its number one feature, and it’s the only major service available that allows true “any-to-any” collaboration. H.323 codecs like those made by Polycom and Cisco, consumer-level codecs like Google Hangouts, and many more can all join BlueJeans meetings and communicate with one another (see the full list here). This in itself made BlueJeans an attractive product before many of its other features were deployed. Many businesses have come to feel pigeonholed after choosing a proprietary video conferencing solution; with BlueJeans, your business is free to communicate with virtually any other video platform available.
  5. Easily Deployable & Manageable: Traditional video conferencing systems require a months-long lead time: hardware needs to be ordered, on-site installation needs to be scheduled, technicians need to do the installation, and the system needs to be configured. Since BlueJeans is hosted in the cloud, no hardware purchase or on-site installation is necessary. BlueJeans systems are up and running in days or weeks, not months. Once deployed, they are easily manageable with Command Center, a management platform that comes with BlueJeans. Command Center comes with usage data and historical meeting analysis, so that IT Managers can easily monitor who is using BlueJeans, when, and where. An upgrade is available for more statistics.
  6. Reliable, Secure & Professional: BlueJeans also comes with a branding option, adding your company’s logo to your BlueJeans landing page, email invitations, and to the in-meeting screen. This makes your company look more professional and gives an impressive meeting experience to video participants. BlueJeans also offers a high level of security: participants are required to enter a nine-digit meeting ID number and a meeting password; an “encrypt meeting option” restricts the meetings to endpoints that use encryption; and “lock meeting” and “expel participant” options are available once the meeting has begun. As BlueJeans meetings are cloud-hosted, all meetings are outbound, meaning no participants ever dial in through your company’s firewall. This “dial-out” style routinely meets security standards set by financial institutions and other high profile BlueJeans clients.
  7. Cost Effective: BlueJeans’ pricing structure varies based on the size of the business. BlueJeans is certainly in a higher price bracket than free options like Skype and Hangouts, but is priced competitively with other enterprise focused collaboration platforms like Webex and GoToMeeting, and provides many more features and capabilities than these competitors. BlueJeans’ feature set is simply unrivaled for its price – a six-figure traditional videoconferencing infrastructure investment is necessary to even come close to its wide range of features. BlueJeans is no small investment, but its effect is profound enough for it to often be purchased as an annual capital expenditure. A free two-week trial is available to evaluate BlueJeans.

bluejeans1

Statistics available from BlueJeans Command Center

bluejeans2

A BlueJeans meeting utilizing the recording feature

An Enhancer More Than a Competitor

It’s important to realize that BlueJeans can be utilized in two different ways. Scenario one is a company unhappy with their video solution, or a start-up looking to enter the video world for the first time. In this case, the company can use BlueJeans exclusively, both as a multi-point bridge and as a software platform for conference room, desktop, and mobile use.

The second scenario is a company with an existing video system that works, but that is limited (as many of them are). Perhaps company A uses Skype, but wants to communicate with company B that uses Lync. Company C has five conference rooms with Cisco hardware and wants to have a call with all five at the same time. Company D might have Polycom infrastructure, but even that won’t allow them to talk to Company E who uses WebEx. A BlueJeans subscription solves all of this, allowing companies A-E to talk to each other using all of the features described above.

In this way, BlueJeans is not a strict competitor to the other video conferencing platforms out there: its actually more of an enhancer. BlueJeans can be the catalyst that spurs the strong utilization of existing systems that were previously only being rarely used.

BlueJeans in the Conference Room

Despite being a well-rounded offering, BlueJeans does bring challenges to the table (as virtually everything in this industry does). Whereas pre-configured Room Systems for Lync and ChromeBox systems for Google Hangouts are available, no pre-configured systems for using a Blue Jeans browser client in your conference room exist.

There are two things to consider on this topic. First, BlueJeans works with virtually any video system you may have in your conference room, so any pre-configured room systems, or any custom video conferencing system you may have in your conference room already, are more-than-likely already BlueJeans compatible. Secondly, if your conference room isn’t outfitted for video yet, this allows AV integration firms like PPI to design a custom a system based on your individual conference rooms with BlueJeans usage in mind.

bluejeans3

The Interoperability of BlueJeans

Conclusion

Unlike hardware manufacturers usually do, BlueJeans offers a free trial before any purchase is made. Contact a PPI Account Manager today to discuss your company’s video environment, and to see how BlueJeans fits in.

 

 

A Comparison of Conference Room Microphone Solutions

You Don’t Have to See it To Believe It

When assessing how best to outfit a conference room with technology, some decisions are fairly straightforward. A 90” display is larger than a 70” display, and thus allows viewers further away from the TV to see content. A 6,000 lumens projector is brighter than a 3,000 lumens projector, meaning the lights may not need to be turned off in order to see what’s on the screen. These concepts make sense, regardless of whether or not you have a background in AV.

Not every decision, however, is quite as intuitive. Boardrooms, meeting rooms, and huddle rooms can feature many different styles of microphones to capture in-room audio. Mics can be wired or wireless; table-mounted or ceiling-mounted; large or small; omni-directional or uni-directional (more commonly known as cardioid). And as is the case in the world of audio, you can’t actually see the difference in sound quality between your various choices. So how do you decide which path to choose? There isn’t one magic answer – each room is different and requires individual consideration from a professional. But there is some basic information that anyone considering this type of decision should know. This article will break down the typical conference room microphone choices, and examine the ins and outs of each.

Conference Room Mics

A variety of conference room microphone styles

The Basics

Before getting into the specific styles, it is important to understand why microphones are so often a necessity. Microphones are usually installed in a conference room for one of three scenarios. The first – and most common – is a room with integrated conferencing (either audio teleconferencing, video teleconferencing, or both). Audio teleconferencing is simply a phone call, but with a room full of people on one or both ends of the call. In these situations, the low audio quality and lack of processing provided by a speakerphone won’t cut it. The solution is to install microphones, loudspeakers, and a digital signal processor into the room – the microphones capture the near end of the call, the loudspeakers play the far end, and the DSP processes the signals, provides noise cancellation, and eliminates echo. This type of audio system is also used for video teleconferencing, augmented with a camera and a display.

The second scenario where mics are necessary is in a larger room that is in need of “voice lift.” Voice lift takes the same signal from the microphone, but instead of sending it to the other end of a call, it sends it to in-room loudspeakers, allowing everyone in the large room to hear the person who is talking. The third scenario is a recording system – audio from the mics is captured and sent to a dedicated device that records and saves the files.

Microphone Styles

When evaluating microphone styles, there are four main categories of information to consider: pickup pattern, location of microphone in relation to the person talking, form factor, and wired vs. wireless. Different combinations within these categories can lead to a lot of different possibilities, and indeed, there are many different styles of microphones. It’s fair to wonder: if the simple goal is the best sound quality possible, then why are there so many different variations? Aesthetics, furniture style, cable pathways, and seating plans are some of the many factors that necessitate these varieties, and a good AV designer will consider all of these when choosing microphones. This article will examine four common styles in detail:

  1. Table-Mounted Boundary Button Microphones

The single most important concept to keep in mind with regard to mic choices is a simple one: the closer the microphone is to the person speaking, the better he or she is going to sound to those hearing it. For that reason, the conference table is a natural place to install a microphone. Some have a problem with the aesthetics of a microphone on the table – it’s permanently installed, it takes up space that can be used for laptops, and it obscures the flat surface sometimes used for laying out large sheets of paper. But as far as sound quality for an installed mic goes, it’s usually the best option. The video at the end of this post shows what a table-mounted microphone sounds like.

Table-mounted microphones exist in a variety of form factors, but due to the aesthetic concern and the importance of tabletop real estate, the most common style is the button microphone. A sub-classification of the boundary microphone (or one that is designed to be installed onto a hard surface), the button mic is about as small as it gets, typically at around an inch in diameter. Gooseneck microphones are a very good option too, as they get the mic even closer to the talker, but these usually are ruled out for aesthetic reasons.

Button Mic

Table-mounted boundary button microphone

1A. Omni-Directional

Table-mounted button microphones typically come with one of two different pick up patterns: cardioid or omni-directional. Cardioid mics pick up roughly 120 degrees in front of them (see pickup graph below), and omni mics pick up a full 360 degrees around them. Because of this, microphone counts can double or triple when comparing cardioid to omni-directional. So, off the bat, it sounds like omni-directional mics are the way to go. And indeed, many inexperienced AV designers go down this route – the picture of a conference table with a couple omni-directional mics down the center is something everyone in the AV industry has seen. End users are often quick to bite on this strategy: three mics on the table cost less and take up less space than eight, right?

This strategy, however, can lead to calls with more ambient noise and less intelligibility. Omni-directional mics pick up everything around them, including HVAC noise, whispers, or other ambient noise. Since the goal of an omni-directional mic is to capture 360 degrees of audio, there is little ability to differentiate from the sound you are trying to capture (the talker) and the undesirable room noise. This greatly limits what audio engineers can program the conferencing processor to do – if you turn up the talker, you’re turning up the HVAC noise along with it. According to Polycom, one of the video conferencing industry leaders, while some systems “achieve lower prices using less-expensive ‘omni- directional’ (non-directional) microphones, they also pick up all of the room noise and room echo the entire time, which is extremely distracting and makes it hard to understand what is being said. Such systems should be avoided.”

1B. Cardioid

Cardioid microphones provide something much different. Very little outside of the mic’s coverage area (also outlined in the below graph) is captured, greatly reducing ambient and unintended noise. In turn, each mic is only responsible for one or two seats at the table. This directionality means that the difference between speech and unintended audio – or the “signal to noise ratio” – is much starker than that of an omni-directional mic. A higher signal-to-noise ratio allows programmers to put a “gate,” or a bottom threshold, on the entire system. Only audio that comes in above the threshold is let through, which eliminates most non-speech.

In sum, cardioid mics provide the individualized pick-up areas that allow programmers to fine-tune the system, amplifying speech and cancelling out unintended audio. Omni-directional mics do not allow this flexibility.

Cardiod Pickup Pattern                                         Omni-directional Pickup Pattern

              Cardioid pickup pattern                                                                Omni-directional pickup pattern

  1. Ceiling-Mounted Microphones

So far, we’ve established that cardioid microphones provide better sound quality than omni-directional microphones when mounted on a table. But what if a C-level executive cannot abide by the aesthetics of microphones on the table? What if the table is modular and re-configurable? Or what if the client is an architect who uses the table to lay out large drawing sets that might cover the microphones?

These situations are when AV designers – begrudgingly – turn to ceiling microphones. Ceiling mics occupy otherwise unused space, and newer models are visually less obtrusive as well. But when held against the key philosophy mentioned earlier – the closer the mic to the talker, the better – they don’t fare so well. According to the ClearOne publication Optimal Audio for Conference Rooms, ceiling mics “add unnecessary ambient noise and because they are further away from the participants they may make it more difficult to pick up all audio.” Shure, a highly respected microphone manufacturer, puts it even more blatantly in a bulletin: “Shure feels strongly about not placing microphones in the ceiling.” The comparison video below shows what most ceiling microphones sound like.

Many of the key characteristics of ceiling mics are influenced by the long pickup distances they have to cover. They’re typically cardioid mics, as an omni-directional ceiling mic would pick up far too much unwanted noise. They also often hang down from the ceiling in order to “cheat” twelve inches or so towards the talker. To reduce the amount of microphones necessary, ceiling mics often come as “arrays” – multi-element units that point a variety of cardioid mic elements in different directions, all under the same grille. Three-element microphone arrays are the most common, however there are new products out such as ClearOne’s 24-element Beamforming array that will be major players in ceiling microphone solutions moving forward.

Ceiling Mic

A typical ceiling microphone array

Ceiling microphones aren’t going to sound as good as table microphones. They can, however, get the job done in some situations. The main thing to keep in mind is that, because of the amount of reflections they pick up from around the room, if you do have ceiling mics, you are at the mercy of the acoustics of your space. And indeed, audio industry leader BiAmp lists “considering room acoustics” as its number one “Ceiling Mic Best Practice.” A ceiling mic in a room with a dropped tile ceiling, a carpet, and acoustic tiles might very well sound decent. A ceiling mic in a room with ten-foot ceilings, glass walls, and a wood floor is not going to provide acceptable audio. It will simply pick up too much reflected sound. If ceiling microphones, for one reason or another, are the way you’re going to go – do everything you can to improve the acoustics in your room. Start by adding acoustical tiles to the walls – they are inexpensive, they can be hung artistically, and they will help your sound quality significantly. Dropped ceilings, window curtains, carpets, and any other soft, absorptive surface helps as well.

Room Reflections

Typical sound reflections in a conference room

  1. Wireless Microphones

Every microphone mentioned thus far is a wired microphone. Put simply, wired mics are more reliable than their wireless counterparts. Wired microphones rely on tried-and-true analog cabling, whereas wireless mics transmit their signals as radio waves. Thus, they are subject to interference and the politics of the ever-changing RF spectrum allocation (see the below chart). This is a real issue – according to InfoComm, in 2015, the FCC will put a large portion of the 600 MHz range up for auction. The 600 MHZ range also happens to be where most professional wireless systems reside. This would force users to re-invest entirely in a new system that occupies a different frequency range.

Beyond this, wireless systems are also subject to dropouts, distance limitations, and channel count limitations within a system. All this is to say: the most expensive wireless system out there is almost as good as a regular old mic and cable. Sound quality for wireless mics is less of an issue – they’re typically positioned close to the talker since there is no cabling to worry about – but their reliability and longevity vis-à-vis RF allocation are the main concerns.

US RF Allocations

The US Radio Frequency Allocation Spectrum… It’s Crowded

This does not, however, mean that there aren’t situations where wireless mics make a lot of sense. In many ways, they are an extremely compelling option. Not every conference room is outfitted with AV during construction – many projects in the industry are retrofits and do not offer any opportunity to run cabling. Wireless table mics work extremely well in this scenario, as they can be installed at any time. Trainers often need to walk around the room with both hands free – wireless earworn or lapel mics make sense here. Larger meeting rooms feature question and answer sessions – passing around a wireless handheld mic is a reasonable solution in these cases. Cabling is one of the biggest challenges in an AV installation, and a wireless microphone system takes that worry out of the picture entirely.

The main thing to keep in mind with wireless microphones is this: they require managing. If you’re going to invest in wireless mics (they are also much more expensive than wired ones), make it part of someone’s job description to look after them. These mics either require new alkaline batteries every six or so hours of use, or need to be charged on a stand. Either way, someone needs to closely monitor their usage so that they don’t cut out mid-meeting. Someone should be able to instruct users which way wireless table mics are supposed to face. And someone needs to make sure that the mics don’t get lost or stolen. Anything in the AV world that isn’t permanently installed is going to be less reliable – so if you do go wireless, make it someone’s job to manage the mics.

mic

A multi-channel wireless microphone system

Moving Forward

Microphones aren’t an easy topic – that’s why professionals like PPI’s Account Managers are there to help you through it (and why this blog post is at 1900 words and counting). In all seriousness, it is always wise to be as informed as possible on your decision. Keep what you’ve learned in this article on cardioid table mics, omni-directional table mics, ceiling mics, and wireless mics in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to making an informed decision. Contact an Account Manager today to user your new knowledge and to take the conversation to the next level. Please also check out the video below for a demonstration of what was covered in this post.