Unified Communications is not a specific technology. The term refers to using technology to take separate elements and make them function better together. In the conference room, for example, video, audio, and data are present. Making those components work well together is Unified Communications in the simplest term. At Biamp, we approach Unified Communications from an audio background, which is uncommon in our field.
In classic sci-fi films like Blade Runner, all phones are videophones. The prevailing thought was that by 2010, every call would be a video call (and flying cars would dot the skies). What they didn’t realize was that video alone has limited utility. It’s great for entertainment, but when you’re talking to somebody – particularly if you have already met that person – the simple ability to see him or her does not add much to the conversation. As a result, many video companies have moved into Unified Communications, meaning that they realized video had to be part of a platform like WebEx or Microsoft Lync that also allows document sharing, whiteboarding, and muting or unmuting participants. Audio is the foundation of all real-time communications; data and video are fundamentally dependent on the audio quality.
The current market is full of companies with a video conferencing background that are making the transition to Unified Communications. As a pro audio company, Biamp approaches Unified Communications from a minority standpoint. We recognize that if the audio isn’t top-notch, people’s perception of video, data, as well as the overall room, declines. They actually rate the room lower – everything in the room – if the audio is bad. From that perspective, having the highest quality audio is imperative. High-quality audio has two basic components: output and input. Output refers primarily to speakers. Though Biamp does not produce the speakers, we provide the signal that goes to the speakers, which determines much of the quality. That signal has to interact with any microphones that are in the room, requiring echo cancellation (DSP is what we use) to make that system function properly. From that perspective, we begin with output and then we layer elements like data and video on top of it to provide a good foundation.
Our other area of focus is the huddle room space for Unified Communications. When Unified Communications began, it started with primarily Microsoft introducing the OCS server, which was the forerunner of Lync, circa 2007 or 2008. This server worked quite well on the desktop, and introduced the ability pull up a person’s presence to see if he or she is in the office or in a meeting or mobile, and then to be able to click on the person’s picture and chat with or call him or her through Lync. That concept worked well on the desktop, but was less effective in huddle room spaces because those are all individual actions.
As a result, Microsoft refocused on enterprise-wide availability, including the group spaces. However, every model had to go through partners that are traditional group AV vendors. These partnerships had limits, because the involved parties were approaching it from opposite directions. The vendors were looking at these spaces as small conference rooms, and still wanted all the traditional conference room functionality included. This means the room is always “on,” and has its own instance of Lync with a unique identity such as “Room Three” that appears on the company’s contact list. The room would also have hard codecs, meaning the instance of Lync is operated through a hard video or audio codec that runs everything onto the LAN and provides all of the audio and video. This system did not meet expectations because it required two separate layers of infrastructure within an organization.
Instead of viewing spaces of this size as small conference rooms, we look at look at them fundamentally as large desktops, particularly for a huddle room – loosely defined as a space that accommodates six people or fewer. These rooms are not designed for presentations, but for collaboration. While one person may have called the meeting and may be in charge, all attendees will be collaborating and providing feedback.
Before huddle rooms, there was a phenomenon in which people in the same office would all call in to a bridge from the desk due to conference rooms’ unfavorable functionality. Because people had the functionality at their desks that they were both used to and able to access in the same way, nobody would go to the conference room.
By making a huddle room or a small conference room into a large desktop, our idea is that participants are able to do the exact same activities, in the same way, that they can do at their desks, but in a single collaborative space. The room actually enables you to use the same technology that’s present at your desk. Let’s say you have a $400 headset, so you have excellent audio for yourself. Huddle rooms should provide that same audio quality for multiple people. If you have two monitors at your desk and are able to play the video on one and have the whiteboarding on another, huddle rooms should allow you to do that in a collaborative space with larger monitors.
Fundamentally, we’re coming at the space from a different perspective. Not only is it from audio, it’s from the idea of enabling the collaborative desktop and pushing that functionality throughout the enterprise. That’s Unified Communications.