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StarLeaf Looks to Replace Voice-Centric PBXs With Their Video Centric Model

July 14, 2011 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
There was a lot of buzz around the StarLeaf booth at InfoComm 2011 in Orlando. The StarLeaf team, which can list the Codian MCU among its past successes, emerged from stealth mode right before the show and gave the world their first look at their new paradigm for integrating video into enterprise communications. Those of us who had a chance to demo the solution at InfoComm were not disappointed.

Starleaf Exhibit at InfoComm

 The key elements of the StarLeaf solution are as follows:

  • Single solution for voice and video at the desktop and in meeting rooms
  • One platform "purpose built" for call control and management 
  • No "Rip and Replace" of existing voice or video 
  • Common dial plan for voice and video
  • Complete simplicity via a desktop smart phone interface

The solution's core is a "Telepresence PBX" which provides the functionally of both an enterprise VoIP PBX and videoconferencing infrastructure.  The StarLeaf solution leverages all of the administrative and usability advantages of a VoIP PBX in a videoconferencing environment. 
StarLeaf - System Architecture

The solution also includes standards compliant StarLeaf voice and video endpoints.  A border controller rounds out the offering by providing firewall traversal.

StarLeaf Telepresence PBX 6000

By combining video conferencing infrastructure and voice PBX functionality in one device, the StarLeaf Telepresence PBX offers low cost of ownership by eliminating the need for multiple and disparate voice and video conferencing equipment.

In addition, administrators will appreciate being able to deploy and manage both voice and video communication devices within one cohesive solution. The StarLeaf Telepresence PBX was designed from the ground to support video and voice call management, unlike competing solutions, which may integrate separate voice and video hubs and then bolt on management software.

The StarLeaf Telepresence PBX features a universal dialing plan so that each user's standard telephone number is used for both voice and video calls. The system also offers standard PBX features such as call forwarding, voice mail, dial plans, presence status, administrative call control, central reporting, error alarms, etc. The solution works seamlessly with existing installed voice PBXs, so customers can avoid "rip and replace" deployments. The StarLeaf Telepresence PBX interoperates with standards-based H.323 and SIP videoconferencing systems, allowing calls between StarLeaf endpoints and most currently deployed traditional video conferencing systems.

The StarLeaf Phone

The StarLeaf Phone is designed to be the only interface needed to make both voice and video calls. A telephone interface inarguably has an ease of use / familiarity advantage over competing videoconferencing systems that offer remote controls or web-based user interfaces.

The phone itself supports wideband audio and has 
a 7" touch screen. The touch screen is used to create and manage multiparty conferences, access corporate directories, manage contacts, access video and voice mail, etc. StarLeaf is especially proud of the smart phone's interface, and with good reason. It has the responsiveness and clean workflow expected out of today's top tier tablets and offers a zero-learning curve user experience. During the demonstration, the StarLeaf team didn't have to actually show us how to use the system. Instead, we simply were able to use the interface to make calls ourselves and activate various functions (create conferences, transfer calls, etc.) with no instruction whatsoever.

StarLeaf Personal and Group Telepresence

At first glance, a StarLeaf personal videoconferencing endpoint appears to be a standard executive videoconferencing system, essentially a high definition monitor with an embedded codec and attached camera. The key differentiator is that the interface for the StarLeaf endpoint is an attached StarLeaf Phone, providing the usability benefits described above. Another way of looking at it is that users can upgrade their StarLeaf Phone to a StarLeaf Personal Telepresence system by simply plugging the monitor into the StarLeaf Phone with no additional configuration required.

StarLeaf Personal Telepresence

The monitor can also function as a PC screen, which obviously allows for a smaller desktop footprint than a two monitor (one for video, one for PC) setup. More importantly, it makes it extremely easy for users to share content. Unlike competing systems which require connecting a laptop to a videoconferencing system via a DVI or VGA cable, the StarLeaf monitor is already functioning as the user's PC. With the push of a button on the StarLeaf Phone, the user can share that content with remote participants.

During our demonstration, we were able to use the StarLeaf Phone's UI to move easily between the following functions on the StarLeaf Personal Telepresence solution: 

  • Phone calls
  • Video calls
  • Working on a PC
  • Content Sharing
 StarLeaf Group Telepresence

StarLeaf's group solution consists of an external codec which also uses the StarLeaf Phone as its primary interface. The codec has numerous AV inputs/outputs including connections for a camera, two screens and three microphones making it well suited for meeting rooms and larger workspaces.

Both the personal and group systems can send main video up to 720p30 and receive up to 720p60. They can also send and receive content up to 1080p. We were particularly pleased to learn that the StarLeaf video systems use H.264 SVC to connect to the Telepresence PBX for error resiliency.   

Thoughts and Analysis

Mass adoption of enterprise videoconferencing has eluded the industry for decades. For many years, the call quality provided by videoconferencing was simply not adequate to support mass adoption. As a result, the industry has historically focused on improving call quality by offering higher resolution support, larger screens, better motion handling, etc.

However, it may be time to shift that focus as the quality offered by today's videoconferencing solutions is arguably above the threshold required for mass adoption. In other words, people aren't failing to use videoconferencing because they think 720p resolution isn't sufficient.  When laymen experience videoconferencing on today's top systems, they are generally pleased and even impressed by the experience. However, workers are still choosing to use the telephone over video. This means there must be other factors at play such as ease of use, interoperability, user interface, etc.

StarLeaf is clearly planting their flag in the sands of addressing these adoption hurdles. Rather than simply creating a system with a higher pixel count than competitors, they have directed their development cycles into system usability and manageability features. It will be very interesting to compare usage rates of systems in StarLeaf environments to those within competitive deployments.

The video endpoints are expected to be priced competitively when compared to similar executive systems, and the phones will likely come in at around $1,000 per seat. Companies with existing telephony and videoconferencing environments may be reluctant to scrap their investments to shift to a new platform, but the StarLeaf solution does offer a seamless transition, and can even be used concurrently with existing systems. In any case, the solution should be particularly attractive to Greenfield environments.

Currently, the solution is not designed for multitenant use, which would make it more attractive to managed service providers who could host the PBX at their VNOC and deploy endpoints at client locations. This would potentially make StarLeaf more interesting to organizations seeking small communications deployments. When we raised this issue with the StarLeaf team they noted that we were not the first to ask the question, and it is certainly something they are considering.
Despite these concerns, there is a lot to like about the StarLeaf solution. We have long thought that a potential turning point in videoconferencing adoption will be the day people can initiate video calls with their telephone by dialing standard telephone numbers. We will be following StarLeaf closely to see if their solution will hit this high note with consumers.

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