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Can Tabletop USB Video Cameras Rescue Today's Small Working Teams?

May 7, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
desktop_webcam_logitech_and_vaddio.jpgWhen we think of USB cameras, we generally think of something clipped to the top of our PC or laptop monitor.  In fact, when we think of USB peripherals in general, we think of the desktop / personal office environment. Perhaps it is time to put aside these preconceptions and see the real potential of USB peripherals. Today's standard PC has significantly more horsepower than the dedicated appliances of even a few years ago, so why not use it in place of those appliances?

This logic applies very directly to standard meeting room videoconferencing systems. It is now possible to build your own video system with a standard PC, a good USB webcam, and your choice of soft-client. It may premature to declare the death of the videoconferencing appliance, after all they continue to produce hundreds of millions in revenue. But the writing is certainly on the wall. The advantages of a software based system (cost, easy upgrades, flexibility, scalability, etc.) are extremely compelling.

One group that stands to gain from this shift are those in small working teams. These two to five person teams may not need the expensive executive boardroom systems capable of accommodating a dozen people. Furthermore, they may not even have access to these high demand rooms. They may have access to standard monitor-top webcams, but several people huddling around a monitor is not the most comfortable meeting experience.

This problem has been referred to as the "Gap" in VC solutions" (see above). These small teams are stuck in the middle. They need something better than the standard webcam experience, but something more affordable and accessible than the standard $10k-$20k room system. Telepresence Options recently spoke with two companies with very different approaches designed to directly meet the needs of these small working groups. Logitech's approach is to start with the standard webcam, and redesign it to accommodate the capability needs of small groups. Vaddio's approach is to start with the standard room system, and redesign it to be within the budget of small groups. One could say that Logitech has a bottom up approach and Vaddio has a top down approach. The result is that these small working teams stuck in the "gap" have two distinct options, and can choose the one best suited for their particular needs.

We first spoke with Eric Kintz (VP and GM of Logitech for Business) about the new Logitech ConferenceCam.  The ConferenceCam is actually more than just a USB webcam, it includes a high quality, full duplex speakerphone. By including audio and video in one device, Logitech has really simplified this process of turning a PC into a VC system.

While the ConferenceCam is client-agnostic, we met over the LifeSize Connections service. During our meeting Eric was able to demonstrate how easily he could control the tilt, pan, and zoom features of the camera via the remote control. The video quality was basically the same as my experience with LifeSize Connections using standard Logitech HD webcams, but the meeting dynamic was much different. Eric was free to move around the room and express himself, rather than being glued to a spot directly in front of his monitor.

logitech_desktop_webcam.jpgThe unit includes a camera extender, which raises the camera to provide better eye contact when the unit is located adjacent to a monitor (as we expect it will be in most deployments). Actually, it creates a somewhat new dynamic in desktop eye contact, which many users may appreciate. The typical monitor-top solution provides correct horizontal eye contact but poor vertical eye contact (the looking at the chin syndrome). A ConferenceCam will provide correct vertical rather than horizontal eye contact (looking slightly to the left or right). Ideally, we would have affordable solutions with perfect eye contact, but since we do need to compromise it is nice to have another option. I think this will work particularly well when the ConferenceCam is set up between two monitors on a standard desktop,

The ConferenceCam is priced at $249.99 which places it slightly above the cost of a traditional high end webcam, but still an order of magnitude cheaper than traditional PTZ videoconferencing cameras. By pricing this in the same ballpark as its monitor-top webcams, Logitech is really making this purchasing choice a no-brainer for small work groups who are already budgeting for webcams.

During our discussion, Eric was very focused on the small team dynamic. According to Eric, "The workplace is rapidly evolving toward smaller and more virtual teams, yet communication tools have not kept pace." As an analyst with the Human Productivity Lab, I can confirm that my enterprise end-user clients are definitely looking to empower their small working teams.  Eric also shared that Logitech is seeing a lot of demand for this type of solution, in particular from the traditional first-adopters of video in the educational and healthcare fields.

vaddio_desktop_webcam.pngRob Sheeley, CEO of Vaddio, was kind enough to give us the scoop on his company's latest offering, the Vaddio ClearVIEW HD-USB. During our meeting, I connected to Rob using Skype over Blue Jeans.  The Vaddio camera is client and service agnostic, the Skype / Blue Jeans dynamic is just one of many possibilities.

Immediately it is very apparent that this is a completely different approach than that taken by Logitech. Rather than redesign the webcam, Vaddio appears to have added USB capability to its acclaimed room system cameras. In other words, the feature rich Vaddio cameras that we have been using with our room systems are now available as USB devices.

This positions the Vaddio solution as a room system replacement. The concept makes perfect sense. During the early days of videoconferencing, software clients weren't as readily available as they are today. Videoconferencing technology was almost completely controlled by a small handful of companies selling complete appliance solutions. Customers couldn't easily build a best of breed solution, combining their favorite cameras with their favorite VC software. We basically had to hope that the vendors developing the VC appliances were also developing decent cameras or partnering with good camera manufacturers. We are now in a position to reverse this dynamic due to the bevy of device agnostic VC software available (Skype, Google+, LifeSize Connections, Vidyo, Jabber, M100, etc.). Rather than picking a VC solution and hoping it comes with a good camera, we can start by getting a good camera and then choosing VC software to support it.

Rob explained that this product was directly due to customer demand. It isn't just a cost savings issue, it is a flexibility issue. Vaddio's customers want to have it all, the power of a fully featured HD camera, with the flexibility of a PC running any software they desire. When a Vaddio camera is paired to a traditional videoconferencing system, it is pretty much going to be used for videoconferencing. Pairing a Vaddio camera to a PC opens up many more options.  For example, it is possible to create lecture recordings and streamed content using videoconferencing systems, but PC based recording and streaming solutions can often be more affordable and easier to work with. Furthermore, a VC application running on a PC can be paired with countless other applications, such as the latest collaboration tools which small teams are using to increase efficiency. 

vaddio_desktop_conferencing.jpgVaddio also offers its EasyTALK USB audio components (samples above). The combination of broadcast quality USB audio and broadcast quality USB video, along with a standard PC and a soft-client, provides the recipe for a full featured meeting room system at a fraction of the cost.

I should note that the Vaddio USB camera isn't cheap (expected street cost will be just under $4k). Adding USB capability doesn't diminish the fact that this is a high end camera. The cost savings aren't in the camera itself, but in replacing an expensive dedicated video codec appliance with a generic PC or laptop. This isn't intended to be an upgrade for the webcam experience, this is intended to be a replacement for traditional room systems. Ideally it would be mounted on a cart, or on a wall shelf over or under a monitor, just as one would set up an appliance based VC solution. The end result is an enterprise quality VC meeting room experience for about $4k - $6k rather than $10k - $20k.

Vaddio's peripherals are also noteworthy for their use of universal audio and video drivers. This makes the devices truly plug and play, with no drivers required for any applications. The result is an extremely easy to install and configure videoconferencing solution.

I believe these types of solution will gain more acceptance as more people realize that dedicated appliances are no longer presumptively more powerful and capable than PC based solutions. As Rob pointed out, the best audio and video in the world is processed on PCs. Specifically, the world's best movies are edited on PCs (or Macs, makes no difference to Vaddio). When one considers that Pixar made Toy Story in 1995 using the computers of that era, it seems rather silly to think that today we would still need a dedicated appliance to handle a videoconferencing application.

The bottom line is that small working teams now have some videoconferencing options that are specifically designed for their needs. Teams working on a webcam budget, but wanting a better experience, may find that the Logitech ConferenceCam is just what they were looking for. While teams looking for the full enterprise class meeting room experience without the full enterprise class cost can use a Vaddio ClearVIEW USB cam to build their own room system. Either way, your organization can now close the gap and provide an appropriate solution for its small working teams.

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