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Polycom Reinvents the Microsoft RoundTable 360 Degree Videoconferencing Camera
Polycom has just announced the pending release of a new 360 degree videoconferencing solution. Many in the industry will immediately recognize this as the next generation of the old Microsoft RoundTable. The RoundTable was a very interesting and unique product that never really went viral, for several reasons which I will explain below. Let's take a quick look at the CX5500 and see how Polycom worked to address the weaknesses of the Roundtable.
The unit is designed to sit in the center of a conference table and provide the remote participant with a usable view of everyone sitting at the table (see above). The pod at the top of the CX5500 contains 5 individual cameras, capturing a complete 360 degree view of everything around the pod. The 5 views are then combined into a panoramic image, which is embedded into the MS Lync client. Lync will also show a focused view of the current speaker.
There are some benefits to this configuration. From the IT perspective, it can be deployed easily in any small to medium huddle room. Hanging a camera on a wall in a location, and at an angle, to cover everyone at the table in an oddly shaped meeting room can be tricky. The CX5500 just sits on the table, which makes it essentially as easy to deploy as a standard Polycom speakerphone.
Clearly, there will be no bi-directional eye contact experience. When people look up at the screen to talk to the remote participant, the camera is going to be capturing the sides of their faces. At best, people in the room may appear to give near eye-contact if they are looking across the table at other local participants. Obviously, as with any video solution, participants can always fake good eye contact by looking at the camera, but that is not really a natural meeting experience.
The original RoundTable was a Microsoft product, which was designed for MS OCS and was made by the Microsoft Hardware Group. In 2009 Polycom licensed the distribution rights and it was rebranded as the Polycom CX5000, but the product was otherwise unchanged. Users seemed to like the concept but felt the performance could be stronger. The product, at least initially, also appeared to rely on the adoption of OCS to help drive its sales, which failed to meet expectations.
This next generation appears to address the key issues of its predecessor. The most significant change is the replacement of the entire speaker/microphone base of the unit with a Polycom "Starfish" speakerphone. The incredibly popular phone (millions sold) provides the quality audio that is expected, and required, for a premium meeting room collaboration solution. They appear to have replaced the video components with Polycom technology as well, and the solution now supports up to 1080p30. It is also worth noting that the solution is now integrated with Lync, which has much better prospects than its predecessor, OCS. In other words, the fact that it supports Lync is a benefit, not a limitation.
Final Thoughts: Polycom is wise to continue with their heavy focus on Lync integration throughout their product line. Lync has by no means won the UC wars yet, but it is a heavy favorite as its inclusion within Office 365 will guarantee distribution, if not adoption. As far as this concept in particular is concerned, the concept of building upon their winning speakerphone platform by adding integrated video is undeniably attractive. Whether the eye contact issues, and just the uniqueness of the solution, will inhibit uptake remains to be seen.
About the Author
David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate publisher at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.
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