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Help me conceive / design / implement a videoconferencing solution for a medium-sized business with three offices.
June 3, 2008 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Help me conceive / design / implement a videoconferencing solution for a medium-sized business with three offices. Our requirements are numerous and may need to be reined in based on budgetary constraints...

Our offices are connected via 54Mbps LSS circuits. Our primary requirement is that the offices be able to conference with each other from their respective board / conference rooms. Our main office board room table is 20" x 4" and this is where most of the big meetings take place, so it'll probably need the best wide-angle PTZ camera out of the three, and decent sound pickup.

We also have a relatively large, open waiting area where meetings take place, and want to be able to use videoconferencing for these meetings so that our staff don't have to travel so much.

These larger staff meetings involve lots of back-and-forth discussion so we're debating how best to address the A/V needs here -- wire the room for sound, use a good condenser mic from the center of the room, pass around a dynamic microphone as people talk, etc.

Oh, and we want to be able to record these meetings for future reference, and want to be able to log in and witness these videoconferences through a web browser. Sure would be nice if you could *participate* in the conferences via web browser, but that's probably pushing it; we want anyone to be able to see what's going on but aren't interested in ensuring that every workstation has a camera installed.

Our current budget is sub-10K and I don't think that's realistic when looking at some of the tightly-bundled setups a la Polycom. I'm debating how far to go with a piecemeal solution; I have some audio experience and would love to get my hands dirty, but do not want something that is cobbled together, requiring my intervention at every turn to keep it running smoothly. I am more of a software guy and I love to write code more than anything else, so if that factors into how slick this could be (Sharepoint?) I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Someone suggested that I might be able to use this rig which has a decent DVR, but this is clearly a security-only solution and does not include sound functionality. I think I've successfully convinced them that trying to use such a contraption would be quite difficult and would involve MUXing and would be like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

This seems to be a pretty big undertaking, eh? "Call a consultant" is certainly a passable answer but I'm hoping to tap into some past experience and make this a great resource for other souls like myself who are tasked with bringing a medium-sized business into the wonderful world of videoconferencing without shelling out crazy cash.
posted by aydeejones to Technology (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I have done some extensive video conferencing system design and deployment. I'm afraid that you can't do what you want (at least not well) for $10,000.

Tandberg makes very high quality "integrated" units (these are the ones I purchased). These include both a very nice wide-angle PTZ camera, 2 microphones (condenser types that sit on the table), as well as integrated codecs and software to support things like an on-screen phone book). The systems also support screen sharing with a simple xVGA(?) input in the back. This way you can push your powerpoint (or any application) across to the remote site without any more trouble than hooking up to a local projector. It's not trouble-free of course, but neither is hooking up to a projector.

But I think they go for something around $10k each. And that does not include projectors or TVs on which to show the sites. These will connect up to 4 sites (over video), but when you do so, you should be aware of what the screens will look like. The general config is to have 2 screens, one which shows local and one which shows the remote site(s). When you have 2 remote sites, as in your case, I believe the system is smart enough to switch based on which remote site is currently talking. This setting can be over ridden by manually switching to the other site (and there is probably a setting -- I don't recall 100% -- that you leave the switching up to the remote sites and not do so automatically). If, as you say, there's a lot of back and forth, having the system switch may be too slow. The audio will come through fine (in my experience) but the video can get "behind." The tandberg remotes also allow the remote sites to control the panning and zooming of the remote camera (of whichever site they are looking at). This becomes very natural and users can just point the remote at the screen and start moving it around, to, say, zoom in on the speaker.

2 important tips that you might not have thought of yet:

1. AUDIO ALWAYS TRUMPS VIDEO. Having herky jerky pixelated video is bad. Having herky jerky hiccupy audio is a dealbreaker.

2. GOOD VIDEO REQUIRES GOOD LIGHTING. I don't know how your "big entryway" spaces are laid out and lit. But having good ceiling lights and also wall (or floor) lighting are key for getting good-looking video. Wall sconces are good. Aim-able lights (track lights or cans or ???) can also work if you can get some good light to reflect off the wall.
posted by zpousman at 8:25 AM on June 3, 2008


I have some audio experience and would love to get my hands dirty, but do not want something that is cobbled together, requiring my intervention at every turn to keep it running smoothly. I am more of a software guy and I love to write code more than anything else, so if that factors into how slick this could be (Sharepoint?) I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Then you don't want to be doing this with a sub-$10k budget. I'm sure you can throw together a DIY project for under $10k, but it'd be messy and have so-so QOS. I'd really recommend holding off for prices to come down in a couple years or try to get a larger budget. At a minimum you're looking at $10k a site, and that's assuming you have the network infrastructure in place and a projector/plasma hanging around.

After that, you can probably set it up to record to whatever format and throw it on a Sharepoint/Drupal site pretty easily. I bet you can even have it show up as a flash video. At the very least, it is trivial to have a webcast setup. It takes like 15 minutes to setup Windows Media Services and have it pump out a streaming WMV.
posted by geoff. at 9:40 AM on June 3, 2008


Have you looked at a hosted Adobe Connect solution? For a small number of users, I think that would be well under $10K. All you'd need on your end is computers with Flash Player and decent recording hardware.
posted by me & my monkey at 10:07 AM on June 3, 2008


Great advice so far; I was pretty certain our requirements+budget were unrealistic but we'll keep investigating. I've been asked to check out www.lifesize.com as well...one of our board members is very hyped up on the HD aspect and there's a good chance he'll poo-poo anything that doesn't look brilliant, though I'll be certain to emphasize the significance of audio over video.

As for our network infrastructure, we're running the 54Mbps link between offices, considering a higher-speed QMOE link from Qwest. We have an Avaya IP phone system and as a result have decent QOS features on our [Cisco] routers and [Enterasys] switches. I know Avaya is a lead to pursue, though it appears they partner with Polycom and offer mega-buck solutions. I'll certainly check them out further beyond that initial impression.

I'll be watching this thread closely of course; haven't marked any best answers 'cause I'm really looking for some volume in responses, though that ship has probably sailed. I will definitely mark the best answers once I'm content that I wouldn't be discouraging any further suggestions :)
posted by aydeejones at 6:53 AM on June 4, 2008


I'll just come back for a quicky note: your internet provisioning is fine. You probably won't need to run QOS on the routers, if you're only doing a few sites, but you can always turn it on if you have trouble. The usual videoconferencing packets are UDP anyway (they get streamed and if you lose a few, who cares, there's a million more behind 'em) versus TCP/IP packets, which you need all of, even if it takes a while (an email just isn't as good without all the packets eventually arriving).

So you're set for bandwidth. Now all you need is the front end gear...
posted by zpousman at 11:29 AM on July 2, 2008


Anyone have any experience with LifeSize? I'll be checkin' them out as one of our docs has asked me to; they're big on "HD over 1mbps..." We'll see if that's similar to Comcast's approach to HD: two million screamin' pixels, but compressed to the point where it'd look ideal on a screen smaller than 5".

I'll also check out Adobe Connect.

So far I know that if we implement something entirely in-house it'll either:

1) cost way beyond what we've budgeted for, in which case we might start with a small piece and budget for more later

2) require us to pare down our requirements

or

3) be a sucky duct-tape-esque solution that requires our support and intervention at nearly every turn. I know we can pull THAT off for far less than $10K.
posted by aydeejones at 3:21 PM on July 7, 2008


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