Seeking recommendations and experience with video conferencing equipment and operations
March 24, 2010 10:22 AM   Subscribe

work question filter: Seeking recommendations and experience with video conferencing equipment and operations

We've had our current video conferencing system for 3 years, and everyone hates it because it doesn't "work properly" which is to say it's not user friendly or intuitive at all. Nearly every call begins with 10 minutes of frustration with something muted, something very noisy, or an inability to get the cameras to work right. It's the office joke, and not in a good way.

We want it to do one thing well: allow users who are not super tech savvy to place calls between offices and have it just work. We're starting to realize that even if every call begins with a pre-meeting set-up by IT or office managers, we might not ever make the thing be user friendly.

We have 3 offices using Polycom VSX 8000 systems and and 6 remote users who call in with a Polycom PVX v8.0 PC Conferencing Application for a single user w/camera. The whole system runs on dedicated T1s between 3 of the offices- and the remote users call in (successfully or not depending on the tech savvy and tenacity of the user).

I have 2 questions for the hive mind:

1. Do you have a system you are happy with? If so, what is it? Do you use T1s or a conference bridge? If you have a system you hate, lets hear about that too.

2. How does video conferencing work, operationally, at your office? Is each call set up in advance by an admin, or are all staff trained on how to use it? Is it run through IT or through office management or something in between? We're exploring the idea that if there is not a technological solution, there might be a work force one.

Thanks in advance!
posted by paddingtonb to Technology (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Some years ago, I ran one side of a video teleconferencing system, using international ISDN circuits, in bonded pairs of up to 6 circuits (depending on video quality needed), between a U.S. office (my side), and various German parent company offices, using pre-HD Sony video conferencing equipment. The actual call placement and video link up was usually a matter of a couple minutes, as the systems on both side of the call went through their channel bonding protocols, and set their video compression quality for the number of ISDN circuits available/desired (depended on cost/per minute the calling parties wanted to spend for international ISDN); if you have dedicated T1 circuits between offices, your link establishment ought to be nearly instantaneous.

We generally used a central, omni-directional desk mike for small groups, sitting at one end of a long conference table, with the camera on fixed focus from the other end, zoomed to fill the frame. Monitors were set to the sides of the conference table, facing the meeting participants. That gave a decent, semi-circular appearance to each "side" of the imaginary common conference table for small groups of up to 6 or 8 persons, max, and was a relatively good day-to-day informal conference solution for small groups doing regular status, and product meetings.

But, for meetings with many more participants, and particularly where common audio/video or computer presentations were desired, we found that such an easy, informal "set up and go" style of video conferencing wasn't sufficient for the purposes, and that we generally needed to have a full-time camera operator, and a meeting moderator/producer at each participating office, as well as additional lighting, and additional international data circuits/data or Web servers, and data monitors at every participating office, for large group or display presentation type meetings. The ability to zoom and pan to individual faces in a large group was necessary to make emotions and speech clear to all, and was beyond the self-operation of most senior executives or meeting participants that wanted to concentrate on their content. In a similar way, the presence of a moderator/producer who could hear voices in a room, and on the outgoing feeds, and pass along portable microphones, or introduce speakers and bring them to a podium, was key to keeping the flow of large meetings sensible and intelligible to all. The responsibilities of the moderator/producer also included live captioning speakers with their names and titles, for the benefit of all.

Finally, in our largest international video conferencing experiments, we also ran into the issue of providing live translation feeds between sites, for those who needed language translation services. But, that might be beyond the scope of your requirements.
posted by paulsc at 11:45 AM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Paulsc. I can't imagine my superiors going for that, but at least this gives me fodder for the "you might be asking the impossible" line.
posted by paddingtonb at 3:26 PM on March 24, 2010

FWIW, we tried training some of our own administrative personnel as camera operators and video meeting moderators/producers, but they never got particularly comfortable, or good at either job. In the end, for the 2 or 3 big video conference meetings we had each year, it was easier and better to hire some temps, for a couple of days per meeting, from a local industrial video and film operation to do the job "right." They also supplied the back channel intercom setup for coordination between camera operator and producer, as well as additional lighting equipment, and some of the additional audio/visual equipment those particular meetings needed. Overall, a much cheaper, more professional solution, when we needed it, than trying to do it all ourselves, when it was clearly not our mainline business.
posted by paulsc at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2010

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