AV and UC – an uneasy alliance

Mike Halliday, AV and Multimedia Director at Cordless gives a candid account of what’s going on in the Audio Visual and Unified Communications arena and the impact that this is having on the workplace. Whilst interoperability for Video Conferencing is becoming a luxury, not a standard, the user experience is becoming defined by the Unified Communications platform selection – leaving customers at the mercy of vendor-led change. Mike spills the beans on the interoperability challenges of some of the latest tech on the market and what this means for our future workplace tech strategies…

As an Audio Visual Consultant, I have the privilege of working on some fantastic projects that vary massively in scale, sector, and overall requirements. In the corporate market, where businesses look to relocate to new premises or refurbish an existing site, these projects provide an opportunity to refresh their technology solutions.

What workplace trends are we seeing?

Technology continues to develop at a frantic pace, and businesses are keen to ensure that any investment lasts as long as possible, though for many it is recognised that some technology (particularly AV) won’t last the life cycle of the building, and in a large number of cases won’t last even half way through their proposed occupancy. Future proofing based on a knowledge of road-mapped solutions and technological trends, as well as ensuring a good baseline for the initial install, is therefore, essential.

Workplace strategies are also evolving. Whilst some form of Agile working is now commonplace as a general strategy, it is quite clear that companies and their individuals all have different ideas of what Agile working means to them. Even with a clear definition as a summary, this often results in different approaches by businesses to realise these goals. Taking into account desk-to-user ratios, types of workspace, approach to flexible working, client-base and type of organisation, the resulting Agile working strategies can vary considerably.

Of course, all of this is underpinned by technology – user devices: be they desktops, laptops, thin clients, tablets, smartphones or smart watches (all running applications with access to data either locally or in the cloud) with an underlying infrastructure of cabling and networking equipment to support it all.

The art of collaboration

One thing that remains consistent in any Agile working strategy is the desire to improve or enhance productivity through collaboration. Whilst many immediately think of interactive whiteboards, huddle spaces and drop-in cafés, collaboration at its heart is simply people working together.

Above all else, the ability to communicate is essential to enable effective collaboration. Email, Instant Messaging, and live boards and project spaces via platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are great for sharing information that doesn’t require an immediate response, but real-time communication that is not possible face-to-face still predominantly relies on some form of audio or Video Conferencing.

Getting conferencing right in meeting rooms has always been a challenge!

Adhering to some fairly straightforward guidelines when it comes to room layout, finishes, acoustics and lighting will result in optimum spaces for conferencing. However, aesthetic preferences and the requirements for multi-purpose use often results in compromises that prove detrimental to the conferencing experience. Telepresence solutions remain expensive, but at least their manufacturer’s strict guidelines on the room makeup ensure a consistently good user experience, making the most of the investment.

Designers are increasingly sympathetic to Video Conferencing (VC) requirements that extend beyond simply optimising screen height, possibly due to an increased likelihood they have experienced a poor VC environment themselves. However, as this becomes easier, this only serves to highlight the rest of the technology within the room. Thankfully, good microphones and cameras are now more than capable of delivering clear audio and crisp, high definition video, without breaking the bank and hampering room aesthetics too much.

The missing pieces of the productivity puzzle

So, suppose the room design has been absolutely nailed, with a perfectly sized screen, a well-positioned high definition camera that automatically frames users in shot, and microphones that capture clear audio without even being visible in the room. All should be sorted, right?

Far from it. Two crucial elements have been missed – the VC platform and the user experience.

Let’s look at the VC platform element first. Whilst traditional SIP and H.323-based videoconferencing (that offers interoperability between manufacturers) clings on for dear life, a divergent range of platforms have muscled in to take its place. The VC element of these Unified Communication (UC) platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx Teams, Google G-Suite, only makes up a small part of their product offering.  All jockeying for market dominance, each vendor’s key goal is to get their platform to be at the centre of everything a company does. With solutions constantly evolving, adding new features and USPs to keep up with competition, interoperability for VC is becoming a luxury, not a standard. We are starting to see some vendors allow basic interoperability between a select few, but not many – some additional infrastructure or service such as BlueJeans is often used to bridge calls between platforms, adding complexity and cost to the solution.

The user experience

Increasingly, this is now defined and fully locked down by the vendor. Which makes sense in many respects – for example, whilst some customisation of any Microsoft app is available, this is more configuration than customisation, with all options defined by Microsoft themselves.

With these UC platforms being software-based, it is understandable that the same approach is taken – the user experience is consistent regardless of where the system is installed, and updates can be pushed out at any time without fear of breaking any custom code.

The result is that the user experience is defined by the UC platform selection.

Such a decision is often made at C-level, maybe even on the golf course, focussing on bottom line and general desktop functionality or just ‘have you seen how cool that Jamboard is!’.

The impact of video and audio conferencing in the meeting and collaboration spaces (essential to making an Agile working strategy successful) is often overlooked. Furthermore, with most pricing models now being license-based, vendors want to keep their customers embedded deeply in their products to ensure the money keeps rolling in.

Meeting Room solutions designed to integrate with one of these UC platforms are limited. Often only a few options are available, each one designed for a particular use case or type/size of meeting space. They are also typically designed as standalone systems with little or no ability to integrate with additional systems such as video distribution or Audio DSPs and third party mics.

So, do the rooms need to be designed around the solution?

Where this is an agreed strategy from the outset, this can be very successful, provided users work within the system’s limitations. If we remind ourselves of the current trend for Agile working and the multiple workspace types this promotes, and couple it with the inevitable requirement for a 30-seater boardroom or divisible training room, these solutions soon lack viability when considered holistically.

The difficulty of keeping up with change

This is becoming a huge problem, particularly when large quantities of rooms are built and designed and a product that ends up having a very short lifespan (I’m looking at you, Surface Hub). Typically, it has been commonplace to install AV systems containing components from multiple providers, which becomes less and less viable when providing a solution that natively supports one of the UC platforms. Whilst there are clear benefits to a single-vendor AV solution in terms of maintenance, support, and integration with a UC platform, the lack of flexibility puts customers at the mercy of a vendor’s roadmap. In a fast-evolving market, the roadmap for the meeting room hardware doesn’t necessarily align with the software.

It is good to see vendors such as Microsoft continuing to partner with third parties to offer meeting room solutions, particularly with their push towards Microsoft Teams soon necessitating a replacement of all the Skype-based systems sold over the last few years. However, Microsoft is not just dictating the user interface, but the hardware on which these systems are based. For example, Crestron’s heavily marketed ‘UC Engine’ in their new Flex range of products is essentially a Small Form Factor (NUC) PC, similar to those in every other SRS2-certified system. It is frustrating to see Crestron, having successfully flooded the market with their HDBaseT and AV-over-IP solutions, unable to provide native integration with either of these platforms within their Flex range of devices. If we are to see any development of the Flex Range, or others like it, it won’t be the hardware manufacturers driving this – it will be the software vendors.

The impact on the future of corporate AV

In the short term, I am sure we will increasingly see companies building rooms and spaces around a UC platform and whatever benefits or limitations it has, reaping the benefits of swift rollouts and reliable, supportable systems.

AV manufacturers will do their best to push software vendors to open up their platforms to allow better integration, though I suspect this won’t go too far. Perhaps the ease-of-use of these systems will convince users that they no longer need Boardrooms or Town Hall spaces, or that a reduction in audio or video fidelity still offers performance that is ‘good enough’.

However, with technology development continuing to outpace workplace strategies and a typical office lease, companies will need to be prepared to adapt their AV solutions to meet the requirements of the new ways of working driven to an increasing extent by software platforms. Ensuring any technology and workplace strategy has a roadmap to provision against future change will be key to optimising the lifespan of an office.

If you’d like to talk to Cordless about AV, UC and the challenge of futureproofing the workplace, say hello@cordless.co.uk