To launch our latest Technology Track series, CommsTrader takes a look at the latest trends in the video platform market.
Video conferencing is far from a new concept in telecommunications. As long as there have been web cameras, innovative businesses have sought to overcome the logistical problems of getting a group of people into the same space by holding meetings over an internet video streaming connection.
This was an important breakthrough in UC technology, giving companies the chance to forge better relationships with clients in far off regions and countries with more face-to-face communication for important decision making, and creating stronger bonds between teams based in far off branch offices. Through platforms like WebEx, video conferencing also tipped over into remote collaboration, with the addition of file sharing and whiteboarding adding an interactive element to the audio and video link.
But video technology has had its limitations for business use. Latency and buffering have long dogged livestreaming due to the difficulty of transmitting and processing high quality audio and video packets at speed simultaneously. The compromise has often been to opt for HD audio at the expense of low quality video, begging the question why the video was needed at all.
Video conferencing has also faced the issue of proprietary systems requiring you to run the same software as the people you want to connect to. The determination of vendors to tie in their software with conferencing hardware – meeting room audio endpoints, cameras and screens – restricted interoperability and had the ultimate consequence of pushing up prices.
Much has changed in the past few years, however. The arrival of the Cloud and browser-based WebRTC communications means the tide has shifted significantly towards open standards, interoperable platforms. With everyone now carrying video-ready mobile devices, the reliance on dedicated conferencing hardware has loosened, and the focus in software development has moved onto creating apps that allow multiple users to dial into a video call at the touch of a button on their smartphone.
At the same time, streaming technology has improved to finally allow for HD quality audio and video to sit side by side as standard, and what is more, this can be delivered over wireless broadband for complete mobility.
The results have been clear in the rapid growth in teleconferencing. A study by Polycom found that more than half of all executives interviewed said they took in a video conference at least once a week, while 96 per cent felt that it helped improve productivity in their business.
So as we approach the end of 2017, what trends can we expect to see emerging and continuing in the video conferencing and collaboration market going forward?
Growth of VCaaS
Video streaming is technologically the most challenging of all UC media, which explains why hosted video services have been slower to take off than, say, cloud-based VoIP. Apps like Facebook Live might be great for streaming video to all your friends and family, but when it comes to that all important presentation, you don’t want to take any risks with quality. That is one reason why on premises teleconferencing solutions have remained popular.
However, with the development of software codecs (see below) and other innovations, there are no longer the same quality concerns over cloud streaming. That has allowed video conferencing as a service (VCaaS) to emerge as a category in its own right, with hosted services specialising in video only.
As well as offering lower costs, VCaaS services have the advantage of being hardware agnostic, i.e. they can plug into pretty much any webcam, screen or device going. They replace the need for expensive hardware bridges, and many services offer ‘drop-in’ virtual meeting spaces that can be accessed any time, rather than just scheduled conferences.
The reason video streaming is such a challenge technologically is because of the complexity involved in coding video into data packets ready for transmission, and then decoding it back into a watchable picture again. When you try to do this in real time for live streaming, you can end up needing enormous amounts of processing power.
That is one reason why, traditionally, video codifiers and decodifiers have been physical chips based in a hardware system. The emergence of effective software-based codecs has changed all of that, paving the way for cloud-based and mobile teleconferencing platforms that aren’t crippled by latency issues.
The growth of VCaaS demonstrates that more and more people are turning to video for frontline communications, creating a market for dedicated video services. But the flipside of that is that more and more businesses will look for video conferencing not as a standalone application, but as a tool embedded into their other UC or business IT platforms, such as CRM or ERP.
This is likely to be most obvious immediately in growing consolidation between collaboration and video conferencing. Expect team messaging apps to focus more and more on teleconferencing, and VCaaS to focus more and more on collaboration. Following other trends in UC, we are also likely to see more and more video conferencing platforms created with open APIs so video can be embedded into other software.
Unlike most other areas of UC, mobile compatibility is not yet universal across video conferencing software. But that will change as trends like BYOD and remote working continue to shape workplace organisation. Just as more and more colleagues are connecting via team collaboration and productivity apps on their phones, the demand for dialling into web conferences on the move will also increase.
WebRTC will play a significant role in enabling this trend, as more and more developers use it to roll out video conferencing platforms you can access on any device through a web browser.
Video conferencing is not killing the physical face-to-face meeting, but it could be said that the nature of how people meet is changing because of technology. It is becoming the norm now, for example, for meetings to involve a mix of the physical and virtual, with some people sharing the same room, and others connecting via a video link.
The concept of the huddle room encapsulates this. Huddle rooms are meant to reflect the modern trend towards more ad hoc, flexible meeting arrangements by offering less formal spaces. As you don’t know when you might need to connect to a remote team, colleague or client at one of these on-the-hoof gatherings, the teleconferencing hardware needs to be ready to go with no need for prior set up. Instant connections between devices and endpoints is one effect of this new demand.
At the same time, the huddle space is an emerging trend in conferencing and collaboration software, too. Just as colleagues might gather in a physical huddle room for a quick debrief, virtual huddle spaces offer easy access for teams to a ready made platform where they can talk, share files and screens and throw ideas around on a whiteboard. The point is to replace conferencing bridges with one-click access, and to make integration with hardware as easy as possible.
Telepresence – VR and AR
Telepresence is perhaps the next frontier in video conferencing technology – recreating the feel of a physical meeting as closely as possible with a more interactive, immersive experience.
Some of this is quite low-key, such as the use of giant HD screens and surround sound to create the best audio and visual experience possible. But there are more adventurous possibilities as well, such as linking video conferencing software to VR headsets, so all participants (or their avatars at least) interact with each other in a virtual meeting space. Another intriguing possibility is to use AR technology, perhaps using hardware similar to Google Glass or Hololens, to create digital projections of participants in the physical meeting room.