Dr. Andrew Payer makes a compelling argument for mobile video communications in the classroom. The professor’s anatomy lab at the University of Central Florida School of Medicine is tricked out with a ceiling-mounted computer terminal at each of its 22 dissection tables. Dr. Payer uses a wireless video camera to take close-up images of pathologies as students find them through dissection, and he beams them in real-time to each student’s monitor so everyone can get a good view of what he’s teaching.
“The first thing is efficiency. Students can look at the screen and get the instantaneous view. They don’t have to move around the lab, which takes away from their time. The other thing is that it allows for immediate storage — I store the images on the camera and download them, and they can refer back to them as they’re reviewing the pathology being described. It’s an incredibly good use of the technology,” says Dr. Payer, who uses Librestream’s Onsight mobile video solution several times in a typical four-hour lab session.
Mobile videoconferencing is a relatively new addition to enterprise communications technology, and it’s another sign of the consumerization of workplace IT. Enabled by the proliferation of broadband wireless networks and enhanced optics in hand-held devices, mobile videoconferencing is one more app that people are starting to expect on their smartphones and iPads. Early adopters still face some challenges, but mobile videoconferencing is quickly picking up steam in the business world.
Free consumer applications like Apple’s FaceTime and Microsoft’s Skype have become wildly popular — so popular that Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion last year. However, these apps don’t have the horsepower that a business needs, and, considering the vagaries of public wireless networks, enterprise requirements demand the most reliable mobile videoconferencing system possible.
“Enterprise-grade products really have the edge in terms of A/V quality and network performance — they enable a more seamless, transparent experience. There isn’t the reliability in free systems,” says Christianne Orto, Associate Dean and Director of the Manhattan School of Music’s Recording and Distance Learning program. The world-renowned conservatory uses mobile videoconferencing to connect students to artists, no matter where in the world their touring schedules take them.
The Manhattan School of Music chose Polycom’s HDX telepresence system and the RealPresence Platform, which includes mobile clients for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, for both its reliability and its HD-quality video and audio. Artists carry their wireless devices with them and conduct mobile videoconferences from their hotel suites with students in the NYC classroom. As world-class musicians and vocalists, they require the audio in particular to sound true to life and transmitted with zero latency.
“We need a really high fidelity sound. If you can’t hear a video conference, you don’t have a video conference — it’s a show stopper if you can’t hear them,” explains Orto. “You need to hear the nuance of the voice, what is communicated, to make good decisions about what’s communicated.”
Enterprise solutions, like those from Cisco, Polycom, Librestream, Vidyo and LifeSize, are built to also handle different network conditions. First, they’re based on industry standards and are interoperable. Unlike Skype or FaceTime, you can place a call from a Cisco Jabber client on an iPad to a partner answering on a VidyoMobile Android device, a LifeSize ClearSea desktop or a Polycom RealPresence conference room system. A business can’t dictate which videoconferencing solution a customer or partner is using, so the mobile videoconferencing call must be vendor-agnostic.
Interoperability is important, too, when adding videoconferencing to an existing network. Not only do you want a mobile videoconferencing solution that can talk to any other system, you want one that runs on the equipment you already have. According to David Hsieh, Cisco’s vice president of TelePresence and Emerging Technologies, companies should “choose vendors that have great interoperability to avoid the risk of having to replicate infrastructure or buy special gateways and bridge systems that are very expensive.”
Second, business-class solutions are designed to better handle inconsistent network conditions as well as make secure connections. Video, of course, requires a certain amount of reliability for a successful conference — too much jitter or latency, and the video loses the clear, fluid image people expect to see after so many years of flawless TV reception.
On an internal network — or between two private networks — the mobile videoconferencing experience can be controlled with network management techniques that guarantee a certain amount of bandwidth for video traffic. Enterprise systems also can detect the amount of bandwidth available for a video call and optimize the video signal accordingly, even if it means degrading the quality of the video to maintain the overall conference experience.
As Orto describes it, security specs are particularly important for the Manhattan School of Music. Unlike most corporate settings, their mobile videoconferencing system doesn’t have to be particularly secure, but it must be able to navigate firewalls installed in other organizations’ networks around the world.
“Firewall traversal in the specs was very important to us. Having H.460 is key for us because we connect with hotel networks and other remote regions. The reliability has been really significant,” says Orto. H.460 is an extension to the H.323 videoconferencing standard that enables end points to communicate with each other directly. Nevertheless, she says, they still run up against network barriers in hotels and other corporate settings, which has been the trickiest part of implementing a mobile videoconferencing system for the Manhattan School of Music’s traveling artists and teachers.
The appeal of mobile videoconferencing is, of course, its portability and flexibility. Running on a smartphone, a mobile videoconferencing client lets anyone join a conversation from almost anywhere, whether inside a hotel room or outside in the field. However, the very nature of mobility can also be the biggest challenge of mobile videoconferencing. As anyone who’s tried to check email in a crowded airport or stream video during the gym’s peak hours, connecting to the Internet on a public hotspot is spotty at best. Public access points have nowhere near the same reliability as a private broadband connection.
“A key thing is the availability, cost and convenience of mobile bandwidth, particularly depending where you are in the world. The U.S. has a pretty good mobile broadband infrastructure, but the capacity of systems are variable,” says Hsieh. The mobile videoconferencing experience in crowded public spaces is particularly unpredictable because of the number of people sharing the same Internet connection. However, Hsieh believes this is only a temporary challenge.
“A 4G [network] has enough speed to have a really great video call. The bad news is that 4G networks are not well populated and it’s easy to overwhelm a 4G cell or roam outside the coverage area. But with the proliferation of 4G networks and the increasing build out of Wi-Fi and easier access to it, video calling will become reliable,” says Hsieh.
A mobile videoconferencing system has many moving parts, some of which will always be out of your control. In general, enterprise mobile videoconferencing is an extension of a videoconferencing solution — it can be as simple as installing your vendor’s mobile client on employees’ smartphones and tablets.
The mobile client connects with the videoconferencing platform, which generally includes features like firewall traversal, data encryption and a call directory, back at headquarters. Some clients, such as Polycom’s RealPresence Mobile, are free apps that can be downloaded to an iPhone and used to make free point-to-point calls much like Apple’s Facetime; however, without the RealPresence platform, a mobile user can’t use enterprise features or participate in multi-point videoconferences.
Videoconferencing hardware installed on the local network may include a video communication server, a conferencing bridge, a video gateway, or specialized camera equipment. The main office probably also has a conference room system or desktop endpoints for participating in a videoconference. Mobile users may also require ruggedized wireless devices instead of a smartphone, especially if they’re using it to inspect equipment in the field or to diagnose far-flung patients. For example, Librestream’s Onsight 2000Ex wireless video collaboration device is explosion proof and can be used in oil and gas or chemical processing plants.
For many organizations, videoconferencing is just one more way they communicate with the rest of the world, and adding mobility is the obvious next step in their voice and video communications strategy.
“Think of voice and video as the same thing — use the same infrastructure you use for phone to run video calls. This could save an enormous amount of many and make it easier for users, [who can have] one phone number,” advises Hsieh. “Think of mobile video as part of an overall strategy, not as an independent solution — so anybody can talk to anybody.”