Making the 2022 Conference Room Usable and Safe in a Hybrid World
Enabling both your internal UCaaS platform and external meetings on the UCaaS platforms is critical for Room usage and success going forward
As we anticipate a return to the new normal where working in the office is once again possible, or even the norm, how do we manage conference rooms and the facilities to support the new normal? Two converging trends are driving current and future conference room needs. In this article I examine those trends and why adding a media management node in your conference rooms may be the best (or only) solution going forward.
Clearly, the concept of a digital (or even analog) conference phone in the meeting room will dramatically limit the room’s potential usage. The reason is quite simple, as users have adopted the UC paradigm of video, meetings, collaboration tools, and even teams. As I discussed at Enterprise Connect 2020, according to a 2010 study1, on average, humans adopt a new behavior after 64 days of use. Last year I commented how much the behavior adoption had already changed. Now that we are at 16 months and counting, that study shows 95% plus adoption.
The result is that users will continue to work the way they did during the pandemic. One major change is a willingness or even desire to use different clients for meetings based on the UCaaS platform that the meeting is being hosted in. Workers today are exposed to a variety of conferencing platforms and applications, especially when participating in meetings with partners and others who use different platforms. It’s becoming more and more common for workers to use multiple meeting applications and clients within the workday. However, this is an issue for the meeting room, as most meeting rooms today are only equipped for the specific corporate platform. While vendors such as Cisco and others are working on the ability to join other UCaaS platforms from their room systems meetings, this WebRTC-based meeting join is not native and is often missing many advanced controls and features. For a group of users who want to use a room together for an externally hosted meeting, using the specific desktop client from the platform the meeting is being hosted in is the ideal way to attend.
To accommodate this, many organizations have deployed very simple conference rooms using the Bring Your Own Codec (BYOC) philosophy. In this implementation, the room has the necessary components – the camera, microphone, speakers, and screen – while the meeting attendee brings a device that runs the UC software and the video codec. They connect the room device(s) and cable(s) to their device and run the meeting software. In this mode, the room is just a peripheral to a device.
The second trend is to minimize the physical interactions into the meeting room and to add functionality into a room system that does not exist in the desktop. All three of the major vendors (Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom) are offering one-touch or even no-touch meeting joins in their enhanced rooms that include the codec processing and other capabilities in the room. Having a dedicated processor in the room system enables easy joins, as well as many advanced functions, including audio management, audio clarity, video framing, speaker recognition, and more. As with any technology, these “room systems” will become more affordable over time, increasing usage.
Delivering a solution for meeting rooms that meets both trends is a challenge. For the best and easiest internal meetings, using a vendor or partner system that includes the codec and advanced capabilities in the room is the best answer. However, these rooms do not generally allow the ability to natively join other vendors’ systems. Users attending external meetings on a different platform can’t leverage the capabilities of these systems and need to use their laptop with the associated low-quality/low-position camera, small screen, etc. If this is the case, users will quickly regress to joining independently, rendering the room useless for this purpose.
It’s important to recognize that the room has all the elements needed to make the desktop device work as a room system codec. Every video-enabled conference room has a USB camera, speakers, microphones, and a screen. While some video bars incorporate those into a sealed system, most implementations use separate components. What if those devices, instead of being tethered to the vendor room system, could be connected into an open media management node that supports the vendor room system and also makes the same peripherals available to a user’s device coming into the room? This would deliver an ideal solution, a room optimized for meetings using the corporate platform, while also enabling users to join ANY meeting platform using the native tools of the meeting, including all the capabilities of a device client application.
This is what Lightware has delivered with the Taurus UCX, an in-room UC media management node. The Taurus UCX enables the connection of up to four devices (PC, Mac, video room system, etc.), using two USB-C ports and two mixed (USB/HDMI) ports. For most new computers that have USB-C, a single USB-C cable connection can deliver camera and microphone inputs, speaker and screen outputs, as well as a physical Ethernet connection for network quality. The Taurus also has Ethernet distribution and management to enable easy connection of in-room devices, such as a room touch screen.
The Taurus delivers an easy way for users to optimize the room to any meeting. There are several advantages of connecting the peripherals in the room separate from the in-room UC device and enabling their use in different use cases for the room. If no guest devices are connected, the in-room system that optimizes the corporate UC platform is operational, ensuring that one or no-touch joins that are dependent on the peripherals will operate normally. But when a user device is brought into the room and connected, the Taurus UCX in the room can automatically let that device access the in-room peripherals. This delivers the best of both worlds – optimization for the internal platform and the corporate UCaaS standard and easy utilization of the same room for externally-driven meetings on a different UCaaS platform. It also avoids the worst scenario in any conference room – the “un-plugger” who reconnects the room peripherals to their personal device and then leaves them unconnected for the next unsuspecting user. This, of course, generally results in a support call and the need for a technician to visit the room.
The Taurus UCX, in addition to providing the switching capabilities above, is a manageable node. As it connects to the peripherals in the room, it provides an easy way to do remote troubleshooting of all of the media elements in a conference room. Here’s an example: when a user calls the help desk indicating the room camera is not working in the meeting, the normal process, after much hemming and suggestions, is for someone to go to the room to troubleshoot. With a Taurus in place, the camera USB actual output is reported in the management tool. For each active port on the Taurus, information about the device and state can be determined (the figure shows the display data for a video port). This enables a remote diagnostician to determine that the camera is working correctly, and the issue is in the codec/processor (either the room system or a user device). Generally, the next step is a reboot of either the room system or the user device to reset the UC and video software as 90% of the time, if a problem is not physical, re-starting the application or machine will resolve the issue. However, the team could only diagnose and respond to the issue remotely as the Taurus management features enabled the support staff to see that the camera, microphone, and peripheral items were operating correctly. Indicating the issue was in the conferencing node.
The management solution is designed to integrate with the UC vendors’ management platform and is an easy extension of a Network Operations Center or help desk support diagnostic process. This capability to monitor can also extend to immediate assistance or even in-room advice. For example, if a user attempts to connect to the Taurus using USB-C that is only capable of power transmission, not data, the Taurus can detect that, display it in the management window, and can also place an in-room warning on the screen that the cable being used will not support video transmission. This allows the user to replace the cable before the meeting starts. Further, all of the functionality and reporting of the Taurus UCX is available in an open API, enabling further integration with management platforms and other business processes.
For organizations planning their return to physical offices and identifying how to optimize the use of in-building meeting rooms going forward, a solution optimizing the corporate platform while enabling alternative UCaaS meetings will be critical. As more rooms and spaces are equipped with advanced UC platforms, managing the last meter challenge in the room is critical for both utilization, satisfaction, and overall success in a hybrid business environment. Fulfilling the business need for rooms to enable users to directly join external meetings while also delivering the corporate UCaaS standard with the advanced functionality and features for internal meetings will be important for virtually all organizations. While there are other in-room media solutions, the addition of management and reporting and other in-room capabilities makes the Lightware Taurus UCX an in-room media management node that should be considered.