When it Comes to Video Collaboration, "Good Enough" isn't Good Enough

Michael Frendo, EVP of Worldwide Engineering, Polycom

When we talk about video collaboration, those of us who are engineers like to geek out about video compression algorithms, codecs, firewall transversal—the technology and geek-speak features behind the experience. Most of us, though, aren’t engineers and we just want technology to work—and to work well. It should work easily and consistently.

Office environments today incorporate a blend of open work spaces, conference rooms, private offices and huddle rooms—smaller, more informal meeting rooms that are often the most logical places in an office to outfit with video. However, most traditional front-of-room video systems aren’t suitable for reasons of cost, size, and complexity, which have given rise to a wealth of new solutions.

While many vendors will tell you, “these solutions are good enough.” I’m here to tell you good enough is absolutely not good enough.

Let’s step back.

Why do you use video collaboration? You likely use it to drive better connections between people who are geographically distributed. This gives you the added benefit of reading non-verbal communication as well as the verbal otherwise heard on an audio conference call.

Body language and facial expression contribute significantly to understanding. Eye contact is a key element in the perception of credibility and to gain influence. Whether you’re making a persuasive argument for budget funding, or to launch a new project, or to impact a sales projection, you want to have eye contact with the people you are trying to effect.

So why isn’t good enough, good enough?

Many huddle rooms are barely outfitted with an electrical outlet, which means camera-equipped laptops or tablets are brought into the room and become the de facto video monitor. 

"Bad video is worse than no video–and if you can’t hear, why bother?"

While the bulk of business laptops sold today have 1080p resolution, many PCs still in use in business are still just 720p, including the MacBook Air pre-2015. What’s more, PC monitors have a highly variable color gamut, different refresh rates and vary in display brightness based on individual preferences or battery settings, all of which impact how video is perceived by the viewer.

In addition to video, you also have to consider camera quality. Depending on the individual laptop, that camera could be HD, or not, so the quality of transmission is highly variable.

Numerous studies in the context of courtrooms and admissibility of live testimony via video conferencing demonstrate that quality unequivocally matters and has a deep impact on credibility. Live witnesses tend to be rated as more honest than those presented on video, and the quality of video has a direct correlation to the way in which video witnesses are evaluated: the closer to “real,” the better they are evaluated.

Cameras in PCs and tablets are highly variable in quality, and, if you are in a huddle room with two or three people all gathered around one PC, you’ve immediately got a problem with who is in the camera view and whether or not various speakers can make eye contact (quite apart from how comfortable you are sitting knee to knee with coworkers).

Of course, not all huddle rooms are so meagerly appointed. There are consumer-grade solutions available that promise a great user experience and quality HD cameras. This is where looking at the user experience more broadly is critical.

User experience is about more than the graphical user interface or the remote control or how easy it is to share content. User experience is also about:

• how hard (or easy) it is to hear
• whether background noise is an issue
• does the camera find the active speaker
• is there burden on users to adjust or tinker to make it all seamless

Now, most office work doesn’t involve evaluating witnesses, but it does involve sifting through data points and positions, weighing arguments and information, and ultimately making critical business decisions. The data assembled by the legion of trial attorneys for whom credibility can, literally, be life or death, is no less applicable in our work settings. The annoyances of flicker, audio and video synchronization problems, bad lighting, camera angle, and overall inconsistency can be more than just annoying: they have an impact on productivity.

In my mind, bad video is worse than no video–and if you can’t hear, why bother? Good enough just isn’t good enough when it comes to video collaboration.

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