Unifying Video and Audio Conferencing

New products from Polycom integrate audio and video technologies to create a unified conferencing system.

In an effort to make video conferencing as convenient as audio conferencing, Polycom Inc. this week is launching a series of new products that integrate video and audio technologies to create a unified conferencing system.

Traditionally, video calls require that all participants use video technology, and Polycom is expanding the system to permit a variety of communication modes. "Its not always convenient for people to be in a location that has video. Its important to be able to connect people anyway they can connect," said Ned Semonite, a vice president in Polycoms Andover, Mass., office. "Were trying to get to the point where people can use whatever tools fit their needs regardless of where they are."

W.R. Grace & Co. has been using Polycoms conferencing technology for about five years, with equipment deployed at 37 sites around the world, primarily large production plans and field offices, according to Guy Welty, manager of global media network and collaborative services in Columbia, Md.

Increasingly, W.R. Grace is looking at video conferencing not just as an internal management tool—for staff meetings and training—but also as a means of improving communications with customers, Welty said. The company is even installing Polycom systems at some of its customers sites, so that they may have a direct video line to technical support, he said.

"This is a way for us to reach out and deal with our clients," he said. "Now were beginning to look at is as a marketing tool."

W.R. Grace has been testing the new products and integrations, and is especially pleased with improved voice quality and screen layout functions, which allow conference participants to tailor the screen to their own preferences, according to Welty. The tool is particularly useful when participants are using a second language and may be reluctant to ask for added explanations or clarifications, he said.

"Now you can actually customize the screen based on each site, and that becomes a driving factor, believe it or not, for some of the executives," Welty said. "My CEO likes to be able to see the faces of the people hes talking to. He wants to be able to see that theyre paying attention."

Welty said that video conferencing saved his company between $1.25 million and $1.5 million last year in airfare alone. "We more than paid for our equipment in the first year," he said. "If I were a travel person, I might be concerned."

This week, Polycom is rolling out what it calls the industrys first wideband conference phone, the SoundStation VTX 1000, designed to convey high fidelity voice quality, regardless of how large the conference room is. Participants no longer have to huddle around the speakerphone or strain their necks to talk directly into it because the systems technology picks up voices of people sitting up to 20 feet away and evens out the voices from all distances.

"This is really going to change behavior in the conference room," said Jim Kruger, vice president of marketing for Voice Communications, at Polycoms Milpitas, Calif. office. "You can actually sit back and have an actual conversation as though youre sitting face-to-face."

The phone filters out extraneous noise by searching for consistent sounds, such as the hum of a PC fan. When the phone connects with another VTX-1000, it moves into wideband mode, which doubles the bandwidth, Kruger said. As upgrades are made to the software, users can download them over the phone line.

Polycom, headquartered in Pleasanton, Calif., also upgraded its line of multipoint control units with the latest video compression standard, H.264 video, which enables sharper images at lower bandwidth.

For smaller companies just getting into video conferencing, Polycom is rolling out a new multipoint conference unit that integrates audio, video and Web functions. Called the MGC-25, the system allows small offices or branch offices to make local or regional calls, which are then rolled over into one long-distance call.

For the high end of the market, Polycom unveiled an "Executive Collection" of four new systems, combining state-of-the-art sound systems with the most advanced plasma screens, Semonite said. The H.264 standard is incorporated on its iPower 9000 series of video collaboration systems as well as in the MCUs. The four new systems range from a wall-mounted system with dual 61-inch high-resolution plasma monitors down to a single 50-inch floor system.