ClearOne Chat 160 Earned Its Keep This Past Week

Clear-One-Chat160-200Last Fall I bought a ClearOne Chat 160 USB attached conference audio device. It was purchased to make it easier for Tim Panton to gather the Asterisk Dev crowd to join the VUC call following Astricon 2010.  In that role it seemed at least adequate, much better than what we used at Astricon 2009.

Since then the ClearOne Chat 160 has loitered about my office seeing only occasional use. This past week I shipped it to Milwaukee with some Pixel Power equipment that I was supposed to demonstrate. This demo was to be a little unusual in that I wasn’t going to Milwaukee myself.

The plans was that I was to give the demo remotely. Our salesman would bring the equipment in to the prospects site, get it setup and online. I would be given access using GotoMeeting. For a portion of the demo I’d drive the gear from my office in Houston. For a second portion I’d show them the desktop of the system that I was using, which gave an example of how the product they were evaluating would be integrated into their facility.

Some of what they saw would be local to them, providing real HD video output to a proper HD monitor. Locally they would be able to assess the output quality and the basic performance of the hardware. The systems that they viewed remotely would serve as an example of the newsroom workflow tools that we provider, giving them a view of the news dept role in preparing graphics for each newscast.

This idea of driving the gear remotely has been floated a few times, but always considered risky. However, this week we simply didn’t have the time to ship everything that they would need to see, including me, to do our usual on-site demo. Thus our hand was forced and the remote demo was arranged.

I asked the salesman to inquire about the room where the demo was to be conducted. Would we have wired internet access? What kind of phone would they have to provide the voice channel?

PolycomSoundstationThe salesman offered to use his AT&T 3G USB radio as the means of providing internet access. I balked at that so he pressed the prospect to provide a fast, reliable wired connection. It turned out that they had an analog Polycom conference phone available.

At first the analog Soundstation seemed like it would be adequate, but after thinking about it a while I decided against using the device. I wanted a pure IP channel for the voice connection. There would be real benefit in a wideband audio call. It would make it much easier for me to understand them, and for them to hear me.

We decided that we’d just use Skype on a laptop. That would make for an easy setup with zero network issues. The ClearOne Chat 160 works great with Skype. Simply plug & play.

Plantronics-Savi-430-300At my office I was using Skype along with a Plantronics Savi 430w DECT headset. This combination was running on a desktop across the room from where I’d be driving the demo, but the DECT headset has plenty of range. Better yet, it supports good quality wideband audio. The voice pickup is by way of a sound tube,  very direct, with no room tone like a speakerphone would introduce. Finally, it leaves my hands free to run the gear.

The demo happened early Tuesday afternoon and ran about two hours long. There were five participants at the Milwaukee site, just me in Houston. By all accounts it was a success. The prospect saw what they wanted to see both in the gear at their site, and the systems running in my office. There were no issues with the Skype call. Everyone could hear and be heard.

With just a little forethought we were able to ensure an HDVoice experience, enhancing our ability to make a successful presentation. The salesman later said that he wished the ClearOne Chat 160 went just a little louder. It was competing with fan noise from the computer system that was being shown. It was loud enough, but only just.

SoundStation-IP5000-200While this week we used the ClearOne Chat 160 I also have a Polycom Soundstation IP5000 in my inventory. That device would have registered with our OnSIP account and provided G.722 based wideband capability. However, it happened to be in England on loan to an associate. Further, since the IP5000 is a SIP device there was a slight possibility that we might have faced NAT traversal complexity.

Making the effort to ensure a wideband (HDVoice) call was definitely worth the trouble. This time around the ClearOne Chat 160 & Skype was the right combination of convenience, call quality and reliability.

In the future we will refine this process further. The way we did the demo this week, shipping the gear and operating it remotely,  holds only part of the potential benefits we might enjoy. Ultimately, we’ll not ship anything at all. We’ll have all of the gear running in one of our offices, then use a service like LiveStream to let the prospect see the output of the hardware in real-time in a web browser.

That approach requires some investment in hardware to encode the HD-SDI output of our hardware into an H.264 stream. Existing hardware encoders are costly. We’ve been waiting for the now delayed release of the new BlackMagic Design Pro Recorder, which promises a potent price/performance combination.

Using a streaming approach we’ll save a tremendous amount on freight & travel. It’ll be a lot easier on demo  gear & demo staff. We’ll be able to do more demos, and more ad hoc demos. It won’t matter if the prospect is in a big city or a tiny town, as long as they have reasonable bandwidth.

Perhaps best of all, demo staff will get to sleep in their own beds more often than they ever imaged.