Video Calling: My Own Motivation

Video calling has been around for a long, long time. However, it’s yet to become commonplace. There have been studies, some very recent, that suggest that people really don’t want or need it. Yet Skype reports that a substantial amount, around 40% if I recall correctly, of their call traffic involves video. Of course, events like last years volcanic excitement in Iceland highlight how valuable video can be when travel is impossible.

Beyond the more general cases I have my own reasons why video could play an important part in my working life. It happens that I travel a lot in the course of my work. The scope of my working duties is divided three ways; pre-sales demonstrations of hardware/software systems, post-sales commissioning, installations & training, and finally end-user support activity. The demonstration aspect of my travel could be reduced significantly if I were able to deliver the demonstration via online means.

It’s not the first time that this idea has arisen. Some years ago we invested in a Slingbox HD system in order to investigate its possible use to deliver a video stream to a prospect.

The trouble with the Slingbox Pro was that it wasn’t truly HD. It displays widescreen SD video, the equivalent of 640×480 pixels. The image quality was compromised. It also required the use of a player application that was not easy to setup, and had trouble with firewall traversal. So this early effort to perform a demo online via streaming technology was a washout.

Nonetheless, if the prospect can see the output of our device in real-time and at reasonable quality then existing technologies like GotoMeeting could deliver the voice and shared desktop experience.

Such ability to do demonstrations online would not only cut my requirement to travel, and thereby improve my home life, it would expand the scope of possible prospects. We could demo to much smaller and more remote locations. We would also cut our shipping costs and wear & tear on demo equipment. Clearly there are advantages to be found on many fronts.

There are commercial solutions that could achieve what I think we need. Some of these arise from the realm of video conference equipment providers like Polycom, Tandberg, LifeSize, etc. Any gear that can take a 1080i SMPTE 292M HD-SDI source, encode it using H.264, then make it available as a web stream that can be viewed in a browser would be suitable.

I feel strongly that a web viewable stream is crucial as as we cannot ensure that the prospect will be willing or able to install a client application. Further, the requirement for an installable application they requires a platform selection. Some places are Windows-based while others Mac-based. A web stream should be platform agnostic.

Looking at the LifeSize product line we could achieve our stated goals using any of their 220 series video conference end-points, for example the LifeSize Team 220 system. When used in combination with the LifeSize Video Center the video stream is served up to web browser clients. The Video Center also includes tools useful for managing a library of recorded video clips, making all or port of the library online accessible.

Services like Livestream in theory do exactly what we need, but in some ways they are less than ideal. In order to achieve HD resolution we’d need to use their paid premium service. It’s business model is built around someone doing a one-to-many broadcast. Our application is generally a one-to-one thing. That makes paying for Livestream a little less attractive, even if the service truly is what we need.

The advantage of Livestream over a solution based upon telepresence hardware is that it’s less capital intensive to get started. Conversely, there’s considerable operating expense to keep using the service. Still, if the solution even saves one trip a month it would recoup the $350/mo that Livestream asks for the Pro level service.

In truth, we could get it done in a lot more DIY approach than Livestream. Since we only need one-to-one sessions the bandwidth costs are not that bad. All we’d need to do is bounce the encoded video of some kind of streaming media server.

Livestream uses the Wowza streaming server. I’ve been eagerly awaiting deliver of a new H.264 hardware encoder from Australia’s Black Magic Design. This company has a history of offering very high-quality products at positively transformational price points. This new encoder is projected to sell for $340 from B&H Photo Video in NYC. The product is delayed with shipments projected to start some time in March. We will doubtless buy one just for the sake of experimentation.

The fundamentals of a DIY approach appear to be in place, but a commercial solution might be preferable in the end.

As is typically the case, this little project started out as something driven solely by my curiosity and belief that we could be more effective in how we do things. Even before a real test could be staged we’ve come upon an opportunity to put the approach into service. Funny how my pet projects consistently evolve into priorities.

This is just one of the reasons why I’m so interested in telepresence from a SOHO perspective.

  • Paul Laskowski

    I’m thinking that it’s the lack of ability to really interconnect video systems and make calls outside of your companies video system that really stifles it’s growth. I’m sure Voice over IP wouldn’t be very widespread if it weren’t for the PSTN interconnections, because it’s not that intuitive to the average end user how to dial a url (not to mention all of the NAT problems that admins have to face). Video conferencing systems seem to be sold for use w/in a company, not to contact other companies. I suppose that is why skype keeps getting tossed about as the one that could make video blow up. Maybe with the integration into Lifesize products and Asterisk and other products, at the very least maybe Skype would be a “Video PSTN” that could allow legacy systems to interconnect in an easier fashion.

    You should take a look at Vidyo.com and maybe check into their products (Vidyo technology drives google video chat). I have been researching video conferencing for connecting my own office with one or two of our remote offices, and comparing Polycom, Lifesize, desktop softphones, and Vidyo systems. By all accounts that I have found, the video quality and low latency of the VidyoConferencing system is top notch. Also, and this is my favorite, it works on Win AND Mac (they are working on Linux and iPad/Android). I am having a hard time gathering pricing info via Google searches as they are a young company with quickly evolving pricing models, but I think I have gathered that their basic product for small companies is will connect up to 25 endpoints (desktops with webcams) for the price of around one and a half Polycom or Lifesize systems (~$7000). I have a call into the sales folks at Vidyo but haven’t connected with them yet. Here is an informative, demo of the product: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LDuJvbIlfQ

    I have also been reading a lot about the Scalable Video Coding H.264/SVC encoding that Vidyo uses to encode and combine video streams (without an MCU), and am now dumbfounded as to why open source VoIP systems aren’t trying to integrate this technology into their systems. I think Freeswitch would be able to handle it as their conferencing system already seems to be able to handle video (switching the stream to the current speaker), so long as all endpoints are set up exactly the same. http://sourceforge.net/projects/opensvcdecoder/

    Granted I have a cursory knowledge on the subject, but the SVC technology, it seems, would take away many of the problems arising from differences in resolution. And open source VoIP platforms that do multipoint video would be a boon to the adoption of video conferencing.