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Technology Brief

Quality Audio is Crucial for Visual Collaboration

By David Maldow, Esq. November 2013

Sponsored By:

TelepresenceOptions.com

Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration

Table of Contents
Overview ............................................................................................................ 2 Message to Vendors ........................................................................................... 3 Message to Integrators ....................................................................................... 4 Message to Users ................................................................................................ 5 Example of Environment Optimization: A DIY Ceiling Audio “Kit” ....................... 6 Sponsor Snapshot ............................................................................................... 7 Quattro3............................................................................................................. 7 Duet ................................................................................................................... 7 Solo .................................................................................................................... 8 Octopus .............................................................................................................. 8 Conclusion .......................................................................................................... 8 About Telepresence Options .............................................................................. 9 About The Author ............................................................................................... 9 About Phoenix Audio Technologies .................................................................... 9

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration

Overview
We’re bearing witness to the most significant change in human collaboration and communication since the adoption of the telephone. The shift from pure audio to audio/visual interaction is finally happening. There’s been a boom in the availability of software-based video solutions, while at the same time prices are coming down and usability is improving for hardware-based video solutions. The result: Visual collaboration, once a tool of the business elite, is now in reach of small-to-medium businesses, and even home users. Video-based collaboration is an exciting and empowering business tool. But with all the focus on video, some of us may be taking audio for granted. Neither audio nor video alone can provide a complete communications experience, but audio is the truly essential element. If the video fails, the meeting won’t stop as long as everyone keeps talking. But if the audio drops, the meeting is done. Reliability however, is just one requirement for proper audio. Audio quality can have a much greater impact on your meetings and working sessions than you may realize. Video vendors are well aware of the importance of quality audio. That’s why VC software is generally designed to protect the audio signal at all costs (even in lowquality network conditions). When “By extending telephone they encounter bandwidth problems, bandwidth… …it is clear many solutions will drop video quality to compensate but not touch the that one can markedly audio—it usually stays good enough reduce fatigue, improve for the meeting to go on. concentration, and Unfortunately, no software can compensate for poor-quality speakers increase intelligibility.” and microphones, or for the way they – Jeffrey Rodman lower productivity among people trying to follow a conversation over bad audio.1

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Jeffrey Rodman, “The Effect of Bandwidth on Speech Intelligibility ” <bit.ly/1bITS3E >; Avaya, “Wideband Audio: Exploring the Potential for Improved Enterprise Communications” <bit.ly/1c4UqFt>; Anthony Rix and Mike Hollier, Perceptual speech quality assessment from narrowband telephony to wideband audio”, AES 107th Convention, New York: 24-27 September 1999.

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration

(Source: The Effect of Bandwidth on Speech Intelligibility) Polycom founder Jeffrey Rodman made this point in a paper (supra) on the relationship between audio quality and speech intelligibility. With the image above, Rodman shows how the words “failing” and “sailing” sound the same over a standard phone line (left), but are easily distinguishable over high quality audio (right). During a typical phone call, we subconsciously try fill in the gaps and use context to decide what we think we are hearing. This may be a factor in many of our daily mistakes and misunderstandings. As we enable our new visual collaboration environments, we should ensure that we provide for quality audio. You’ll never maximize the potential of your project teams if they’re limited to working over poor audio. Whether you’re a video vendor, integrator, or end user, you need to step up and take responsibility: It’s your job to consider the audio.

Message to Vendors
Vendors offering high-end meeting room solutions generally integrate premium audio components because they’re well aware of high-quality audio’s benefits. With this in mind, doesn’t it make sense to ensure your more affordable video offerings (both hardware and software) are also bundled with acceptable audio peripherals?

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration
Vendors shouldn’t expect their services to achieve their full adoption potential if they’re supported by tinny, echo-y, low-quality audio. You can pass this responsibility to the users, and hope they step up to integrate acceptable audio, but you do so at your own risk. It doesn’t do much good to blame your users if they fail to achieve ROI from your products and services. You’d be wise to consider offering customers some sort of package or option for an upgraded audio solution. If your customers upgrade their audio, your offering provides a superior meeting experience and you’re more likely to keep them as customers.

Message to Integrators
Vendors rely on their integrator partners to be the last touch between them and customers. A good integrator does a lot more than “hang and bang” visual collaboration technology onto meeting room walls. Today’s leading integrators help their customers design personalized ideal collaboration environments for their users. Given this responsibility, it’s up to the integrators to establish strong relationships with the leading audio peripheral manufacturers. It isn’t enough to sell a line of speakers and microphones along with your video equipment. Audio is tricky, acoustics and infrastructure logistics vary from room to room, customization is often necessary. An integrator seeking to meet all needs should have a strong audio partner, able to meet the needs of today’s audio environments and willing to dig deep and help develop the audio of tomorrow. Bottom line: If the users aren’t happy, the first person they blame will be the integrators who helped design and build the room. Why take a risk with less than perfect audio? It’s up to you to ensure the final visual collaboration experience meets your customers’ needs and expectations. Strong partnerships with cutting-edge audio technology firms are certainly beneficial and helpful in staying ahead of this important aspect of customer satisfaction.

“Maybe it isn’t normal to feel drained after a day of meetings after all.”

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration

Message to Users
With the flexibility and affordability of today’s software-based collaboration tools, you may be tempted to go it alone and create your own video environment. After all, if you connect a laptop to a large screen in your meeting room and sign up for a cloud VC service, you ’re pretty much ready make your first call. The question is whether the experience will be good enough for you to ever want to make a second call. You may easily recognize an environment with terrible audio, but you may not notice if it is simply low quality. You’ll be strained and tired after your meetings, and the meetings themselves will be less productive. The worst part is you may never realize that these problems can be eliminated by simply upgrading to higher-quality audio. Maybe it isn’t normal to feel drained after a day of meetings after all. Are your meetings currently productive sessions where projects get moved in real time? Or are they seen as interruptions to real work? Do you look forward to working with your colleagues over video, or do you just “touch base” on video and put off “real work” until you can be with them in person? Ask yourself why. It may be that you like working with people in person because you are frustrated by straining to understand them when you meet with them over video. At the end of the day, we can blame the vendors and integrators for letting you down and failing to include appropriate audio for your environment. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re suffering from a less-than-optimal environment. It’s your responsibility to maximize the productivity of your team, and that means it’s your responsibility to ensure their visual collaboration solution is supported by high-quality audio.

“Whether you are designing the dream solution, or hobbling together a starter system with a laptop in your home office, remember that audio is the one thing you can’t compromise.”

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration

Example of Environment Optimization: A DIY Ceiling Audio “Kit”
Phoenix Audio Technologies, the sponsor of this Technology Brief, shared with me an example of how a flexible audio technology provider can quickly respond to customer needs and find creative ways to maximize productivity in a collaboration environment. Collaboration space designers face a fundamental choice when it comes to audio: tabletop or ceiling-mounted microphones. Tabletop audio is generally affordable and easy to install and manage (see the Quattro3, shown below). Ceiling mounted is expensive and complicated but provides a superior experience (better pickup, less shuffling noise from tabletop activity, more professional look, takes up less space, hidden wiring, etc.). What users really wanted was to simply mount a tabletop Quattro3 on the ceiling and call it a day. Due to the Quattro3’s large pickup range (4 mic array), advanced speaker locating algorithms, and surprisingly powerful speaker, it was already well suited to be mounted as a ceiling solution. While it was a simple matter for Phoenix to provide a mount, they did run into an initial hurdle with the power and cabling. Users want a USB-powered audio solution so they can use a standard PC to host their collaboration solutions. USB cables can only carry power for about 5 meters, not long enough to allow for clean cabling from a nearby communication closet. One option to get around this limitation would be to leverage the Quattro3’s Ethernet support. With Ethernet, cable length is not a restriction. However, they needed a way to translate the USB signal from the collaboration PC to an Ethernet signal.

(Phonenix Quattro3 Ceiling Mount and Power Hub)

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration
The answer lay in a completely new Phoenix device, the Quattro3 Power Hub. The hub translates the USB signal to Ethernet AND adds power to the signal, giving Quatto3 as much as 100 feet of breathing space from the collaboration PC. Advanced configurations can even “daisy chain” up to 8 units throughout a large space, all powered by one hub. At the end of the day, by combining the Quattro3 with a ceiling mount and the new power hub, you have a professional ceiling-audio installation with the ease and cost efficiency of a DIY kit.

Sponsor Snapshot
Phoenix Audio Technologies (the sponsor of this Tech Brief) is a provider of audio communication solutions for Voice Over IP (VoIP), Web Conferencing, Distance Learning and Video Conferencing applications. Phoenix develops microphones, speakerphones, audioconferencing mixers, software, PCI products and other audio accessories. The company’s product line includes:

Quattro3
This high-quality conference speakerphone is notable for its large pickup and broadcasting range, as well as its small, discrete in design. The Quattro3 utilizes multiple microphones, a uniquely designed speaker and a powerful DSP.

Duet
This USB desktop speakerphone has a built-in microphone and speaker, advanced echo cancellation and noise-suppression technologies. Its light weight and discrete design make it ideal for hands-free desktop conferencing, while its powerful pickup and speaker volume give it a large coverage range.

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration
Solo
The Solo USB is a powerful microphone with boardroom conference quality in a desktop design. This device connects to speakers, which will be required for the unit to function.

Octopus
This audio-conferencing mixer for more advanced installations lets you mount microphones and speakers anywhere in the room (ceiling, walls and tabletops). The Octopus has a high-powered DSP and technology that automatically monitors and mixes the audio, no expertise necessary.

Conclusion
In the past, productivity was limited to certain times of the day at certain locations. People worked together at the office during working hours. Today’s workers and culture demand a more mobile and flexible arrangement. Organizations wishing to stay ahead need to empower their workers to collaborate effectively regardless of location and logistics. A remote worker is no longer a half-value or half-expectation worker. Your collaboration environment needs to support all workers—remote and local—to their full potential. Ideally, your collaboration environment should include a robust AV communications network allowing for full interoperability on all systems and devices, telepresence rooms to iPads, a full suite of capabilities, video share, recording, data share, multipoint meetings, white-boarding, messaging, full UC integration, etc. In reality, we all can’t have everything, and in many organizations we’ll have to settle for a lower cost compromise. But regardless of whether you are designing the dream solution or hobbling together a starter system with a laptop in your home office, remember that audio is the one thing you can’t compromise.

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Quality Audio: Crucial for Visual Collaboration
About Telepresence Options
Telepresence Options is the world’s leading publication covering telepresence, videoconferencing and visual collaboration. The brand includes the flagship Telepresence Options website, which hosts 35,000+ unique visitors a month from 190+ countries, the annual Telepresence Options Magazine, and the monthly Telepresence Options Telegraph newsletter.

About The Author
David S. Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David is a graduate of Tulane Law School and has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating and providing in-depth coverage of telepresence and other visual collaboration/rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on twitter.com/letsdovideo or contact him directly at David@TelepresenceOptions.com

About Phoenix Audio Technologies
Founded in 2004, Phoenix Audio Technologies (phnxaudio.com) is an innovator of audio communication solutions for Voice Over IP (VoIP), Web Conferencing, Distance Learning, and Video Conferencing applications. Phoenix develops Microphones, Speakerphones, Audio Conferencing Mixers, Software, PCI products, and other audio accessories that improve the performance of existing conferencing devices. Our products enable people to communicate freely and naturally with easy to use, plug-and-play devices.

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