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What UC is, Not Always What You Get

By Alan MacLeod
VP of Product | Revolabs Inc.

Communication is an art form. In the workplace, communication—especially verbal communication— must be clear and concise because so much can go wrong if an important detail is missed or lost in translation. The sole purpose of nearly every digital conferencing setup is to communicate effectively with people located far away. research has been conducted on business communications, and the findings are universally clear: the fundamental requirement for effective collaboration is audio, or more specifically, intelligible sound. In an era when a dedicated “Audio Visual Department” is a rarity, the role of ensuring successful communications often falls to IT (Information Technology). Here are some helpful tips for anyone in the unenviable position of making sure teams can collaborate with far-flung colleagues.

Audio Matters
Without audio, video is two-way surveillance, and content sharing is an electronic billboard. While both have value, it is not in communicating complex messages. Video and content enhance communication, but they are not enough on their own. Meeting attendees might suffer a choppy video connection, but if there is no sound, there is no meeting. Audio is the fundamental building block, and it is logical to conclude the better the audio is, the more likely the communication is to be effective.

In fact, the bar for “good” audio should be a well-defined goal. The user experience should be one where all participants are understood. Can the people on the far end hear the speaker or presenter as well as if they were face to face, and equally, can they be heard by participants on the near end? With that in mind, the basic requirements for sound and clarity are all about removing the obstacles in the way of realistic, natural sound.

Sound, Sound, Sound
To circumvent these obstacles, certain things need to be kept in mind regarding AV equipment. Sound, sound, sound, content and video – in that order. The first three translate to room sound, equipment sound and infrastructure sound. Get them wrong, and the last two are far less important because the experience is already poor for the users. And of course, overlaying everything is ease of use; simplicity will trump functionality.

The justification for great audio is actually biological in nature. We have to work so much harder to understand someone over a poor audio system, and that work takes up brain power that is supposed to be devoted to understanding and absorbing the message, not just discerning the words. This work causes the listener to become fatigued during calls, and ultimately, less sharp mentally during and after the call.

To achieve realistic, natural sound when deploying an AV solution, use a room or space that doesn’t introduce excessive background noise or add strange artifacts such as echo or reverberation. Choose an enclosed space if possible, and if not, then choose one where the surrounding noise is limited. Once an environment has been chosen, maximize its audio potential. For example, add wall and window treatments to prevent unwanted reflections, echoes or reverberations from those surfaces. When the environment is noisy or if the sound is distorted by reflections, participants must struggle to listen.

When choosing the audio solution, select a product designed for the environment. (Hint: personal audio devices are not designed to fill a room with sound effectively, and oversize solutions played quietly simply cost too much.) Find a product or product family designed to reproduce the full spectrum of the human voice. The traditional telephone network (Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) was never designed to deliver the full sound of the human voice. It was actually designed to squeeze as much voice traffic as possible down long haul cables that were expensive to construct. Unfortunately, we are so used to standard telephone audio that we often accept it is of adequate quality. It’s not.

The IT Department is now expected to support a range of audio applications from small- to large-scale.
The IT Department is now expected to support a range of audio applications from small- to large-scale.

Audio, Content, & Video Equipment
With the right mix of audio solutions and the right environment, conference sound can be as clear and intelligible as two people in the same room talking to each other. To achieve that, think of the conversation in three parts: sound capture, transmission, and reproduction.

Nearly all modern UC (Unified Communications) systems use wideband audio (a range of sound comparable to the full human vocal range) and can transmit rich audio data with incredible fidelity over a digital network. But look at the other two parts of the solution: capture and reproduction. It’s so easy to overlook the human interfaces of the UC infrastructure by using sub-standard equipment or by placing the equipment in a terrible acoustic environment. Think of the old adage, “garbage in, garbage out.”

In essence, that means sound will never be any clearer than it is when it leaves the speaker’s mouth, and each step in the chain needs to maintain that standard if the sound entering the listener’s ear is to be of the same quality. If the goal is realistic, natural, face-to-face quality sound, then a 1986 speakerphone on a 2016 UC (unified communications) network cannot do the job.

Once the audio chain is sorted out, it’s time to consider how to share content. The challenge here is different: Success depends less on how content is presented from a technological perspective and more on ease of use. Research indicates meetings that involve the use of technology can take up to 15 minutes to start. This is, of course, a cost to the companies involved in lost working hours. Removing this 15 minutes is a key factor for enabling an effective meeting. Any form of content sharing has to be simple and consistent with user expectations, whether they’re expecting to connect a PC by a wire to a display or share using the UC infrastructure. Applying those same principles for the experience in the meeting room is critical.

Lastly, consider video. Probably the simplest way to think of video is that it enhances the meeting. When done well, it adds facial expression, which is an important extra layer of human interaction. With that in mind, it’s key to ensure that the equipment can capture those expressions. For example, is the resolution and view of the camera adequate to cover the room, i.e., is the camera designed for the size of room or is it just a high resolution personal webcam? And then, when looking at the video image, can the user on the far end see a sufficient level of detail to make sense of the images? Are their expressions recognizable? Are the remote people almost life-sized when on screen? Video requires bandwidth to work well, and that means the network has to be correctly sized and optimized to allow the best video quality. Just as with audio, remember “garbage in, garbage out,” so ensuring video capture, transmission, and reproduction are all appropriate is essential to ensuring video adds value.

The primary goal for every communications setting should be realistic, natural, face-to-face quality sound.
The primary goal for every communications setting should be realistic, natural, face-to-face quality sound.

One of the biggest challenges in selecting an AV solution is that it’s difficult to know how useful the equipment will be. Without a demonstration or test in a realistic setting, it’s hard to gauge the sound quality one can expect. Video quality is more obvious, both the images on the screen and the resolution specifications tell the story. No one in an IT department would be confused between the performance of an old VGA monitor vs a modern 1080p LCD flat screen. The LCD wins hands down on paper and in the real world.

Judging audio quality is harder because we’ve been conditioned by the telephone network, which does not provide realistic, natural sound. It’s often difficult to tell who we’re talking with or to get the full experience of the message. But, because it’s what we’ve used for so long, many of us don’t realize it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step is to reset expectations by realizing that face-to-face quality communication is achievable within a realistic budget.
Once the expectation is set, the next challenge is realizing that expectation.

It is possible to read specifications and know whether the audio product was designed for the telephone network or for a UC environment, e.g., wideband audio. How well it has been implemented by the manufacturer is impossible to discern, and even price provides little guidance. Listening to sound files tells only part of the story. Too often those sound files are played back on a PC and the PC’s audio performance is insufficient for the important sound quality differences to be heard. The only solution is to test the products; the best approach is to test two or more of them in situ (in its original place). That way the performance of the microphones and speakers can be confirmed, along with how well the system works in the room in which it will be installed.

Only a true demo will help discern how the equipment handles issues like room noise, reflections and echoes, audio pickup from people located at different distances from the microphones, and the ability of the system’s speakers to fill the room comfortably. Think about listening to someone shouting to be heard, as opposed to talking calmly. The former sounds harsh, the latter comfortable.
The disappearance of the company AV department is sorely felt. Historically, the AV team members were experts who knew how to make sound and video work well in a given space. With wireless communication protocols and online administration, modern UC systems have removed many installation and technical challenges once common in AV implementations. What UC doesn’t change, however, is the requirement that a system must work in a room. And UC introduces new challenges. The use of standardized PC connections (USB, Bluetooth, etc.) has allowed many manufacturers to enter the UC market with low-quality, consumer-grade equipment, with video and audio capabilities ill-suited to the environment or use case. The AV team knew this; the IT team is still learning this.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is that users can recognize a poor experience. They are just as likely to swamp the IT help desk with issues today as they were then, especially as personal video conferencing (Skype, Hangout, Facetime, etc.) grows in popularity. Business users know, and thus expect, video should work well. And, if they’re used to using a quality Bluetooth headset, they also know audio can be realistic and natural sounding. Many of those consumers are the IT folks looking to deploy modern AV systems today, so if they keep their expectations high, and hold their providers and equipment manufacturers accountable, they can achieve remarkable solutions at a fraction of the cost of the systems available to the AV department only a handful of years ago.

About the author and Revolabs

As Vice President of Product, Alan MacLeod is responsible for overseeing product direction at Revolabs. MacLeod has more than 25 years of experience across the networking, communications, and collaboration industries in companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 100. He is a well-known unified communications expert and has a deep understanding of the needs of users in the business world.

Revolabs delivers better communication in the world of business with professional microphone systems and conference phones for telephony and unified communications. The company’s introduction of wireless microphones for conferencing revolutionized business communications by allowing unprecedented freedom in meetings. Revolabs’ ability to produce superior sound in large, complex spaces inspires a full portfolio of conferencing solutions that enable the most reliable and natural conversation in every meeting space.

With a full range of choices—from installed to simple plug-and-play systems, wireless or wired solutions, and local or cloud-based management—Revolabs offers the most flexible and uniform set of solutions to accommodate the needs of the entire business. Revolabs is a fully-owned subsidiary of Yamaha Corporation, one of the world’s most respected names in audio. Together they are redefining the market for business audio solutions. The company is headquartered in Sudbury, Massachusetts. More information can be found at www.revolabs.com.

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