My Plan to Master Video Conferencing

I’ve decided not to travel for the rest of 2013. There are a lot of inputs into this decision, including the fact that I’ve been travelling 50% – 75% of the time for the last 20 years and I’m just tired of it. I also have realized that my endless travel introduces a lot of friction into my world that I believe is both unnecessary, is shortening my life, and starting to have a material impact on my creativity.

It’s amazing to me that in 2013 – with all the choices we have – real video conferencing is still chaotic, messy, and underused across many organizations. Getting it set up within a single organization generally works ok, but across organizations continues to be painful.

There are lots of different cases to consider. The simple one, like a one to one video conference, works fine with Skype, Hangouts, or Facetime.. It’s trivial to initiate and I find video to be much more effective and powerful than a phone call. Eye contact matters.

As it gets more complicated, such as a multi-person video conference that is analogous to a typical audio conference call, there are more options. For example, you have two to ten locations connecting. Most are a single person but one is the center of gravity. There might be a presentation. I’ve found Hangouts to be the best and easiest to deal with for this, although there are lots of other options, such as GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, WebEx, and Fuze.

But then you descend into the typical morass of a weak link somewhere. Someone connects with a low speed connection. Or is calling in without headphones from a crowded coffee shop. Or a group is in a big room with a laptop at the end of the room with an 11″ screen that no one really sees and eventually gets aimed at one particular person, rather than the whole room. Or the audio in the main room is weak, and it’s hard to hear the conversation unless the person is right in front of the speakerphone or computer mic.

I’ve recently done many presentations to large groups – 100 – 500 people – using video conferencing. This works well as long as there is good audio and video on the receiving end. Ironically, these are often easier to do and work better than the smaller video conferences, since someone is actually paying attention to it.

My current goal is to train “my world” to use video conferencing effectively. A small investment in the right hardware and configuration makes all the difference. While I have real preferences on software, I can live with different choices given our hardware setups.

For example, I used Fuze for the first time last week for my Yesware board meeting – it was flawless (easy setup, sharp video, great screen share. solid everything.) I’m on an UP Global board meeting right now using GoToMeeting – it’s working fine, although I’m staring at one person (instead of the room) since the video is on a laptop on the end of the table. But last week, my GoToMeeting experience with Moz was a disaster (in direct contrast to the actual meeting content, which was great), until we separated the audio stream to a separate dialin number.

At the high end, we use Oblong’s Mezzanine. It integrates directly with a Cisco system so you get the Mezzanine experience virtualizing the Cisco high end video conferencing. Plus we then have a very high def H323 system in our office.

Look for more on this from me over the rest of the summer as I work hard to master this stuff.

I’m interested in what you are using – toss it in the comments.

  • DaveJ

    A couple of thoughts:

    – This would be more useful to everyone if you found solutions that don’t require mandating particular equipment. Though you can get away with that, your portfolio companies can’t, because few customers and partners will be willing to bend to their requirements (and in many cases, can’t, due to centralized decisions).

    – Reminds me of a relational database. 1-1 works fine. 1-Many works fine. Many-Many is more complicated and requires an intermediary.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yup. I’ve been mostly focused on the software side. You can do the hardware using generic equipment – there are a few very specific things that make a huge difference.

      Following are the parts to the hardware.

      1. Platform: Windows, Mac, Dedicated video conference (Cisco, Lifesize). Each works fine – I prefer Mac.

      2. Screen: Large flat panel screens are cheap and all you need is ONE in your office. Makes a huge amount of difference.

      3. Audio: Integrated audio varies a lot. Worse case get a high end Logitech HD camera. Also, have a regular speaker phone in the room to have a separate audio channel.

      4. Network: Speed matters. WiFi vs. wired used to, but at high enough speeds it doesn’t.

      I’ve got multiple configs – desktop with big screen and separate camera, laptop with integrated camera, large video screen with separate camera and Mac Mini driving things, and Oblong Mezzanine for H323.

      Hardware should never be the constraint here. In 1999 when I tried this companies had to spend $10k on dedicated hardware. That was a huge constraint that was both a waste of money and ineffective. That’s no longer the issue.

      • Sanat Patel

        A la PictureTel, etc. used to be 60k per side of the conference back in 1995, in ’99 they created the 3k system to eat into their high end proprietary systems, but never followed through.
        We were working on T.120 to share data as well ( whiteboard, files, overhead slides). Was too complicated at the time and I.P. hadn’t taken off as they anticipated.

        Brad, what do you use to share presentation and data with the participants?

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Most of the services will work for presentation sharing / screen sharing. They are all a little different, but all seem to work fine.

          • Sanat Patel

            What about interactivity?
            Presentation is fine when it’s 1-to-many, but meetings are usually few-to-few.
            I know Go-to-meeting or ,what I prefer, Join.me lets you give screen control to others.
            Unfortunately, we still have to present with antiquated tools like Powerpoint to tell your story.
            Are folks open to using multiple tools during remote conferencing (i.e. phone, join.me, dropbox ) as long as it’s smooth/simple or is complete integration required?

  • SheVenture

    We are using Bluejeans. There can be up to 25 people on the call and the presenter can configure the screen using several different styles, one being the “Brady Bunch” type layout. Everyone can see everyone else. We used Bluejeans for a Kauffman FastTrac course and it was great. They still need to make several upgrades but it did the job.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yup – Bluejeans is a great option for multiple types of equipment and large groups.

      • Anna Lowry

        I was going to make the same suggestion. The CEO is presenting at the conference I plan. The product has a lot of potential.

  • SheVenture

    Oh – and you can join using a room syste, Skype, Browser etc.

  • Rob

    Brad, what headphone and mic devices do you like, and/or any tips for audio (problematic on laptops)?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I use just the Apple earbuds. They are great.

    • http://sitetherapy.net/ rick gregory

      If you don’t mind appearing on screen with headphones on the various Logitech headsets are quite decent and the boom mic makes you voice much clearer than most built-in laptop mics. The downside is really just appearance – you have a headset on and you’re on camera.

  • http://garlandbinns.com/ Garland William Binns III

    Cheers to this, good luck Brad. I’ve been able to do this for 18 months now from the middle of nowhere in the jungle of Costa Rica, with no problems. For 1-1 I use Skype Premium, for more than that, Google+ Hangouts.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Awesome validation!

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    1 year ago, I found Google Hangouts to work really well when the connection was no good vs Skype which always seemed to optimize for video quality.
    Over the last few months, I am not so sure. I seem to be switching to Skype premium for group chats from time to time – Skype seems to have upped it’s game with non ideal connections. Still in early stages of understanding this.
    The downside to both is that their tablet integration sort of sucks.

  • Bob Gilbreath

    If only we could get every business to similarly decide not to travel for the net 6 months. This group “norm” and challenge would lead to massive improvement across business and life.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      A profound and insightful point!

    • James

      Here are some really interesting stats http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com/pros-cons

      They reckon that US National productivity would increase by $334 billion to $467 billion a year through telecommuting!

  • http://www.crashutah.com/ John

    I’ve made a similar no travel policy after traveling the first quarter of the year far too much and with limited extra value for the additional travel pains.

    Skype and G+ Hangout are the gotos. I love where G+ hangouts are going. So simple once people are on board. The calendar integration is nice as well.

  • ricklevine

    My experience has been that much of my satisfaction with any of the videoconference techniques is tied to the quality of the far-end audio. Much like my movie-watching preferences, I’ll put up with bad picture if sound is nuanced and effort-free to listen to. Screw up the audio, and no amount of picture joy will make me sit still. For years (20+? PARC NV/CU-SeeME/PictureTel over DS3 :-) my preferred method for “fixing” a bad longterm videoconferencing situation has been sending a polycom-style starfish phone to the party on the other end of the conversation.

  • Sanjeev Srivastav

    Here’s my experience – relevant for conferencing w/ companies that use Microsoft Lync.

    I’ve had many hour-long Lync meetings with about a dozen people located around the US, from my home office in California. I’m typically invited to the meeting by someone at the other end, and can then use the free Windows Lync client via a Guest login. The Mac version of Lync requires a subscription to Office 365 online. The integrated VoIP audio and screen/app sharing, sometimes with 3 or 4 parties, worked very well. The video quality was, at times, jittery, but no worse than what you get from the free Skype or Hangout.

  • http://makunas.com/ Michael Makunas

    I feel that beyond video and audio, there’s a third aspect that is the weakest when it comes to the available tools: the whiteboard. What’s out there that actually works? I’ve been experimenting with using a Wacom tablet and Google docs, but I’m not quite at the point where it’s as efficient as a physical whiteboard. Mainly because I have to switch back to my keyboard to erase something. There are some group diagraming tools like creately or cacoo, but I don’t want a diagraming tool, I want a whiteboard; something to easily and quickly draw what’s in my head and share it with everyone else on the video conference. (Though I wouldn’t mind if it made my handwriting a little neater or my squares a little squarer).

  • Patrick Quinlan

    Convercent just opened a our marketing office in Seattle (which I did fly in for because its pretty awesome and wanted to share it in person!) and participated in our weekly Executive Staff via BlueJeans that we just stood up last week and it was so much better then dialing in. The team in Denver had a big screen and a good camera, I was on FaceTime and was able to hear and see all, even what they added to the white board.

    • Tom Strand

      I use BlueJeans all the time with room systems and browser/skype/google chat. But Facetime? BlueJeans has an iOS client, but can’t connect Facetime AFAIK.

  • http://www.clickbrain.com/ ClickBrain

    I’m thinking about trying out Kubi – http://revolverobotics.com/meet-kubi/ as part of a solution. Looks very cool, but until you try, you never know.

    I do OK in general with domestic connections on Skype and Hangout, but even those have issues sometimes, When it comes to the calls I do with Asia twice a week, it’s tough and I am still looking for something that can handle it. We all have high speed connections, but still end up with numerous dropped calls, no video, etc. etc. It seems silly that we can’t get this right in 2013.

    Would love to hear from folks that have strong international success stories with a different service.

    • James

      Hello!

      I work for a cloud-based video service provider and the company was founded with the ambition to solve the same frustrations that you’re experiencing. Historically video conferencing has been very complicated, and my consumer head still struggles to understand why. Being new to the industry has allowed me ask all these questions to the technical team – basically it comes down to an over complication by rival manufacturers with no desire to make their hardware talk to each other.

      What’s interesting is that because of consumer facing video like Skype people are, quite rightly, not willing to accept complexity. We’ve created a service that provides the kind of things consumers are used to – click-to-call, connect any device, unlimited usage etc. We have a video support desk that uses Real-time analytics to monitor call quality, making sure that you and other participants have a great experience, all the time. It’s business quality video, but with all the simplicity of the consumer video.

      We have a data centre in Hong Kong so we could give you that quality you need. Our regional data centres mean we can provide geo video routing, controlling the calls journey and therefore the call quality you experience.

      Give me a shout back if you fancy giving us a try free of charge, or are just interested to know more. I’m more than happy to rack the brains of our technical team! Our company is called UCi2i and our website is here http://www.UCi2i.com

      All the best,
      James

      • http://www.clickbrain.com/ ClickBrain

        Sure James, I’d be happy to give it a go. You can reach me at brad at clickbrain com

    • http://www.kubi.me/ Marcus Rosenthal

      I am the CEO of Revolve Robotics and we would be happy to let you or anyone try a demo of Kubi. We have developed Kubi to be the tablet stand that turns and tilts so you can have more interactive video conferences. Kubi is remotely controlled using our cloud based controls and is compatible with any video conferencing software. You can email us at info@revolverobotics.com to schedule a demo. Our customers use it for better conference room experiences and to enable always on video conferencing for remote team collaboration. Learn more at http://www.kubi.me.

      We have lots of video calls on iPads to demo Kubi and we find that Skype and Hangouts often have issues in video and audio quality. FaceTime works pretty good, but both parties need to have an Apple device and it is only peer-to-peer. The affordable videoconferencing service that we have found to work the best is Zoom (zoom.us). They have great collaboration features and a pricing model that is scalable to any size business.

      • http://www.clickbrain.com/ ClickBrain

        Thanks Marcus. I’ll give it a run. I’m also going to give Zoom a try as well. Really applaud your innovation in creating such a cool solution to a real problem.

  • http://www.ilasoft.net ILAsoft

    I’ve been leading a team that is 100% remote and scattered throughout the country and outside of it. While it is great to have a team-building of sorts time to time, we have no problem working with each other, even when we have not met for over several years. Our tool of choice is Nefsis (great for stand-ups, ad-hoc meetings and even parallel programming), but we also use WebEx and Level3 for external demos, etc. and VoIP (in-house, Skype, Google Voice). There is no single tool that does not have some sort of an issue and that works all the time, but if the people are ready and want to make it work, they will, no matter what tool.

  • Ryan P

    Great to see you are scaling your resources across the world at once. I run a small website that provides the equipment in the video conferencing space to help enabele your software based solutions. http://www.telepresencegear.com – Thank you

  • BenBarreth

    Interesting experiment. I love the idea.

    I used to work for a bank and they had video conferencing enabled in one of the conference rooms for internal meetings with the main office in Ohio. It was a disaster. It required a trained IT guy to setup and extensively test each room for at least 30 minutes before each meeting. IMHO, nobody has cracked this nut yet.

    I had an idea to build a video conferencing channel between rooms that was “always on”. The simple idea being the room(s) on the other side of the US would be merely an extension of the physical space you’re in right now. You could have a wall-wide projector to try to imitate this as closely as possible. For slower connections, you could have the software auto-dial-down the video frame rate when no audio/video movement was detected for 5 minutes.

    The sole purpose of this idea would be to make the tech completely idiot proof. No setup required. No trained/dedicated IT support. The CEO of Bank of America could walk into the room & use it with zero assistance.

    That begs the question: is CEO-proof > idiot-proof?

  • Diane Horton

    So glad to see you tackling this and writing about it Brad. Connecting a number of people from different organizations and areas of the globe can be a very painful process. We tend to use GoToMeeting, mostly for audio calls and screen sharing simply because this is hard enough; the idea of introducing video at this point isn’t something that we’ve actively worked at. I’m looking forward to hearing updates on your experiences.

  • Martin

    You might want to check out the past experience of Halemka http://geekdoctor.blogspot.com/2007/11/cool-technology-of-week_21.html

    Video conferencing goes hand in hand with cloud storage: Dropbox vs. SkyDrive vs. Google Drive vs. cloud
    http://technecore.blogspot.com/2013/05/best-cloud-storage-dropbox-vs-skydrive.html
    Cloud storage shoot-out: Google Drive vs. Dropbox vs. SkyDrive vs. Box
    http://royal.pingdom.com/2012/06/21/cloud-storage-shoot-out-google-drive-vs-dropbox-vs-skydrive-vs-box-com/

    In addition, to improve conference/video calls you need HD voice G.722 Codec (It helps if everyone can actually hear what is being said)
    http://www.readytalk.com/
    http://www.onsip.com/

  • Rob Ryan

    Less pollution and waste of time – more to spend for yourself and with your wife and dog. Do you need any more reason? Thanks for your leadership on this Brad.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      All good additional reasons, as well as my mental health!

  • Richard Wimmer

    In my company we do lots of video calls to Asia and VSEE is what we use all the time as quality of the calls is superb.

  • Aussiwi

    at Mogl.com we use Fuze everyday (in conjunction with Uber Conference) for our morning huddle at 8:15 everyday. Uber goes well with it as we have a lot of salespeople on the road and you can see who’s not muted and who chimes in.

  • Roberto Krishan

    I’ve been advocate of Skype since 2005! Video-Skype has not only reduced tremendously the cost of my international travels, but also made possible to maintain family relationship between USA and Brazil. I also use Gotomeeting for work because works relatively well for a 1-3 people video-conference call and screen sharing; but customers sometimes are skeptical about it. I am very interested to see what comes up for small/mid business. The problem is people’s (or company’s) adoption of the video-conference call. It seems to me that most people have the need see the person in front of them so to conduct business; a total waste time in my opinion. I usually use video-conference calls to initiate negotiation / meetings and when the deal is picking up, then a face-to-face personal meeting to close the deal. Screen sharing is very important because creates closure and builds credibility. All best, Roberto–

  • http://www.EyeOnJewels.com/ Darius Vasefi

    Your body will love you for reducing travel Brad, good decision.

    I’ve been using Skype for years for the majority of video conf needs and find it satisfycing. Been meaning to give Hangout a try but don’t know many people using it so it’s taken a back seat. Also use the apple earbuds and they work fine. The larger flat panel is a great idea, I’m looking into that for my home office.

    I also remember a service used in one of your WSJ events called Spreecast which was pretty seamless with good quality. A couple of specific points:

    1. Software/usability: I find many of the services to be poor on basic usability and some basic features to make the experience a more effective meeting, wish the companies focused heavily on the user experience.

    2. people/expectations: both for myself and others in the mtgs I set expectations upfront to not look for perfection (as with pretty much any technology service/device) and focus on the content and goal of the meeting, be resourceful and innovative when issues come up and get the work done. Of course this is possible in private meetings but if you’re doing a public presentation it’s a different story.

  • Susan Cohen

    I’m training to teach on UNC’s online MBA program which uses Adobe Connect. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I like interacting with my students. Surprisingly, I am impressed. I will have about 10 -12 students per class. The online capabilities are awesome. I can easily embed video and once I set up a session, it will be saved so I can improve it and use it again later. Students can chat to ask questions without interrupting the flow of the class dialog. I can even divide my class up into virtual breakout rooms and then I can “float” between the rooms. It’s not at all like a MOC.

  • Peter Radizeski

    You can get the Vidtel any-to-any cloud video conferencing room which allows you to use Skype, Cisco Jabber, WebRTC, and others to connect seamlessly.

  • http://hegranes.com/ jonathan hegranes

    @bfeld:disqus

    curious to hear your thoughts on philip rosedale’s piece about the “theoretical limits of video conferencing”

    http://highfidelity.io/blog/2013/04/the-theoretical-limits-of-video-conferencing/

    among other ideas, he makes a great point about never being able to make eye contact. something with which we’ve all struggled, but at least i’ve never articulated.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Good thoughts. I don’t have the eye contact issue – if you are a little further away from the screen the parallax starts to work in your favor.

  • Anne_At_VSee

    Give VSee ( vsee.com ) a try – uses 50% less bandwidth than Skype for the same video and its group video chat is free (meant for small groups). As you mentioned, group video conferencing can be a pain when someone is on a poor network. VSee also has a nifty screen share feature.

  • Mark Lancaster

    Brad, Check out Bluescape. Hayworth is introducing it this week at Neocon. I saw it in person and was blown away. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aaRXl38SKk

  • Troy Noll

    With regard to audio, our company implemented Microsoft Lync a year ago and issued Jabra Speak 410 speakerphones. I find these speakerphones work great with exceptional quality and allow you to move about the room and you do not find yourself leaning in to speak. I have one at the office, at home and in my travel bag and they work well with all applications, but are “optimized” for Lync. I only use headphones now when I am in a crowded situation. I love this product !