August 25, 2017 by David Danto

Extend your arm from wherever you’re seated right now and touch the display showing you these words. Can you reach it?

Soda Can VideoconferencingIf the answer is yes then you’ve just validated that you are at the correct distance to use a fixed focal length (non-zooming) webcam for videoconferencing. If the answer is no, you need a better camera – one that can zoom-in – to have effective videoconferences.

This is a plain, simple rule of thumb that acknowledges what videoconferencing industry people have known since the technology was first available. The whole point of videoconferencing is to enable people in different locations to experience the same, rich, non-verbal communications they would if they were in the same room. In order for that to happen, users need to be able to see the facial expressions and clearly hear the words of the participants. If they only appear as a small dot on a screen and/or only have hollow, distant audio then the whole point of having the conference is lost.

I covered some of these ideas in a June 2014 blog, specifically saying:

“The whole point of visual collaboration is to convey the 55% of communications that noted scholar Albert Mehrabian documented comes from facial expressions and body language. If that doesn’t get accomplished then there’s really no point in just having video for video’s sake. Regrettably though, that is exactly what some … UC room products are doing today.

For example, I was in the offices of one of my clients a couple of weeks ago. He and his colleagues were testing out some webcams that could be used for software video systems in a prototype room design. Everyone cheered when the video connection was made and the room was able to connect to a desktop without all of that old-school expensive room hardware the software guys like to bash….but then reality set in. I waved to the gentleman at the far end. Or did I flip him the finger? Honestly, he couldn’t tell. He saw an image that showed live video with good colors – it was even HD – but he had no idea if my gesture showed I was happy to see him or cursing him out. He saw I had a face and that I was seated at the table, but he had no idea if I was happy or sad – or even awake or asleep. None of the critical reasons we actually use visual collaboration for were even remotely accomplished.”

I bring all of this up again because, unbelievably, there are still products being released onto the market that try to exploit end-users’ lack of understanding of the above. These are systems from a number of different manufacturers with roughly the same form factor. If you picture a soda can lying sideways on and perpendicular to a single-row box of saltine crackers, then you have the rough design plan of most if not all of these systems. Because of that, let’s call them Soda-Cracker video systems.

Soda-Cracker video salespeople all use the same, compelling messages:

  • Videoconferencing has been terrible over the years — way too complex and expensive (which is sadly true)
  • Newer technology has been developed that simplifies the process and reduces the costs involved in videoconferencing (also true)
  • All you have to do is slap a Soda-Cracker video system on a conference room’s flat-panel display and you can have great videoconferencing (WARNING: Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire)

As I explained in my prior blog, these systems use nothing more than glorified webcams. (In the first sentence of this article I prompted you to perform an applicability test for using cameras like this for videoconferencing. If you’re not close enough to touch them then the results will be generally lousy.) However, that’s not the only issue. If all your components are in the “cracker box” form factor then you are also probably not using a microphone plan that will effectively pick up all of the people speaking in the room, unless — again — they are close enough to touch the system. In addition, some of these Soda-Cracker manufacturers have the gall to tell you that they’ve “simplified” your videoconferencing by selling you a system that is completely incompatible with all of the other videoconferencing systems you already own. That’s like telling you to buy a simplified mobile phone that costs far less than other phones on the market, but can only call phones of the same brand. What value is it if you can’t call anyone you want?

Every time Soda-Cracker videoconferencing systems have been introduced they’ve failed to have widespread penetration in the enterprise market. It didn’t matter if it was from a start-up or an established manufacturer, the results have been the same — users try them, they hate the terrible experience, they stop using them. These poor results are nearly universal (or have you already forgotten Ellen Page’s attempt to sell you home Telepresence so you could play card games with your friends from your living room?)

This article is meant to be a fair warning, because the Soda-Cracker videoconferencing scam will seemingly not die. There is now a new “most advanced video communication device” being touted on crowdfunding sites that is clearly a Soda-Cracker system. It’s now grabbing all the hype of the last Soda-Cracker system that came out a few years ago backed by huge Silicon Valley Venture Capital firms, which managed to get tremendous (and incorrect) hype from large news publications (despite it’s obvious placement in this fizzy-crunchy category.) I have absolutely no doubt that in a couple of years we’ll have another “groundbreaking, problem solving, bestest-ever” Soda-Cracker video system again unleashed on unsuspecting end-users.

This type of overhyped, under-delivering system always reminds me of my favorite HL Mencken quote, paraphrased to, “All complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.” These Soda-Cracker videoconferencing systems are simply the wrong answer, no matter what the question is. Even if very low price is the only priority for an enterprise, there are solutions on the market in that range that can provide the necessary ability to zoom-in on a person speaking and still work universally with any videoconferencing application you wish to use (Skype/Skype for Business, WebEx, BlueJeans, Zoom, whatever you want.) Why anyone would lock themselves into a bad, non-interoperable experience when there are better options at the same price is honestly beyond me.

Personally, I’ve worked with hundreds of firms that had poor videoconferencing and unified communications experiences, and have managed to turn their experiences into very positive ones with a significant ROI. This always can only be accomplished by examining actual end-user needs, selecting a variety of tools to meet those actual needs and ensuring that they are all interoperable with each other. Any other overhyped, oversimplified message is just…well…Soda-Crackers.

This post originally appeared here. It’s reprinted with David’s permission.

About David Danto

David Danto has over 30 years of experience providing problem-solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds, including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology.