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Analysts have been lamenting declining revenue in the video conferencing and telepresence equipment sectors. Research from IDC shows North America is down 8.8 percent year-over-year, even though quarter-over-quarter revenue grew at 5.5 percent. Lingering economic issues continue to stifle IT budgets, resulting in a trickle-down effect that’s putting the kibosh on adding new video capabilities within the enterprise. Fortunately, a crop of affordable HD telepresence options are coming into the market, giving companies new options that won’t leave their budgets gasping for air.

Video conferencing: What features really matter?

When price points go down, expectations typically refocus on those core features users find essential. Administrators shopping for lower-cost HD video conferencing solutions will often narrow their evaluation to a handful of issues that are most important to them. Commonly cited criteria include good audio and video quality, ease of use, and interoperability with other systems and endpoints.

In most cases, buyers give quality and ease of use priority when reviewing potential systems, as without these two features a solution won’t get enough use to justify its purchase price. Users prefer technologies that melt into the background and let them focus on their work. Part of that means that any potential solution must play well with a variety of endpoints and systems without requiring a lot of fussing from either the users or IT. Quality also translates into a system that delivers crisp video and clean audio, key components in a truly seamless experience.

System interoperability matters, especially where users are likely to be communicating with people outside of the enterprise, or where a company has legacy platforms that will need to be accommodated when new equipment is added. Endpoints that allow for multiple codecs are often attractive, as are solutions capable of connecting to different types of infrastructure and supporting many flavors of telepresence technology.

The types of companies interested in lower-cost video solutions vary. Many are small or midsized businesses that either can’t or don’t want to spend the money necessary to put full-scale systems in their conference rooms. Some have a sizeable contingent of remote offices or traveling workers, and need to equip many locations on a budget. Other companies may already have a number of fully-enabled video suites, and are now seeking to outfit secondary rooms. Kris Rangarajan, marketing director at AVer Information, Inc., said this is happening more frequently as users become accustomed to the perks of video conferencing through their smartphones and tablets and begin to expect greater functionality out of their static workplace meeting spaces as well. “We’ve had Fortune 100 companies tell us they have a huge gamut of unused conference rooms that they feel could be video enabled, and they would like to bring the technology in there,” Rangarajan explained. User bases at many companies have established an increased need for video capabilities, and even large enterprises are keen to fill that void at an affordable price point.

Low-cost video conferencing endpoints

AVer recently rolled out their EVC100, a hardware-based endpoint that boasts HD quality for $999 and comes with a 3-year warranty. Included in that price is a 720p camera (a 1080p version is also available) that features an 88-degree field of view. Targeted squarely at the room-based model, Rangarajan said their testing showed the camera covers a span of around 20 feet. “We don’t want people to have to constantly pan and tilt, and we don’t want people getting cut off on either end.” The camera also features a 4X digital zoom, and the array microphone has full duplex echo cancellation. The EVC100 is SIP- and H.323-compliant.

The entire system is designed to be set up within about 10 minutes; administrators skeptical of its ease of use or the quality of a sub-$1,000 endpoint can try it out for free under AVer’s test drive program. “It allows people to play with it and touch it,” Rangarajan said. “Belief comes with experience.” Potential customers are able to receive one of the units (full-fledged, not a watered down version), set it up, conduct a test call to check the quality of the system, and then send the whole thing back with the included return mailer.

Polycom’s RealPresence Group 300 is another lower-cost solution. Supporting up to 1080p video quality while squeaking in at just under $3,000, this endpoint’s camera has a 67-degree field of view and 2X digital zoom (a 72-degree FOV, 12X optical zoom model is also available). “It has really great features all the way around, all the high-quality features you’d expect, but the price is only $2,999,” said Laura Shay, senior director of RealPresence platform product marketing at Polycom, Inc.

Echo cancellation and noise suppression technology is built in, and Shay said Polycom exceeds customer expectations when it comes to sound quality. “Audio isn’t something people necessarily think about, but boy, when it doesn’t work, it is a problem,” she explained. Smaller rooms are the target audience for this endpoint. It’s ideal not only for huddle and other meeting rooms, but also for applications such as the conference spaces HR uses to interview remote candidates. The RealPresence Group 300 supports both H.323 and SIP protocols, and the system is covered by a 1-year warranty.

For a solution that focuses on hardware without the high costs, Vaddio has introduced its HuddleSTATION, a platform that provides a camera and speakers as part of a wall unit, along with a control dock that houses microphones and a dialer, for less than $3500. The camera has an 82-degree viewing angle and a manual pan-tilt-focus lens. The SIP-based VoIP speakerphone is ready to connect to Avaya and Cisco communication systems, and Tom Mingo, vice president of sales at Vaddio, said interoperability with other vendors is on the horizon. It’s an approach that “maintains neutrality and allows enterprises to envision incorporating video and audio into little areas where the alternative was nothing.”

Designed for ultimate flexibility, the HuddleSTATION not only supports whatever conferencing platform users have on their devices, it also allows small meeting rooms to function effectively as nearly any type of conferencing space. “These rooms are only being used for video conferencing 5 to 10 percent of the time,” Mingo said. By leveraging HuddleSTATION’s feature set, meeting spaces can serve a wider variety of purposes. Devices that connect via HDMI or VGA cables (external cameras, tablets, etc.) can be plugged directly into the dock, and can either be used alone or in conjunction with other connected devices.

Users continue to leverage—and expect—more access to video conferencing. Fortunately for IT, it really is possible to balance the need for telepresence with budgets that are still feeling a noticeable pinch.

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