Last week, Microsoft released the details surrounding the new Surface Hub video collaboration/conferencing system I’d seen up in Redmond earlier in the year. I’ve covered videoconferencing since the late 80s, and this is really the first time I’ve seen a solution that rethinks the basics of what a videoconferencing system should be in the age of high-definition touchscreens and cameras and network performance that we couldn’t even dream about a decade ago.
Why Most Videoconferencing Systems Suck
Videoconferencing systems have had a troubled existence. When Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, was asked what one of his biggest mistakes was, he said it was the decision to enter the videoconferencing market. Not to mention, a lot of companies have burned large amounts of money discovering that it is a money hole.
Now there are several reasons for this. The first is that most systems are really painful to set up and get working. It used to be, you’d have an admin trained to make them work, but most companies got rid of the videoconferencing admin position some time ago. We then added the idea of projecting slides from a laptop computer. Folks would end up spending much of the meeting discovering that their laptops wouldn’t connect to the conferencing system or ensuring that the remote folks could see the slides.
The second was that the primary justification for using the system in the first place was to keep travel costs down. The problem with this is that employees often felt they needed to be on site for other reasons; they felt disconnected and disadvantaged if they weren’t. And they used the frequent flier miles to help pay for vacations, so they were actually incentivized to not use the videoconferencing system instead of travel.
Finally, the quality wasn’t very good. From sound that cut out or wasn’t synced to the mouth movements to video that degraded as bandwidth was pulled, the systems rarely performed as well as they did in demos. So videoconferencing systems that were very expensive (often costing upwards of $100K for a special room) became permanent homes for spiders because they weren’t used.
I’m going to start by saying if someone had told me about this I wouldn’t get it either. I’m going to do my best to describe it, but you need to actually see one of these things in action to really get why this is different—at least I did. The first thing is that the system’s primary purpose isn’t to get people to stop flying long distances for meetings; it is to help them get a better streaming experience. In fact, I actually think the best product in the line isn’t the $20K big screen but the vastly cheaper small screen, because someone streaming a presentation to a remote audience would find it far more powerful than using a desktop video camera. This is because it presents the speaker and the visual part of the presentation together. It allows the speaker to interact with the presentation material in real time as if he or she was working on a backboard except the speaker’s face remains visible to the remote audience. The side placement of the cameras allows the remote audience to see the speaker’s face while they are working on the screen. This is important, because it is far easier for a remote person to disengage than someone in the room.
This is a 4K experience at the moment, and if you have a 4K TV, the level of realism is far higher than it is with HD—assuming that you are watching the video on a 4K screen—and the result is that it feels more like the presenter is actually there with you. This is incredibly important to keeping the audience engaged, but it also suggests that the remote viewers may also need to be on 4K displays of some type (the display vendors should love this). The screen is full multi-touch, which means tablet skills transfer and if a touchscreen laptop, or one with an operating system that supports touch, is attached, the touchscreen will act just like a touch monitor would.
Where the product truly stands out, though, is in geographically dispersed, collaborative design meetings where complex (i.e., CAD) or architectural projects need to be reviewed. The ability to manipulate and showcase complex designs much like you would on a workstation, but collaboratively, and to a large audience is unmatched in anything else I’ve seen.
Finally, for someone that knows how to use a tablet, the product is drop-dead easy to use, thus showcasing the advances we’ve made in a variety of personal videoconferencing products over the years.
Wrapping Up: Experience Surface Hub to Understand It
Unfortunately, because a lot of folks are jaded by the systems that came before Surface Hub, and because Surface Hub requires personal demonstrations to really showcase its capabilities, I expect sales to be slower than they otherwise would be. However, with more employees choosing to work remotely and an increased need to create collaborative projects cutting across geographic areas, I see this as a potential rebirth and re-imagination of the concept of videoconferencing. And this is really only the start; wait until they add virtual and augmented reality concepts and additional cameras, which will further transform the experience.
If you get a chance, check out Surface Hub in person. You’ll likely be surprised at how far videoconferencing technology has come since you last saw it.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+