Videoconferencing Comes to Drexel University

The Philadelphia university's work with a systems integrator illustrates a shift in the audiovisual market. As readily available, wireless-ready projectors and cameras move from the boardroom to the conference room and the corporate network, AV vendors are finally bringing the conversation to the CIO before implementation occurs.

Drexel University and Advanced AV, an audiovisual systems integrator, are collaborating on a video conferencing system as classes get underway.

The school and its channel partner will pull together relatively inexpensive video hardware and cloud-based services in a project that exemplifies major shifts in the audiovisual (AV) market. The enterprise-grade audiovisual market was once a narrow niche focused on big-ticket conferencing systems for executives. In recent years, however, AV gear—from projectors to HD cameras—has left its isolated technology island to join mainstream IP networks.

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This convergence places AV systems within the purview of an organization's IT department and CIO. It also changes the supply side, as IT providers compete with AV specialist value added resellers (VARs) in the market, while AV-centric channel players branch out into IT networks. Buyers and sellers can add two more factors to the transformational mix: cheaper products and cloud-delivered services.

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Michael Boettcher, president of Advanced AV, noted the widening scope of AV technology.

"You've got everything from a free Skype app to your most robust Cisco system. Everybody is a little bit different and approaching things a little bit differently," Boettcher says. Some, for example, require high levels of security and reliability and will invest in a controlled environment, he says. Other customers just need a camera and will make do with a Skype app or some other inexpensive software codex.

"There are certainly challenges to each of those levels, but there's no right way or wrong way," Boettcher adds, noting that the matter boils down to who is going to use the AV system and what their expectations are.

Drexel's way to AV includes a number of components. LifeSize Passport Connect provides an HD video conferencing system. The system, from the LifeSize division of Logitech, includes a Logitech HD video camera and a video conferencing codec.

Travis Lisk, vice president of technical operations at Advanced AV, referred to Passport Connect as a set top box that will incorporate within Skype. He says the LifeSize product is at the lower end of the price range for HD video systems but does well with what it is designed to do, which is "provide a desktop solution with a nice HD camera." (Launched last year, LifeSize Passport Connect sells for around $1,500. )

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Drexel will use Sonic Foundry's Mediasite as a capture station for recording videos and Vidtel's MeetMe cloud-based video conferencing service, which lets participants dial into a cloud-based video conferencing bridge.

The cloud service, according to Vidtel, can connect enterprise video conferencing systems, room systems, video phones, PCs and mobile devices using Session Initiation Protocol, the H.323 AV communications protocol, Skype or GoogleTalk.

"People are really embracing the cloud model now," says Mariette Johnson Wharton, vice president of marketing at Vidtel. "The argument for cloud in video conferencing is the same as in other industries: you get the economies of scale, and it is super flexible."

Videoconferencing 'More Capable' Than Current AV Tech

Jenny Kaus, assistant dean of budgets and administration with Drexel's Student Life & Administrative Services office, suggests that the videoconferencing system represents a step up from the current AV technology.

"Right now, what we have is your basic projector," Kaus says. "The new system is more capable. It has the ability for us to do video presentations and put them online as well as do video conferences, mostly for student groups."

Kaus said a key application for the new system will be to create videos for Drexel's CEO LEAD leadership development program. The technology will let faculty, staff, alumni and others record presentations on topics such as leadership and supervisory skills. Videos will be stored online for students to use at their convenience, she says.

Drexel will also use the AV system to reach out to remote students at the university's Sacramento, Calif. graduate studies campus, to students participating in co-ops in different parts of the U.S. or overseas and to school's population of e-learning students.

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"Conferencing and distance learning and capturing—pretty standard system design for a university," Advanced AV's Boettcher says. "That is what schools are doing these days."

Advanced AV is designing the AV system, while the university is preparing the room for the installation. That task includes electrical work, an HVAC upgrade and reinforcing a wall to accommodate flat-screen displays.

'Transfer of Power' Brings Videoconferencing Projects to CIO Sooner

Drexel's Student Life department and Information Resources and Technology group, which operates under the Student Life umbrella, are working with Advanced AV on the project.

The involvement of IT is becoming common with the melding of AV and corporate networks. "The transfer of power in the AV realm has moved over to IT," Boettcher notes.

A few years ago, companies selling AV equipment would talk with the CIO or similar IT executive only after the fact, he says—once they realized their systems would be riding on the corporate network. However, that situation has changed. "We are having those conversations directly with the IT divisions or networking groups within the organization," Boettcher says. "There's definitely a shift there."

Relationships with the IT side of the house have grown as the CIO's knowledge of AV systems has increased. This familiarity was perhaps inevitable, as most AV systems are now designed to run on IP networks, and nearly every piece of AV gear manufactured today has some type of network connection.

"Back in 2000, projectors became network compatible," Boettcher says. "It was a slow undertaking to get to this point…[but] once we got there, is was a flood gate."

Another upshot of the IT/AV convergence: Companies such as Advanced AV are pursuing IT-oriented technical certifications such as Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and CompTIA's Network+.

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"We in the AV realm have embraced the concept that we are dealing with the CIOs and IT infrastructure people, and, as such, we are getting move involved in getting our [IT] certifications," Boettcher says.

IT VARs, for their part, find that the current direction of the market encourages participation. It's not just that AV equipment is moving onto IT networks, either. Virtualization, where software performs videoconferencing functions in the cloud, also provides a segue for IT-oriented resellers and integrators.

"Now, video is moving toward software, especially the infrastructure," says Rafi Anuar, director of product management at LifeSize, which sells entirely through the channel. "Channel partners that have skill sets around VMware and virtualization…are going to feel more comfortable with where our entire industry is moving."

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