Microsoft Videoware Getting Smarter

Give Microsoft credit for eating its own dog food. The company has used itself as a guinea pig to test its own products for years.

The latest product put through the internal wringer is RoundTable, a video-conferencing camera/microphone designed for Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Live Meeting that offers a 360-degree perspective.

There are about 100 cameras being used around Microsoft campuses in Redmond, China and India, and companies in its Technology Assistance Program (TAP) are also trying it out.

RoundTable allows companies to integrate presentations, whiteboards and file sharing into their audio/video conferences, which can be recorded and saved for later viewing.

Connected via USB, RoundTable uses a combination of sound and motion detection to focus on the speaker. This way the camera isn’t pointing at a wall when someone else speaks, and doesn’t get misled by someone moving but not speaking.

It looks for both body movement and where the voice is coming from to focus on that person. This keeps the bandwidth stream to fewer than 500 Kbits/sec., said Ross Cutler, a principal researcher with Microsoft.

Cutler joined Microsoft Research five years ago and was part of a group that set out to find out why video conferencing hadn’t taken off. It only had a paltry 1 percent penetration in the open markets.

“The biggest issue is ease of use,” said Cutler. “It takes an average of 14 minutes just to start a video teleconference.”

And then there are issues of video and audio quality and that the camera only sees where it’s pointed, not who is speaking, unless the camera is physically moved.

Cutler said the top-two things people want from video conferencing are the ability to see who is on the other end and who is speaking.

Although such a technology would seem to beg for the consumer market, such as XBox Live, Microsoft is initially targeting corporate customers. At $3,000 per unit, RoundTable isn’t exactly Best Buy-friendly.

However, Cutler points out that’s considerably cheaper than most video conferencing cameras, which can cost $10,000 or more.

RoundTable will ship in the first half of next year.

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