Logitech's ConferenceCam BCC950, pictured above, has a street price of about $200.
Video conferencing has always been something of a luxury for small and medium-sized businesses. True enterprise-grade video conferencing hardware has always been a significant expense, and many if not all of the major solutions avaliable require buy-in to proprietary systems, much like it is with VOIP-based PBX systems.
Webcams in conjunction with services such as Skype have always been an option for those who want to do video calling, but they aren't ideal for anything other than casual 1-on-one video calls from the desktop simply because they cannot be positioned in such a way to allow a group of people on one end of the video link to effectively collaborate or present to each other, particulary if say, 3 to 5 people are in a small conference room and need to talk to another group of folks at another branch office in a similar situation.
Over the last two weeks I have been experimenting with Logitech's ConferenceCam BCC950 ($200 street) which is a SMB video conferencing solution that leverages the company's deep expertise with webcam technology along with commodity video chat and business collaboration software such as Skype and WebEx.
Essentially the ConferenceCam really is just a souped up webcam, in the sense that it is a plug and play, driverless, USB 2.0 UVC H.264 device that works with any PC or Mac software that supports standard webcam devices. But it also incorporates a sensitive microphone, a built-in speakerphone (which I would compare favorably to that of a low-end Polycom unit) and a HD 1080p 30fps camera that is mounted on a servomotor mechanism that can be adjusted with an included remote control unit.
The camera on the unit itself, which has a 78 degree field of view, can be positioned on a insect-like "eyestalk" or it can be attached directly to the main base without the stalk. In a conference room situation, the device would be connected to a small desktop or laptop computer in front of the group of people who need to be seen and heard from the remote location.
By using the remote control, the camera on the "eyestalk" can be panned 90 degrees in either direction and can be angled up and down and zoomed in with either the remote (which can control the device from up to 10' away) or a duplicate set of controls on the base unit.
Both the base and the remote also has mute, volume up and down, as well as answer and call terminate buttons, provided the software you are using supports those features.
To test the device, Logitech provided both my ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz and myself a pair of units. Both of us are based in Florida, although I live in the Fort Lauderdale area and he is based near Cape Canaveral, about 180-200 miles away from each other.
David has a business-class 30Megabit cable modem connection, whereas my home office is equipped with 18Megabit AT&T U-Verse VDSL.
To test the unit, both of us used Skype. David used the Windows version, whereas I used the Mac version. For all practical purposes, with the exception of the remote control unit and the ability to pan and zoom the device, Skype on each OS platform works just as it does normally.
The first thing that I noticed was that while I was able to receive David's video in extremely crisp, 16:9 HD (a scary experience if you know what David actually looks like) and his voice quality was extremely clear, David was unable to receive my transmitted video in HD. Instead, Skype was stepping down my video to a 4:3, lower resolution, but still preserving high fidelity audio quality.
As it turns out, to transmit in 720p HD, you need to have about 2.5 to 3 Megabits per second of uplink capacity. 1080p requires a bit more, 5 to 8 Megabits per second. My AT&T U-Verse VDSL only has the ability to transmit (on a good day) at about 1.5 Megabits per second, even though my downlink speed is about 10x greater. Skype, of course, will negotiate the best quality link it can to establish point-to-point video between the two sites without dropping audio.
I was successfully able to perform a 1080p transmit from from a New York City branch office in a more corporate setting that had a 100Megabit SONET fibre WAN connection. I would expect that the device would perform equally well on a fraction of that bandwidth, perhaps 20 megabits or lower, provided it was synchronous rather than asynchronous in a home office scenario.
The key here is to have enough bandwidth for a HD uplink, which is again, about 5 to 8 Megabits in order to take advantage of the 1080p capture capability of the camera.
Overall, both David and I liked this device, and feel it is is good value for the money, particularly for companies that want an inexepensive solution for group collaboration. Both of us were easily able to move 6 to 8 feet away from the device and still have good audio quality on both ends, and the zoom on the Carl Zeiss optics on the webcam was good enough to close in on the subject without causing significant rasterization or pixelation, provided the room was well-lit.
David had some other impressions of the device, which I would like to share, as he is coming at it more from a video blogger and internet broadcaster perspective:
I was surprised – for what’s essentially a conference room solution – that the stalk only turned about 180 degrees, not a full 360. That would leave out a lot of conference room participants.
Sound pickup was surprisingly good. Jason’s wife even called out from another room and I was able to hear it relatively clearly.
From a DIY-IT point of view, I was disappointed it didn’t have a tripod mount or a mic-in port. Sadly, that means it won’t find use in a small studio situation.
Overall, like most other Logitech devices we've both had the pleasure of using, the ConferenceCam BCC950 pretty good for what it does, which is video conferencing for small groups on a budget. It's certainly much more than just a simple HD webcam, but less than an enterprise-grade video conferencing solution.