I’ve been in the IT support and management industry for about 10 years in a variety of environments, ranging from the consumer space to tech startups to enterprise giants. I have come across many technical issues that plague even the savviest of tech users.
In my experience, I’ve found that nothing challenges offices more than dealing with audio visual equipment and web-conferencing technologies. So much has changed from the traditional conference phone to now being able to instantly hold meetings with your peers globally through the use of a computer and software.
When I first joined Pantheon, the biggest gripe was audio visual equipment and the lack of a stable web-conferencing solution. Pantheon employs roughly 60 people in its comfy San Francisco office and hires the remaining 20 or so to connect up remotely. The experience prior to my arrival was sub-par and the task was to come up with a solution that makes the remotes feel as if they are actually in the office. Simple, right?
The Components that Host a Local + Remote Crowd
The list is short but often too complicated to combine in an easy to use and reliable manner:
Teleconference or web conference solution either through a computer or a phone
TV or projector and cabling to display local and remote content
Speakers to play local and remote audio
High quality microphone to capture room audio
Here is a Pantheon engineer’s recollection of his experience holding a meeting:
I arrived to my weekly on-call meeting early and popped open my Mac, connected all the cables, and fired up the web-conferencing software. For the life of me I could not get the video to come up on the television in the room. After struggling to the find the correct cabling to connect to my Mac, I finally got the video working, shared my screen with the remotes, and began the meeting. Thirty minutes in, we are getting messages from the remote attendees complaining the audio had cut out despite the meeting session still being active. We had no choice but to restart the meeting and force everyone to join again just to fix the audio. It was quite frustrating and happened frequently.
The nervous shuffle before meetings to get things connected was commonplace for Pantheon. We had tried everything—Apple TVs and Chromecasts—to eliminate video cabling and offer convenience, but found both devices would freeze what content was being displayed on screen or just flat out not work. For speaker and mic, employees would connect a USB dongle from their machine to a Polycom phone but this was often met with garbled audio. It was clear that Pantheon needed a better solution—one that was easy to use and reliable. Enter Google.
Google ChromeBox For Meetings
Google Apps For Work
Most startup companies are going to look to the cloud to provide their employees the tools they need to perform their jobs without needing the staff to maintain servers and the bankroll to do so. Perhaps the most critical tool used on the cloud is email, and we found Google Apps for Work fit our needs and requirements in that area. It also worth mentioning Pantheon’s cross-platform environment which Google also provides. Little did we know that Google would become the launch pad for the most integrated web-conferencing solution that we had ever seen.
Queue Google ChromeBox for Meetings; an integrated web-conferencing software and hardware solution that takes advantage of the cloud meeting service Google Hangouts. It is a purpose-built box that consolidates the inputs and outputs needed to run a meeting in a conference room. Out of the box it comes with some decent hardware and the ChromeBox computer itself is no exception with a powerful Intel Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, HDMI, Display port, RJ45 Ethernet, and of course USB 3.0 connectivity. In addition, it includes the Logitech C920 HD webcam, Jabra Speak 410 USB speaker/microphone combo, and the intuitive ChromeBox remote with full keyboard with easy pickup and hangup buttons you are used to seeing on cell phones.
The device itself is small enough to be easily mounted with the provided VESA TV mount, or in our case, some carefully placed Velcro did the job. Running a custom version of Google Hangouts on Google’s Chrome OS, setup was a snap. Once everything was connected, we simply signed in with a Google Apps admin account and the device provisioned itself. Once provisioned, we added the calendar resource we wanted the device to sync up with—in this case "Apollo"—and done. Any calendar event in Apollo with a Google Hangout added to it will appear on the screen connected to the ChromeBox. With a single click of a button, the meeting is ready for people to join and present from the familiar Google Hangouts interface.
Integration With Google Calendar
Perhaps the most important feature is the seamless integration with Google Calendar and Google Hangouts. Through the use of calendar resources, each Chromebox pairs up with the room resource and takes note of whether or not a video call is added to a particular calendar event. Upon entering a conference room, you can see the upcoming meetings listed on screen which can be selected and started on demand. Didn’t schedule a video call? No problem, create one on the ChromeBox and share the Hangout name with your peers.
Usage Tips and Tricks
Google makes it really easy to join a Hangout or see what Hangouts you have coming up in a beautiful web page and on any platform using the Google Chrome Web-Browser: http://g.co/hangouts
Here you can quickly join your scheduled meeting, create a meeting, or join a meeting that is already under way. No more long meeting IDs, just type in the Hangout name and that is it: http://g.co/present
Let’s say you are in the room and want to present to the ChromeBox without mic or audio to avoid feedback and interference. Since the ChromeBox takes care of both, you can easily join the Hangout from the link above and it will join without your laptop’s microphone and mute the laptop audio.
There are also other options for speakers and microphones with the ChromeBox. We have tested the “Syba SD-CM-UAUD USB Stereo Audio Adapter” with the C-Media Chipset to work very well on the ChromeBox. You won’t need a USB sound card to run the Jabra Speak 410 but if you would like to connect to a Polycom Conference phone using their cables, it adds some convenience to connect up using the long USB cable provided with the ChromeBox. As a result, you can use the extended microphones and speaker from the Polycom like you normally would for a phone call.
Let’s talk operational cost—there is almost none. Once the devices are configured, they are very much set it and forget it. Updates are pushed to the devices automatically and thanks to the locked down OS, it is not likely you’ll be debugging anything. Non-recurring cost is $1,000 with yearly recurring cost of $250 per ChromeBox. The traditional web-conferencing software competitors will easily cost more than double the yearly cost per license per user.
“It Just Works”
A quote from one of our engineers: “It just works.” Simple as that. Our employees love just bringing in their laptop and joining a Hangout without wires or configuration. ChromeBox for Meetings has transformed the office environment thanks to its simplistic design and usage. It is this confidence in the product that has truly allowed us to progress forward and deploy it in every meeting space at Pantheon.