The original reason the PTZ or pan, tilt, zoom camera was introduced is so far back in the mists of time, almost everyone has forgotten what it was.
Actually, the PTZ was always an irrelevance or, at the very least, a poor use of funds so why, in this modern age, do we keep buying them? Habit mainly, because the original need has long gone and, with the use of new technology, the tyranny of the PTZ may be happily consigned to history where it belongs.
So when and why did we start using them and what’s the modern alternative?
When videoconferencing was new and very, very expensive, rooms were sometimes custom-built but, more often, existing boardrooms and directors’ meeting rooms had video added to any existing audio-visual capability. A videoconferencing fit-out could easily cost upwards of $500,000 per room or more.
Meeting participants would have been mainly C-level management and the meetings quite formal with pre-prepared agenda because the cost of connection was significant, particularly for international calls.
Many of these rooms used the typical boardroom layout with long tables often seating over 20 people. The video camera was mounted above or below the display so the distance of the furthest participant could be several metres.
These days, camera resolution in a modern smartphone is measured in megapixels or millions of pixels. Early videoconferencing systems were limited to just 92,000 pixels and these had to stretch across large video displays (usually from projectors). So the video images weren’t great and the rooms had to be carefully designed to get the best from the limited quality.
In order that the far end could make out who was speaking to them, the PTZ camera was introduced so that you could zoom in and devote those 92,000 pixels to the current speaker. Of course, someone had to ensure that the camera was pointing in the right direction at the right time. In other words, someone had to “direct” the camera and, in the days of the half a million dollar video room, there was generally a technician on standby throughout the meeting to establish the call and monitor the connection so this person was generally pressed into controlling the camera when required. Most PTZs had a number of preset camera positions programmed in so the technician just needed to select the appropriate preset that covered the current speaker.
When systems became lower cost and more numerous, user interfaces were created to allow the participants to make their own calls (or VC administration personnel set up calls remotely and/or automatically) and it was at this point that PTZ control really became a pain.
Users were not interested in controlling the camera. It was a distraction from the meeting and demeaning for a senior executive to get involved with the technology. It was also an opportunity to screw up in front of one’s peers when the technology did something unexpected (like focus on the ceiling).
So what did they do? They set the zoom to fully wide and left it there demoting the expensive PTZ to a fixed camera, making it irrelevant and degrading the experience for the far end users.
Sure, there were attempts to resolve this using push-to-talk microphones that forced the camera to the current live mike and voice-tracking cameras which were supposed to move automatically to the current speaker. Apart from causing sea-sickness in the viewer from rapidly-tracking images, these auto-tracking cameras were pretty bad at finding the speaker unless the whole room was set up in something akin to an anechoic chamber because the audio tracking system would often mistake a reflected audio path as the direction of the speaker and focus on the source of the reflection from, for example, an adjacent wall. Not very helpful and, if an animated discussion broke out with multiple participants speaking at the same time, video chaos ensued.
Move forward 25 years. The big difference is the video resolution of current systems. Most enterprise-grade videoconferencing systems can deliver at least 1920 x 1080 pixels or full HD with some new products now emerging with 4K, or Ultra HD, capability (3840 x 2160 or around 8 megapixels).
The early problems around being able to discern who was speaking due to poor resolution have gone; every one can be seen clearly so why are we still deploying PTZ cameras? In fact they are now not only redundant, they are becoming a major problem.
This term has been adopted to mean small rooms that have not previously been considered viable for video capability due to cost. Two big factors are coming into play to change things significantly:
- Cloud video services where the large cost of the video network infrastructure is being picked up by a Videoconferencing as a Service (VCaaS) operator and clients need only pay a low subscription fee for access and
- Dramatically falling room hardware costs. It’s now possible to deploy video into a huddle room for less than US$5,000 including a large format display.
Under pressure from their users for more readily available visual collaboration facilities, organisations are pressing these Huddle Rooms into video service at a time when the above factors are combining to take a lot of the pain away.
But there is a problem when you start to use small rooms that only seat a few people; the participants are all very close to the display and, consequently, very close to the camera.
A typical, modern PTZ camera has a field-of-view (FoV) of just 70-90 degrees. When placed in a small room, this will mean that some of the participants will be partially or completely out-of-frame or will force everyone to huddle closer than they may have expected in one place around the table.
A Modern Solution
One company that has recognised this peculiar anachronism is Altia Systems in Cupertino in California.
Altia has come up with the first new approach to the videoconferencing camera in three decades and it’s both obvious in hindsight and a radical departure.
Altia have produced PanaCast 2, the world’s first 180° 4K panoramic camera designed to cover the entire room in a single, ultra high definition video image.
Now, while wide-angle or wide field-of-view cameras have been around for a long time, unless you spend a huge amount of money on special lenses, they produce significant distortion causing horizontal and vertical lines to bend (so-called barrel distortion) and form a very unnatural image unusable for videoconferencing.
Altia took a different approach. They took three HD cameras each of more modest field-of-view and stitched the three images together dynamically in the camera while also adding image correction to produce a single video stream that can cover up to 180° with very little distortion.
PanaCast 2 field of view up to 180 degrees.
The result is a very clear view of any room from the smallest Huddle Space to the largest boardroom or classroom in which every person, whiteboard or flip-chart is clearly visible.
And, because the image is in high definition, individual viewers or sites can pan and zoom into the part of the transmitted scene that interests them most without impacting the view of any other site. So, if I want to see the presenter or the whiteboard while you prefer to watch the reaction of others in the room, we can both do so using our own devices with no conflict.
By banishing the PTZ camera to history, one big intimidating factor in the video meeting room can be removed. In these days of self-service visual collaboration, the technology has to be as transparent to the user as we can make it. The PanaCast 2 camera is a game-changer in the video room and will allow organisations to expand their use of video especially into smaller rooms or Huddle Rooms and, at the same time, delivering a much-improved user experience.