Rise of the Universal Robot

RUN, the robots are taking over.

By robots I really mean Android, which has found itself to be an operating system these days, and is now embedded in phones and tablets but also TV's, set-top boxes, fridges and cars - just about any connected appliance that needs a bit of decent compute and a button or several.

So, now the Androids are finding their way into the workplace under the guise of audio-visual equipment, and we find ourselves trying to make sense of a whole new type of device, THE ANDROID COLLABORATION BAR.

In essence, these devices are designed as a hardware solution for platform/standards divergence in unified comms. We can choose a box that suits our immediate needs, and it comes pre-loaded with apps from all the usual UC suspects. The advantage is, should the UC strategy change, (i.e. you decide to move from Microsoft Teams to Zoom Rooms) then your hardware can change with you following a quick reset and platform selection change. Equally, the ease of having one SKU for a number of deployment personas and platforms can save the procurement and install teams considerable work effort.

Sounds awesome, but this would be pointless prose if I didn’t have a gear to grind.  I suppose the question I should try and answer is 'Are they any good?

As usual that answer isn’t a simple yes/no for me, so my next best answer is to give you a quick three-point guide of what to consider and where the problems are before you get shot by the latest silver bullet.

1. Room Size

Sounds obvious, but room size and function dictate everything. The only factor that comes close in importance is room layout, and that's where the numbers get fudged when describing the capabilities of these devices.

Many only have digital zoom so their picture quality will only ever degrade from its wide shot. As the lenses are ultra-wide and the zoom is digital, all of these devices work better in a theatre-style layout with everyone in a row in front of the screens. This also means the PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) or any auto-framing doesn’t have to work as hard or struggle to keep up with fast-paced discourse.

Audio-wise this theatre-style layout also makes the most sense. All noise is blasted from the front by not-very-good speakers; the performance curve drops rapidly once you are seated in the second or third row behind a colleague. These devices for a ‘boardroom’ style layout can very quickly underwhelm most of the room. I do appreciate that many ‘AV’ rooms have front of house audio, but to ensure the best performance is achieved consistently, AV integrators will choose best-in-class audio gear, best-in-class camera gear and have a DSP (digital signal processor) as well.

The use of expansion mics for increased pick-up range rarely improves matters and merely encourages occupants to be even further away from the speakers, leading to a fatiguing listening experience.

Lastly, presentation content and connection method. Keep an eye out for a difference in the device’s capabilities and the capabilities of the app you have chosen. 4K ingest is pointless if the app downscales to 720p before outputting to screens at the far end.

Ancillary equipment is almost certainly required at some level to get the best experience from this kit so do the costings for that up front.

2. Vendors' Strategy/Allegiance

Each vendor has its own goal, and many will have either their own UCaaS platform or at least an allegiance to a tech partner who does.

That will be the device's sweet spot and everything else is secondary!

The Poly X30 for example is a great little box in Poly mode. The limitations of the Zoom & Teams Android apps however result in a weaker performance when used in these modes.

The root cause, especially true for Microsoft Teams is the divergence in feature set between Android and Windows development. Android Teams is a 720p-only experience which is out of step with the race to 4K on the Windows-side of things. No doubt these things have been rushed to market following COVID-19, but handicapping user experience is rarely a strategy favoured by the IT departments who will be running AV strategy in a post-covid world.

Understand the capabilities of an app and not of a device would be my advice here and something we'll expand on in much greater detail in other posts.

3. How Do Your Meetings Work?

Finally, some good news. There is a perfect use case for the Android Collab bar, and for less formal, open or small huddle space meetings this kit is awesome.

Price points are realistic for SMBs or large corporate deployments, and are allowing greater access to better UC facilities in numbers that couldn’t be catered for by larger, formal meeting rooms.

With collaboration bars we do loose the AV integration opportunity so understanding the best use case of a device is essential when catering for different functions within an organisation.

Spaces that are designed to be sympathetic to the various strengths and weaknesses of technology will become far more productive and user friendly, to the point where the Android appliance can become just that - an appliance as reliable and efficient as a kettle or toaster would be.

R.U.R. is a 1920 science-fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. "R.U.R." stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots, a phrase that has been used as a subtitle inEnglish). It premiered on 25 January 1921 and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), from synthetic organic matter. They are living creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than machinery, so they more closely follow the modern concept of androids. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. Čapek later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society.