Bringing everyone to the table

ACCORDING TO LEGEND, King Arthur created the first modern conference table when he made Camelot's table round instead of the traditional square or rectangle. That way, no one sat at the head ' or, for that matter, the tail ' of the table.

Everyone from the king to the newest squire had an equal place and just as much opportunity to influence the discussion as anyone else.

Microsoft is attempting to stage a similar revolution with teleconferencing by putting participants on an equal footing. Microsoft's RoundTable is a $3,000 saucer-shaped device capped with five cameras sitting atop a silver pole. It kind of makes you want to play that old Milton Bradley game Simon.

The RoundTable's 360-degree design is set up so that multiple people can gather in a room and be seen and heard by people joining the conference remotely. In a typical conference room setting, a single camera is placed at one end of the room, usually near the monitor, so people in the room can see what is going on at the other end and look into the camera at the same time, sort of like everyone is sitting together at a very long table. The problem with that setup is that it is difficult to see and hear people at the far end of the table.

The RoundTable eliminates that shortcoming by having cameras and microphones point in all directions at the same time. You can set the device in the middle of your group, although you'll still need to find a central location for a monitor if you want everyone locally to see what is going on at a remote location.

Perhaps to eliminate possible stage fright, the cameras do not look directly at conference participants.

Instead, they point upward into a triangular mirror, so Round- Table records people upside down and uses hardware to flip their images.

It adds an extra step to the process when the cameras could have simply faced outward, so I'm not sure why Microsoft did it unless it was to make people feel more at ease. At any rate, it does not seem to hurt performance.

In addition to the cameras at the top of the pole, multiple microphones are arrayed around the base of the saucer. They do an excellent job of capturing sound from all directions, something we put to the test later. For those who are working with an exceptionally large area, the RoundTable comes with two extra microphone pods that can be added to the main unit. They look a bit like computer mice and let the RoundTable microphones snake several feet away from the base unit, so even folks at the far end of a long table can be clearly heard.

Oddly enough, the RoundTable does not come with any software. Given the investment you are making in the device, it would be useful to have some method of controlling it locally. Plus, I can think of a half-dozen nonteleconference applications where the device could come in handy because it can look in all directions at the same time ' from recording a corporate video or training film to using it in a security application.

You can use the LCD touch panel on the RoundTable device to dial numbers and run basis diagnostic tests to make sure everything is working. There is also a dial pad that can be attached to the unit if users don't like using the touch screen or if the person running the meeting happens to be sitting far from the base unit.

When you plug the USB connection from the RoundTable into a computer, it sets itself up as two Web camera drivers. The first one is used for audio and does not allow you to change its settings. The second one is used for the cameras. When you click on that one, you can see the video feed from a single camera. You can observe how the RoundTable detects sound and movement and focuses the camera accordingly.

In our testing, if one person at a table was talking, the RoundTable automatically focused on that person. If a speaker on the opposite side of the room answered, the video switched over. There is about a one-second delay for the switchover, but that's no more than you would experience on, say, a TV talk show where you don't know who is going to speak next.

To really tax the system, we had a lot of people talk at the same time and watched as the device tried to figure out which one to focus on. That often led to some mad switching back and forth.

Some user controls would have been nice ' such as being able to tell the device how long to focus on a speaker before switching, manipulating the sensitivity in its audio scans or even locking it down to one camera in some circumstances.

Without controls, the RoundTable could switch from someone who is speaking to focus for a few seconds on someone who coughs or sneezes on the other side of the room. The audio seemed to be constantly recording in all directions and never dropped out.

In addition to the USB connection, the RoundTable has a phone jack that you could use to conduct a standard nonvideo conference call and get all the advantages of the RoundTable's great audio, although there are cheaper ways to achieve that if you never plan to use the cameras.

The RoundTable is designed to be used in one of two ways: with Microsoft Office Live Meeting, which is how our main trials were conducted, or with the company's Office Communications Server, which offers instant messaging, voice over IP and video. Federal users might prefer the latter if they want all of their data to be protected behind a firewall, though there is little difference functionally.

The best way to use the RoundTable is with Live Meeting, which allows you to see all the cameras at the same time.

There are also some nice features inside the unit to help smooth any conference wrinkles. For example, the RoundTable attempts to make all participants appear to be equal in size, so that someone sitting far away does not look tiny compared to someone up close. For the most part, the device does a good job at that. Also, it will attempt to balance light levels, which is a great feature because many conference rooms have at least one large window. In such an environment, the RoundTable was able to compensate for cameras pointing out into the sunlit world while leaving those looking inward mostly at the normal setting.

At $3,000, the RoundTable is a luxury item, but it works well. It's probably best suited to organizations in which teleconferencing is widely used. It's by far the best product on the market for bringing large groups of people face to face, especially when used with Live Meeting or Office Communications Server. We were disappointed that, despite the device's high price, it did not come with any software.

Even some basic software controls would help.

Microsoft, 425-703-1554, www.microsoft.com

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