Want to go face-to-face with co-workers from anywhere during vacation months? OmniJoin, a new service from Brother, advances low-cost videoconferencing a notch or two.
Videoconferencing has been around for decades, and in fits and starts has gradually evolved from a rather expensive alternative to air travel (in early days you'd visit a special room at the phone company!) into a sometimes convenient, sometimes cumbersome PC application that costs much less, even as little as free (Skype anyone?). Brother, the Japanese company we know from sewing machines and typewriters of yesteryear, and printers today, recently acquired Nefsis, a U.S.-based company with extensive video conferencing expertise, and though they remain tight-lipped about future hardware products that will tie-in, they have introduced the PC-based cloud service for videoconferencing, called OmniJoin, which arguably advances the state of the art a notch or two for low-cost desktop-based conferences.
What, specifically, are OmniJoin's advantages? First, the video is high performance and flexible, more details on this to follow, but anyone involved in video production or video-based education, or anyone envisioning large numbers of video participants should take note. Second, the integration is superb; a cut above the competition. Like most video conferencing programs it also includes an audio connection, so you don't need to maintain a separate phone call for the sound. But additionally, the program is designed so you never have to leave it, so you can transfer files, show PowerPoint presentations, play videos, and more all from within the program. Educators can control access to handouts. Participants join in through a simple email link. And it easily makes a video recording of the videoconference or webinar for review by people who missed it, or for archiving, etc. Plus, I'm happy to report, it really works!
Pricing for OmniJoin for small businesses is based on two levels of service: Basic, for $49 a month, allows up to 12 video participants and up to 30 voice participants, and provides video with 720p resolution. Pro service, for $79/month, handles up to 20 video participants (50 voice participants), and up to 1080p high definition video. Each account facilitates one conference at a time, for bigger businesses requiring several simultaneous conferences an enterprise licensing plan is available, starting at $450/month for up to 10 concurrent users (meaning that 100 people may have the software installed, but a maximum of 10 can be in conference simultaneously, such as in two conferences of five each.)
I tested OmniJoin on a very humble Acer mini-notebook with AMD A-50 dual core processor and 2GB of RAM running Windows 7 (it also works with XP and Vista), and it worked flawlessly (Brother's fine print says you should have 4GB of RAM, and a multi-core processor to host). My first installation occurred after I received an email invite from the marketing people at Brother, so I could see a demo of it. This is how OmniJoin appears to the participants. You get an email with a link, click on it, and the software installs on your computer, a process that takes a few minutes.
Part of the installation requires selecting the video camera, in a "configurator" panel. My notebook's built-in webcam appeared on the list, which also included several capture utilities I had installed.
Besides being on the receiving end, I also tested out a free basic account that I was supplied (you too can get a free trial account at www.brothercloud.com/omnijoin). After logging in, I was initially impressed by the simplicity of the opening page, but then when I tried to launch a conference I got a weirdly intermittent message stating that I needed to add a plug-in to my Firefox browser. Fair enough, I thought, though it seemed strange considering I had used the same computer already to be a participant. A quick search of Brother's support area for OmniJoin was fruitless, there were no plug-in downloads to be found. After a while I gave up and just tried the "Launch my meeting room" button again and this time it worked, launching the "Meeting Room" application. I had to select the camera again, and then it began.
If you can put up with a bit of redundancy, the host's screen is surprisingly clean, and easy to start using. Big buttons in the center invite you to "Share" (your desktop, an application, a PowerPoint), or to "Invite" participants via email, contacts, phone, or link. Other Share options, located along the top menu, include Document, Whiteboard or Media File.
I clicked the invite by email link and, after a bit of delay, realized it was looking for a default email account to use, and as this was my test PC I didn't have email setup here, so I cancelled the operation and clicked instead on "Link," which instantly flashed on the screen a secure URL that I copied and pasted into an email using my web mail account.
As soon as you start a meeting the service assigns a dial-in phone number and ID to it, which can be used for the audio. Similar to selecting the video camera, you must also select whether you want to dial in, have the system call you, or use PC audio.
One of the more impressive capabilities the host has is to easily re-configure the appearance of the screen, making each video chat window bigger or smaller to suit the number of participants or to make room for other material being shown. It's completely flexible and the host controls how everyone else sees it.
As part of the demo that I got, Brother brought in about twenty other participants all at the same time, and suddenly a screen that had just three video participants blew up to almost two dozen participants. The system handled the expansion elegantly, each video window getting smaller as more people joined. Best of all, with my humble dual core processor and a typical cable-modem broadband connection, the video of all participants retained full motion -- the pictures didn't freeze up.
You can run through PowerPoints, Excel spreadsheets, any other application with everyone looking at the same slide, same column, etc. I must admit, as a tech journalist who has sat through more PowerPoint phone briefings than I'd care to remember, that I often take advantage of having a presentation emailed to me separately by skipping ahead to see how much more is left and what's coming up. But from the presenter's perspective, I can certainly see how maintaining this control is advantageous. Educators, however, might want to allow students to read at their own pace, and OmniJoin allows teachers to choose between controlling the view or letting students move through a presentation on their own.
Of course, the host can always send over the PowerPoint file too, there's nothing to prevent that. And the built-in file transfer feature makes this easy. With OmniJoin, the advantage is not just that you don't need to switch to a separate email application, but also that you are not limited by email file size limitations.
The Whiteboard is particularly fun, as everyone can draw on it. Aside from business use, this can also provide a fun way for kids to connect over long distances.
For me, a wannabe (and sometimes) professional film editor, the most impressive feature of all was the video player. You can readily play a wide variety of video formats (anything Windows Media Player handles) within the conference screen -- you don't need to run a separate player, or send a file. Not only is this very convenient, it also has powerful advantages: You can pause the video on a specific frame, and all participants will see it pause at this exact spot. You can run it in slow motion, and everyone sees this.
As a conference participant, you also have video flexibility to scale and resize the conference screen. If you're used to working with two screens on one computer, as I almost constantly do, you can also split up the panels of the conference, so that for example, you watch the PowerPoint on a separate screen from all the video conference images. In the lower right corner of the screen you continuously see a connection speed rating, a nice touch.
Beyond the casual style of video conferencing using built-in (or external) webcams looking at each participant, another application for OmniJoin is to use remote controlled PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras operated by the host. With such a setup, in a conference room, this technology becomes truly disruptive, challenging $10,000-plus professional videoconference systems.
You don't need a crystal ball to envision what Brother has up their sleeve. My guess, purely speculation, is a self-contained camera/display unit with this software built in, perhaps offering some connection ports for file transfers from thumb drives and the like, a remote-controlled PTZ camera for conference rooms, and a document scanner/printer, maybe all-this-in-one. In any event, that's for the future.
For the here and now, Brother has entered the cloud services market with a very strong product that any small or medium sized business with an interest in video conferencing should take a look at. OmniJoin is well-designed, robust, video-friendly and well thought out. For about fifty bucks a month, up to a dozen employees (or students, or trainees, etc.) can simultaneously and comfortably be in a video conference.
Check out our complete Executive Summer Tech Guide for more great ideas for staying productive over the summer, and take a look at our consumer Summer Tech Guide for ways to make the most out of the latest gadgets and gizmos while you're on vacation.