The Owl Could Answer the Question: Can 360-Degree Video Conferencing Be Portable and Affordable?

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Ever wonder why everybody sits on the same side of the table in those old Renaissance paintings?

Could it be they were conducting early meetings via video conference?

After all, having everybody horseshoed into one end of the table and facing a camera with a 90- or 120-degree field of vision is pretty much the standard arrangement when using a basic video conferencing setup.

And the vast majority of the high-end models demand such seating arrangements as well.

But there is hope for change.

Owl Labs, a two-year-old startup headed by a couple of iRobot veterans, is currently Beta testing a portable, multi-platform, plug-and-play video conferencing camera that promises a 360-degree field of vision, as well as automated tracking to focus on whoever is doing the talking within that ring of friends.

None of these features are unique on their own, but if the Owl, as this sleek, thermos-looking device has been christened, can add the term ‘affordable’ to its list of promised features it could become a real asset to small businesses and creative teams.

A View All the Way Around the Table

Of course, the Owl wouldn’t be the first video conferencing hardware to offer either a 360-degree view of a meeting room, or an automated tracking device.

Polycom’s highly regarded EagleEye Director pioneered automated audio tracking several years ago, and still offers the best example of the tech in action–although Cisco’s SpeakerTrack 60 is also worthy of praise.

The EagleEye seems to be the closest approximation of what Owl Labs has in store. It operates by audio triangulation to zero in on whoever is speaking within its view, and then uses basic facial recognition software to zoom in on the speaker’s face.

And Polycom has also beaten the Owl to the 360 degree selling point. The company’s CX5100 Unified Conference Station offers such views when paired with Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Lync. There are also some interesting 360 degree view video cameras available, even if they’re not quite video conference ready.

The Owl also isn’t the first device to promise portability/ease of use, or compatibility with multiple video conferencing services.

Portable and Compatible Video Conferencing

Owl Labs has revealed their device will work with Skype, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting, among others.

That’s a good lineup to begin with, but Logitech’s agnostic approach to video conferencing means they offer a lot more willing partners than that. Their recent partnership with Intel is also helping them smooth out the kinks you’ll sometimes find when using a camera and platform that weren’t literally made for one another.

On a similar note, Logitech’s cylindrical Connect video conferencing device bears more than passing resemblance to the Owl, and it offers the same plug-and-play simplicity and portability.

And the Connect’s price tag, a fraction of the Polycom and Cisco offerings, has got to provide Owl Labs with a clear ceiling for their new device if they want to be considered by average commercial users.

But should that price fall within a reasonable range, the Owl could offer a unique blend of portability and functionality.

A Sum Greater Than Its Parts

While all the component parts of the Owl have been seen before elsewhere, if it works as advertised when it arrives then the convergence of high technology with ease of use could be the easiest way currently available to jump straight into a professional grade video conference.

The 360 degree view, speaker-seeking cameras, and USB connectivity would mean a creative group that suddenly felt the need for a remote linkup would no longer have to move the discussion to a dedicated video conferencing room, or even rearrange the way they were seated.

And you could take it anywhere. Transform a business lunch into a business meeting by dropping the Owl in the middle of the table as you dine.

Or a small business with limited office space–or one that rents out space for its most important meetings–could set up a call around whatever corner of their premises offers the most impressive, or at least most professional, setting.

Since the Owl is still in Beta testing, a lot remains unclear about how the product will work once it ships to the public, and the all-important price remains a mystery as well. But the promise is there.

So if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one these Beta Owls, then let us know if it’s worth waiting for.

Image Source: Flickr CC Users Kurt Bauschardt and Cisco Systems GmbH

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