Avaya Ventures into a Virtual Reality
On February 10th, Avaya launched a new on-demand, cloud-based option of its immersive web collaboration platform Avaya web.alive. The platform is available both as a premises-based solution and a SaaS offering, the latter being the focus of the new announcement, along with some new features and capabilities.
This new solution presents a virtual reality, which, in some ways, resembles the virtual event platforms (such as those offered by ON24, InXpo and Unisfair) but uses avatars and game-like tools and experiences, more similar to Second Life. I’ve heard some define the “traditional” (only in the context of this fast-evolving space) virtual platforms as virtual events and the likes of Second Life – as virtual environments. The monikers don’t matter much, but there are some differences, which we intend to tackle in more detail in a forthcoming study.
It’s great that Avaya is offering a free web-based demo. Anyone can try the environment at http://avayalive.com/tryit. It will be beneficial for end users to experience this unique, advanced technology first-hand before considering a full-fledged deployment or even a serious pilot. As an analyst, I was privileged to have several sessions with the Avaya team, but I am hearing that there is almost always someone in there who can help random visitors find their way through the different tools and functionalities.
For me, who’s never (NEVER) played any computer games or experienced 3D, doesn’t like Sci-Fi (didn’t even fully appreciate Avatar or The Matrix),… (the list goes on, but you get the idea) … this was both a thrilling and somewhat distracting experience. I did not take the time to test the environment before the pre-launch and ventured into it with a male avatar. Of course, I heard little from the presentation in the first few minutes because I was busy changing my gender and choosing my facial features and clothes to wear.
The next challenge was finding my way around the environment and learning how to control my avatar using the mouse and keypad. Eventually, I found myself standing all by myself in front of the speaker with my head spinning in different directions trying to find the best viewpoint. Somehow, using a 3-rd person view, with my avatar still proudly standing in front of the whole crowd, I managed to get my eyesight so low that I was staring upwards into people’s … well, lower backs. Toward the end of the event, though, I was boldly strolling around the environment, magically walking through people and furniture. And shouting. Until I realized it was not a good idea, because others could hear me without me noticing they were there.
I’ll end the story here and just briefly summarize what I liked and what I would wish to see improved going forward.
The things I liked:
- Such virtual environments are fun! It makes you giddy to design your persona (without the help of cosmetic surgery) and watch yourself from a third person point of view (there must be a split-personality tendency in all of us).
- You do get the impression that you are “meeting” with people in a quasi-realistic social environment, unlike the sensation one gets using more “traditional” conferencing tools.
- I liked seeing the pictures of the people I was close by or talking to, in addition to their oversexed avatars.
- I really liked the presentation and collaboration capabilities. I was able to easily share my desktop and saw demonstrations of video feeds and slide presentations.
- I like the fact that there are private rooms and people can have meetings behind closed doors. Only authenticated users have access to these rooms, but they can authenticate others. Once you are inside the room and the door is closed, no one else can hear the conversation OR see into the room.
- Also, a group engaged in a more private conversation in the public area can use a whisper mode, which is not audible to those at a greater distance but does not degrade the quality of the conversation for the main parties.
- Regardless of my “mishaps” facetiously recounted above, the environment is fairly intuitive and does not take a whole lot of learning to be able to navigate through it.
- I have to give credit to the Avaya people, too – they offered help and were prepared to patiently address all kinds of questions.
- From a business point of view, this solution has tremendous advantages as a web-based, on-demand platform. It is easy to deploy and use, even for small businesses, and is quite cost-effective at $49/month for a single account holder and up to 8 people attending at any given time.
- The platform also offers analytics tools that can help businesses assess the value they are receiving from enhanced collaboration.
What I would want to see improved:
- These visual environments can be very distracting. I heard people saying the virtual experience helped them avoid multi-tasking. In fact, I noticed I was more focused on what was taking place on the screen, but was it really the RIGHT thing on the screen I was watching/doing? I found myself checking people out (some were wearing funky outfits), rather than watching the slides. Maybe there should be a way for the speaker or person managing the event to help/force attendees to focus on the presentation screens whenever appropriate? I would not propose a dress code – that would be taking it too far J
- There need to be some additional privacy options. I discussed the private rooms in the section above, but I believe there should be a way to “encapsulate” people who wish to have a more private conversation in the public area. I imagine, visually it could be something like the Avaya Flare spotlight. In a real-life environment, such as in a typical conference facility, people always complain there aren’t enough meeting rooms and end up looking for these two-armchairs-and-a-table isolated areas in the hotel corridors to have a private chat. At a cocktail party, people use facial expressions and body language to keep unwanted parties out of their private conversation. But the virtual environment needs different tools. I am told that users can see who’s within listening area by watching the number next to an ear icon at the bottom of the screen. But people tend to get distracted or too engaged in a conversation to pay attention. So they need to be able to take precautions.
- Changing your voice, gesturing and other functions are only a right-click away. But I would want to see them in a menu bar – similar to a browser or Microsoft Office experience. It’s all about familiar, user-friendly interfaces, right?
- There needs to be an option to mute everybody (for both the organizers and the attendees), except the speaker. It is distracting when people are chatting around you. Is it like real life? Yes, but we always try to improve real life, don’t we?
- You have to hit Escape to be able to use some of the Options and to do other things on your desktop. It becomes bothersome, if you still want to do some multi-tasking.
- If you have a slow DSL or cable connection, the audio can get garbled. (I had the rare luck to have my Internet service switched to a new provider right in the middle of the launch!)
- Training, training, training!! Yes, it is intuitive; yes, younger generations will figure it out quickly and enjoy it. But for effective business use across different generations and types of users, organizations adopting this tool will need to strongly encourage employees to attend demos and brief training sessions. I have been told that Avaya does offer training. I think customers should not underestimate the value of a proper introduction to the new tool and ensure employees become familiar with key features and functionalities to avoid disappointment and misuse.
Go ahead and try it and let me know what you think. But don’t forget to mute yourself (press M on your keyboard) as you enter the environment or else someone can overhear your business conversations, kids shouting or dogs barking.
Are there other similar platforms you like better? Why?
Avaya Makes a Bold Move into the Video Collaboration Space
On September 15th, Avaya announced several new products that nicely round up its Unified Communications (UC) applications and endpoints portfolio. The product launch focused mostly on video conferencing and video collaboration. Unlike its arch rival Cisco, Avaya has been lacking strong video capabilities, though it has been working closely with partners such as Polycom to provide end-to-end UC solutions to its business customers.
With its new Avaya Desktop Video Device and enhanced video support through Avaya Aura 6.0, Avaya is now able to deliver more comprehensive video conferencing capabilities on its own. The new Android-based device features a small form factor, touch-screen technology, HD video and audio, bandwidth efficiency, mobility (using WiFi, Bluetooth or 3G/4G via a USB plug-in) and a competitive price in the range of $3,000 to $4,000.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the new video device is the Avaya Flare experience. Avaya Flare is a user-centric UC interface with a spotlight in the middle that highlights ongoing communications sessions (IM, audio or video calling, and so on); on the right hand side – a list of contacts arranged by source – corporate directory, Facebook, etc. – and searchable by name; and on the left-hand side – a list of applications (such as calendar, for example). The Flare interface allows users to conveniently drag contacts into the spotlight and choose a communication mode based on presence status and/or the user’s preference and purpose. With an easy click of a phone icon, for instance, all contacts in the spotlight are immediately joined into a conference call. Other possibilities include video, IM, email, social (networking) and slideshare. Web conferencing is built into Flare as well.
In essence, the Avaya Desktop Video Device is a high-end, SIP-based, multimedia endpoint that enables users to conveniently use a variety of communication modes to communicate and collaborate more effectively. While the price point is certainly high for the average phone user, for users looking for cost-effective video, the Avaya Desktop Video device offers a compelling alternative. Typical users of such videoconferencing endpoints can be found in the legal or healthcare sectors, for example. Dr. Alan Baratz demonstrated a scenario in a healthcare environment where a specialist doctor was contacted via video to properly diagnose a patient. For a busy, multi-tasking and typically mobile executive, this device can prove a highly effective communications and collaboration tool, competing with a Cisco CIUS or an iPad as well as emerging smart deskphones.
The good news for those looking for a smart interface, yet not crazy about video or unable to afford the premium price, is that Avaya plans to introduce the Flare experience on other devices as well. In the near term, Flare will be available on select Avaya 9600 series phones and eventually – on smartphones. Integration with Microsoft Outlook for contact management and ability to control voice, conferencing, IM and presence can turn the SIP deskphone into a smart device providing a single point of access to communication tools currently available on disparate endpoints (e.g. IM and presence on PCs and laptops, voice on phones, and so on).
Furthermore, Avaya one-X Communicator 6.0 will provide ad-hoc video conferencing capabilities to Aura customers looking to use their PC or laptop as their primary interface to multiple, integrated communication and collaboration tools. Presence and IM federation, tight integration with Outlook, Communicator, Microsoft Office, IBM Sametime and Lotus Notes, video interoperability across Avaya’s portfolio and third-party endpoints, and centralized management through Aura, make Avaya’s one-X Communicator UC solution an appealing option for desk-bound knowledge workers and other heavy communications users.
Avaya also announced its Avaya Aura Collaboration Server – a virtualized platform delivering all Avaya Aura 6.0 core capabilities, including the Session Manager, Presence Services, Communication Manager and System Manager, on a single server. This is a cost-effective (list priced at $27K) solution for up to 50 users that allows businesses to leverage Avaya Flare and Avaya videoconferencing while avoiding a large CAPEX commitment.
Avaya also highlighted its professional and managed video services capabilities, which will be key in complex environments and with businesses lacking sufficient in-house expertise to deploy and manage advanced video applications on their own.
Finally, Avaya launched the Avaya web.alive Experience – a cloud/SaaS-based collaboration solution featuring a 3D environment with avatars. Avaya web.alive enables users to collaborate using audio or video conferencing and sharing presentations and other content. Businesses can license a “space” within that environment and then customize it based on their needs. It is also available for on-premises implementations when security and control are key concerns (for instance, in government deployments). While the avatars create the illusion of an immersive experience, their movement on the screen may be distracting to some users. They may wish to use a 2D version and still leverage the full range of collaboration capabilities available on the platform. The web.alive Experience is being touted as particularly effective in marketing and sales scenarios (when presenting to customers and demonstrating the capabilities of specific products or solutions) and in e-learning environments. The platform provides interesting analytics tools that can be used to assess the effectiveness of collaboration and each participant’s contribution to the collaborative process.
Some customers inquired about the possibility of Avaya delivering certain advanced features such as video call park, hold, transfer, and so on in the future. Avaya confirmed that it can eventually enhance the video capabilities using Aura. Avaya was also asked to substantiate its claims of significant hardware cost reduction compared to competitors. It responded that it had benchmarked itself against Polycom and Cisco/Tandberg and came up at a 20% to 30% cost advantage vis-à-vis Polycom and up to 70% cost advantage vis-à-vis Cisco.
During Q&A, Avaya also provided some clarifications around the deployment options for the new video solutions. All new capabilities are available with Aura 6.0; however, previous Aura versions, as well as IP Office, can be front-ended with the Collaboration Server in order to leverage existing infrastructure and take advantage of the new capabilities. Additionally, through Aura, other vendors’ telephony platforms can also be integrated with Avaya’s video solutions. Furthermore, Aura provides bridges between Avaya’s new SIP-based solutions and existing H.323 video systems.
With the new announcements Avaya once again demonstrated its commitment to innovation and continuously enhancing the value of its products and solutions. It’s made some strong claims about the cost efficiencies and productivity benefits of its solutions and it remains to be seen how those become realized in individual customer scenarios. Also, Avaya has traditionally benefited from its more partner-centric approach (vis-à-vis Cisco’s one-stop shop approach), including in the area of video collaboration, and it will be important for Avaya to continue to function effectively in a broader eco-system. While the Aura architecture enables Avaya’s customers to leverage multi-vendor technologies for best results, it is possible some of its former partners may feel threatened by the new move. However, with the growing recognition of the value of videoconferencing in replacing costly travel and helping geographically dispersed teams collaborate more effectively, Avaya has rightfully sought to enhance its video capabilities. The new video solutions are likely to help it broaden its customer reach and add new sources of revenue.