Google to take on corporate videoconferencing with ChromeBox for Meetings

I was supposed to be shown a demo of Google’s ChromeBox for Meetings by two people, but one of them was stuck home with a sick child. Which, of course, offered the perfect opportunity to show where Google’s foray into business videoconferencing would be useful.

Many people are probably already familiar with a Google “Hangout,” but for the uninitiated, it’s a free online feature within the Google Plus social media service that allows groups of people to have a live chat where they can look at each other via videocameras on their laptops. Google ChromeBox for Meetings is an attempt to kick that consumer technology up a notch by creating something more polished for business customers.

So far, Google ChromeBox for Meetings is only available in the U.S., and Canadian launch dates and pricing are still up in the air. What I saw, however, was a simple black device (the ChromeBox) that connected to a large, round, flat microphone that sits on a table. The other end of the device can plug into any monitor a company may own or already have installed in a boardroom. ChromeBox for Meetings lets users connect up to 15 high-definition streams -- think of a company that wants to have a virtual meetings across a dozen branch offices, for example -- and show slide presentations or documents without the fuss of connecting various wires into projectors and laptops.

“Hangouts is great for one on one (conversations), but in the workplace, you don’t want to huddle around a computer,” said Jennifer Kaiser, the Google Canada spokesperson who demoed the product for me. “There are lots of videoconferencing products at the high end and Hangouts for consumers, but then there’s this odd middle space.”

It’s true. I’ve seen the ginormous videoconferencing suites (often called telepresence) from the likes of Cisco and HP, and they’re like stepping into the famous Star Trek Holodeck. They’re also incredibly expensive -- probably too expensive for most mid-sized Canadian businesses. Google ChromeBox for Meetings, meanwhile, is $1,000 in the U.S..

There were a couple of interesting features here, like the fact you don’t need to give people a complicated dial-in number or access code but a customized phrase (we used “Chrometest”) to log into a videoconference. The camera automatically shows the person who’s speaking at any given time, and if you’re late to the meeting you can be automatically muted so there isn’t the awkward moment of announcing yourself. The screen also sends out a prompt when another meeting is about to start and people need to wrap things up.

The downside was the stream itself. It may have been HD, but at least in the demo I saw the picture was a little hazy, there was some latency between the image of the person talking and the sound of her voice, and sometimes it seemed to cut out.

There are plenty of other videoconferencing vendors, like Vidyo and FuzeBox, that are offering low-cost services that will compete with Google ChromeBox for Meetings. What all of these products face, however, is creating the right balance of ease of use and price with less-than-stellar quality. In the PC sector, analysts used to talk about “good enough computing,” or desktops that managed to hit the sweet spot of affordability and minimum valuable functionality. We’re only just starting to see what good enough videoconferencing will look like.