By Tony Zuccarino
The PC market today is undergoing yet another evolution of look, function and feel. We have seen the PC successfully sprout new multimedia appendages of soundcards, CD ROMs and speakers. Now, the PC is becoming much more than an electronic abacus or a typewriter with spell check - it is becoming the central resource of the office and home. Industry experts refer to this evolution as Computer Telephony Integration (CTI).
The next wave of evolution will make the PC the telecommunications center for the user. No longer, will one see a PC on one table, the answering machine on another table, the telephone over here, and the speakerphone over there, etc... All will be neatly tucked away into the PC. Not only will space be saved, convenience created, but new features enabled not possible with todays disheveled arrangement. A prime example of this trend is the telephone answering machine capability found in machines such as those now being promoted by industry leaders.
Owners of this type of PC can setup a 'corporate facade' at either their home or office. By using the PCs multimedia capabilities with the telephone interface of the pre-installed fax modem, a high quality answering service can be implemented. Such an answering service can feature high quality pre-recorded messages, multiple voice mailboxes, voice to fax switch and many more features. Outside callers hear a system that sounds like a high end corporate voice mail system.
But the job is only half done with this level of integration. Until now, for making and taking calls himself, the PC user would of course pick up the usual telephone on the other side of the room, prop it up between the neck and the ear, and try to type, work and talk at the same time. By the end of the day, physical therapy is indeed often the prescription. What is needed is to get rid of the requirement to have to hold a telephone handset all the time. In other words, hands free speakerphone.
Of course, in order to satisfy both ends of the conversation, the quality and sound must be at least as good as that of the normal handset. The speakerphone user must be able to be heard at the same time as listening to the other user with low background noise and without echoes of any kind. It is very typical in most conversations for both parties to interrupt and talk over each other. The typical telephone allows for this perfectly. The goal for an acceptable speakerphone product is to avoid the common situation where one starts a conversation on speakerphone and soon switches to a telephone because of poor sound quality and performance. This defeats the purpose of a speakerphone and consequently devalues the feature.
These are not easy requirements for the speakerphone. Typically, one found these qualities only in higher end audio conferencing systems, or standalone speakerphone products costing well over $1000. Due to advances in digital signal processing, it is now possible to offer high performance speakerphone technology comparable to that found in high end products but for a price at orders of magnitude less. Rockwell's DigiTalk Speakerphone product functionality offers this high performance at an economical price point targeted to make full duplex speakerphone the affordable standard for PC telephony.
The integration of speakerphone completes the CTI evolution as it blends into the multimedia architecture of todays PC. The speakers and microphone, today bundled within the all-in-one chassis, have been re-deployed to record and playback voice mail in addition to the typical audio functions. Now they play a new role once again, and act as the speakerphone input/output devices as well, providing true hands free telephony with the public.
Of course, the concept of hands free telephony carries with it an ideal image whereby the user could carry on the conversation and walk around the room at will, with no perceivable effects to the remote person. For further flexibility and convenience, it would be highly valued if the microphone and speakers be located anywhere in the room - hopefully one could leave them exactly where they were when previously used for the soundcard operation. Heretofore, careful speaker and microphone placement was critical to speakerphone performance and sound quality.
What is needed for a truly satisfactory speakerphone experience is the Rockwell product concept called 'Position Independence'. The speakerphone user would like her position to be independent of the speakerphone, so as to roam the room amid conversation without causing any perceivable effect to the remote user, and the speakerphone user would like to position the microphone and speakers independently wherever is convenient given her tastes and particular habitat. Position Independence frees the user from the microphone, and frees the microphone from the speakers - these two benefits of Position Independence alone will soon invite the speakerphone as the primary manner of telephoning, leaving behind the old and unwieldy telephone set.
It is important for the PC speakerphone to deliver the minimum acceptable performance in order to create a selling proposition with tangible value. How does one define minimum acceptable performance with a product that can mostly be judged only via subjective measures? The following Q&A helps to answer that question and helps the prospective user ask the right questions.
The voice quality is normally hollow and noisy, resulting in the usual complaint from the remote side that the speakerphone user cannot be heard or understood. "Please pick up the handset" is the typical demand thirty seconds into a half-duplex conversation. This is in part due to the all analog architecture of the product.
These types of systems result in what is called 'participant fatigue'. From the inception of a half duplex speakerphone call, users start to get annoyed and tired of trying to adapt the performance limitations of the device and ultimately go back to telephone handsets. Hence the limited use of the speakerphone function on these units.
This technology uses digital signal processing (DSP), increasing voice quality and reducing user fatigue, but falls short in the areas of allowing users to talk simultaneously at equal volumes and in rejecting echoes and other sound impairments that creep into a DSP type of speakerphone. The pseudo solution typically fixes microphone gains and speaker gains, with the end result that speakers and listeners may experience irritating low volume levels on one or both sides of a call.
Position Independence, provided in the Rockwell DigiTalk solution, features independent microphone and speaker placement along with microphone and speaker automatic gain, whereby the user can walk all around the room and be heard at the remote side as if she had been stationary in front of the microphone the whole time. The participant fatigue is lowest with this solution, fulfilling the key requirement that both sides never feel the need to revert back to handset operation.
The integration of the full duplex speakerphone into the modem and Soundblaster makes possible all sorts of new and valuable features, many of which are not possible in a standalone type of system such as:
The answers to these questions determines the user fatigue profile, thereby setting the value of the speakerphone function perceived by the end user.
Full duplex speakerphones are useful devices providing convenience and value to todays corporate, home office or recreational user who finds themselves interacting a large portion of their day with PCs and use the telephone as well. Obviously many of us find ourselves in these conditions, and we will require a speakerphone that provides at least the sound and full duplex environment that we are all used to with our telephone handsets.
The Rockwell DigiTalk speakerphone device set accomplishes just that and more. Integration within the sound and modem combo card allow many new features to be enabled which bring a new level of productivity to todays computer/telephone user.
For more information contact the Rockwell sales office nearest
you or call (800) 436-9988, or fax (818) 365-1876.