Live Meeting audio control codes

“Webcasts”, “WebExes”, “Webinars” and “Live Meetings” are all horrible names for meetings conducted across the ‘net.  Admittedly these services cut down on travel (good for the environment and for the soul) and are better than voice conferences (yawn) but, sometimes, a face to face meeting is much more valuable.  Regardless of my personal views on these events, they seem to feature heavily in modern office life (I’ll be attending a few this week…) and I thought it might be useful to publish a few command codes for the phone conference service that is one of three methods for Live Meeting users to connect to the audio stream:

  • Chairperson codes:
    • #1 Participant roll call
    • #2 Participant count 
    • *2 Stop audio playback
    • *5 Mute/unmute participant lines
    • *7 Lock/unlock conference
    • *8 Record start/stop
    • ## End conference
  • Chairperson and participant codes 
    • *0 Operator assistance
    • #0 Conference help menu
    • *6 Mute/unmute own line 

These codes are from my BT MeetMe account; however I’m pretty sure that they are valid for the audio portion of any service based on Microsoft Office Live Meeting (the mute code certainly seems to work when I’m on Microsoft-hosted Live Meetings).

Getting to grips with presenting using Microsoft Office Live Meeting

This morning, I gave a technical presentation to a fairly large group (around 60 people). Nothing special there – I ought to be able to do that by this stage in my career – but this was a presentation with a difference… it was conducted via Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 (using the BT Conferencing service).

Now, the fact that this was done over the web was great: 60 less individual journeys in order to meet somewhere mutually convenient (resulting in direct environmental and financial cost benefits, as well as time savings); one less conference room (more financial benefit); and I didn’t need to take a load of equipment with me for a demonstration (although I could have done all the demos for this session on my laptop).

I’ve attended many Live Meetings where other people are presenting but I’ve never led one before and what hadn’t struck me until we did a dry run to test the technology was the impact of not being able to see my audience. With 60 people each connecting individually, many of them behind a corporate proxy server that won’t let SIP-based audio pass let alone video, webcams (even RoundTable devices) were out of the question. In effect, I was talking to my computer for just over an hour and hoping that people were still interested. It’s not a nice way to present – I rely on my audience’s body language to know that people are interested, that they understand what I’m saying, that I’m not going too fast, or too slow – and, even though Live Meeting has the facility for people to provide feedback, when you’re presenting your content and balancing slides, notes and demos, watching the seating chart to see if someone has turned their flag to red, or the Q&A panel to see if someone has a really pertinent question is just not very practical.

Despite that, it worked pretty well. Apart from me having too much content once taking into account the fact that people had joined the call late (as is normal in the organisation where I work) and that even though I’d booked a 75 minute slot, people tend to think in hours and would start to drop off the call at the 60 minute point… never mind, we live and learn.

I don’t want to suggest that I’m now some sort of presentation God (I’m certainly not – although I do enjoy this sort of thing) – what I’d really like to get across in this blog post are the discoveries I made on fairly steep learning curve with Live Meeting over the last few days, in the hope that they may be useful for someone else.

The first challenge was scheduling the meeting. It’s useful to know that Live Meeting can schedule meetings from the client application (which integrates with Microsoft Office functionality – for instance the Outlook Calendar) but that there is also a web interface – and that web interface is where things like recording the meeting, whether or not to include audio, options for presenter feedback, etc. There are also two types of meeting: scheduled; or meet now.

It’s also worth knowing a bit about how the audio content works. I know from trying to watch Microsoft webcasts over Live Meeting when connected to the corporate network that our proxy servers do not allow the audio portion to pass, so I need to work from home or a hotel to use audio with Live Meeting (hence the panic when my ADSL line went down last night). For that reason, I wanted people in an office to be able to dial in to a voice conferencing service and, whilst BT Conferencing’s Live Meeting service is linked to BT MeetMe to provide this functionality, MeetMe has a maximum of 40 participants. BT were quite happy to sell me a managed event call as an alternative but I’m not even empowered to order anything more than the most trivial of expenses these days without management approval (even staying in a half-decent hotel needs director-level sign-off), so I didn’t want to jump through hoops to explain why a lowly solution architect was holding a meeting with a high number of attendees. A bit of lateral thinking led me to a solution – I also have a voice conferencing account with Genesys and whilst I didn’t want to have to installed their software for the webcast – the audio portion of their Meeting Centre does allow 125 participants to join the call. So, after telling everyone behind the firewall to dial a different number and to put their phones on mute, we were in business. The one downside was that I needed to wear headphones with a microphone for the Live Meeting audio (for the recording) and to use a hands-free speaker phone for the voice conferencing at the same time.

Next up – how to present the slides. In my first attempt at getting Live Meeting to work, I shared my screen and showed PowerPoint that way. It really hit my computer’s performance and the quality was awful. The correct way to do it is to go to the Content menu in Live Meeting, select Share, then Upload File (View Only) – or alternatively select Manage from the Content menu and then click the button to upload a file. Live Meeting will convert the file to its own format, before uploading and scanning for any security issues but, even though this feature is intended to work for various Office file formats, PDFs, multimedia and HTML files, if you use a 64-bit operating system (I do) then only PowerPoint will work.

Live Meeting also lets you do things like white-boarding, application sharing and even desktop sharing. I used the application sharing functionality to share a remote desktop connection for some demos and also created some polls to get a feel for my audience’s experience (the idea being that I could pitch the presentation accordingly – all the more important without a direct feedback mechanism).

And, since the meeting ended, I’ve found that I could have set the colour depth when sharing applications and also viewed the screen resolution of other meeting participants in order to pick something appropriate.

So, what else did I learn?

  • I’d definitely recommend using a co-presenter. One of my colleagues facilitated the meeting and was also acting as a presenter in Live Meeting. That meant he could monitor things like the Q&A panel to deal with any urgent questions, connection difficulties, etc.
  • The 6 Ps (or just Practice Practice Practice, for those who are not familiar with the slightly less polite version) – aside from all the normal planning and preparation that I would put into a presentation, there was the effort put into making sure that the technology would work. Here, again, my co-presenter Mike was really helpful (“Can you hear me over Live Meeting? – “No” – “What about now?” – “That’s better!”. “How do the slides look in the Live Meeting client?”, etc.)
  • Give yourself plenty of time before the session to upload the slides and generally prepare. My 15.5MB PowerPoint 2007 presentation was just over twice that size when converted to Live Meeting format, and took a while to upload over an ADSL line). Then there may be polls to set up, applications to get ready for sharing, etc.
  • When presenting PowerPoint slides, you can turn thumbnails on/off in the Content menu, but there is no equivalent to PowerPoint’s Presenter View to access speaker notes. As a consequence, it might be handy to export the PowerPoint presentation to a Word document and print it before starting the meeting.
  • If you like to point things out on your slides (and I do), then the annotation tools may come in handy with a pointer, highlighter, and other tools too.
  • If you’re planning on recording a meeting, don’t forget to click the record button! (and make sure people know that they are being recorded – so they can opt out if they’re not comfortable with that). Whilst on the subject of recordings, by far and away the biggest disappointment for me was that, even though there are two versions available for each recording (for viewing or for download), neither one is perfect:
    • The Microsoft Office Live Meeting High Fidelity Presentation does not need any add-ins to play but I found there were some substituted fonts, the demonstrations using shared applications were not recorded and the slide animations did not work correctly.
    • The Microsoft Office Live Meeting Replay is much better, but does not show slide animations (so some slides will appear with lots of graphics on top of one another) and it requires the “Microsoft Office Live Meeting Replay Wrapper” to be installed from the download page.
  • As a result of the above, it might be necessary to refrain from using some PowerPoint features (e.g. slides with lots of animations) as they may not present well in the recorded version of the Live Meeting – one of my more complex slides wasn’t looking too good during the presentation either (although it seems to be OK on the Live Meeting replay).
  • If you use polls to solicit feedback from the audience, you can extract that data later. It took some time to work out how – in the end I found out that the web console has the ability to generate reports (it’s possible to report on the names of attendees and the time that they connected, disconnected, their IP address, Live Meeting client type, etc.) and those reports include the poll data.

This is just scraping the surface of what’s possible with Live Meeting – there’s a lot more functionality available (meeting lobby, breakout rooms, etc.) but this summarises the basics that I had to get to grips with over the last few days. Sadly the online help provided by Microsoft is very superficial (BT do provide some additional help as part of their service and I’m sure other providers do something similar) but a bit of patience and a well-targeted Google search should help to fill in the gaps.

Deleting a Live Meeting from Outlook without sending a cancellation request

Sometimes Live Meeting is infuriating. I recently sent a meeting invitation to a colleague for a webcast I’m running later this month and he then sent a new invitation to several of our colleagues (including me), which I duly accepted but that left two near-identical appointments in my calendar. I wanted to delete the original but Live Meeting’s calendar integration would only let me send a cancellation or leave the request as it was.

No problem – just send a cancellation with an empty recipient list. Outlook complains that there are no recipients, then asks if you want to save the meeting. Click yes to save and what actually happens is that the delete request is processed, removing the meeting altogether(which is what I really wanted to do).

Confusing – yes, possibly. But it saved me from cancelling a meeting with my colleague and then him thinking I was cancelling the one with 100 more people confirmed… then multiple calls/e-mails to explain what was happening.

Microsoft Unified Communications: part 2 (unlocking the potential for new communications experiences)

Last week I spent some time at Microsoft in one of James O’Neill‘s presentations on the Microsoft View of Unified Communications.

In the first post in this series from James’ presentation, I outlined the business need for unified communications and some of the Microsoft technologies that can be used to address those requirements. This post looks at some more of the benefits, as communications experiences are adapted to match modern working practises.

The first goal of unified communications: whenever I see a name, I also see presence

We communicate with people, not addresses, yet it doesn’t seem strange to us to dial a network address (a phone number) to speak to someone. Obviously, that’s because telephony has a long history, but it seems pretty odd today – after all, when did you last e-mail someone by IP address? That’s where directories come into play – just as on a mobile phone we tend to store contacts by name, in a corporate environment we should be able to contact our colleagues (or federated contacts) using Active Directory (possibly integrated with other directory systems – such as the internal telephone system).

Having found the right contact, we have a huge choice of media for communications, and the most appropriate medium may vary according to a number of factors:

  • Would you phone someone you know is out? Possibly – but you’d probably call their mobile phone.
  • Would an IM chat save a long e-mail exchange? This one is a little more tenuous – I often find that I’ve spent 20 minutes on IM when a 2 minute phone call would have sufficed.
  • Do you ever ask “is this a good time for a call”? Almost always!

The choice of medium is driven by presence – and when we have presence information, we can use it to make a decision.

After all, how would you connect of the person was:

  • On holiday for a week?
  • In a meeting for the next 30 minutes?
  • Around but not at their PC?
  • At their PC but with a do not disturb sign?
  • Available?

Technologies like the Office Communicator client can even set levels of permission (e.g. personal contacts may be able to override do not disturb status, certain contacts may be able to view home phone numbers but not everyone, etc.) and Office applications can also show presence through smart tags which include a “jellybean” presence icon.

The second goal of unified communications: where I see presence, I should be able to start a conversation (in the right medium)

Once I have a contact’s presence information, I can choose an appropriate form of communication. Should I contact them on a 1:1 basis or multi-party? Should I use voice, video, a data conference, instant messaging or e-mail? Then, using unified communication technologies I can let the computer place the call so that it may be routed according to my contact’s working hours, availability (presence), or other rules – possibly even allowing call forking so that two or more devices ring simultaneously and the first to be answered takes the call.

Using unified communications products a conversation can even switch modes mid-communication, for example:

(Instant message) “Are you free for a call?”
(Instant message) “Yes, but I’m travelling right now!”
(Click to call – and the call is routed to the contact’s mobile phone based on their working hours)
(Communicator-mobile voice call) The conversation continues until… “I’m in the office now, let’s transfer this to my desk phone.”
(Transfer call)
(Communicator-communicator voice call) The conversation continues until some expert advice is needed “Let’s bring Dave into the call – he’s the expert in this area.”
(Click to invite others)
(Multi-party voice call) “But what if I show you this diagram”
(Click to start Live Meeting)
(Conferencing) Each party can see a shared desktop, etc.

This example shows that the rich functionality provided by the various unified communications technologies allows for new conferencing experiences. Add in devices like the Office RoundTable and the whole feeling of a conference call changes (I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve tuned out of a voice conference because I’d lost track of who was talking or couldn’t hear them properly on a conference phone) – and meeting content can be recorded and stored for subsequent playback. Then there is Unified Messaging in Exchange Server, allowing voice-mails to be stored with notes in the recipient’s Inbox as well as voice access to have e-mails read over a voice call, to move calendar appointments, to access the directory and call contacts, etc.

That’s just the unified communications part – but why should web applications be restricted to e-mail and web addresses to provide contact details? tel: URIs can extend contact to voice calls, and can integrate with directory systems that use the E.164 standard for number formatting.

Incorrectly formatted phone number on Microsoft's websiteSadly, I know of at least one large IT services company that mandates the +44 (0) xxxxxxxxxx format for its directory updates (which is confusing to computers, as they will dial the +44 and the 0, rather than substituting one for the other) and even Microsoft’s own contact pages have an incorrect number which not only includes the UK (44) code in front of a full 11-digit number (including the 0 – which won’t work) but prefixes that with (011) which is the US international dialling code but is by no means universal (it’s 00 in the UK, and 0011 in Australia – hence the standardisation on the + symbol).

LG-Nortel IP8540 (Tanjay) deviceThe unified communications experience need not be limited to software either. Whilst Microsoft claim that the desk phone reached an evolutionary dead end some years back (Cisco, Siemens, et al. may disagree), they have also partnered with LG-Nortel, and Polycom to produce IP and USB phones to integrate with Microsoft unified communications software. Codenamed Tanjay and Catalina respectively, these devices either include an Office Communicator client with a touch screen and a fingerprint reader for authentication or extend the Office Communicator desktop experience to include a handset.

Hopefully, this post has helped to illustrate some of the new ways of working that incorporating unified communications technologies into the infrastructure can facilitate. In the next post in this series, I’ll move past the theory and benefits of unified communications and start to look at implementing the technology.

Microsoft Unified Communications: part 1 (introduction)

As well as struggling to understand what I do for a living (“Mark works in computers”), my mother-in-law struggles to understand the concept of working from home. In fact, many people above a certain age do – in the same way that they may struggle with the concept of not wearing a suit and tie, or with flexible working hours – but, to sum it up on one sentence, work is something that I do – not a place where I go.

Work is something that I do – not a place where I go.

I work from anywhere, with colleagues in the UK and Europe, but also with contacts in the US and Australia (i.e. in different timezones).

So the business challenges in this new world of work are about working together in real time, keeping people up to date, sharing information and working in any place, at any time. Whilst it’s important to amend business processes (and personal attitudes) to accommodate these requirements, technology plays its part too. I was recently freed from the shackles of our corporate infrastructure to use a skunkworks mobile working platform that gave me access to Exchange Server 2007’s Outlook Anywhere functionality (no need to VPN into the corporate network) and Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 but I still have some challenges to overcome – like many people, I suffer from communications chaos – playing “telephone tag”, getting stuck in “voice mail jail” and suffering from “e-mail overload”. Then there’s RSS feeds to keep up to date with and I often find instant messaging to be a distraction. Finally, I have to turn something off and MAKE IT STOP!!!

Inbox Zero helps with the e-mail overload. I’ve now reset all my RSS feeds and try and spend time at the start of each day reading the latest updates. My calendars are synchronised and my mobile phone is diverted to the VoIP desk phone in my home office when I’m not working somewhere else, and if I’m at home but away from my desk or on a call, the voice mail is forwarded to my e-mail Inbox (and filters prioritise it for action). In a way, I’ve started to unify my communications but only at an individual level.

What about my colleagues? Some of them have desk phones and mobiles – which should I call? I might be able to see their calendar and work out if they are at their desk but time of day could also be a consideration. If they are travelling then I might call the mobile. But sometimes I actually want to reach their voice mail (e.g. if I want to leave a message outside their normal working hours). If they only have one mobile phone (I have two so I can keep work and home life separate) then I don’t want to disturb them when they are on holiday – e-mail might be a better option. That’s why we need to unify the communications chaos.

World War 2 Propaganda Poster - Is Your Journey Really Necessary?Then there are meetings. As I consider whether my journey is really necessary (the picture here dates back to the second world war but these days the issue is rising fuel prices and a need to cut back on carbon emissions), I take part in an increasing number of conference calls and webcasts but I miss the interaction too… sometimes it’s useful to meet up face-to-face (where I work, my team has not met face-to-face for over 2 years, despite having been re-organised several times) but even if that’s not possible, video conferencing, and smart conference phones like the Microsoft Office RoundTable can really help.

So far, I’ve covered some of the reasons to unify communications but there’s another term that’s often banded about – unified messaging – what does that mean? Unified messaging is a form of unified communications and in order to understand the need for unified messaging, it helps to understand the concepts of synchronous and asynchronous communications.

The telephone is an example of synchronous communications – where we communicate in turn. We even have a three-way handshake at the beginning of a telephone call (phone rings, I answer, you reply). Other examples of synchronous communications are video conferencing and instant messaging.

But what if I don’t pick up the phone? It’s likely that the call will be diverted to voice mail and the caller’s brain struggles to switch to an asynchronous mode as they leave a message with all the pertinent points to be acted on later). Other examples of asynchronous communications are letters, faxes, and e-mail.

Unified messaging brings synchronous and asynchronous communications together – for example allowing fax and voice mail messages to be accessed together with e-mail in a single Inbox. Unified communications take this concept further and integrate unified messaging with instant messaging, presence awareness, video conferencing and desktop sharing.

To demonstrate the Microsoft view of unified communications, check out this short video based on the film “The Devil Wears Prada“:

In the video, a variety of Microsoft technologies are used to unify communications (all of which are available today):

  • Phone call and secretary takes message (hard desk phone – the traditional way of working – although this could be integrated with Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007).
  • Call on soft phone (Office Communicator) from a mobile contact (Windows Mobile) – forwarded to hard desk phone (Office Communications Server).
  • Instant message to instantly warn colleagues of an impending event (Office Communicator and Office Communications Server).
  • Message sent from smart phone to bring forward a meeting (Windows Mobile).
  • Conference call set up in a matter of seconds (Live Meeting, with Office RoundTable conference phone in meeting room and personal webcam in remote office).
  • Desktop sharing (Live Meeting).
  • Mobile voice access to mail and calendar – move a meeting back and call by name (Exchange Server Unified Messaging).
  • Status updates available at an instant (Windows Mobile).

Having set the scene for unified communications, subsequent posts will examine the technology in more detail, together with some of the challenges around implementation.

Credit

This post was based on the opening session from James O’Neill‘s presentation on the Microsoft View of Unified Communications earlier this week.

A quick look around the Microsoft RoundTable

Earlier this week, I blogged about some of the gadgets I’ve been using whilst I’ve been learning about Exchange Unified Messaging and Office Communciations Server (OCS) 2007 and today I got to experience one of Microsoft’s showpiece web conferencing devices – the RoundTable.

Microsoft RoundTableBasically, it looks like a normal conference phone, but with a 30cm pole at the top of which are mounted a number of mirrors reflecting a 360-degree view from the room back onto cameras.

This means that Live meeting can display a panoramic view of the room and (this is the really cool part), the RoundTable recognises who is speaking and displays the appropriate part of the image. It really has to be seen to be believed – so here’s a screen grab from the PC that had the RoundTable connected, showing the panoramic view, the currently selected view (with picture in picture from the remote caller’s webcam). Other LiveMeeting content could also be shown (e.g. a presentation, or a shared desktop), but the point here is the camera.

Microsoft RoundTable images viewed in LiveMeeting

(Incidentally, the guy in the blue shirt is Peter O’Dowd – an Exchange and OCS MVP whose claim to fame includes playing guitar under the pseudonym of Pete Petrol for the punk band Spizzenergi, who were most famous for the song where is Captain Kirk?)

Some might feel that the RoundTable is a solution looking for a problem but I’ve been dialled into enough conference calls where I haven’t a clue who is speaking because as soon as there are more than three people on the conference it becomes unclear who is speaking at any one moment.

With the RoundTable and Live Meeting, remote attendees can have their individual webcams running and people back in the office meeting room can use the RoundTable to project an image of whoever is speaking at that time. Or multiple RoundTables can be used for conferences between multiple groups of people.

I’m sure that Cisco, Polycom and the others who have been doing this stuff for years have devices that are just as exciting but this really rocks.

A few Live Meeting tips

I’ve just spent the last couple of hours listening/watching a Live Meeting webcast. In recent weeks I’ve found that I’m attending more and more of these as part of the various Microsoft beta and technology adoption programmes that I’m participating in and frequently I need to take notes using Microsoft Office OneNote 2007 on the same PC that I’m using to view the slides and listen to the audio. Today I decided to try and connect to the webcast simultaneously from my Mac (i.e. using a second computer to view the slides whilst I write notes on the first) and I’m pleased to say that it worked using Microsoft Office Live Meeting Web Access (unfortunately the full Live Meeting client is required for VOIP audio but all I needed to do in this case was view the slides).

Although Live Meeting supports a pretty wide selection of browser and Java VM combinations, Firefox 2.0 on Mac OS X is not a supported browser/platform combination – the workaround is to use Safari and Apple Java (at least v1.4.1).

Here’s some of the advice and guidance that I’ve accumulated as I’ve been working on local (via Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007) and hosted Live Meeting calls over recent weeks (this is just what I’ve found and is not a comprehensive list):

  • The Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 Client can be downloaded from Microsoft Office Online.
    If the link in the meeting invitation doesn’t work, try launching the client and entering the details manually.
  • If colleagues can’t hear you on the meeting, check that your microphone is unmuted (the default is muted), that (if you are using a webcam) the microphone is close enough to pick up your voice and don’t assume that your notebook computer has a built-in microphone (this one stumped me for a while until I plugged in a microphone and everything jumped into life)!
  • (Microsoft Connect users may find the Live Meeting audio issues FAQ useful.)
  • The Live Meeting support website features a knowledge base for troubleshooting issues with Live Meeting.