The idea of holding an early-morning meeting with the managingpite of ongoing hype from vendors. How can you decide whether it's right for you? Danny Bradbury finds out. director of an important IT company clad only in your dressing gown isn't something that holds much water, normally. Nevertheless, the wonders of the telephone mean that freelance journalists do just that, generally with morning fag in mouth and wake-up cup of coffee clasped firmly in their tired hands. For such unkempt laggards, the concept of video conferencing can be daunting, threatening a lack of freedom, an increase in accountability and a hefty investment in communications and terminal equipment.
Perhaps this is why video conferencing still hasn't taken off. The concept has been around for years, and the connection technology - in the form of ISDN - has been available since the early nineties. If computers are meant to be an enabling technology that increases the richness and frequency of communication, then why has video conferencing remained a niche application, in spite of the vendor hype?
Colin Wilkinson, managing director of video conferencing consultancy the Video Meeting Company, is the first to admit that video conferencing hasn't captured mass-market attention yet, and is quick to explain why.
The major market barrier has been a lack of digital lines, he says, pointing out that although ISDN has been available for a while, prices used to be higher and availability was limited. Now, he argues that most businesses are capable of receiving ISDN services at a relatively low cost. The introduction of BT's cheap Home Highway service promises to bring the cost of high-bandwidth communications down even further.
A needless expense
The problem of an expensive communications infrastructure was compounded by expensive terminal equipment, he says, explaining that it wasn't uncommon for video conferencing customers to shell out #100,000 on a suitable system.
This ruled out the majority of corporate customers. Now, appropriate equipment can be purchased for well below a tenth of the price or even for under a thousand pounds, depending on whether you require multipoint software to coordinate conferences with multiple participants, roll-around boardroom-type systems for group meetings, or desktop equipment for individual users.
Consequently, he says that he has experienced an exponential increase in demand over the past nine months.
Cheaper equipment may make the introduction of video conferencing easier, but that alone doesn't give you a good enough reason to invest in it.
Unless it can give you some tangible benefit, is there really any point in doing it at all? Many may argue that using the telephone where people can't see you can be advantageous. If someone can't see you, then you can do two or three things at once while talking to them, for example, whereas with a video conferencing call you have to make sure that they have your full attention.
Nevertheless, visual communication is more intuitive for humans, according to Wilkinson. Why is it that people like travelling to meetings rather than doing certain things over the telephone, he asks? It's because the quality of communication degrades depending on what media you use. Face-to-face meetings degrade when you change to a landline telephone, for example, and that degrades still further when you move to a mobile telephone conversation. Email is the poorest communication method of all, and that's why people sometimes misinterpret others' Email communications as angry or upset, when that wasn't the intention. Wilkinson argues that the quality of communication offered by video conferencing is higher than that on the telephone.
Simon Lubin, head of marketing at BT Conferencing, agrees, pointing out that some things simply can't be expressed over the telephone. "If you have senior management meetings they need to see body language and look people in the eye and get that bonding as a senior management team," he says. In a group interaction, it's important to see the other group, he points out. If this is the case, it makes a good case for roll-around video conferencing systems, but it raises doubts about the value of desktop-based video conferencing systems, where meetings are generally conducted on a head-and-shoulders level. The less you can see of a person, the less effective the body language argument is. Purchasers will have to decide for themselves whether the possibility of seeing a raised eyebrow during a conversation warrants the necessary investment.
Lubin, who specialises in group audio and video conferences, argues that video conferencing systems are less efficient on a one-to-one level, especially when the application sharing capabilities of many desktop video conferencing systems mean that you may find yourself working collaboratively on documents most of the time. "In one-to-one interaction, once you've had initial eye contact you find that most of the screen is taken up with data," he says.
The richness of communication offered by the better video conferencing systems gives you some basis for deciding whether your company's profile warrants it. Look at the relationship between the people communicating.
Is their connection purely transactional, or is the association deeper?
How much will their relationship benefit from the inclusion of body language?
Typical examples of such applications include creative meetings, such as those between designers or advertising companies and their clients, or meetings between senior management. They can also be used for interviews, he says.
All this is very well, but the benefits so far are intangible. The feel-good factor doesn't translate very well to the balance sheet, and this will make the finance department very wary.
George Clarke, telecommunications services manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland, says that he was able to gain a clear set of return on investment figures when installing video conferencing from BT and PictureTel at his company.
Savings and productivity
The saving is in two areas - travel cost and staff productivity. Saving on travel costs and time is one of the clearest ways to achieve a return on investment financially, Clarke says. If you're paying a senior executive hundreds of pounds per hour for their time, you want to make the best possible use of that time, and sending them on a plane isn't the way to do it.
The company has regular weekly videos with its offices in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, during which staff make presentations about potential business opportunities. Whereas these meetings used to involve a high degree of travel, they are now conducted over the PictureTel link.
"We have statistics on the number of people that use the studios and how many of them would have travelled had video conferencing not been there," he says. He arrived at a formula - if there were four people in a video conference, then he assumed that one of the people attending every other conference would have travelled to attend the conference if it had been a regular meeting. This enabled him to work out how much the company would have saved in travel costs and staff time.
Based on the number of people that use the service and the fact that the company conducts video conferences with its suppliers, he believes that the bank saves #60,000 per month. An additional benefit is that the number of meetings has increased due to the convenience of the video conferencing system, thus increasing the level of communication between the different parties.
Financial savings aside, BT's Lubin says that companies considering video conferencing shouldn't disregard the potential increases in productivity that may not be immediately tangible. The idea of holding more meetings rather than simply reducing the cost of existing ones is important if you are to maximise your return on investment, he says. "There are cost savings, but the thing we find is that when companies get into the culture, the increase in efficiency is far more important to them than the savings.
That's not to belittle the fact that they're saving money but they become an added bonus."
Another benefit is that you are able to enhance your staff's quality of life, he says. Less time spent away from home leads to a more balanced lifestyle, and you can pack two or three meetings in before you even set foot outside the house in the mornings. "That means that you can either use the time more productively where you are, or make sure you get home on time to enjoy the rest of your life," he says. This could lead to a reduction in staff turnover.
What stage is video conferencing at technically? It's acceptable and getting better, according to Dr Leslie Saward, marketing manager at BT.
Saward has been responsible for rolling out a video conferencing system produced by a partnership of video conferencing companies in the form of video capture board vendor Winnov and software vendor Vizitel, which he says gives you nine frames per second (fps) over GSM and at least 15fps over conventional PSTN lines.
Five hundred staff have already used the software, which he says is installable without making any changes to the Windows registry settings. The current version is monochrome, although the next version will be full-colour at 180 x 160 pixels, he says, admitting that the system uses a separate line for audio communication. He adds that steering away from ISDN lines enables such systems to be used on a mobile basis - no-one has ISDN in their car, for instance. Vizitel says that, because the system is designed for GSM and PSTN networks, it is extremely efficient over ISDN. BT selected the system for its rollout after testing 40 other video conferencing systems.
Clarke invested in a more sophisticated multipoint infrastructure for Royal Bank of Scotland's video conferencing. He originally had a switching device that relied on fixed dedicated links to eight studios that were expensive to keep going. When these lines weren't used for video, they weren't used at all. He therefore decided to change to a new switching device, and he connected it to the studios via the telephone network.
This gives him the ability to aggregate ISDN lines through his PABX to conduct high-quality telephone calls, and it also gives him the ability to connect with external organisations via the telephone network, along with the bank's US offices. Video conferencing sessions are held at 384Kbps - six ISDN lines strung together, or three aggregated 128Kbps ISDN links.
If there is a lot of traffic, this can be stepped down to 256Kbps, he says. Describing the resolution of the picture as "a normal TV screen", he says that when bandwidth decreases, the resolution is standard, and it's only the refresh rate of the picture that alters.
Wilkinson agrees that a 384Kbps ISDN call is ideal for a video conferencing session with a refresh rate and resolution that would seem like a regular face-to-face conversation. He quotes a refresh rate of 30fps at this bandwidth, which is equivalent to the US NTSC television standard, and higher than the European PAL broadcast system. At 128Kbps, he says that the refresh rate is 15fps (odd, given that the bandwidth is one third that of a 384Kbps call rather than half), but he says that the brain quickly adapts to the slower rate.
Therein lies the problem - people shouldn't have to adapt to suit their video conferencing systems. Many smaller businesses and the lion's share of homeworkers will be restricted to a single 128Kbps line, meaning that their refresh rates will be low. At this stage in the game, anyone considering the purchase of a video conferencing system shouldn't have to be making allowances for using a single ISDN line, and stringing together multiple lines will discourage a large number of companies.
Consequently, video conferencing systems will be restricted to a niche market until well into the next millennium, and certainly until UK telecommunications providers get their acts together and provide higher-bandwidth communications options. BT is promising the introduction of multi-megabit ADSL services, which could help to spur such services along, but given its track record in making ISDN both widely available and affordable, there will be a considerable delay between the introduction of such high bandwidth services and their eventual uptake.
Video conferencing vendors have been struggling to break out of their niche prison for years, but they are unlikely to be paroled just yet.
This lack of uptake is self-perpetuating, because it restricts the case for video conferencing to internal communications. Video conferencing has been standardised thanks to the universally accepted ITU standards including T.120 (for data conferencing), H.320 (for low-bandwidth links) H.323 (for IP) and H.324 (for conventional telephone links) technology that allows different vendors' systems to communicate with each other, but most companies will find that their third-party business partners are unlikely to have their own video conferencing facilities yet, which will make them less likely to buy such systems themselves.
All of these obstacles mean that until the supporting infrastructure makes video conferencing services much more intuitive, they will remain oversold and underused.
St Helen's College and the St Helen's Chamber of Commerce have collaborated to produce a Centre of Excellence for video conferencing to pull together local businesses in the Merseyside area. Multimedia services company Questmark played a large part in putting together the technical infrastructure for the centre, situated in the college.
Sam McMaster, managing director of Questmark, says that the company was already involved with the local DTI Business Link office as part of a promotional campaign for Business Link-based video conferencing systems.
Then, 18 months ago, Questmark established a relationship with the college and proposed the centre on the back of a fund created by the Department of Education and Employment. "St Helen's is a diverse college. It has four main campuses in and around St Helens and it has a number of subsidiary companies too. It is also the lead college in the Merseyside network that links all colleges in the Merseyside region," he says. Questmark designed and implemented an ATM network connecting the campuses, and after putting the college's voice and data on the network, he is deploying new applications such a distributed learning.
"We are creating 14 learning centres in local industry or learning centres and we are giving them the ability to participate in accessing experts who have given presentations to the conference centre. We have multiple business conferencing facilities," he says.
The network benefits both business and academic users. Local companies come and use the facilities for video meetings with companies in the US, and the estates director at the college is trying to implement an environmental network to reduce the number of people travelling into the town centre campus.
"We have developed a standard ATM and ISDN-capable terminal for lecture theatres, classrooms and seminar rooms and even a public access one in the Centre of Excellence itself," says McMaster. "We have built a media wall that can be configured as a lecture theatre. Sources we can project from include computers anywhere in the network, laptops and the Internet itself. We can have conferences and lectures that can be spread almost globally."
The centre contains one of the nodes in the ATM network, based on the Nortel Networks Centillion 1000 series. Others are spread across the other campuses. The central ATM network runs at 155Mbps but it has the capacity to run multiple 155Mbps links or multiple 622Mbps links as needed.
The 14 business centres are multi-purpose terminals providing access to college and business links. At present they use standalone NT networks with a router attached to them that uses multiple ISDN lines to dial into the network. Later this year, Questmark hopes to take fibre connections to larger centres and implement ADSL to get better delivery capabilities.
The terminals use a range of video conferencing terminal products, including Sony equipment in the centre's meeting room.
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