Video conferencing - now is the time?

The technology for having long distance conversations augmented by live video of the participants is not new, and networks have had sufficient and relatively low cost capacity to carry these sorts of conversations for a long time, yet somehow adoption has not met expectations.

From customers and case studies quoted by video conferencing vendors, it seems to be fine for some in the high tech end of engineering, pharmaceuticals and financial services and other high value industries; better for the plush walnut veneers of the boardroom, but rarely for day-to-day activities. This is despite many valiant attempts to push the industry forward; integrating video with other media as part of unified communications and building advanced ‘tele-presence’ services so that meeting attendees really can suspend disbelief and feel that they are in the same room.

According to past Quocirca research, most people can also say what they believe to be the main benefits of video conferencing; less travel with consequent cost and environmental benefits, and being able to mitigate the effects of bad weather, transport disruption, strikes and so on. In addition, the research has shown that those with actual video conferencing experience find that its real primary benefit is productivity gain from more efficient ‘meetings’, the travel reduction being an additional bonus.

So, there are many apparent benefits and technology advancement, yet somehow something does not quite gel. Perhaps part of the problem is the term “video conferencing” – which for many could be laden with pre-conceived notions.

Firstly there are the technical issues. It is perceived as expensive, lacking in standards, having poor interoperability, and a belief you might need an engineer to set up or hold your hand while using it. Then there are facilities management limitations; only having a system in the boardroom where no one else can use it or single systems in meeting rooms that are already heavily in demand and booked out for other purposes.

Then there is a culture of sensitivity or reluctance to being ‘on camera’. With video there is no place to hide. There is a dress code of at the very least “you must” (wear some clothes) and many may still prefer audio-only conference calls, which allow participants to get on with something else, rather than being fully engaged in the meeting (As this video humorously demonstrates). Self conscious behaviour such as a smoothing of hair or clothes and straightening of a tie are far more likely before a video call, than entering a meeting. Everyone thinks that a camera will be unflattering, adding pounds to weight or drawing attention to perceived imperfections.

Many of these notions are now fading into the past. The technology has moved on substantially, and interoperability improved. Individuals are much more video aware; a younger generation has grown up with cheap webcams and cameras in laptop lids, people of all ages use low cost internet video calling to keep in touch with distant relatives or friends, and being videoed is now part of many popular and mass market experiences from YouTube to ‘reality’ TV. However, this is one area where consumerisation has thus far had less impact than expected in the workplace.

It had seemed that tablets, and perhaps smartphones, might have been a significant catalyst for video adoption. Video calling was initially marketed as one of the potential killer apps of the 3G networks as they appeared, but had very limited impact, and even the mighty Apple’s attempt to normalise video calling with FaceTime only seems to have had limited appeal. The incorporation of two cameras into tablets, and the informal way most people interact with these devices also seemed like it would be a boost to personal video calling, and concepts such as the Avaya Flare Experience tried to capitalise on this idea.

Now, most conferencing products have moved from the constraints of the specialised video conferencing hardware, allowing a mix of participants to conference in from any device – desktop, tablet, smartphone or traditional dedicated video conferencing system. This is true of those with long pedigree in video, such as Polycom and Tandberg (now part of Cisco) as well as relatively more recent entrants such as Lifesize (now part of Logitech), Radvision (now part of Avaya) and Vidyo.

However the adoption of personal devices does not appear to be sufficient for video conversations to become standard daily business fare – despite the increase in workforce mobility, meetings and physical meeting rooms are still a critical part of any organisation.

So the entry of Google into this space with its “Chromebox for meetings” product looks interesting and potentially very threatening for the traditional video conferencing establishment. Sure the Asus-built control box is a bit of a plain design, but it comes with HD camera, omni-directional table top mike and a simple remote control – everything except a screen – and has a sub $1,000 pricetag. This BYOS (Bring Your Own Screen) approach to video will not cause a problem in the average office where screens in meeting rooms have become a typical setup.

Its configuration and use for just over a dozen participants is very simple and straightforward, and knowing that it is essentially the tool that has had widespread internal use at Google for a couple of years should make this something that will appeal to people who just want to communicate. Making it so cheap and interoperable means this could be the breakthrough moment for making video conferencing a default rather than special meeting decision.

It is by no means perfect and polished. The industrial design could do with a bit of ‘Apple flair’ and it would be great if the remote control could be replaced by a smartphone app, but these are refinements that could easily follow. The key is getting adoption.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the industry, which has recently focused on quality of experience especially at the high end with tele-presence, reacts to this potentially disruptive plain box. This finally looks like an approach to consumerisation of video conferencing in the office that might fly.