Video conferencing - Nice to see you!

Video streaming and conferencing is starting to pervade both corporate intranets and the Internet. Although normally associated...

Video streaming and conferencing is starting to pervade both corporate intranets and the Internet. Although normally associated with big companies, smaller, lower cost systems are now entering service in the SME sector


Video conferencing has been a long time coming of age. The Star Trek generation that dreamed of perfect quality screens, with near instantaneous transmission across great distances will be disappointed for some years yet. However, the current crop of devices is a breathtaking when compared to the earlier attempts.

The very first videoconference coincided with the birth of television when, in 1928, John Logie Baird set-up a live broadcast up between England and America. The monochrome, five-minute event was subject to delay as the signal crossed the Atlantic, but commentators of the day forecasted that the "moving picture telephone" would be in every house by the end of the century. The most spectacular use of video conferencing was probably in 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission first put humans on the lunar surface. In terms of cost, it still the most expensive conferencing event ever conceived.

The pre-Internet information networks utilised by large corporate entities in technology, engineering and manufacturing took great pride in showing off video conferencing suites. Unfortunately, these systems were notoriously unreliable and proprietary in nature. Worse still, getting rival manufacturers' systems to work alongside one another was almost impossible. The performance was still abysmal and the cost of bandwidth for video conferencing made it less attractive than flying to an important meeting.

The next major leap in VC technology occurred in the early 80s, as both communication engineers and academics applied the breakthroughs they had made in digital compression, to audio and video transmission. Telecommunications bodies such as ITU and the compression experts at MPEG formed a number of international standards to allow dissimilar manufacturers and products to work together, alleviating the problem of incompatibility. The most common of these is the ITU H.320 standard, allowing users in different countries and with different products to synchronise their VC kit in a pre-defined way that offers a guaranteed level of basic services.

The Internet opened the floodgates to the mass market. Low cost cameras linked to new streaming media technologies, like Realmedia and QuickTime, empowered web users to use video for both business and leisure. The cost of enabling video conferencing started to come down but this new flood of low-cost Internet video, some are claiming, is starting to affect the Web's overall performance.

The market

The video conferencing market is still evolving rapidly. The market is generally split along business and consumer lines. Although the consumer space potentially has a lot more sales, the consumer level cameras and software are very similar in price and performance and offer limited functionality and performance.

Generally, a consumer class VC package consists of a 1CCD digital camera and basic software. Video and audio is converted into output packets suitable for transmission over the Internet via IP. Many consumer VC packages claim a constant 25 fps with radio quality sound. However, in reality, this is never achieved. The average frame rate is closer 10-12 fps and that will often drop down dramatically depending on Internet "weather" conditions and line quality. Major manufacturers in the consumer space include just about every scanner and digital camera manufacturer, but often the units are re-badged Sony or Canon products.

The business space is clearer cut, divided between PictureTel, Polycom and Vtel, with Sony starting to make inroads. Although sales figures are hard to find, PictureTel is currently leading the market in installed user bases. However, both Sony and Polycom have leads in different market sectors and territories outside of the US. The business-focused products tend to have more robust and upgradable architectures, with dedicated connections to leased lines services such as ISDN and E1/T1 fibre links.

A good example of a business video conferencing solution is the VTEL 755. The unit is a floor standing, integrated solution with a remote controlled camera and 35-inch. colour monitor. Connectivity is provided by up to 6 combined 128kb ISDN channels or via a T1 connection. The system has integrated software to allow features such as multimedia slide shows and whiteboard information running concurrently with video conferencing. Because the system uses the H320 standard, any compatible VC system can connect with it but some of the more advanced multimedia features are dependent on the VTEL software suite. The quality of both audio and video can be scaled depending on bandwidth and user preference, but even on the highest setting, the quality only reaches stunning when utilising a full 768k link.

Applications of visual communications

Video conferencing applications broadly fall into three categories: education, collaboration and legal.

Education is a great example of VC technology use. Distance learning for languages or medical diagnoses is being exploited all across the world, especially since qualified trainers can therefore spend their time teaching instead of travelling. Aso, with some systems, a time delay factor can be added to allow preparation of subtitles or voice-overs for multiple language support.

Collaboration, whether in business or academic fields, is another most popular VC application. Planning meetings, press briefings, even hiring and firing can be improved via visual systems. If an organisation requires the participation of a senior manager, VC can provide a truly global meeting without lengthy travel times.

The use of VC in judicial or legal matters is a large growth area, especially in the US. Prisoners on remand are increasing attending court via VC links, while witnesses who live great distances from a courtroom can give evidence via VC, even if they reside outside of the country. Affidavits and wills can also be conducted via video conferencing, with all statements considered as evidence, even over an electronic link.

The UK has its fair share of major VC users. Imperial Tobacco, Coca-Cola and Independent issuance all have major installations that cover both UK offices and European outposts. Independent Insurance, for example, uses the VC system for discussing presentations, working on electronic documents and international meetings.

One of the UK leading authorities on VC is Rob Portwood. After eight years at Alcatel managing video services for Northern Europe, Portwood founded Videocall Ltd, specialists in visual technologies. As both an integrator and consultant, he has strong views on the UK market. "Video conferencing has often been kept behind a wall of jargon. Traditionally, VC suites installed five years ago were the preserves of huge multinationals and cost in excess of £50,000 a piece. The market is now changing, especially as bandwidth is now much cheaper and systems are starting to be produced in greater numbers."

Because the number of VC products sold is still relatively small, sales figures tend to be highly guarded. Portwood estimates that 60,000 systems were sold around the world last year. This makes the VC market potentially worth between 500-700 million pounds. Portwood also disputes the claims that video is "killing" the Internet, saying: "Loss of bandwidth due to video is a common misconception. Of the systems we integrate, over 95 per cent of our customers are using dedicated lease line technology. Internally, on modern switch networks, modern prioritisation techniques (802.1p) stops video from compromising other more essential data streams."

The future

The future looks bright for VC. This summer see the launch of the next generation video products using advanced compression and streaming techniques, which claim "broadcast quality". The arrival of metropolitan networks using DSL and lower cost ISDN again offers the possibility of the videophone for home users. For business intranets, the corporate web is the next battleground for the VC vendors. Having video conferencing (either one way or bi-directionally) straight from the desktop is simplified by IP and the cost of implementing these solutions is starting to come down. Although wide scale acceptance of VC is still a while away, newer products now provide provision for future IP transmission standard, within their firmware of their devices.

For a business wanting to exploit VC technology, the first step is working out what benefits it brings to the day-to-day running of your organisation. As one industry analyst said: "VC is to often reduced to selling the sizzle without the sausage." VC can provide a real benefit to most businesses, but without an application, it is still just an expensive toy.

Will Garside

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