Videoconferencing gets a new image

Advances in videoconferencing technology have given the medium a new lease of life, moving it towards a real-world experience for users

With global warming hitting the headlines, businesses are being urged to cut down on unnecessary travel. This is making firms reconsider video­conferencing as an alternative way of arranging face-to-face meetings.

Another consideration is data security. During the recent clampdown following the terrorist scare at Heathrow Airport, airlines misplaced thousands of items of luggage, some of which will have contained laptops because of the tight restrictions applied.

Although many of the suitcases were recovered, the time lag will have inconvenienced business travellers and could have threatened data security. Even in a normal month, 120 laptops are handed in as lost property at Heathrow alone. Of these, about 15 unclaimed laptops go to the auction rooms, perhaps with recoverable data still on board.

The cost of implementing tele-conferencing facilities is low when compared to the risks and the time consumed by travel, even under normal travelling conditions. Claire Schooley, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said, "The main consideration is the lost productivity time when one is travelling."

It is often top executives that are flying - and their time is expensive. They lose time going to the airport, passing through security, waiting for their flight and then they are in the air for several hours. All this just to get to a meeting that may be a couple of hours long. It just does not seem to be cost-effective.

These senior executives may feel that videoconferencing cannot replace face-to-face meetings. This may be true in terms of a final handshake, but many meetings can be replaced by videoconferencing or web conferencing.

The traditional image of video­conferencing is a group of business people assembling in a room in one part of the world to meet with another group gathered elsewhere. Even when a large-screen monitor is used, it is difficult to see who is talking at any particular time. However, advances in the technology have changed this.

At the high end there are now facilities that make the conference look pretty much like a real-world meeting around a table.

At the low end, each delegate can sit at their own desk and see all of the other contributors in separate windows on their PC monitor.

Jeffrey Mann, vice-president of research at Gartner, said, "Right now, there is the low end, using desktop cameras, and then you have room-based systems, like Hewlett-Packard's Halo Room."

Halo Room and Cisco's new Telepresence are regarded as the top end of conferencing technology. A room is set aside as a television studio, equipped with lighting, arrays of inconspicuous, high quality microphones and cameras, and a row of widescreen monitors.

Participants sit in comfortable chairs behind a table in front of the screens and when the system is powered up it appears as though the remote participants are sat at the opposite side of the table. This realistic setup is surprisingly effective and a separate screen and close-up camera allows the users to show items in detail or to share Powerpoint presentations, spreadsheets and other visual aids that help the conference along.

Halo Room was originally devised for Dreamworks, the animation studio responsible for popular productions such as Antz and Madagascar. The teams responsible for these movies work in London, New York and San Francisco.

Each project naturally has a high visual and audio content, which needs to be coordinated and approved. Dreamworks was an early adopter of teleconferencing, but its specialist needs resulted in the Halo project. HP saw the potential to use these studios for a wider range of businesses and Halo Rooms are now being rolled out around the world.

Each facility is expensive to build and maintain so it is developing as a bureau service with studios appearing in major city centres.

Mann explained, "Telepresence systems approach the experience of looking through a window at the other participants, rather than looking at a television screen.

"But in the teleconferencing world, it is in the class of executive jet travel. You are talking about £250,000 per endpoint and £20,000 per month ongoing. That is a very serious investment, but we are already seeing competing systems coming in at lower prices."

Mann expects to see a fair amount of growth in such high-end systems, as well as substantial growth in low-end, desktop systems and the mid-range would disappear due to tremendous pressure.

Mann said it costs about £15,000 to equip a conference room with a mid-range facility, but webcams only cost £15 each. "Desktop conferencing may only offer a quarter of the quality but it is 1,000 times cheaper so it is pretty compelling for a lot of users," he said.

The pressure is already showing as companies such as Polycom and Tandberg, the current leaders in tele­conferencing, turn their attention towards providing desktop-based systems and Halo lookalikes. The potential is also attracting new players like Cisco and Microsoft.

VisitBritain is a government-sponsored initiative to promote a positive image of Britain as a holiday destination. The organisation has centres around the world that need to be coordinated, and tele-conferencing plays a large part.

Tim Weston, supplier and e-procurement manager for VisitBritain, is responsible for the provision of these systems. "As a globally dispersed organisation, and a public sector one, there are various financial considerations for us," he said.

Weston said there was also an employee welfare aspect in terms of the travel that people are required to do when they have a genuinely viable alternative. "Nice as physical face-to-face meetings are, I think the speed and efficiency of communications is also very significant."

According to Weston, users have a much lower cost in terms of the deployment and use of these technologies. These costs are falling, whereas the time, fares and taxes concerned with travel seem to be going forever upwards."

The structure of VisitBritain's videoconferencing facility mirrors the hierarchy of the data networking topology. The nerve centre is housed in London, and this links with hubs in key centres around the world where VisitBritain has a presence.

The spokes of the system spread out from these key offices to satellite offices, covering 36 countries.

The problem with using the internet as the primary carrier of tele­conferencing is its unpredictability. This is especially notable when major centres, such as the US, come on-stream. As the nations wake up and boot up their IT systems, the activity can disrupt a teleconference.

VisitBritain's network avoids this by using a dedicated multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network provided by Verizon Business.

At the moment, the VisitBritain's teleconferencing facilities are mainly based on Polycom teleconferencing rooms, but there are some offices where the costs of this cannot be justified. Despite this, about 400 of VisitBritain's 560 employees have easy access to a room, but Weston wants this to increase.

His answer is to provide Polycom's PVX desktop system to extend the current network and eventually replace much of it. "A licence for the PVX software and a decent quality webcam means I can deploy videoconferencing wherever I need it for a one-off cost of about £100 per desk, which represents significant value," Weston said.

After installation, Weston did not have to worry about the cost of the calls because they were transmitted via the MPLS network that was already in place. "Previously, we were looking at a significant investment in deploying a videoconferencing suite," he said.

"That is certainly still a requirement in major hub locations but in places where it is less easy to justify, PVX is ideal. I am always conscious of the fact that this is taxpayers' money and the more I can do with less of it, the better off we all are."

The desktop solution to Weston's financial constraints is further enhanced by the ease of deployment. The software can be installed by users in the satellite areas or deployed across the MPLS network from London. A webcam can be sourced locally, plugged into a USB socket, installed by plug and play and be on-stream within minutes.

Weston is also looking at the possibility of extending the company's world coverage by sharing facilities with the British Council which is often co-located with VisitBritain.

Another teleconferencing user is SABMiller, the international brewing operation responsible for brands such as Peroni, Carling and Holsten. The company has been using the technology for 10 years as a simple and quick method of arranging international conferences.

Roger Chappe, IT manager at SABMiller, is also looking to extend the videoconference capability to the desktop. "We have just taken delivery of Microsoft Live Communications Servers, which we will be linking into our videoconferencing rooms," he said.

Until now, bandwidth has been an inhibitor to teleconferencing, causing software producers to develop systems that do not refresh those parts of the screen that remain unchanged from frame to frame. These and other restrictions result in a jerkiness.

However, according to Chappe, the greater proliferation of faster broadband links is changing this. "Bandwidth can be a problem - but only if you want it to be. You can push systems up to 2mbits plus. We run them at anything from 128kbits to 384kbits, depending on where we are connecting to and what they have available. If it is a one-to-one meeting, 128kbits is very acceptable. But if the bandwidth is available we will run it at 384kbits because it gives a much clearer image and a lot less breakup."

SABMiller also uses its own network to run the conferencing system, but in areas where it is not possible to create an access point, ISDN is used.

Chappe said, "Because we use ISDN we can link to anybody that has that capability, but we tend not to use our IP service outside of our environment because of security considerations, and because ISDN is a lot harder to tap into than our IP network. It does create complexities with everyone's firewalls and that kind of thing.

"If you use videoconferencing appropriately people start getting used to it and it is going to become just like the telephone. You are going to use it every day in your life."

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