Videoconferencing: a rendezvous in cyberspace

Virtual conferencing offers a whole lot more than just executive time and money savings, as Philip Hunter explains.

Virtual conferencing offers a whole lot more than just executive time and money savings, as Philip Hunter explains.

Despite the cost and complexity of configuration, videoconferencing, especially when allied to some document or data sharing capability, usually confers a business benefit

Virtualconferencing is taking a long time coming. When it was launched, Microsoft's NetMeeting 3 was hailed as the breakthrough in collaborative working we were all waiting for. But that turned out to be a case of the already converted doing the preaching - which has, indeed, been the story of conferencing so far. Apart from high-level executive meetings, virtual conferencing has been confined to the enthusiasts prepared to invest money and time in making the technology work for them.

Videoconferencing's great impediments are the cost of the equipment and the inconvenience of using it. Ask suppliers of videoconferencing systems for examples of customers and applications and they will often struggle to cite recent converts. Most customers have been onboard for some time, and the market has stagnated, although there are new technical developments which may give it fresh momentum.

Even the advent of cheaper PC-based systems, allowing users to stay at their desks to participate in a conference, has not changed things that much. Neither the desire nor the need for videoconferencing is compelling enough to outweigh the burden of setting up systems and using them. Although the principal business benefits of videoconferencing - savings in users' time, and reduced travel and accommodation costs - have helped increase takeup, there has been no great surge in use.

Audioconferencing is more widely used, but here there is a quite different constraint on growth: in a remote conference of more than three or four people, it is very difficult for the participants to tell who is speaking. This quickly becomes tedious and hampers free-flowing discussion if participants have to re-introduce themselves every time they speak. As a result, audioconferences tend to be limited in practice to groups of four or fewer. At this small-group level, though, there has been rapid growth, spurred on by the popularity of BT's three-way dialup conference service with senior school pupils, particularly girls, often for collaborating on homework.

Despite the difficulties posed by cost and complex configurations, those users who have set up videoconferencing initiatives, especially when they are allied to some document or data sharing capability, have usually brought a business benefit. In some cases an executive decision has been needed to commit a company to the investment and training effort required to make it work, but some of the results do seem to substantiate the claims of suppliers that if commitment is forthcoming, benefits quickly follow.

While the appeal of executive conferencing for virtual board meetings depends more on the structure of a company than the nature of the business, there are some industries where conferencing has enjoyed particular success. Two notable examples are manufacturing and financial services, where benefits on top of executive travel and time savings have been enjoyed.

In financial services, conferencing speeds up decision making. In merger and acquisition negotiations, for example, timing is critical. It is often necessary to convene at short notice meetings involving the relevant directors of the respective companies and their advisors.

This can be done much more readily with the help of videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing can also help establish rather longer term but still temporary relationships within an organisation. Norwich Union, for example, has exploited videoconferencing for virtual teams assembled on a temporary basis to undertake projects of relatively short duration where it is not practicable to bring everyone together at a single location. While not absolutely essential for virtual teaming, videoconferencing helps make such teams more effective - and is a benefit applicable to any sector.

But perhaps the most fertile ground for videoconferencing lies in medicine, where video offers an ideal conduit for specialists to exchange information and for students to be instructed in delicate surgery that can only be demonstrated in action in an operating theatre. To provide sufficient detail, high-resolution video is required, which makes the cost of equipment and lack of broadband communications an impediment, but with system and bandwidth costs falling, there has been recent growth in this sector.

The big advantage of any kind of virtual conferencing is that it brings the flexibility of being able to provide either point-to-point or multipoint conferencing with considerable overlap between the applications they serve. Point-to-point conferences are useful for interviews or consultations with several people on one end of the link. Multipoint conferences are valuable for a dispersed project team and for semi-broadcast events.

The latter typically involve one-to-many interaction where there is only limited feedback from the many to the one. Examples include press conferences, where audio alone is sufficient, allowing a number of journalists to tune into an event and perhaps participate by asking questions mediated by a conference chairman. Here the facility for the chairman to have a private discussion with journalists before admitting them to the floor to ask questions is useful.

This form of conference is asymmetrical, in that most of the conversation is one-way (the speaker or speakers address a larger audience), although with the facility for everyone to participate to some extent. Another useful application of this model is in distance learning, where the ability for a trainer or lecturer to reach a large number of students who do not have to assemble in one location is an obvious advantage, saving time and money, and facilitating more flexible study.

Although videoconferencing can create a large, virtual classroom, it has had limited success in education because of its cost and inconvenience - all pupils have to be equipped and geared up for it. In fact, e-learning has so far tended to proceed more on an offline basis, involving the distribution of lectures and course materials, perhaps with some recorded video clips but no live interaction. Course participants can ask questions by e-mail, or in some cases by phone, although the latter is often discouraged because it is more costly in terms of the trainer's time.

Offline working, perhaps within a fixed time window, seems to suit both parties better because they have more flexibility and can work when they want without having to attend, even remotely, at a given time. Further reductions in cost, greater ease of use, and more general availability of broadband communications could increase the use of videoconferencing in e-learning.

When it comes to informal collaboration, the telephone remains by far the most popular online conferencing medium, with e-mail enjoying an equal ascendancy offline. According to Alex Linden, senior analyst specialising in virtual conferencing at Gartner Group, this will change only when more technologically exotic alternatives become easy to use. The Internet passed this point in 1993 when browser technologies matured to the point of creating a universal access mechanism.

Linden believes virtual conferencing will reach this point in 2003 or so, although even then video will probably not feature prominently, at least not at first. The killer development, according to Linden, will be voice over IP (VoIP), ushering in an era of true collaborative working over the Internet. This is because VoIP will make it simple to tell who is speaking in an audio conference, allowing participants to identify speakers from their voice and representing them with a suitable graphic.

"This is the earth-shattering piece, I believe: being able to see who said what," he said. "For example, you could have a teleconference and each participant could see a round table on their screen with the current speaker highlighted."

The arrival of VoIP on a large scale from 2001 or 2002 will be reinforced by developments that make it easier to share documents online while having a discussion. Products such as NetMeeting 3 are moving in the right direction, Linden believes, but need to be a lot easier to use.

Teacher's pet

Xerox is one of a number of major corporates to invest in virtual classroom technology for training on a global basis. According to the company's director of education and learning for Europe, Graeme Cree, the Internet is a much more cost-effective medium than TV for delivering consistent training to a large number of people, and yet has most of the same benefits. "Instead of taking six weeks to train people on a new product, it can now be done in six days, because a trainer can get to a larger audience," he said.

Open wide

A spate of recent trials has confirmed that healthcare - in particular, dentistry - is well suited to videoconferencing. Nor are high-resolution and bandwidth always required. A recent trial of 12 dentists in the south west of England allowed specialists to make remote diagnoses on the spot using images taken by intra-oral cameras. There is evidence that waiting times can be cut and unnecessary patient journeys to distant specialist centres avoided, by enabling remote decisions over video links.

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