Videoconferencing is a communications system that allows people in separate locations to talk to and see each other using live audio and video. A point-to-point videoconference connects individuals at two separate sites, and a multi-point conference connects individuals at more than two sites simultaneously.
Equipment ranges from sophisticated room-based systems to laptop systems, future developments are occurring for use in 3G cell phones and wireless devices. The most common uses of videoconferencing in corporate environments relate to training activities and meetings, but videoconferencing is also used for sales, job interviews, customer service, product demonstrations, technical and engineering collaboration, and troubleshooting. Increasingly, corporations use videoconferencing in new areas to fit more specific needs, especially as technology make collaborative features easier to use.
There has been an upward trend in utilization of videoconferencing and web-conferencing software in the corporate setting since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Increases in travel costs, travel safety concerns, and the slow economy have all led to the employment of alternative methods of collaboration and communication. Lending increased interest to alternative methods are improvements in technology, declining product prices and the development of standards, which allows better communication among a variety of videoconferencing systems. Networks capable of offering high-speed broadband, both wired and wireless, and improved Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) are also contributing to increased usage in web and videoconferencing specifically.
Room-based videoconferencing generally involves a sophisticated system that is built into a conference room, often specially designed and wired for this purpose. Also known as a boardroom system or a conference room system, this option is appropriate for large groups because cameras can focus on an individual speaker as well as include the entire group. Equipment includes a screen or monitor, projectors, microphones, PCs, and cameras that focus on participants as well as documents or other prepared visual aids.
A roll-about or roll-around system is a portable system on wheels that can move around the office and be plugged into a socket. This system is appropriate for frequent communication between small groups. Such portable systems may provide functions similar to those of room-based videoconferencing, with the possibility of plugging in additional equipment according to the needs of users. Models are produced for use at both high and low bandwidths.
A personal or desktop system, uses a personal computer and includes a small video camera that can be positioned on the user's computer and monitor. Typically, a fixed-focus camera and headset provide audio and head-and-shoulder images-the "talking head"-to the other individual participating in the conference. On the screen, several windows show the image of the other participant(s) and any shared documents. Such systems are appropriate for individuals and small groups.
The availability of free services, via Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and Microsoft NetMeeting/Messenger, allow even the smallest of companies/groups to utilize this increasingly popular medium. In addition to basic video feeds and/or audio feeds, these free services also provide document sharing, whiteboard usage, and URL sharing (each person looking at the same webpage together). These extended capabilities in communication and feedback are available to any user equipped with an internet connection, web camera, and microphone (sometimes bundled into the webcam equipment).
As an alternative to purchasing a system, some vendors offer the use of videoconference facilities or rent studio space.
Videoconferencing allows individuals to interact and communicate visually without having to gather at a single site. The most frequently cited benefits concern reduced travel and accommodation costs and saved time. Less easily quantifiable benefits relate to the opportunity this technology provides for collaborative work. It allows access to remote expertise and a wider range of individuals, and because it is interactive, it can lead to increased speed of decision making, cost-effective use of training time, group problem solving and the chance to establish rapport. Videoconferencing used for customer assistance has been linked to increased customer satisfaction.
Like any scheduled meeting, a videoconference, particularly one involving room-based systems and groups, requires organization and planning around the schedules of participants and technicians. Despite improvements in technology, barriers to increased use continue to be choppy images and poor audio, depending on the system used and its ability to maintain connection speed, which in turn depends on the kind of connection. Accommodations must be made if there is a possibility of delayed connections or if the resolution does not allow certain character sizes on visual aids to be distinguished. In some cases it may be necessary to overcome a lack of user acceptance.
Some new users report being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar technology and having trouble with nonverbal cues such as making eye contact; in these cases preparation or training may help. If customers or potential customers are involved, incentives or facilitators on the premises may be helpful until the customers get accustomed to this technology.
Remote technology has been shown to affect human communication mainly due to the lack of cues normally present in face-to-face live interaction. For example, eye contact differs, and if the resolution is poor, it is not possible to look into people's eyes to gauge the degree of interest or attention. The feedback normally expected may be missing or delayed if there is a slight time lag. Turn-taking may also differ, even if the delay amounts to only a fraction of a second.
Preparation or training should be considered in terms of intended use (for example, a one-time meeting of groups of possible trading partners as opposed to regular team meetings) and the technical characteristics of the system (for example, whether or not audio can be simultaneously transmitted and received without any interference). New users and virtual teams need to be aware of factors that may lead to hesitancy or initial uneasiness, which in turn effect communication. Some experts recommend that people meet face-to-face before working remotely as a team in order to overcome possible effects of these factors. For example, if people know each other already, they can treat inadvertent interruptions lightly. On the other hand, videoconferencing can be used for introductory meetings; participants need only be aware of possible limits.
Some techniques enhance the use of video. Looking into the camera as much as possible will help maintain eye contact. If the camera is located close to the image on a screen, looking at the individual produces a similar effect. Notes can be inserted on the monitor with some software; otherwise a good position for note cards is next to the camera. Trainers recommend practicing, including speaking with an inanimate object to get used to speaking to a camera.
As technology improves, applications are moving beyond the meetings and training activities usually associated with videoconferencing in business. Applications actually encompass a wide range of activities. For example, videoconferencing can be used for customer service and sales. Engineers or specialists can provide customer service and support using video images, and they can show new product applications. In the salesroom, it can provide customers with advice or explanations from specialists with the aim of complementing the activity of sales personnel. Many consumer websites, from online storefronts to financial institutions, host internet websites that offer video assistance combined with text-based chat to serve customer needs.
In the area of quality control, hand-held cameras can be used on the factory floor to discover problems or detect faults before they cause lengthy delays in production. These cameras can be used for troubleshooting, with a team of experts able to interact and reach a solution.
Videoconferencing is also used for trade promotion, with the conference itself conducted as a special event. Members of a business-related association in one area may meet with a group of businesspersons based in a different country to present their companies or products. Videoconferences are also used to provide investors with updates by the chief executive or the chief financial officer of public companies.
General concerns include interoperability: whether a system can interface with other conferencing systems via physical network facilities. Another factor includes ease of use. An easy to use interface is particularly important when built-in collaboration features are used. Video and audio quality must also be considered.
Although video quality has improved since the appearance of early systems, with some vendors comparing their products to television video, not all systems in use offer the video quality typical of television. This is in part due to the frame rate, which refers to the maximum amount of full-screen images transmitted per second. The frame rate for the full-motion video normally seen on television is about 30 frames per second. Roughly speaking, the lower the frame rate, the choppier the image. A system providing 15 frames per second will most likely exhibit some choppy images or jerky movements, but this frame rate may be considered sufficient for certain kinds of business meetings. The capability of a system to deal with excessive screen motion is also a factor in determining video quality, while image clarity relates to the number of pixels defined per image.
The synchronization of voice transmission and lip movement depends on whether or not there is a delay or lag in the time it takes to receive a video image and audio signals. If the audio is poorly synchronized, the speaker's lip movements will follow the sound after a fraction of a second or more.
A common network used for video transport is the Internet via DSL (digital subscriber line) or Cable. Other networks are ISDN, local area network (LAN), asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), and the plain old telephone system (POTS).
Systems allowing videoconferencing over the Internet are increasingly common, with compatibility and ease-of-use issues still encountered from time-to-time. Bandwidth is high enough to allow for continuous transmission of motion video and audio.
ISDN is available from telephone companies, with charges to subscribers based on the amount of data transmitted. This network generally allows 15 to 25 frames of live video per second depending on image size. ISDN has been used for room-based conference systems, but it is also used for personal/desktop systems.
Videoconferencing over the local-area network (LAN) utilizes the system that already connects an organization's computers. With network video conferencing, software on a desktop or laptop PC or in a conference room can be used to make a video call on the premises or to a distant location. However, because of video's bandwidth requirements, certain kinds of traffic may suffer as a result of videoconferencing on a LAN. As a result, each call may impact the quality of service on a LAN (as well as on a wide-area network—WAN, which connects distant locations belonging to the same organization). Technical features that allow users to select how much bandwidth they want for a call result in a more efficient use of bandwidth.
ATM is a network technology based on transferring data in relatively small cells or packets of a constant size. This allows ATM equipment to transmit video, audio, and computer data over the same network without one kind of data monopolizing the line.
POTS allows 7 to 12 frames per second, which results in jerky images. It is mainly used for consumer applications. Video and sound quality and poorly synchronized audio remain sticking points for POTS technology.
Standards must be defined in order to allow different products to communicate with each other. The most frequently used standards are H.320 for video over ISDN and H.323 for video over IP (Internet Protocol). Improvements and advances in broadband and wireless, are increasing the usage of the H.323 standard. H.310/H.321 covers ATM for sites with an ATM network; H.234 covers POTS video, which is being used less and less as affordable consumer broadband and wireless options are being utilized.
With improved high-speed broadband becoming a common household amenity, the opportunities for business to be conducted in corporate and home office locations is now possible. Video, audio, data, and especially systems integrating all three are expected to take precedence over the larger, dedicated systems, especially when a hard-wired room is required.
Corporate video conferencing is the largest segment of the videoconferencing market and is projected to jump from $6 million in 2003 to nearly $180 million by 2008, according to Wainhouse Research. In 2004, according to Wainhouse's Videoconferencing Endpoint Survey, more than 70 percent of those surveyed claimed to use group videoconferencing as part of their job, and nearly 75 percent of respondents noted an increase in the use of videoconferencing in the past two years and anticipated an increase in usage in the coming years. Respondents indicated they believed that the future of videoconferencing would be primarily via web conferencing or instant-messaging services and secondarily via desktop video conferencing.
The growing use of videoconferencing is expected to lead to changes in approaches to teamwork, business communication practices, and presentation techniques. Face-to-face communication may take on greater significance if it becomes increasingly reserved for initial meetings, key relationships, and special situations. As more and more people use personal or desktop systems, videoconferencing will be seen as a normal on-the-job activity, involving a wide range of applications and benefits. Further developments in wireless technology and video-capable appliances will make this industry exciting for both personal and corporate usage.
Revised by Monica C. Turner
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