Why has video conferencing never take off in the way it should have?" ponders Geoff Seabrook, CEO and founder of online meeting solutions provider Visual Nexus.
It is a good question. For half a decade, the vendors have tried to convince businesses (as well as the public) that "this is the year of desktop video". And yet consistently, applications of the technology have been found wanting.
But now, according to analyst house Gartner, the near universal availability of high-speed bandwidth, the drive towards standardisation and better compression algorithms, coupled with a growing familiarity with the technology, means that the 20% of organisations that have already adopted desktop videoconferencing will rise to 70% by 2008. The adoption of standards is a key factor fuelling usage. The H.323 standard, for example, defines how real-time audiovisual conferencing data is transmitted across IP-based networks, allowing disparate conferencing applications to speak to each other and take advantage of technology they already have.
Certainly, as organisations switch their voice and other data to IP networks, the technical inhibitors to desktop videoconferencing will be demolished. "Network capacity, however, remains a finite resource," Gartner analyst Jeffery Mann points out, and providing a network-intensive application like videoconferencing across the company would hit capacity hard.
Aside from the network cost, other components of video meetings – cheaper high-quality cameras and faster frame rates – are making desktop already more viable. For other reasons, the user experience already compares well with traditional video conferencing – dedicated video rooms that are expensive to run and seldom used. "Using PCs, people focus much more naturally on the communication rather than the communication tool," says Seabrook.
In addition, video at the desktop level is being fuelled by the rise of integrated collaborative tools. An audio conference or IM conversation can be upgraded to video if users need to view each other. And even if video is not desirable through a prolonged interaction, those online often start with a video link for introductory purposes, and then move to a still frame.
Videoconferencing vendor Polycom estimates that through improved compression technology, it has halved the bandwidth required a year ago with no loss of quality. For this reason, many network infrastructure and IP companies are integrating visual applications with productivity tools such as email, so collaboration can be activated by a single click.
If used effectively, competitive advantage is achievable. At Visual Nexus customer Yamada Denki, one of Japan's leading electrical retailers, the quality of sales advice soared after sales agents started logging into video conferences to learn about new products.
Coming into focus
And video, though it might be seen as intrusive, certainly would create more focus. A survey conducted by web conferencing service provider Raindance Communications found that 90% of participants in audio conferences engage in unrelated activities such as surfing the net, eating, reading and sending emails and doing unrelated work. More than 80% of this group said they would be less likely to do so if conference calls included a video component.
Gartner's Mann refers to this as the "fuzzy bathrobe factor". Indeed, not wearing formal clothes is one of the benefits enjoyed by remote workers and many might feel obliged to "dress for the camera".
That overlooks an important factor, though. With body language often credited for over 50% of human communication, interaction via video allows workers to build rapport, gauge mood and form a consensus more easily. "Video puts the face back into business," says Tony Heyworth, EMEA marketing director at Polycom. "Being able to look into someone's eyes, face to face, is important as it's ever been."