Worlds apart

It is a technology that has endured nearly as many false dawns as the perpetual motion machine. Predictions that video conferencing technology is about to hit the mainstream resurface with the same frequency as crackpot inventors claim to have circumvented the laws of thermodynamics. And yet, two almost diametrically opposed approaches have once more persuaded market watchers that video conferencing is ready for prime time. Could they finally be on to something?

Almost since the introduction of the Internet into the enterprise, video conferencing companies have tried to get the technology to take root. But by and large the systems have sat gathering dust, winning few converts apart from a few specialist users willing to put up with the jittery pictures and staccato speech.

Today, however, improvements in network technologies and radical new approaches to this form of online communication are beginning to challenge deeply ingrained prejudices by delivering compelling benefits.

The first of these new approaches is described, rather ominously by its supporters as ‘telepresence’. Indeed for users there can be something rather unsettling about the whole experience – it is in practice video conferencing writ large. Life-sized, in fact.

The second, desktop conferencing, uses everyday information age equipment and technology, and has tapped into the success of online portals such as YouTube, which has fostered acceptance of online video, making small, grainy media part of the Internet lexicon. This is video conferencing for the masses, built from commodity technology.

“Telepresence and desktop video conferencing are two such extremes that you can almost not consider them as the same technology,” says Christopher Harris-Jones, principal analyst at market watcher Ovum.

The big game

Video conferencing, in theory, has been possible since the invention of the television, using simple analogue technology and using two closed-circuit television systems connected through cable. The introduction of ISDN networks and later, Internet Protocol (IP) helped establish the idea that widespread use of interactive video was possible – even if it wasn’t always desirable.

Traditional video conferencing required specialist digital compression technology, which could compress audio and video streams simultaneously in real time. But relatively little specialist hardware was needed: video input and output; audio input and output; and a means of transporting the data.

Telepresence turns that light-weight approach on its head. Currently, there are four main vendors: computer maker Hewlett-Packard, networking giant Cisco and two video conferencing companies, Polycom and Tandberg. But all take a reasonably similar approach to the telepresence concept.

The basic idea is simple: participants sit around half a table in a dedicated room; the table is split by a massive video screen, on to which images of the other participants are beamed. To everybody involved it appears as though they are sitting around a single table, even though they may be on opposite sides of the planet. “Video conferencing is a technology, an application. Telepresence is an experience,” says Ira Weinstein, senior analyst at communications market watcher, Wainhouse Research.

To deliver this sort of sophistication requires some heavy-duty equipment. High-definition video is required to provide the image quality; even with compression, there is a vast amount of data from both audio and video to transmit, making ultra-high speed network infrastructure and some multi-layer protocol label switching to do the packet management a necessity. Even the conferencing rooms themselves require immense attention to detail to ensure the illusion of a single meeting room is maintained. Companies can routinely expect a million-dollar plus bill at the end of the installation.

Nevertheless, the results are impressive. When Joe Cassano, the CEO of AIG Financial Products, a subsidiary of insurance giant American International Group, and his CIO, William Kolbert, were given a demonstration by HP they were immediately hooked. AIG Financial Products has now equipped suites in Connecticut, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo with HP’s Halo telepresence kit. The studios are frequently used for internal employee meetings, negotiating deals with clients and conducting personnel reviews and training sessions. “When we have an issue that comes up and we need to assemble the troops quickly, we converge on that room,” says Kolbert.

While start-up costs for telepresence facilities may be high, for some business leaders the benefits can be irresistible, says Ovum’s Harris-Jones. Never mind the potential savings in travel, “a two hour meeting in New York can cost two or three days’ work,” he notes. Where telepresence can mimic the intimacy of an eyeball-to-eyeball chat, the productivity gains mean the technology pays for itself, he adds.

So taken is HP with its own technology that it now bans flights for internal meetings at sites where Halo suites have been installed, says Paul Bradley, HP Collaborative Solutions EMEA business manager. As a result, HP has reduced the amount of travel in its imaging and printing business by 8% in 2006. Alongside the cash savings, there are environmental benefits too: HP calculates that reduction in air flights taken equates to 350 tons of carbon dioxide.

Even in companies where the environmental agenda is given much lower billing, the desire to reduce travelling is still strong, says Harris Jones. “After the [London] Tube bombings I had a number of American colleagues and vendors cancel briefings with me for July and August because they didn’t want to come over,” he recounts.

Many executives still insist there is no alternative to face-to-face meetings. As one sales director at a technology company puts it: “I fly to New York because that’s how my customers there like to be sold to.”

That view reflects some beliefs, but it is slightly misleading, cautions Ovum’s Harris-Jones. “You can’t really compare one of my face-to-face meetings with a board members’ conference call,” he says. So while vendors’ estimates that telepresence could replace up to 30% of meetings need to be treated with a certain amount of scepticism, internal meetings are a fertile ground for this high-end videoconferencing.

Video gains

For all the appeal of telepresence, however, it remains a technology focused on the upper echelons of the enterprise – mass market, it is not. According to predictions by Wainhouse Research, spending on telepresence will grow 100% year-on-year for at least the next four years. Even with such rapid growth, the total market size is unlikely to reach $1 billion before 2011.

A more pervasive form of video conferencing, one in which every employee of the company can participate, is however emerging, says Fredrik Halvorsen, CEO of Tandberg. Here, unlike telepresence, the technology is taking a back seat. “Seeing someone and communicating with them is the most natural thing,” he notes, but hitherto technology has actually made the process more difficult because video conferencing has been entirely separate from everyday activity.

Such disconnected communication is an anachronism to the latest generation of employees who have grown up with the Internet, says Halvorsen. Both the Internet and immediacy of online communication are parts of the fabric of their daily working lives. What these employees want to work with are tools that fit in with their working patterns, not “seeing it as [having to] walk into a room and set up a conference,” Halvorsen adds.

For a generation brought up with webcams, the notion of desktop conferencing is far more intuitive, says Halvorsen. Computer makers such as Apple are already embedding webcams into notebooks, and the in-built iChat program provides the capability to set up a four-way desktop conference. Meanwhile companies such as WebEx, acquired in early 2007 for $3.2 billion by Cisco, are making it easier for businesses to implement desktop conferencing across the enterprise.

Elsewhere, popular voice over IP (VoIP) tools, such as Skype, have familiarised consumers with the idea of communication via the PC over the Internet. As VoIP service providers increasingly look to add video functionality to their offerings, end users will become increasingly accustomed to desktop voice communications. The integration of collaboration tools with IP telephony is “actually going to bring even greater benefits”, says Ovum’s Harris-Jones.

Eventually, companies can expect to see these desktop conferencing tools being integrated into some of the more familiar enterprise collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Exchange, and Lotus Notes. And that will be the tipping point: the long-awaited video conferencing revolution will finally have arrived.

Room with a view

Getting ‘face time’ with today’s hard-pressed executives is never easy. Tokyo today, Toronto tomorrow – getting senior management in the same city can be hard enough, never mind finding a mutually agreeable time slot. For serious matters, executives have preferred to see the colour of colleagues’ eyes – even when jet lag means that colour is red. Now, office space provider The Regus Group is hoping that state-of-the-art video conferencing might ease that burden slightly.

Regus is in the process of installing 50 of its buildings with telepresence equipment from Cisco. Never mind the colour of your colleagues’ eyes, this equipment lets you “see the perspiration on their brow,” says Scott Goodwin, group MD for IT & services at Regus.

The main driver behind the project is the obligation to minimise executive travel, says Goodwin. And as this has become better appreciated both in terms of productivity and as part of a wider acceptance of reducing air miles, the technology has improved dramatically. This is not the video conferencing of old, it is a radically enhanced, life-like experience, he enthuses.

But such realistic alternatives come at a significant price: the infrastructure necessary to deliver massive high-definition video and voice is not cheap. And the system cannot simply be placed in any office: it needs dedicated internal office space, free from sunlight; if the illusion of a face-to-face meeting is to be preserved, the two participating rooms must appear to be identical.

That cost factor could work to Regus’s advantage, explains Goodwin: companies may not be able to justify kitting out multiple offices across the globe (telepresence systems demand at least two sites), but they may consider hiring facilities.

The network upgrade necessary is being carried out by Cisco, who will also add the multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) software, to ensure that the data packets carrying the voice and video meet the quality specifications. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, says Goodwin, with Regus able to showcase Cisco’s technology, and potentially seed the market.

Ultimately, executives need not fear the loss of their frequent-flyer benefits just yet. The system will not herald the widespread adoption of video conferencing – it is after all video conferencing for the elite, not for the masses. Nevertheless it opens up a window on the tantalising prospect of the world of virtual meetings, thereby helping the CEO avoid some of those red-eye flights. Now if only there was a way to replicate that very physical of acts, pressing the flesh.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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