videoconferencing from your desktop (1997)

The day when you can phone someone and see them as you speak to them is soon approaching. If the idea of videoconferencing with distant colleagues seems like a lavish frippery, today’s desktop ‘videophone’ systems are not only making it affordable, but businesses are reporting valuable benefits too. (Roger Frost 1997)
For at least ten years now, ‘videoconferencing’ has one of the biggest words in technology though custom suite-style videoconferencing is still only a buy-line for multinational corporates. The business of building studios, and adding cameras and monitors to leased, high-capacity phone lines is the sort of thing you associate with huge companies such as Ford Motors. For these, where it enables them to pull together design teams from far flung places, it is clearly no frippery.

Today a brace of suppliers including Sony, Intel, VideoServer, British Telecom and PictureTel market off the shelf systems that stand-alone or connect to a modest desktop PC to do similar cutting edge stuff. What makes this technology in need of a hyphen affordable is that connections are now made over digital ISDN phone lines. It also now uses standard protocols soon to be built into the Windows operating system itself.

This is no mean point: if a colleague has a system one would expect be able to call them and have a face to face dialogue. The eminent Nick Park of Wallace and Grommet fame is one such person to call – if only to hear how he saved 9 months of production time by collaborating with his transatlantic colleagues.

While the slow speed of an ISDN connection is nowhere near broadcast quality, videoconferencing (or more accurately the videophone) is making its way onto TV. The producer of BBC Scotland’s weekly magazine programme Tele nan Gaidheal, wanted to make live recordings from remote locations without investing in outside broadcast equipment for this Gaelic language programme. He invested in two BT videophones and dispatched these weekly to remote rural communities, exploiting a widespread, existing network of ISDN links. The savings in sending just one person to set up the system – compared to sending a crew of 12 with camera, lighting and satellite equipment more than compensated for the drop in image quality.

If we can expect to see more TV phone-ins with real talking heads instead of mere text captions over a voice link, the experience of the Nick Parke and those already using videoconferencing point to a legion of advantages.

The experts point first to its personal advantages where it saves on travel and the wear and tear on executives. They not only say that it allows people to work from home, but add that it is now much easier to get the right person to a meeting, instead of sending a delegate who might not really know.

And then there are some very practical benefits that come from simply being able to see things. Take the case of a client able to advise on changes in a programme or a support engineer able to ‘see’ an installation and make very clear suggestions, or the producer able to ‘see’ a location before sending a crew. The examples make Sony’s marketing slogan of “I see what you mean” appear very apt.

Certainly the idea of this videoconferencing is good, but we’ve all seen technologies lose hyphens to gain respectability before. This one still has yet to meet all its hype: if visual contact makes all the difference to doing business – it’s worth listening when experts warn that the jerky moving image and out-of-sync human responses are something that “take getting used to”. Interestingly, they consistently say that it is easier to collaborate if you know the person you’re talking to.

At ten years old, videoconferencing is still young. A top industry expert spoke out to warn suppliers to “get their act together” as the business was getting a bad name. It seems that problems are compounded by trying to conference with more than two parties. It remains to be seen how this might change following a recent breakthrough by Intel and Videoserver where several desktop users on remote networks were able to conference very successfully.

It is inevitable that people will get their act together. What will remain is whether the number of users will reach a critical mass fast enough because at present the phone book of people to conference with is still fairly slim. For those who prefer not to trailblaze, there is at least time to tidy up the office – just in case somebody phones.

Videoserver –

Picturetel –

Intel –

Sony –

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