Seeing is Believing

Video-conferencing is coming out of the closet – or the boardroom to be more precise – and onto the desktop, where the benefits of such technology will be made far more accessible. It’s time to tidy your office before the revolution begins.

SBHD: Video-conferencing is coming out of the closet – or the boardroom to be more precise – and onto the desktop, where the benefits of such technology will be made far more accessible. It’s time to tidy your office before the revolution begins.

Before long, a good telephone manner may include a smart appearance and a tidy office as video-conferencing leaves the hushed sanctuary of the boardroom to become part of the desktop multimedia revolution.

In the past two years it has become possible to add video-conferencing facilities to personal computers and use the screen as a videophone and electronic document exchange system.

Video-conferencing is a well-established method of communication which, according to Robert Ralphs, product manager at Mercury, has been taken on board by most of The Times’ top 100 companies. It is the move from conferencing suites to the desktop, however, which he sees as the big step forward for the medium.

“People are finding that desktop equipment is much more accessible and spontaneous. It is still very new and most companies using the equipment are still at the trial stage, but this is the way the industry is going to move.”

Traditionally, video-conferencing has been confined to suites built into boardrooms, in which communication is limited to a number of remote parties. A large multinational, for example, might have several suites spread around the country or the globe where senior executives can hold regular meetings, saving the cost and time needed to travel.

Similar use is common in design and engineering where remote groups can work on a project and maintain the important flow of visual information necessary for understanding. Many users have found that this can help bring products or promotional campaigns to fruition more quickly.

Boardroom suites, however, generally require a complete installation of monitors, camera and the electronics to send the signals down a phone line. Typically such units are either permanent fixtures or based on trolleys.

They cost between ú10,000 and ú20,000.

More widespread use has been limited mainly by cost but also by accessibility. To engage in a video-conference requires the booking of facilities by two or more parties.

Desktop systems, on the other hand, are designed to be used more like telephones. Using a personal computer as the platform, all that is needed is an electronic card, software and a small video camera and audio system. The complete kit (excluding PC) costs as little as ú2,500 and prices are likely to fall dramatically in the next few years.

Full video-conferencing suites and desktop systems require a link to an ISDN (integrated services digital network) phone line. ISDN is a connection to a digital exchange, which allows the transfer of large amounts of data at high speed (necessary for sending video signals). Most large organisations now have such connections and personal computers can be linked to an ISDN line via a PABX (private automatic branch exchange).

This year could mark the start of explosive growth for desktop users. “It is a similar situation to when faxes were first introduced,” says Richard Couchman, managing director, Europe for system supplier V Tel.

“The equipment is new and people are still unsure about whether now is the time to buy. The cost is likely to fall and, as with faxes, there is the question – who do I talk to if nobody else has got one? Organisations are buying the systems for specific tasks where it can be demonstrated that either communication is improved or there is a significant saving on travel costs. In this way a network is gradually being built.”

Apart from cost and ease of use, the big additional benefit of the desktop systems is the document conferencing facility (which is also an option on most boardroom systems). Not only can video and sound be transmitted over the phone lines but, if necessary, the parties concerned can work simultaneously on the same piece of computer software. Some systems include electronic whiteboards in which a user at one end can write or draw freehand with the image appearing on the other user’s monitor.

The one obstacle to be overcome is the compatibility standard for data transmission. The telecommunications industry, under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union, has established compatibility standards for the transmission of audio, fax and video, which has enabled different systems to talk to each other.

The proposed standard T.120 for data has not yet been ratified although it is expected to go through in either April or May. As yet manufacturers are not producing equipment to this specification, although all the leading producers will have T.120 systems ready for the ratification date and most existing units can be modified to be compatible, many by a simple software upgrade.

BT’s VC5000 and VC6000 video-conferencing units promote improved communications and fast decision-making. The VC6000 rollabout system is ideal for impromptu “meetings”, distance learning and remote inspections. Beyond this, the PC Videophone actually has the ability to turn ordinary phone calls into an effective working “conference”.

Steve Gandy, manager of teleconferencing services at BT, says: “The biggest effect of the introduction of data transfer, however, will be to widen the number of applications available.

“At the moment video-conferencing is seen as a meetings tool and that is how it has always been sold. Adding the data transfer element will broaden use. It could, for example, be used as a customer service terminal in banking. Instead of having a pensions advisor in every branch there could be a terminal which allows customers access to specialists in a remote location. Because the same piece of software can be displayed simultaneously on both monitors it is possible to display product information and fill in forms as well as have full audio and visual contact,” says Gandy.

Dave Hooker, director of personal systems development, Europe, Middle East and Africa, for desktop systems manufacturer PictureTel, also predicts the new range of equipment will gain wider use.

“At the moment top management can fly around the world to attend meetings if necessary. There are, however, others who cannot justify such expense but still need to communicate both internally and to outside organisations.

“In the ad industry, for example, one US agency pitched for work from a large blue-chip client. The client’s main reservation about the appointment was the distance between its premises and those of the agency. The agency’s response was to suggest using a video-conferencing facility. The agency won the account against several better situated competitors.”

Hooker also sees video-conferencing as a potentially valuable tool for the increasingly large home-working force. “Many companies now have a lot of employers working from home and keeping contact is vital not only for the flow of information but also as a motivational tool. Being able to see the other person helps because so much of what is communicated is non-verbal. With desktop video you can gauge reactions and understanding.”

No one in the industry is suggesting that face-to-face meetings will become a thing of the past. Video-conferencing is being promoted as a supplement to, rather than replace ment for, traditional conferences.

“You still need personal contact,” says Brian West, telecommunications services manager at Unilever. “The real benefit of video-conferencing is that frequent travellers can cut down on the number of trips made and meetings that would not normally be justified can go ahead as a video-conference.

“To bring together parties from London, Singapore and Australia, for example, is a huge expense in terms of both time and money. Using video-conferencing the parties can meet regularly. It also offers greater flexibility to those wishing to communicate. Meetings can also be called at much shorter notice.”

Although West is quick to underline the value of personal contact, he believes that talking to a screen is not the communication barrier that many would imagine. “I’ve seen some very frank discussions take place in video-conferencing suites and remember one case where someone actually said `within these four walls’ to a colleague who was miles away.”

In the midst of the excitement about desktop systems, video-conferencing in its traditional form has become a widely used tool. The rate of growth in this market alone has been strong, with industry forecasts suggesting that by 1997 global equipment sales will reach about $5bn (ú3.3bn).

The future, however, lies with the desktop systems which many experts predict will be incorporated as a feature in virtually every new personal computer by the end of the decade. Then it will be time to throw out the phone and tidy up the office.

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