Just when you thought videoconferencing couldn't get any easier, or better--it has.
A new transmission standard, known as H.264, will soon be ratified by the worldwide industry governing body, International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This will allow significantly improved video and audio quality without gobbling huge amounts of bandwidth. The improvement rate is tipped to be 25 to 30 percent. For the technically minded, at 256 kilobits per second (kbps) of bandwidth you'll receive the sort of quality that was previously available at 384kbps. The new H.264 standard offers dramatic improvements in video quality at 384kbps and 512kbps bandwidth. For you and me, it all adds up to a better frame rate (less jerky pictures) and a sharper image.
The world's leading VC system builders, including Tandberg and Polycom, have already geared up for the new standard.
Even under the existing H.323 standard which helped enable videoconferencing over the internet, there have been major gains in the acceptance of VC technology. It is now viewed as a much more reliable and easier method of communicating and collaborating over long distances than previously. It is also widely accepted that installing a VC system is a sure-fire way of cutting back travel and accommodation costs normally associated with getting executives and employees to important meetings.
Even entry-level VC systems now offer multi-point and dual-monitor videoconferencing, as well as document collaboration. They can operate straight "out of the box" and are much more intuitive to operate than earlier models.
Chris Stewart, of asnet Technologies, says his company alone has installed some 480 group VC systems in New Zealand over the past three-and-a-half years, with most systems involving four or five sites. "There has been a big take-up in recent years, but even so, the overall market penetration is probably only around 10 to 15 percent," he says. "Almost without exception, VC adopters have said that installing a system was the `best thing they ever did'. And it's not just about the savings in time and money; by utilising IP networks they've made a huge change in the way they do business."
Stewart says the biggest problem associated with adopting a VC system, is achieving a corporate `psyche' that makes videoconferencing a core business practice. "It only works when you want it to work, so involve as many people in the operation of the system as possible, and foster an ongoing training programme," he advises.
Sony's Stephen Brady agrees that VC systems should not be reserved for just a select group of people to use: "Assign a VC champion who will be responsible for ongoing staff training and booking of the VC facility. The demand for the system will grow very fast as people recognise the value of it."
Brady says the Sony PCS1600 `Contact' system is a good example of just how little expertise is required to operate a VC system efficiently. "By pressing two buttons a person can start a conference. Then all that's required is to occasionally move the camera and talk to people on the screen as if they were in the room with you." He says it's like riding a bike or programming a VCR, once you've done it a few times, you soon become fully confident in its use. However, like a VCR, you may not necessarily utilise all the features of a VC system.
"Many companies purchase a system with grand ideas of sending presentations and spreadsheets across the system and manipulating facts and figures on these sheets `live' with the other site," says Brady. "The reality is, although most systems can do this, very few people actually do it. It's often more efficient to email those files prior to the meeting so all parties can read and amend the files and return them. Once that's done, the VC meeting can concentrate on the `whys' and `where-tos'--sticking to the main points and enabling a far more productive meeting. …