Video conferencing is live, visual connection between two or more remote parties over the internet that simulates a face-to-face meeting. Video conferencing is important because it joins people who would not normally be able to form a face-to-face connection.
At its simplest, video conferencing provides transmission of static images and text between two locations. At its most sophisticated, it provides transmission of full-motion video images and high-quality audio between multiple locations.
In the business world, desktop video conferencing is a core component of unified communications (UC) applications and web conferencing services, while cloud-based virtual meeting room services enable organizations to deploy video conferencing with minimal infrastructure investment.
How video conferencing works
The video conferencing process can be split into two steps: compression and transfer.
During compression, the webcam and microphone capture analog audiovisual (AV) input. The data collected is in the form of continuous waves of frequencies and amplitudes. These represent the captured sounds, colors, brightness, depth and shades. In order for this data to be transferred over a normal network -- instead of requiring a network with massive bandwidth -- codecs must be used to compress the data into digital packets. This enables the captured AV input to travel faster over broadband or Wi-Fi internet.
During the transfer phase, the digitally compressed data is sent over the digital network to the receiving computer. Once it reaches the endpoint, the codecs decompress the data. The codecs convert it back into analog audio and video. This enables the receiving screen and speakers to correctly view and hear the AV data.
Components of video conferencing systems
The components of a video conferencing system include the following:
- A network for data transfer. This is usually a high-speed broadband internet connection, which uses similar technology as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Local area network (LAN) and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connections are occasionally used as well.
- Two or more video cameras or webcams that provide video input.
- Two or more microphones -- either an external microphone or one built into the accessing device.
- A computer screen, monitor, TV or projector that can broadcast video output.
- Headphones, laptop speakers or external speakers that can be used for audio output.
- Hardware- or software-based coding and decoding technology, called codecs. These can compress AV data into digital packets on the distributing end and then decompress the data at the endpoint. Codecs reduce the amount of bandwidth needed.
- Acoustic echo cancellation (AEC) software, which reduces audio delays and supports real-time communication.
Benefits of video conferencing
Video conferencing services carry many benefits. In businesses, they can increase productivity among employees, as well as provide an improved way of communicating and interacting with colleagues, partners and customers.
For businesses, the tangible benefits of video conferencing include lower travel costs -- especially for employee training -- and shortened project times as a result of improved communications among team members.
The intangible benefits of video conferencing include more efficient meetings with the exchange of nonverbal communications and a stronger sense of community among business contacts, both within and between companies, as well as with customers. On a personal level, the face-to-face connection adds nonverbal communication to the exchange and enables participants to develop a stronger sense of familiarity with individuals they may never actually meet in person.
Disadvantages of video conferencing
While video conferencing provides numerous benefits for businesses and individuals, it also has several disadvantages. For example, video calling and conferencing demands a consistent high-speed internet connection. Only a strong internet connection can guarantee that the voice audio and visuals will be reliably and smoothly communicated. Any issues with bandwidth or internet connectivity could cause the audio and visual displays to be interrupted or lost, so quality of service (QoS) measures may be potentially required for important calls.
Video calling also still experiences severe audio latency, even with fast internet connections. Conferences that experience audio latency might become frustrating or strained, whereas an in-person meeting would have avoided this obstruction.
Another disadvantage is the steep cost of high-quality video conferencing systems. While many companies adopt video conferencing services as a way to reduce business travel costs, they will still end up spending large amounts of money on a video conferencing system. In addition to all the costly equipment and technology, companies will often also need to pay for the installation, deployment and maintenance of the system.
History of video conferencing
The first developments in video conferencing can be traced back to the 1920s when AT&T Bell Labs and John Logie Baird started experimenting with video phones.
In the 1930s, early video conferencing experiments were also conducted in Germany. This early technology included image phones that would send still pictures over phone lines.
In the early 1970s, AT&T started using video conferencing with its Picturephone service. However, the widespread adoption of video conferencing began in the 1980s with the computer revolution. The revolution brought about the invention of codecs, as well as the rise of broadband services, such as ISDN, enabling the sending of visual images to become possible for personal use. The later introduction of mobile phones further enabled the popularity of video conferencing.
Webcams started appearing on college campuses in the 1990s. In August 1994, the QuickCam -- the first commercial webcam -- was introduced. However, it was only compatible with Mac, so a Windows-compatible version was released in 1995. In 2010, Time magazine named QuickCam one of the top computer devices of all time.
In 1992, Cornell University IT department personnel developed the CU-SeeMe video conferencing software for Mac. They developed the software for Windows in 1994. The CU-SeeMe software was commercially released in 1995; it introduced the first internet radio stations.
In 2004, many businesses started adopting video conferencing systems for the first time since broadband technology was finally more affordable and widespread.
Video conferencing vendors
Consumer services -- like Zoom, Apple's FaceTime, Google's Chat and Microsoft's Skype -- have made video conferencing ubiquitous on desktops and mobile devices that have an embedded camera. Recently, Facebook introduced Workplace Rooms, its enterprise video conferencing service.
Other video conferencing vendors and products include the following:
- Cisco Webex
- Adobe Connect
- Blackboard Collaborate
Video conferencing and remote working
Video conferencing is of particular value for remote workers, who will likely rely on these services to host the majority, if not nearly all, of their work-related meetings. As remote workers typically work from home and do not make use of companies' traditional office spaces, use of video conferencing can provide simulated face-to-face contact between team members and colleagues. Furthermore, augmenting video conference tools, such as screen sharing, can make video calls far more useful for employee collaboration than being limited to voice communications.
Not only can video conferencing provide better communication and productivity, but it can also foster the development of important coworking relationships, as it is more engaging than simply hearing voices over the phone or corresponding via email.
Video conferencing trends
Amid the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, remote working has become the "new normal" for many companies until further notice. These companies have looked to video conferencing technologies to maintain business operations, while enforcing the recommended social distancing protocol, as video conferencing provides the closest approximation to an actual, face-to-face meeting. Beyond use for intraorganizational meetings, use of video conferencing has also been adopted for job candidate interviews, in lieu of on-site interviews.
Zoom, a widely popular video conferencing vendor that has experienced explosive growth in 2020, has become the face of pandemic video conferencing to many. As a result, the name Zoom has become eponymous for video conferencing in general, giving rise to popular terms such as Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue. Factors that contributed to the rise of Zoom include an intuitive user interface (UI), as well as offering its users free conferences for up to 40 minutes long and 100 users each.
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