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Definition

video conferencing (video conference)

Contributor(s): Irwin Lazar

A video conference is a live, visual connection between two or more people residing in separate locations for the purpose of communication. 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 applications and web conferencing services, while cloud-based virtual meeting room services enable organizations to deploy video conferencing with minimal infrastructure investment.

Required components of video conferencing systems

The components of a video conferencing system include:

  • A network for data transfer, 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 located on the individual or within the device that provide audio input.
  • A computer screen, monitor, TV or projector that can broadcast video output.
  • Headphones, laptop speakers or professional speakers that can be used for audio output.
  • Hardware or software based coding and decoding technology, called codecs, which can compress analog audio and video (AV) data into digital packets on the distributing end and then decompress the data at the endpoint.
  • Acoustic echo cancellation (AEC) software which reduces audio delays and supports real time

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 AV input. The data collected is in the form of continuous waves of frequencies and amplitudes which 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, allowing 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 and convert it back into analog audio and video, allowing the receiving screen and speakers to correctly view and hear the AV data.

Importance and benefits of video conferencing

Video conferencing is important because it joins people who would not normally be able to form a face-to-face connection. In businesses, it can increase productivity amongst 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 non-verbal 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 non-verbal communication to the exchange and allows participants to develop a stronger sense of familiarity with individuals they may never actually meet in person.

See a video on the benefits of video conferencing:

Disadvantages of video conferencing

While video conferencing provides numerous benefits for businesses and individuals, it also possess several disadvantages. For example, video calling and conferencing requires a strict, high-speed Internet connection. Only a strong Internet connection can guarantee that the voice audio and visual images 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.

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 really 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, allowing 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 Apple's FaceTime, Google's Hangouts and Microsoft's Skype -- have made video conferencing ubiquitous on desktops and mobile devices that have an embedded camera.

Other video conferencing vendors include:

  • Zoom
  • Angekis
  • Cisco
  • Avaya
  • Mitel
  • LifeSize
  • Logitech
  • ZTE
  • PGi
  • Konftel
  • Jenne
  • Poly
  • West
  • ScanSource
  • RingCentral
This was last updated in July 2019

Next Steps

Video conferencing is one of the many modes of unified communications.

Video conferencing is a higher-end benefit of UC. Learn other ways that unified communications can improve productivity.

Choosing the right UC product depends a lot on its features. Check out the top UC vendors and the features they offer.

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In your experience, what have been the major benefits and drawbacks of video conferencing in your enterprise?
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Video conferencing certainly is an expensive solution these days. Great article. Imagine if communicating were always free. What a world that would be!
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Video conferencing is expensive but fun at the same time.
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Excuse me ! their is a mistake in 1st para 3rd line where it is written "Static images and text " video conference never transmit static images with text it transmits "Static images and audio" :)
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A video conference is a live, visual connection between two or more people residing in separate locations for the purpose of communication. Video conferencing is a rapidly growing technology as it helps businesses in cost reduction, faster client interaction, conducting and joining video conferences from anywhere anytime etc. Tools like R-HUB HD video conferencing servers, Polycom, Avaya, WebEx etc. are mostly used by companies in order to conduct online video conferences.  

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