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Recession generates interest, adoption in video conferencing

Video conferencing is gaining traction among enterprise organizations, who are opting out of other areas of IT-related spending. Today's video conferencing, including room-based, desktop and telepresence, has come a long way from what many people remember. Ease of use, quality of service (QoS) and measurable ROI are qualities making video conferencing the one IT investment worth making.

Rather than read another story lamenting the woes of the economic recession, prepare for the opposite. The economic recession actually has helped the video conferencing market, and it's forcing employees to pay attention to a technology they once shunned as difficult to use and of poor quality.

Companies are eyeing three primary types of video conferencing: room-based, telepresence and desktop, and -- in many cases -- looking to integrate all three.

The lines between room-based and telepresence are just starting to blur, but for now, there are some distinct differences. Room-based systems include single screens mounted on the walls or on movable carts. This year, 77.6% of companies are using room-based systems, compared with only 53.8% last year. Room-based systems are seeing the fastest growth of all video conferencing equipment.

Telepresence typically includes two or three large screens mounted on the wall, along with matching furniture in every telepresence suite and directional acoustics. The images on the screens are the actual size of the people, and everyone appears to be sitting around the same table. This year, 27.8% of organizations are using telepresence. Another 23% say they're evaluating the technology.

Desktop video conferencing includes video displays on desktop computers, laptops and IP hard phones. More than half (52%) of organizations use desktop video conferencing today, up only slightly from a year ago (51%). Desktop video deployments are limited in terms of the number of endpoints and usage.

The video conferencing market is packed full of vendors. Relatively new pure-play video entrants, such as Vidyo and LifeSize, compete with incumbents including Tandberg and Polycom, while vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Mitel and ShoreTel increasingly deliver video as part of their unified communications products. Avistar, BT Conferencing and Glowpoint provide hosted bridges and/or management services, while service providers including AT&T, Global Crossing, Masergy, Tata and Verizon deliver dedicated network services, extranet connectivity, and a full suite of management options.

Two key business drivers are encouraging video adoption: the need to meet the online collaboration needs of an increasingly virtual workforce and the desire to use video to reduce, or offset, reductions in travel budgets. And in fact, the two drivers work together: If video didn't enable online collaboration and provide a good meeting experience, it would not be an effective alternative to travel.

For senior executives who value high-touch interaction with fellow business leaders, customers or partners, telepresence is the best solution because of the "virtual reality" nature of the technology. It reduces awareness of the video systems, enabling participants to focus on one another.

Distributed workers who must communicate with one another are more likely to use room-based, desktop or some combination of systems simply to provide for more effective meetings. Video, in these cases, provides a higher form of social interaction that captures verbal and non-verbal communications while reducing the amount of multi-tasking that often takes place during voice-only calls.

None of the drivers for increased video conferencing adoption would mean much if not for a third factor – falling cost coupled with improved quality. High-definition video has made the leap from home theater to home and office, with room-based HD systems starting at about $5,000 per room (for camera and codec). Telepresence systems, meanwhile, cost about $250,000 to $300,000 per room, plus ongoing costs for maintenance, support and bandwidth. New systems from vendors such as Polycom, Tandberg, Telanetix and Mitel offer lower-cost telepresence, starting at about $60,000.

Room-based and telepresence will grow substantially during the next two years. But desktop video conferencing still has hurdles to overcome.

First, bandwidth requirements are variable. Desktop systems typically require 128 Kbps to 1 Mbps for an acceptable quality of experience (QoE). Many systems are based on a peer-to-peer model whereby participants connect to one another directly, rather than through a bridge. Network managers, then, must estimate bandwidth requirements and usage patterns, requiring regular adjustments to network design to account for video use.

Second, desktop video quality -- although improving -- isn't nearly as good as room-based or telepresence systems. As a result, it's difficult for IT staffs to justify the business case of desktop video conferencing by arguing that it reduces travel. What's more, it doesn't take more than a few poor-quality desktop video conferencing sessions to sour employees on the technology in general. Troubleshooting desktop video problems is a challenge because video quality is often dependent on available PC resources. IT managers responsible for video require insight into overall application performance and must monitor issues such as CPU utilization.

Finally, IT practitioners are concerned about privacy and the cultural implications of video, particularly among organizations with significant populations of teleworkers who don't like the idea of preparing themselves for a video call. Several participants also say their prohibition of Web cameras for security purposes ultimately blocks the use of desktop video conferencing.

Overall, IT staffs should examine their video conferencing plans and policies to determine which types of systems make sense for their user demands. Of course, that means they must understand the demands and make sure employees understand that video conferencing today is better and easier to use than it was in years past. Half the battle is building user confidence that the systems work easily, are of good quality, and can improve collaboration.

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