Next Best Thing
Video Conferencing and Online Collaboration Change the Way We Meet
Teleconferencing by Tom Patrick McAuliffeLet's face it: These days, to make it in business you have to find a way to do it better, faster and cheaper than the other guy. One of the ways successful businesses do this is through technology. Face to face communication is always optimal, but since the tragedy of 9/11 and with rising travel costs, more and more businesses both large and small, schools, and more are turning to video conferencing as the next best thing to being there in person.

Today's video conferencing offers choices for every budget and need, from home users and family wanting to visit regularly to Fortune 100 and US government organizations using video and the Web. All offer the benefit of being there in real time via the Internet, dedicated land line or private network. Teleconferencing in all its various forms is considered to be a $1.5 billion dollar market, according to Frost & Sullivan a global leader in international strategic market research. According to Wainhouse Research of Brookline, MA business videoconferencing systems will reach sales of $1.67 billion by 2005 -- an increase from $588 million in 1999. Given today's business climate and the lowering cost of high speed Internet access, it's easy to see this is a technology whose time has come.

Teleconferencing has three general areas of specialization: voice, video and now Web conferencing. These can be further divided into home vs. business-based products. Low-cost voice conferencing has been around since the early 50s -- simply plug a speaker phone in and dial a phone number, or utilize 3-way or conferencing services offered by the phone companies. With the advent of the Internet comes the fastest-growing segment of the conferencing market, Web conferencing. Using a simple web browser and ISP with a little capital investment ($150) for a camera and some software, and users can meet online, viewing each other and video clips in real time. Web collaboration sites like www.anywhere.com also offer the ability to share digital documents, interact in real time or even have an instructor or tech support specialist temporarily take over your computer to assist you. Web conferencing is a natural add-on to voice conferencing because it adds a digital data sharing and collaboration element to a traditional voice conference. You can show spreadsheets, video clips or any other digital data on your computer. Video conferencing is the third most popular conferencing and meeting technology.

Most forms of teleconferencing usually involve one or more parties at different locations conducting business via voice and/or video technologies. But the most prevalent use of teleconferencing today is probably the most beneficial -- long distance learning. Many school systems across the nation are actively employing teleconferencing systems to conduct classes at remote facilities. This allows schools to maximize the reach of their best instructors while reaching students who may be immobilized or in remote locations who would otherwise be unable to attend a traditional class.
Web locations like WebEx.com allow you to have hundreds of online meeting participants, view, interact and manipulate data like drawings and spreadsheets in real time with no real investment in hardware.
Web locations like WebEx.com allow you to have hundreds of online meeting participants, view, interact and manipulate data like drawings and spreadsheets in real time with no real investment in hardware.


Home users can uses software like Net Meeting and a inexpensive Web camera to talk one-on-one over the Internet.
Home users can uses software like Net Meeting and a inexpensive Web camera to talk one-on-one over the Internet.
In general, video conferencing systems can be as complex as those used for Telemedicine or as simple as a small camera pumping out 15 frames per second atop your computer monitor. While there's still a lot of older technology in use, one thing's for sure, in the past 10-20 years the technology has vastly improved. "The legacy ISDN H.320 systems from the 1980s have a large installed base," explained Rich Mavrogeanes, President and Founder of VBrick, a manufacturer of MPEG video solutions based in Wallingford, Connecticut. "These systems used telephone technology and provided only 'talking head' views for video conferences. Today, Internet Protocol (IP)-based systems are the most popular because they can go anywhere and the MPEG-based systems provide a true TV-quality experience," Mavrogeanes said.

While our focus is primarily on video conferencing, we'd be remiss if we did not acknowledge the growing number of online meeting and conference sites and their growing popularity with end users. One of the main factors driving this is cost. Pro level Video conferencing can cost thousands of dollars per hour, while online conferencing with real time audio and collaboration is only about $40 per hour. Users show up at a Web site, and can interact, hear each other, view and work with documents, and in some cases, see video or a picture of each other. And this could be only a few people or hundreds. PlaceWare Inc., a online collaboration site and software developer, claims to allow up to 5000 users online, interacting with each other at the same time. The logistics of something like this is gargantuan. But there are some larger online meetings with numbers rivaling video conferencing. One of the largest online conference and Webcasts was held by PDA maker PALM Inc. with over 1500 users online simultaneously. When one looks at straight Webcast as a reference, the recent Madonna Web broadcast saw over 400,000 simultaneous users view concert footage of the popular diva. So the pipeline is now able to support all this online interaction and video viewing via computer, and keeps growing despite some limitations. "The desktop computer is not the ideal platform for video," said VBrick's Mavrogeanes. "An appliance should be considered that achieves rugged reliability and simplicity. An ISP is not really 'key' [to good video conferencing], but adequate Internet bandwidth is. Many ISP carriers oversubscribe their networks, and for effective results this should be kept to a minimum, be it for a business environment or for a home user."