David Tebbutt, Teblog

The push for environmental sustainability must have been music to the ears of those involved in videoconferencing and its many derivatives. It provides another strong weapon in the vendors’ sales armoury. Now, not only can organisations save staff time and reduce travel costs, they can also cut the use of fossil fuels into the bargain.

Add a couple of other things into the mix, like the growth of IP-based broadband and the advent of high definition screens, and the scene is set for an explosion of online face-to-face activity ranging from top-end lifelike telepresence systems right down to desktop applications using webcams. Each plays its part in an organisational collaboration strategy, depending on who the users are and what they’re trying to achieve.

Task-oriented people who work together and who know each other can probably put up with lower fidelity or less comfort than strangers who might feel more at ease if they feel they’re ’sitting around the table’ with other participants. Broadly speaking, the environments could be summarised as boardroom, meeting room and desktop. Although you could add venues such as hospitals and police stations for remote consulting and interviewing, respectively.

As you might expect, you can pay from very little to a great deal depending on the level of sophistication you need. The major vendors are Cisco, Tandberg, Polycom, Teliris and Hewlett Packard. You can get a specially fitted multi-screen room, a ’room within a room’, facilities added to a room, a deskside system, a desktop system or, at the lowest level, something that will run on your laptop or other mobile device.

Some services are managed, so you have no technical hassles. Others are provided as equipment to be managed by IT or whoever. At the bottom end, the user is in charge. In terms of hard ROI, Teliris claims that its payback period can be as short as 28 days. In one particular example, 52 business trips between Sweden and Japan were cut to eight or nine. Bingo! Every trip saved from then on is a bonus. Apart from the monthly management fee, of course. Mack Treece, Teliris president, said “Every customer has paid back their room in under twelve months.”

LifeSize can supply room systems, at a cost, but it takes a more relaxed approach than some others. A couple of screens hung at the end of a meeting room is good enough. One can be used to check what your end looks before using it for presentations, shared whiteboarding or whatever. As the name suggests, the screen image is life size, but the fact that it’s halfway up a wall doesn’t seem to matter much. Once the conversation is under way, you tend not to notice. And eye contact, as with the central zone of most systems, is fine.

Some systems require some hefty dedicated bandwidth. LifeSize can do a reasonable job across a conventional broadband line. Most, if not all, high end vendors will adapt to the available bandwidth, losing high definition along the way if necessary. When I finished a recent conversation with Texas-based LifeSize CEO, Craig Molloy, one of the UK distribution people turned to me and said, “That cost us nothing, that call.” That’s because the company already had a megabit available in each direction on its DSL connection. Bear in mind that each participant was using just one screen/camera combination. It is theoretically possible to scale LifeSize to twenty screens or more.

Before long, we won’t be speaking of these things as separate systems. They’ll become as much a part of the organisational make up as the furniture in the boardroom, a whiteboard in the meeting room or the phone on a desk. Large organisations will probably install a few top-end systems in their main offices, complemented by larger numbers of the more traditional in-room systems and tiny systems that run on laptops or PCs. At this level, expect a great deal of blending with other collaboration and communication systems such as those provided by IBM/Lotus, Microsoft and Adobe, for example.

On our desktops, it will become quite natural to flick from looking at each other, to sharing screens, to presenting, to whiteboarding to IM, for example. The work itself will take over from the need to see each other although the option is there if visual contact is needed.

Possibly the biggest downsides at the moment concern interoperability and the local loop. Although lip service is usually paid to standards, some systems still do not play nicely with others. And, if reception flickers and stutters, you can almost certainly point your finger at the local loop. But, weighed against the alternatives, the odd glitch is a pretty good trade-off.

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