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Web Conferencing – Ready for Prime Time

Just as well

Like many new technologies, when teleconferencing was first introduced it was desperately difficult to get it to work, writes Martin Langham of Bloor Research. I can remember struggling to match 10 different plugs to 10 different sockets and configure a PC in a desperate attempt to have a teleconference. In the end, the struggle was too much and I resorted to speakerphone. Several factors prevented the wide scale adoption of teleconferencing:

  • It was very hard to set up and to use
  • It was expensive
  • The quality of the visual information and the lack of integration between data and video reduced the effectiveness of meetings
  • The sound quality left much to be desired

Web conferencing over IP networks and the Internet rather than via ISDN has improved teleconferencing out of all recognition. We have reached a tipping point when it is easier and more productive to teleconference than to travel to a meeting.

Vendors such as WebEx are now offering what they call a media dial tone - it is as easy to set up a Web conference as a telephone call. Some Web Conferencing vendors don't even need client software so you can conference with anyone with a PC and even share video if they have a Web cam.

Unlike ISDN-based video conferencing, which is expensive to use, Webconferencing is available at a flat rate and can be used wherever there is an IP network connection.

The art of providing information in a teleconference is to provide enough information but not too much. You can go cross-eyed watching talking heads, a rolling slide presentation, comments from the audience and maybe even a transcript of the talk. This is too much information. What you do need is high quality graphics. Especially as people persist in treating PowerPoint Presentation pages as though they are Word documents and cramming them with information.

You can argue about the need for high quality video pictures. Some would say that when you already know all the participants, you can manage just as well with a set of photos on top of your PC. I think this is just prejudice created by previous low quality video. We can't maintain this argument if we also accept the wisdom that 70% of communications are non-verbal.

Pioneers of video conferencing found very early on that a talking head was not sufficient for a high quality dialogue. You had to see the whole torso because the whole torso is used to convey the body language.

It may seem strange that the most fundamental driver of the quality of a remote meeting is the quality of the sound but this carries the most information in meetings. Setting up a phone to pick up group conversation in a room is not a trivial technology. Echoes in the room have to be detected and cancelled electronically.

Another problem is that people are not the same distance from the phone. Their softer and louder voices, which we compensate for automatically when we are physically present, have to be handled electronically. And just to challenge the technology a little more, some people take to pacing about when they present.

Polycom, which was responsible for those triangular shaped conferencing phones on most meeting room tables, has solved most of these problems. It has also come up with the must-have of the executive boardroom - a wide band phone. Technology doesn't seem to have progressed very rapidly at the handset end and we have become used to the tinny sound that comes out of most phones. It is tinny because a handset will only transmit a three-kilohertz segment of the entire bandwidth created by the human voice. (A good hi-fi set will manage from 100 Hertz to 20 kilohertz.)

Polycom has more than doubled this bandwidth to seven kilohertz. So what, you may ask. Well, you have to listen to a wide band phone to appreciate the difference. Not only does the quality enable you to catch many more of the inflections and nuances of the conversation but it is also much easier and more relaxing to listen to a wide band voice. It's a difference between listening to Maria Callas on a wind-up gramophone compared to a hi-fi set.

With developments in ease of set up and use, reduced costs, the improved integration and richness of the visual experience, and in wide band voice technology, we've arrived at a point where Web conferencing is ready to take off. Which is just as well, as travelling around the UK by road or rail is becoming increasingly difficult.


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