In the desktop videoconferencing space Polycom offers devices such as the ViaVideo II endpoint which integrates with your PC but features built in processing hardware to perform the audio and video compression and handle the communications without draining any of the computer’s resources. Others are approaching the desktop market from a different angle, like UK start-up Visual Nexus (www.visualnexus.com) which offers a software based system that works with cheap, run of the mill web-cams and uses the PC’s processor to perform the compression and other computational work. The system is comprised of client software which sits on the end users desktop computer and a piece of server-side software which can either be run by a third party service provider in the case of smaller businesses or installed on the company’s own servers in the case of larger enterprise users. Although it is not able to deliver the video quality of dedicated hardware systems, we have participated in a test conference using this system and can confirm that it does offer the high end audio quality which is becoming increasingly important.

Similar products and services are being offered by various companies, most notably WebEx (www.webex.com) the current industry leader in web based conferencing. These kind of systems are most likely to be run over the public Internet, whereas a videoconferencing system based on Polycom or Tandberg devices is more likely to be running over a private IP (and still in many cases ISDN) network. However, it seems likely that with the spread of desktop videoconferencing more communications will take place over the public Internet in situations, for example, with remote workers using home broadband connections.

A general increase in available bandwidth and significant improvements in data compression technology have also had an impact on the videoconferencing industry at the high and low end of the market. It is now possible to send much more video and audio data across IP networks and this means higher quality without additional cost. Improved video quality is especially important at the high end, making it easier for participants to see each speakers facial expressions – something which has been difficult in the past with just one camera covering a meeting room full of people.

However, it is the recent leaps in audio quality that will provide the most significant improvements across the entire spectrum of videoconferencing. Human hearing is capable of detecting audio frequencies of up to 20Khz but conventional telecommunication equipment cannot match this level of audio quality – a standard telephone line can only offer 3Khz. This makes it difficult for people to absorb much information this way, and is one of the reasons why people generally use telephones or voice conferences for short conversations but make the effort to travel to a meeting for longer conversations. Participating in a voice or video conference with this low audio quality results in ‘conference fatigue’ – after a while it becomes hard to concentrate on the meeting.

To overcome this problem manufacturers have improved the sound quality of their systems, and the difference is immediately noticeable when using the new devices. Being able to hear the full range of the human voice makes the conversation feel much more natural, especially when combined with good quality video of the other participants’ faces. Both Polycom and Tandberg have recently unveiled new product ranges with vastly improved audio quality central to the proposition. Tandberg announced its new MXP technology, which the company describes as a new architecture for all of the endpoints in its portfolio which provides improved audio and video quality, enhanced usability and better application collaboration tools. The company claims that its new systems offer CD level audio quality at 20Khz. In addition to adding MXP technology to its endpoint range the company also announced a new rack-mounted appliance, the Codec 6000 MXP provides systems integrators with the ability to offer their clients the increased functionality offered by the new technology.

In recent months Polycom has updated its products across the range to reflect the improvements in quality and shift towards desktop conferencing. The line up now includes devices such as the VSX 3000, an integrated 17 inch LCD computer monitor and personal/small office videoconferencing system that delivers 14Khz audio and high video quality.

Another concept which, although not entirely new, is enjoying a resurgence of industry interest is remote collaboration, where conference participants are able to share control of an application and perform tasks such as jointly editing an Excel or PowerPoint document. It is interesting to note however that while collaborative features are being touted by most videoconferencing vendors, the real life demand for such features has yet to be proven. “When you go into a meeting you hook up your laptop to the projector and then you present your presentation, quite rarely do we ever actually collaborate on documents – it happens sometimes, but not as often as you present. So I think initially having good modes of presentation and making that work exactly the way as you do today – walk in with your laptop and plug it into the projector, or plug it into the videoconferencing system, if that works the same way then I think we’ve come a long way to making the meeting happen as seamlessly as possible”

The message from the industry seems to be that where it is not possible to have a face to face meeting, a videoconference can be the next best thing by being as natural and as close to an actual face to face as possible. In the past this simply has not been the case, but more lifelike audio and video quality combined with the affordability of desktop based systems featuring presence and availability detection means that after many false starts videoconferencing has finally matured enough to make a serious bid for mainstream acceptance.

“There is a danger that people tend to hide behind email and use it as a way of communicating instead of picking up the telephone or instead of meeting face to face and I think that one opportunity that video communications bring, especially when it is integrated with instant messaging and presence detection, where people can make themselves available or not, is that you can put the face back on communications and enable people to interact a lot more naturally.”

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