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A picture can say more than words

The barriers to using videoconferencing, which despite clear advantages is only slowly taking off, are more cultural than technical, writes Danny Bradbury

Preparing for your next gruelling business trip to the Middle East? Having to miss your kids' school play while traipsing to yet another management meeting aboard? It seems strange that in 2012, we are still burning carbon – and precious time and money – making physical pilgrimages to far-flung places, when we could be videoconferencing instead.

Research company IDC says that more companies are using video. Some 51 per cent of respondents to its survey used videoconferencing of some sort in the UK, making us the second most video-friendly country in Europe.

However, usage isn't uniform. Companies with more than 1,000 employees reported the highest use of high-quality videoconferencing; 56 per cent of them use it, compared to just 38 per cent of medium-sized companies and 31 per cent of firms with 59 to 250 employees.

Video call centres could change the way companies interact with customers and increase upselling opportunities

The key for small and large businesses alike is to find a business case for video, says Andy Chew, senior director of collaboration at Cisco, arguing that you can do this in three ways. “Firstly, eliminate cost. Secondly, improve productivity. The third way involves transformational opportunities,” says Mr Chew. “How can you use video to do business in new ways?”

Video call centres could change the way companies interact with customers and increase upselling opportunities, for example. Melissa Fremeijer, senior research analyst at IDC, says that marrying this with video kiosks could change the customer experience dramatically.

In other sectors, health organisations might bring in experts from all over the world to remotely analyse an MRI scan. “In manufacturing, video may be needed to visualise a process where something is going wrong and bring in remote experts to look at it,” she says.

The business case that you build for videoconferencing in your organisation will inform the type of equipment that you use. At the high end, multi-screen immersive telepresence systems bring to mind Star Trek's holodeck. At the low end, a simple conversation using a desktop web cam will suffice for many.

In the middle, simple boardroom systems with a single screen can be good for team meetings, says Guy Bradshaw, head of voice and unified communications at Virgin Media Business. “They're really important when you want a really highly defined dialogue, especially for executive-type team meetings,” he says. They are also perfect for webcasting to large numbers of people, which the chief executive might want to do for corporate messaging purposes.

Desktop and mobile videoconferencing are becoming more feasible thanks to better cameras built into laptops, and increasingly into smart phone and tablet devices. In some cases, the cameras are highly sophisticated. It is now possible to buy laptop computers with high-definition 720p cameras. At this point, the real constraint becomes bandwidth; callers may find picture resolution degrading if the network they’re using isn’t fast enough.

Still, mobile conferencing is relatively underused, says Ms Fremeijer, with just 4 to 7 per cent of companies using it on smartphones and tablets across Europe. “I guess from the office or home- office, people still prefer a fixed desktop or video phone than an iPad,” she says.

Companies with videoconferencing systems used to face problems hooking individual users into larger unified conferencing systems, especially if they were using different systems than head office, but the cloud has solved that. Thanks to sophisticated internet-based services, all of that is taken care of by a third party on the network.

William MacDonald, chief technology officer of videoconferencing company StarLeaf, works with third-party companies who connect his desktop, mobile and room-based videoconferencing equipment with those from other users, without customers having to worry about it. “You can dial-in with Google Talk, Skype or another system, and they will bridge those calls automatically,” he says.

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Written by Danny Bradbury

Freelance technology writer, he has contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian on topics ranging from computer networks to cultural issues. Read more articles from Danny.