Thursday, 17 November 2011

Video Conferencing

This is a topic that crops up from time to time; and it’s one that I have some experience with.

A decade or so ago, people were selling Video Conference (VC) equipment for use with ISDN lines; these were OK, but there were technical issues with the data stream bandwidth and Quality of Service, and the user experience could be less than satisfactory. Pictures would be blocky or pixelated and even audio could be a bit of an issue, especially with multi way calling.

But the benefits to the business were really valuable, so people tolerated poor quality. Even if we only had a couple of VC meetings every week, the cost savings were very significant to the company that I worked for. At that time (2000 – 2004), we had calculated that we were saving around £25k to £35K per year. This was based wholly upon petrol / mileage costs saved with the sites about 200 miles apart.

When it became possible to use IP based systems, the quality of both audio and video improved quite considerably as the compression ratios were better and bandwidth higher and more consistent; and the user experience was such that people actually wanted to use the facility. I put this in at my current employer at all company sites, and I’ve estimated that we have saved around £450k to £500k over the last 6 years (for a capex of £25k and very little opex). This is based upon petrol / mileage / flights, hotel accommodation and subsistence allowances that would otherwise have had to be paid for.

This of course does not take into account the less tangible benefits; work / life balance (less travelling, fewer later nights), carbon footprint / environmental costs, user interaction. We found that most staff were able to collaborate better with VC meetings, and this generated some useful ideas which lead to key improvements in many areas. This also helps staff (and even some managers) feel more engaged within the activities of the business.

It’s become so valuable that we are now seeing senior managers wanting access to a VC function on their desks. We provide this capability through units which look like PC monitors, but can be switched to VC screens. We have experimented with smaller products; Skype, OCS / Lync and others, but the managers do like the larger viewing screen and it’s difficult to persuade them to use smaller viewing windows.

I think that almost inevitably, we will be moving to Tele Presence at some stage; once they see the improved quality of the product, I suspect they will be demanding it instantly. I’ve seen and think that it is pretty awesome; if you haven’t had the chance, then call your regional supplier, as they will be delighted to demonstrate their offering. Our current equipment is still functioning well, but has more than paid for its installation so replacing it would not be too much of an issue. The costs for purchasing the new hardware are a bit higher, but considering the cost savings, it would be well worth it.

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