Let?EUR(TM)s Meet...Online

Published Date
01 - Jan - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2005
 
Let’s Meet...Online
Since the invention of the telephone, and the birth of the Internet, no other technology offering has been more effective for multi-party communication. And then, the two met and video-conferencing happened.

Video-conferencing in its barest sense is a technology that allows people at different locations to communicate aural and visual data to each other, and more importantly, in real-time.  Akin to a telephone call, once you connect to a person on the other end, the other party can be viewed on a video display unit (LCD or CRT). One can also transfer files simultaneously.

Video-conferencing is an ideal solution for conference calls, board meetings with members located at remote offices, video calls with clients in foreign countries as well as in private executive suites.

To set up a videoconference, one needs to have the right audio-visual (AV) equipment in place-a PC/monitor, camera, microphone, and a speaker. Today, vendors are developing integrated video-conferencing systems customised for specific business needs. You also require a good broadband connection- via satellite, if you can afford it, or over special IPs, or dedicated networks such as ISDN, or regular telephone lines. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) is an increasingly  popular solution for high-quality video-conferencing.

Video frame rate can vary from five to 30 frames per second (fps), depending on the quality of the Internet connection, the hardware, and the software used.  ISDN transmits data at minimum rates of 128 Kbps per line and ensures dedicated bandwidth for smooth audio and video (15 to 30 fps).

IP-based video-conferencing solutions rely on the nature and quality of bandwidth provided by the ISP. Lags or delays that cause jerky videos or substandard audio quality are a result of the poor quality of Internet connections. Although Web-based conferencing solutions are expected to eventually replace ISDN as the medium of choice for video conferencing, ISDN is still widely recommended for its high quality.

Video conferencing has enabled us to expand our market
Vivek Khanna, General Manager, Havell's India

Voice, Data And More
Apart from conventional video-conferencing solutions, most vendors offer Web conferencing solutions-Microsoft's Net Meeting software, for example, is a PC-based Web conferencing solution; audio conferencing solutions using a Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) or Voice over IP (VoIP), IP video conferencing (over ISDN), and streaming video can be used to create interactive presentations from your boardroom.

Apart from just the ability to communicate audio-visually, some vendors also provide customised tools for document transfer, creation of presentations and incorporation of various media such as AV clips, graphics, animations, etc, in real-time, during an AV session.

Setting Up A Video-conference Over An ISDN Line 
STEP 1 Set up your workstation-a PC with a sound card, a set of speakers, a microphone, a web-cam with a video-capture card and relevant software, and a dedicated ISDN line

STEP 2 Download/purchase and install a video conferencing software such as Microsoft's LiveMeeting or WebEx Client (for PC and Mac users). Follow instructions to set up the software on your desktop. Ensure that the software on the client's end is compatible with yours

STEP 3 Set preferences such as speed, picture quality and sound quality. Select or add the client's ID from the video-conferencing program and dial his/her number. Once both sides are connected, you can share visual data.
To share audio data, you will require a telephone connection, along with an ISDN line for data transfer. But this is a rather tedious procedure and you not have access to a dedicated ISDN line.

Meeting Over A Chat Client
Standard chat software (MSN and Yahoo! Messenger, for example) can be used to conduct a Web conference over your local network or over the Internet. Although both audio and visual data transfer is enabled, the quality of the conference will depend on the bandwidth offered by your ISP.

Server-Based Solutions
Companies can also consider server-based AV transfer solutions such as Macromedia Flash Communication Server MX, Microsoft Live Meeting or Convoq.

These are server-based platforms that enable creation of interactive web-based AV applications like video-conferences, live broadcasts, and real-time collaboration applications. Data transfer is relatively secure as it is not over a public connection and is not a major security concern.
 

Good For Your Company?

Video-conferencing has made age-old corporate boardroom meetings a thing of the past. Access to requisite bandwidth is now easier than ever in India, at least for corporates.  

Yugal Sharma, country manager, Polycom India, a company that facilitates video-conferencing, asserts that video-conferencing is one of the best solutions for remote meetings. Says Sharma, "Video- conferencing provides an excellent tool to improve communications with multiple sites within a business, or with other businesses. Also, in applications such as meetings, training, or services, which can all be enhanced through face-to-face communications, video-conferencing works best."

Businesses that operate in various nations also derive huge benefits from video-conferencing. "In the service sector, for instance, video-conferencing can enhance customer experience, improve operational efficiency and create significant savings in cost incurred on travel and time," says Sharma.

Noida-based Havell's India Ltd. is a multi-product electric engineering organisation specializing in solutions for low-voltage electrical requirements. Havell's India has offices across the country and uses video-conferencing solutions in twenty-four locations.

Says Vivek Khanna, general manager (IT and Finance) at Havell's, "We use video-conferencing for inter office communication, and for our marketing, financial and sales needs. Video-conferencing has enabled us expand our market. Employees in branch offices are also able to interact with dealers and can connect with senior management or product heads anytime, from anywhere."

Video-conferencing, in this case, serves as a tool to facilitate better communication with remote customers, partners and offices, thus enabling efficient business transactions.

On the flip side, although vendors claim to conduct interoperability tests with their competitors (so as to not restrict the users to a particular brand), compatibility often becomes an issue. Both ends-the company and clients-may be forced to use similar equipment, which may not always be affordable.

Due to the exorbitant cost of video-conferencing equipment, some companies such as WebEx and Tata Telecom provide hardware and services to corporate and individual customers on rent. Clients can avail of the services at the offices of these providers or lease out hardware. Support personnel are also sent with the equipment to set up a conference call and ensure that the ISDN line is functioning.

A Basic Video-conferencing Toolkit 
A PC monitor, LCD panel or desktop video-conferencing system, which is either portable or fixed, depending on the number of participants (conferences, classrooms, or presentations)
Camera/Webcam with a video input connection. Multiple cameras may facilitate better coverage Microphones/speakers. A remote control could be used to control volume, and even camera settings, if required
Codecs-Used for compressing and decompressing data, codecs can be software or hardware-based, or a combination of both. Slow codecs or low bandwidth can cause jerky images or lags in AV output.
 

Kiran Datar, COO, WebEx, which offers video-conferencing services across the five major metros, calls it a "one-stop shop for audio, Web, and video-conferencing solutions as well as Web casting services.  It doesn't really make sense for some companies to purchase expensive conferencing hardware. Our clients, mostly corporates, either come to our studio and avail our services, or we transport our equipment to their offices.  We provide cameras, equipment and video-conferencing services via an ISDN line. We charge depending on the duration of the call, services used, etc."

...an excellent tool to improve communications within a business, or with other businesses
Yugal Sharma, Country Manager, Polycom India

Emerging Trends
In 2001, video-conferencing aided the world's first transatlantic tele-surgery-a surgeon in the US used a robot overseas to perform gall bladder surgery on a patient. Now, telemedicine has become a reality in several countries including ours, with hospitals such as the Apollo Group in Chennai (their telemedicine application 'Medintegra' helps doctors devise treatment regimes for patients in remote locations), and Wockhardt Hospital and Heart Institute, Bangalore (which enables doctors to monitor the vital parameters of patients admitted to their Intensive Cardiac Care Unit, in real-time, from anywhere in the world), to name a few.

On an average, the telemedicine networks in these hospitals charge between Rs 500 to Rs 600 per remote consultation. For the patient, however, telemedicine helps save on travel and lodging costs and high consultancy fees at specialised facilities. "Although Indian hospitals are showcasing video-conferencing-aided remote surgeries at exhibitions, it is yet to take off in a big way in India," says Arun Giri, senior manager (business development), Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation, Hyderabad.

When US forces attacked Afghanistan, television reporters used portable satellites and videophones to broadcast war footage live. Newscasters back home could converse live-complete with video-with reporters embedded within war zones.

E-learning, another rapidly evolving trend, involves proactive use of video-conferencing for "virtual classrooms." With increased quality of streaming video, and lesser lags or delays in transmission, interactive classrooms are now gaining popularity.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), for example, use video-conferencing to enable students in remote areas to pursue advanced courses in engineering. The courses (Embedded systems, Mobile computing, Signals and Systems are some of the subjects offered) cost anywhere between Rs 2,000 (for students/teachers) and Rs  10,000 (for working professionals). The biggest advantage of the IITs' distance education programme is that participants from remote centres have access to academic support, and can interact with faculty-students attending the lectures can ask questions and receive answers in real-time. 

With more and more organisations implementing video-conferencing solutions to reduce travel costs, network better and increase efficiency, the conventional notion of a "board meeting" may soon give way to its virtual counterpart.  



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