The successful execution of a videoconferencing system is a primary factor in any business telecommunications strategy. After the resolution has been made to put together such a system, the entire project becomes exposed to the scrutinizing eye of management, potential users and often outside corporations “looking in” to see if videoconferencing is a valid modern-day productivity tool. Although a broad range of technical parameters as well as human perceptions and attitudes need to be addressed, it is not difficult to orchestrate a videoconferencing plan. It does, however, require diligence in attention to detail of all the interacting parameters. This article offers practical considerations based upon experience gained as a videoconferencing systems integrator.
Typically, in small- to medium-sized businesses, videoconferencing systems are maintained by the staff of an outside telecommunications company. A single person is usually the key point for selling the proposal to corporate management, justifying and procuring funds, correctly applying videoconferencing technology to the site, and interfacing with end users. A problem occurs many times in properly meshing corporate management’s view of what videoconferencing should do with the day-to-day desires of end users. The deciphering of what the true corporate requirements are is the delicate task of the videoconferencing manager. For maximum productivity and best cost/performance ratio, the system functions and hardware need to be closely aligned with actual requirements.
The following parameters are the main areas where clear-cut decisions need to be made. These, of course, are to be tempered by future growth and availability of equipment and communication channels.
Decide on System Type
The first question to be answered is whether to use a limited-motion or freeze-frame system. Keep in mind that neither option will look like a Hollywood production. Limited-motion almost exclusively shows the conferees sitting on one side of a semi-circular table. Its intent is to allow intimate face-to-face meetings. In most applications the cameras are fixed and show a panoramic view of the conferees. The system operates in real time, and very little operator intervention is necessary, but it requires expensive communication channels and equipment. Freeze-frame installations typically have a remote-controlled camera for giving an initial view of the conferees. After the meeting is underway, attention is focused on graphics material placed on a special stand or viewed by the remote-control camera on a wall. An operator needs to press a button to send desired images to the other site. Freeze-frame is the most adaptable to technical meetings and is less expensive to buy and operate.
Pay Attention to Audio
Second, the type of audio system requires attention. The conversational exchange is still the most important aspect of videoconferencing. Attention to audio is often slighted until the installation is complete because it is less spectacular than video. At that point it becomes very apparent in a poorly designed system that audio is something we take for granted. Bear in mind that the audio will not have the quality of “just like” being in the room at the other site. Full-duplex audio is what we expect after using the common telephone, allowing both parties to speak and to be heard simultaneously. Because of room acoustics and the resulting feedback, this system has its limiations. Half-duplex, with its annoying cut-off, is familiar to most speakerphone users, but is usually not acceptable for videoconferencing. The best-suited audio systems are those that employ “quasi-duplex” audio. They use microphone gating, level shifting, echo suppression and interrupt capability for the best trade-off in performance.
The extent of networking is the third Question. In the past, most systems have been installed on a point A to point B basis. This has been for three reasons. The first is that videoconferencing is so new that companies want to ascertain the viability of installed systems. Second, point A to point B systems are the least complicated from both technical and user viewpoints. Last, complex network systems are much more expensive to install. Yet, as more and more companies turn to videoconferencing, increasing numbers of intra-company networks have been formed. The creation and control of a company network requires considerable effort from the telecommunications staff. The bottom line appears to be: use separate point A to point B systems unless networking is absolutely required. In any case, plan for the possibility of some kind of networking in the future. Plan Operator Control
The last major question, and an often neglected area in the planning stages of a videoconference system, is that of operator control. In actuality it is the makeup, ability and perception of the operator that dictates the requirements of the system. Because of the real-time nature of limited-motion and its use of fixed cameras, system control is reduced to just a few buttons. Thinking through all the possible algorithms of a conference alows the system planner insight into the best way to allocate functions to push buttons on a control panel. It cannot be over-emphasized how crucial this point is. In freeze-frame systems it is more acute because an operator is required to transform a static system into one that provides a continuous flow of information to keep pace with the meeting.