"We think the tipping point is coming for video use in enterprises," says John Carlson, the chief marketing officer at Avistar, which sells videocomms systems aimed not at the meeting room but at individual PC users.
Avistar calls its business 'video collaboration', and Carlson claims it has already found favour with the likes of financial traders and analysts, who use it to share information in a richer way than just text or audio, as well as with organisations who need to communicate regularly with colleagues or outsourcing suppliers abroad, say.
As he points out, there has been a lot of research by academics and others into how much of the information in a face-to-face conversation is conveyed by the words, the tone of voice, the visual element and so on. The visual element is surprisingly high - it was 55 percent in the study he quotes - showing just how much we rely on signs such as body language, even though we may not realise it.
"Video is not a substitute for a face-to-face meeting, but in the absence of face-to-face, it's another tool you can use," he says. "A lot of our success is in risk-sensitive areas where information is time-critical - the risk is if the information is not communicated accurately."
Stats collected by Avistar from customer sites show that calls average 25 to 30 minutes in length, he adds.
The need for speed
Of course, with a standard video call taking 384kbit/s, you do have to have the bandwidth available to support it as well. "The LAN is almost never an issue today," says Carlson. "The choke-points tend to be smaller offices and the connection to the WAN - there's still a lot of ISDN in some areas."
It's often the upstream bandwidth that's the limiting factor, especially for mobile users. Bidirectional video doesn't sit well with asymmetric broadband connections and wireless hotspots, hence Avistar's development of client software that can check the connection quality and speed, and adapt as needed.
Carlson says that in some organisations, video has become just another collaborative tool which can be made available to those users who are in a position to take advantage of it.
"Our customers are IT departments who charge it on to user departments," he adds. "They might charge it at $100 to $200 a month per user, compared to $80 for a BlackBerry or $35 for email, say.
Caught on camera
As well as knowledge workers, video is finding more unusual uses, such as providing disabled people with equality of access to experts. (Similarly, Cisco has a customer using its videoconferencing gear to provide deaf users with remote access to sign-language translators.)
In the main though it is going onto enterprise desktops, with better and cheaper webcams enabling a PC to be outfitted for video for perhaps £50.
"We used to have a hardware codec to offload the PC, now it's software-only. That's another thing that's changed - PC power," Carlson says. "Video technology comes from the telecomms environment before the Internet, it has had to adjust over time."
He continues, "Companies still tend to think of installing it at certain user levels though - we say 'No, look at the collaboration patterns instead.'
"If you deploy it to people who don't need to interact, guess what - they don't use it. For example, in some of our customers it's the PAs who use it, to organise meetings and so on. We try to make sure that when we train senior people, their PA is there too."
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