The evolution of videoconferencing

Up until a few years ago, videoconferencing tended to fall into one of two camps: Fortune 500 companies with vast budgets had dedicated expensive conference suites reminiscent of mini broadcast studios; smaller organisations had to make to do with cheaper solutions which sacrificed picture and audio quality. At either end of the spectrum, shortcomings in user friendliness and reliability often led to a phone call to the IT team begging for support. Here, Alessandro Marcello, Product Manager, Sony Professional Solutions Europe discusses how video conferencing is no longer just for the big spenders out there.

A particular culprit during this first generation of videoconferencing was Internet connectivity, since those with a poor connection were left to decipher jumpy dialogue with some blurry talking heads. With these restrictions in mind, the objective was for calls that were simply ‘good enough’; the purpose, after all, was to save costs by removing the need to travel for a face-to-face meeting.

Today, however, high quality videoconferencing isn’t the reserve of the few. Increased access to high speed broadband Internet, Wi-Fi and 4G networks has spurred on consumer services such as Skype and Google Hangouts, while budget restrictions have intensified the need for a ‘virtual’ business model for organisations of all shapes and sizes. This means the game has changed for a new generation of professional products and applications: the focus is now on matching the usability we all take as second nature from consumer applications while out-performing them in terms of reliability, security and flexibility.

In particular, I believe there are five trends underpinning the design of the latest video conferencing solutions:

The role of multimedia content as a catalyst for more productive meetings. Today’s meetings seldom involve mere spoken dialogue or one-way presentation; instead rich content tends to act as a reference point to spur on fruitful, lively conversations. Our new PCS-XC1 system allows video and stills to be drawn upon using a Wacom Bambooand wireless pen then shared among remote participants, enabling video to become another means of coaxing new ideas out of teams as they collaborate.

Going beyond meetings. Recreating face-to-face meetings between two or more people at the same time is just one element of what videoconferencing can deliver. Organisations are increasingly looking for a multipurpose tool for boosting the efficiency and productivity of how their employees communicate together. For instance, today’s solutions can simultaneously stream and record, so as to make the most of, say, an internal ‘town hall’ meeting or customer webinar.

Connectivity everywhere between people… and products. Whether the full-blown suites of large enterprises or the webcams of smaller companies, yesterday’s videoconferencing tended to take place in a fixed corporate meeting room. Now, however, it can exceed physical limitations to join the dots in building sites, laboratories, operating theatres, lecture halls, courthouses, classrooms and even places of worship. Wireless units can be picked up and taken anywhere, while solutions such as our new SRG-300SE can be remotely accessed and managed from anywhere on a company’s network.

Surpassing the consumer ‘norm’ of picture quality…Consumer applications haven’t only heightened expectations around video connectivity; streaming smooth, HD-quality images is also taken by many as a given thanks to YouTube, Netflix and a proliferation of on-demand catch-up services. This means that grainy or washed out images simply aren’t good enough. Our videoconferencing products actually upscale the picture quality, using a technology called Visibility Enhancer to optimise the brightness and color reproduction of an image on a pixel-by-pixel basis.

… and meeting their expectations to ‘plug-and-play’. Technology in our homes has become democratised to the extent that we expect products to work straight out of the box, and to seamlessly operate alongside all our other devices. The same is true of today’s videoconferencing products, which can be operated on a smartphone at the touch of an app – and without the need to turn pleadingly to IT for support.

These five factors were front of mind for us when we built our two latest products. The SRG-300SE is a multi-purpose HD visual imaging camera, capable of syncing video and audio, while streaming them over IP and simultaneously outputting to a video recorder. The PCS-XC1 is capable of delivering video calls up to 1080p, combining the portability and user friendliness of consumer applications with the picture quality, security and reliability of a real H.323 VC.

I believe these two products are leading examples of a new generation of videoconferencing: one where organisations of all sizes can expect a fantastic experience and where ‘good enough’ is, quite frankly, not good enough at all.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine