technological demands of video conferencing are merciless. Is this the point at
which the Internet will fall short of its promise to remove all geographical
barriers to training? By Simon Kent
conferencing used to mean huge boxes of complex equipment, major investment and,
in spite of poor audio and picture quality.
early systems based on proprietary technology, establishing an internal video
conferencing network was conceivable, but using the technique for international
communications was practically impossible.
to Nicolas Coudret, European marketing manager for software company White Pine,
things have moved on considerably.
the last two years the market has moved massively from the ISDN room-based
system to desktop video conferencing systems,” he explains.
is echoed by David Sales, general manager for BT conferencing. “We believe that
by 2004 all video conferencing will be done via Internet-presence connections,”
the moment there is an issue with the image quality but in a few years’ time
that will no longer be a problem.”
BT’s entire current portfolio of video conferencing equipment is designed with
IP capability in mind. If clients decide to use ISDN connections today, their
equipment will be ready to make the switch in the near future.
are now international standards governing audio and video communication across
the Internet, offering the potential for different applications to communicate
with each other, and free videoconferencing software is available on the
Internet. Yet some experts advise against choosing the Internet as a conference
is bandwidth hungry,” says Duncan Feakes, managing director of solution
providers IndiVisual. “If you are going to conference over an Internet connection
you may as well send a photograph of yourself and have a telephone
conversation. It is not good enough quality for business and certainly not for
Watson, research fellow at the Computer Science Department at UCL was involved
in a series of experiments to see whether languages could be taught using a
video conferencing link across the Internet. They experienced audio disruption
of 40-80 milliseconds – significant enough to impact on speech-led tasks.
while many believe the introduction of ASDL and other bandwidth-increasing
technologies will make video conferencing more practical, Watson believes poor
quality can also be traced to other areas of the technology.
bandwidth is seen as a panacea,” she says, “But quality is also affected by the
microphone used, the sound card and even the processing power of the computer.
Solving these problems is relatively easy and inexpensive.”
also adds that many of today’s video conferencing tools give the user the ability
to alter the number of frames per second transmitted across the Internet. To
get full video motion it is necessary to broadcast between 25 and 30 frames per
second. However, reducing this number, while clearly affecting picture quality,
will mean less audio disruption.
Dean, managing director of consultancy Dean Associates, points out that a
disrupted picture may not rule out a useful learning experience.
blocks can be a problem, but it depends on what you are doing,” he says.
you are just showing a product, the fact that a picture judders doesn’t matter.
It would be a different matter if you were trying to show an intricate task.”
technology is already emerging to counter this problem. Laurence Whittle,
European vice-president of the software company Centra, says its product range,
Centra 99, features a constant line sensor which practically guarantees no
information is lost between destinations.
technology we have will sense if there is any disruption on the Internet caused
by increased traffic,” he says. “If there is, that information will be stored
and sent when the disruption is over.”
product offers video connection as an addition to extensive data sharing
capabilities, bringing a human face to what could otherwise be a dry experience
of viewing shared documents and interacting by audio alone. Yet both Coudret
and Sales believe data conferencing will be the big market of the future.
and audio conferencing have certainly been popular,” says Sales, “But we expect
interest in data conferencing to go through the roof.”
most important feature of these conferencing products is the ability to show
photos and pictures and share data,” agrees Coudret.
also agree that the training function is likely to be the testing ground for
this technology within many companies. The ability for many people,
geographically apart, to view and work on the same document – be it a word
processor document, a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation – will enable
organisations to substantially cut costs.
Taking training North and South
was first initiated in 1996 by the University of Bristol’s dental school and
the Institute for Learning and Research Technology.
by the Department of Health, the scheme brought PictureTel video conferencing
systems to the PC desktops of training centres across the south west of
collaboration has enabled the dental school to deliver specialist and continuing
education to groups of students in a cost-effective way, removing the
difficulties which previously existed in delivering education across their
geographically spread audience.
technology enables teaching staff to share pictures of dental records, x-rays
and visual images of dental work with students, as well as interacting aurally,
visually and through a whiteboard feature.
CPD a growing concern within the profession, the hope is that TeleDent will be
the precursor to a wider network which could ultimately help dental
practitioners nationwide to keep their skills up to date.
three tutors would normally be necessary, just one is needed when the groups
are taught via video conferencing,” says project manager Julian Cook.
a teaching perspective I value the interpersonal side, being able to see
to get yourself connected
The general rule is the greater the bandwidth, the greater the quality of the
Internet connections are limited, although Centra claims its software will
operate on the lowest common denominator – even across bandwidths of 28.8kbps.
Local and wide area networks, designed for inter-company communications, will
have a higher capacity although the determining factor will also be the speed
at which the user’s PC operates.
benefits to using these networks include the removal of call charges. In
addition, network managers can prioritise data allowing conference connections
to take precedence over other traffic.
One-to-one connections are fairly straight forward, but if you intend to run a
session which links many students to one tutor you may need access to a
Multi-Point Server, similar to those used for conferencing using ISDN lines.
piece of hardware manages the connection between each active site, ensuring
image and audio data are exchanged correctly. Multi-Points can cost upwards of
£40,000 to buy and require on-going maintenance and management from skilled
A cheaper option is to hire time on a Mutli-Point by the hour at a cost of
around £30. Many companies, including BT, will provide this service.
the future this technology will move from a hardware base to software, again
reducing cost and increasing the ease with which multi-part conferencing can be
carried out. Centra’s Symposium product already supports up to 250 users
without the need for a Multi-Point, enabling conferencing to take place as and
when required rather than at a time specifically booked in advance.
Both Sales at BT and Dunkley at PictureTel point out that trainers who are
interested in using this technology should undergo training on how to use the
need to appreciate this environment and know how it works,” says Dunkley. “You
need to know how to position actions and how to communicate across the
says BT provides training and tips to users on how to get the most from their
technology as part of its complete solution.
options for video conferencing
Dunkley, regional manager of VC manufacturers PictureTel, says video
conferencing systems can be broadly classified into three distinct areas.
systems: As discussed in this article, the quality may be compromised and
while today’s standard PCs will run such systems, the quality is dependent on
the specification of the machine and its sound card. Complete systems cost from
£500-£1,000 – depending on the quality and functionality of the product. PC
systems in general are designed to be used by a single trainee.
systems: These are “set-top boxes”. The camera and processing unit can be
plugged into any television together with a network connection. Dunkley claims
you could comfortably get four or five people in front of a system. Costs
between £3,500 and £5,000, according to features.
room systems: These are sophisticated “all in one” packages which offer
high quality video conferencing facilities for groups of 10 or more. With a
price range from £15,000 to £25,000 these systems can bring added
functionality. For example, PictureTel’s Concorde system offers dynamic
speaker-locating technology which means the camera will automatically focus on
whoever is speaking in the room. While Rollabout systems can in theory be moved
around, they generally stay in one location.