When distance is no object

Erstwhile television star and media mogul Noel Edmonds didn’t like the videoconferencing on offer so he created his own. Simon Kent assesses its applications and puts them to the ultimate test – a video conference with the man himself

Seven years ago, Noel Edmonds set up offices for his Unique group of companies in Jacobstowe, Devon. With operations already established in Kensington, he found much of his time was taken up commuting between locations in order to hold business meetings.

So two years ago, he began exploring the possibility of linking the two sites by video. He was not impressed by what he found. "I was astonished at how bad the systems were," he admits. "In addition, I was angry to find that the people who were trying to sell it to me seemed very satisfied with the technology and wanted to charge me a huge sum of money."

Picture and sound quality meant productive meetings were virtually impossible and at £35,000 for the equipment at each end, Edmonds could not justify such an investment. "I didn’t have a £70,000 problem," he says.

Instead, he set some of his own staff the task of creating a suitable system. The result was the sourcing of a cost-efficient and high quality package. Having had this experience, Edmonds decided there was a gap in the marketplace for impartial and independent advice in delivering video conferencing solutions, and so he created The Video Meeting Company (VMC).

"What I find fascinating is that the total obsession with the Internet – from Tony Blair to the bedroom computer geeks – has created a real smoke screen in this area," says Edmonds. "People don’t realise the technology is here today and it is affordable."

Talk directly

So how does it feel to use this technology? I interviewed Edmonds via the Kensington/Jacobstowe link, and after the initial novelty of being able to talk directly to someone on television, the level of interaction was comparable to a face-to-face meeting. It was possible to relax into the conversation, pick up on body language and we were soon talking over each other as if we had we not been 250 miles apart. The dynamic changed slightly when a third party joined the meeting at the Kensington end – the presence of another real person in the room made it feel more natural to ignore the television set in the corner – but the quality of interaction was not impaired.

A remote control handset means participants at both ends of the link can control the viewed image so Edmonds could see the entire meeting room at Kensington and the second person entering without having to stop and refocus the camera.

While the camera can be controlled to focus on specific objects in the room – perhaps a flipchart or demonstration equipment – the Polyspan equipment used in-house by VMC will also permit other information to be shared between locations. It’s possible to plug in white boards or send graphics files, so the same information can be viewed by all participants.

For JCB, one of VMC’s clients, the company linked a hand-held digital camera to the system which enabled office-based technicians to view and assess equipment in the field.

The system links up a maximum of four different sites, enabling every viewer to see and talk to each other. Further locations can be added – in theory as many as the human eye can take – but doing so requires the use of video bridging, a kind of telephone exchange which enables all sites to interact. Such bridges must be booked in advance, thereby removing the instant access possible over a smaller number of sites and introducing an additional cost to running the technology.

However, since VMC estimates a standard six persons out of the office meeting costs businesses over £1,500 in salaries and travel – in a training scenario, further residential costs can be added – the technology still seems a cost-effective alternative.

Few examples

Does this technology truly have a place alongside the ever-increasing battery of training resources – videos, DVDs, on-line learning?

In general there are few examples of training activities occurring over videoconferencing and its full potential has yet to be explored. The Royal Bank of Scotland has 30 videoconferencing units (nothing to do with VMC) linked across its internal phone system offering both training and communication content. The system also delivers video images to branch PCs.

"Our users have told us they don’t want any frills with this technology," says George Clark, head of voice and video services at the bank. "They just want to be able to talk to someone face-to-face."

In Clark’s experience, the basic performance of the major manufacturers of videoconferencing equipment is pretty much on a par, with additional developments and special features being of

progressively less use to customers. Since they have implemented a system specific to their requirements, they have little need to keep up with technological changes.

Meanwhile, technology experts are waiting for videoconferencing to take off.

"Videoconferencing is of those technologies which is lurking at the moment," says Vaughan Waller, chairman of the eLearning Network. "There’s no doubt that when the technology becomes easier to understand it will be embraced more."

Face-to-face interaction

Waller notes videoconferencing’s biggest selling point is the face-to-face interaction offered by the technology. "Technology-based training tends to lead to learning in isolation, and at least video-conferencing offers that vital ingredient of sharing experience with fellow human beings," he says.

VMC has yet to implement a system that is directly used for training, but according to Edmonds they are beginning to explore this area for a couple of their clients including Granada, which has difficulties reaching staff across its network of restaurants.

"Undoubtedly, the whole issue of HR and training people, getting a consistent message across a number of people at once is very exciting," says Edmonds. "But this does not replace all meetings. It is complementary to the other ways in which you communicate."

Vaughan Waller adds, "Videoconferencing should be used as a tool like any other. I can see it creating a big culture shock for many people. We have seen how e-mail has had a negative effect in the area of personal relationships because many people are relying on that medium for communicating for unpleasant or bad news."

Videoconferencing may address this problem, although it may also trigger yet more training activities to ensure users do not allow facial reactions to compromise the message they are communicating.

How much does it cost?

VMC’s service covers three areas:

  • Communications Audit Internal communications are assessed and recommendations made for equipment required

  • Change Management Tailored programmes are designed and delivered to integrate technology use into the organisation

  • Training Courses cover technology use and presentation skills.

Cameras cost around £6,000 each and can be used with any standard television set made in the last 20 years. Operating costs are around £9 an hour. Leasing arrangements are possible and start at around £250 per month per location.

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