George Jetson, a character in the 1970s cartoon, was not terribly futuristic when he used his telephone that enabled him to see the person to whom he was talking. Videoconferencing, as it is known today, has been under development in the research labs at Pacific Bell since the 1920s. The project, referred to as picturephone, is in the form of a desktop videoconferencing system. Videoconferencing rooms have been in existence at AT&T since the 1960s, where they are used to support large corporate meetings, including the annual shareholder's meeting.
It was not until the 1964 World's Fair that the picturephone was introduced to the public. AT&T predicted that the picturephone would replace the telephone by 1970. Although that prediction was wrong, the recession of the 1970s created a wider acceptance of videoconferencing by corporations that were looking for alternative ways to conduct meetings and conferences while cutting travel costs. Videoconferencing was not successful at that time, however, because the technology needed to attain personalized meetings was lacking.
With technology becoming more affordable and economically justifiable, practical and profitable applications of teleconferencing have gained popularity in the business world. With increasing competition and the need for face-to-face contact with customers, videoconferencing has become more popular because it allows face-to-face interaction without wasting travel time. Teleconferencing also allows team meetings without the need to travel hundreds of miles.
WHAT IS TELECONFERENCING?
The earliest form of teleconferencing was the telephone conference call, in which several parties in various parts of the world could simultaneously hold a conversation. Businesspeople could talk with each other while sending and receiving faxes to provide a hard copy of the information being discussed. Today computer technology allows for synchronous, or simultaneous, sharing of data through four means: voice, video, digital whiteboard, and data files.
Several parties are able to share not only voice but also a live camera image of themselves while they talk. The size of the image can be shrunk to occupy only a small portion of the computer monitor or large display screen so that a data file can be accessed, displayed, and edited on the monitor at the same time.
Individuals participating in the conference call have the option of sharing and working with data files from either party's computer. While verbally discussing changes within the document and observing each other's body language, either party can edit the document and give immediate feedback. The digital whiteboard provides an
electronic version of the dry erase board mounted on the wall. While viewing each other's actions via the computer monitor, individuals can also write on each other's white-board with special markers in the color of their choice. This allows professionals to make decisions and solve problems on the spot.
VIDEOCONFERENCING AND BUSINESS
This type of communicating enables people to work from their home via satellite, which increases family and/or personal time while reducing time spent commuting. It is estimated that in 1999 between 8 million and 15 million of the 120 million U.S. employees worked at home and communicated with their offices and customers using a computer and telephone lines. The number of telecommuters in America was expected to double by 2005.
A business environment requires most corporate employees to collaborate on a routine basis. Videoconferencing allows for face-to-face planned as well as impromptu meetings of workers who are separated by several thousand miles.
Sales presentations are an example of a profitable and easily justified business use of videoconferencing. When conducting the sales presentation at the customer's location, a sales representative with videoconferencing equipment on a laptop computer can connect the customer with specialists back at the company's offices to answer specific questions about the product being demonstrated. This allows greater specialization, with the salesperson focusing on closing the sale and the specialists focusing on the technical aspects of the product. The salesperson is able to view the customer's body language and ask the specialist for clarification on customer objections or questions. The customer feels a sense of security by being able to see the individual instead of merely hearing a voice.
Another business application of videoconferencing is the ability to train people without actually traveling to another location. Companies can provide more frequent training to their employees in distant locations for less cost.
The Northrop Grumman Corporation implemented extensive teleconferencing for its 45,000 employees by setting up one hundred Team Communications Centers (TCCs) (teleconferencing rooms) at their offices across the United States. The TCCs are equipped with large digital whiteboards and projector screens. Groups of employees or managers from two or more locations collaborate on, discuss, and edit documents as though they were all in the same room, saving both time and money. The corporation identified airfare savings in 1998 of $150,000. These savings did not include hotels, meals, overtime, or incidentals.
VIDEOCONFERENCING AND EDUCATION
Teleconferencing can bring more educational choice and excellence to remote schools with small student bodies. Specialized courses that individual schools could not offer because of cost or limited student interest can be shared by several schools to provide cost efficiency. Flexibility in scheduling classes to meet either an individual student's or a group of students' need is another major advantage.
Many universities offer courses over the Internet or by means of other teleconferencing capabilities. Known as distance learning, this technology enables thousands of students to take college classes without leaving their community or, in many cases, their home.
The nature of videoconferencing often requires distance-learning classes to present more class material, use better visuals, and show greater preparation of the teaching materials than traditional classes. These classes also hold students more accountable for their own learning. A major drawback for some students is that they must still attend classes (virtually) at preset times and progress at the pace set for the course.
Internet courses often better meet student needs by allowing them to work within their own time schedules and to progress at their own pace. Students sign into the virtual classroom (chat room) when it is convenient for them and respond to instructor questions and other student responses in much the same manner as they would in a traditional classroom discussion. The major differences are that all students must actively participate and the responses are written rather than oral.
Videoconferencing can present barriers to learning when interpersonal skills such as face-to-face interaction, eye contact, gaze, body language, and voice inflection are not transmitted. Another potential barrier is intercommunication delays when the timing of visual and audio signals, which are known to be effective in communication, are sometimes delayed.
For effective videoconferencing, the design of the room and the training of participants are critical factors. In educational settings, the classroom layout should allow all participants, including the instructor, to see and hear one another clearly. Instructors often need training on how best to project enthusiasm using this medium, how to monitor and adjust the camera and audio components, and how to prepare effective materials. Institutions must have a clear plan of how the system will be used to deliver instruction before they offer classes.
The three major types of videoconferencing involve conference rooms, roll-around units, and desktop units. The conference room facilities provide the user with a meeting room equipped with the audio and video technology needed to conduct an interactive conference. Roll-around units contain the needed audio and video equipment but are designed to be moveable. They provide a degree of flexibility, but the large size of the units often makes them impractical.
Desktop units provide desk or office videoconferencing access at the user's computer. The two essential components in addition to the computer are a small video camera, which usually sits on top of the computer, and a microphone, which can be set on a pedestal or worn as a headset. Telephone network capabilities have limited the quality of the video as well as causing delays in transmission. With the new TV cable hook-ups, however, desktop conferencing is achieving excellent video and audio quality.
Two types of desktop systems are VISIT and TMS. VISIT was an early desktop multimedia system integrating desktop videoconferencing, screen sharing, high-speed data transfer, electronic voice-mail access, and voice call management on a desktop computer. It required a plug-in video board; a black-and-white, fixed-focus CCD camera with an electronic auto iris; and application software.
TMS (Telepresence Media Space System), the newer system, is designed to capture the existing physical, cognitive, and social skills of users to support the same confidentiality, intimacy, and trust that develop in people who are engaged in face-to-face interaction. TMS also provides real-time document sharing and editing, video mail, video receptionist, and video recording of meetings. The technology needed for a TMS system includes a Sun workstation as the central server, computer controlled audio-video switch, PictureTel codec, Sony VCR, and camera mounted on the roof.
KEY TO SUCCESSFUL VIDEOCONFERENCING
The key to successful videoconferencing is effective communication skills. The users must be comfortable with the system, so that it appears as transparent as possible. This will allow the receiver to concentrate on the message and the sender to concentrate on making eye contact, so that participants feel included and are not just observers.
Participants in a videoconference should wear solid-colored clothing in dark or neutral colors to enhance the camera's focus. Movements should be slow and smooth, and caution should be taken not to block the camera's line of sight.
Participants should always maintain appropriate on-camera positioning, adhering to the elbows and wrists rule so that when you stretch out your arms, the edge of the screen falls between your elbows and wrists. It is important that participants see each other's facial expressions, but close-up shots should be used judiciously because the camera is sensitive to movement and will exaggerate blinking eyes, moving hands, or shifting in chairs. Videoconferencing participants will find it difficult to pay attention if the subject is not presented in an interesting and enthusiastic manner. Presenters should get beyond the talking head model and make the session as interactive as possible.
As in any instructional or corporate setting, the use of images, objects, and audio or video clips will greatly enhance the meeting's effectiveness. Visuals should have large, bold text with simple fonts and concise bulleted information. Time should be allowed for all participants to view the graphics. Participants should always speak in a strong, clear voice and avoid interrupting another speaker because the time delay may cause confusion.
Although videoconferencing has been available for more than seventy years, it is only in recent years that its quality has reached the standards needed in business and educational settings. Its popularity has increased because it is able to save individuals and business both time and money, which are valuable and limited resources. As technology improves, the use of videoconferencing will increase as more businesses and individuals embrace it as an effective means of face-to-face communications.
see also Communications in Business ; Telecommunications
InnoVisions Canada. (n.d.) Retrieved October 29, 2005, from http://www.ivc.ca
Moore, G., and Schuyler, K. (1996). Videoconferencing 90's Style: Sharing Faces, Places and Spaces. PowerGrid Journal.
The Telework Coalition (2005). Retrieved October 29, 2005, from http//www.telcoa.org.
James E. Miles