Virtually there videoconferencing & telepresence

 

Being able to see someone and share with them what you have at your end when far apart and perhaps on a telephone – to me has been like an application that has been looking for the technology to come about. Transmitting real time video images with audio often called videoconferencing has been around surprisingly as long as Bob Dylan. AT&T introduced it to the public at the the Picturephone at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. While viewed as a fascinating curiosity, it never an early videophone from AT&Tbecame popular and was too expensive to be practical for most consumers when it was offered for $160 a month in 1970. It wasn’t until Ericsson demonstrated the very first trans-Atlantic LME video telephone call that companies saw the real potential for success and profitability and began to refine their own video conferencing technologies. Advancements such as Network Video Protocol (NVP), in 1976, and the Packet Video Protocol (PVP), in 1981, both helped the maturation of video conferencing, but both stayed in the laboratory or for private corporate usage. Companies began refining video conferencing technologies, including advancements as network video protocol (NVP) in 1976 and packet video protocol (PVP) in 1981. None of these were put into commercial use, however, and stayed in the laboratory or private company use. Picturephone was meanwhile pulled by AT&T in 1974 after a million dollars in development costs. clip_image002

In 1976, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone established video conferencing (VC) between Tokyo and Osaka for company use. IBM Japan followed suit in 1982 by establishing VC running at 48000bps to link up with already established internal IBM video conferencing links in the United States so that they could have weekly meetings. In October of 2001, television reporters began using a portable satellite and a videophone to broadcast live from Afghanistan during the war. The ability to communicate with the other end and see them on perhaps satellite or; through telephone lines (ISDN) has been something people have always wanted. Look at any self respecting sci fiction movie and you will see people then were in to talking to TV screens and making sense of what went on!

Ever since Jack Kilby invented the Integrated Circuit, almost all technological innovation has been around the better ‘chip’ and as processors get smarter and better and possibly hotter – the applications really get better. The modern car from BMW or Mercedes for example has more than 300 ECUs – electronic control units. There is no reason that talking to a TV screen – videoconferencing as we knew it should not get better and today it has to the extent that people now can talk to their mobile phones and also who they are speaking to. Though novel this is not new and as early as 1992 computer operating systems like the Mac OS had a video chat application built in – audio came in later by 1994. Texas Instruments (where Prof. Kilby did some great work) in their developers conference at Bangalore recently showcased among things a car with a chip that could read sign boards and high definition video conferencing with image clarity that was unique. That car and the sign boards is some time away but High Definition true life audio visual communication has been around (some of it on TI’s chips) for a while now.

clip_image004Communication happen at many levels and today’s technology is capable of taking that feeling of being there to newer vistas of virtualization and for the business users the results have meant increased productivity. The government at India has been for example been able to realize the potential of video communication through screens on their satellite networks and have also deployed a sizeable ‘multiconference’ bridge thereby taking to unprecedented levels communication amongst its officials and hierarchies. Unknown to many and in the selfless way that only government can the history of the videoconferencing division at the National Informatics Center at New Delhi mirrors in fact the development of global videoconferencing as we have come to know it today.

One of the main developments off course has been pricing. In 1982, Compression Labs Incorporated (CLI) introduced their system to the world for $250,000 with lines for $1,000 an hour. The system was huge and used enormous resources capable of tripping 15 amp circuit breakers. This was, however, the only working visual communication system available until PictureTel’s VC hit the market in 1986. This was substantially cheaper at $80,000 system with $100 per hour lines! Today at a tenth of that price you can get yourself a high definition capable entry level system that would do more than anything those earlier systems could. Besides the systems there are off course other costs like the network; the furniture and also the displays and perhaps audio also and off course a nice sound proofed room for the more quality conscious discerning seekers – or business users as the industry calls them. This adds to the total cost of deployment but if you were in say down town Mumbai or Hyderabad right now – and needed to really see the other end when you speak to him – you can get yourself a place within reasonable limits at less than Rs 5000 ($100) an hour which even at today’s rates is a steal. Off course this is a ‘cyber cafe’ and the other end needs to also have a system – but that is the only limitation. When you think that five thousand Indian rupees or a hundred US dollars is what the average test (SAT/GRE/GMAT) to qualify to go to American universities costs; you know it is not really a lot of money.

clip_image006That then was the application that needed the technology that could all put it together. The ability for American universities to be able to perhaps see the people that they were admitting or for that matter any other company that would want to interview a candidate far away without having to have them to fly all the way. Today the benefits are being realized by heads of states and their governments and CEOs and their companies. And it cuts across lines and whether it is the President of America G. W. Bush or President Ignacio Luis Lula da Silva of Brazil – video communication has brought them closer to their constituents. India’s own rocket scientist president was also in fact an eaclip_image008rly adopter of this technology.

At the free end of the spectrum there are services of distinct repute like the Estonian company Skype (since purchased by American free marketer eBay) or if you would rather go the enterprise option from the larger network equipment makers whose latest and absolute cutting edge product release is an ‘Unified Phone Messenger’ built around a ‘presence server’ based around the Sessions Initiation Protocol. This protocol under the IETF has contributed tremendously to bring business quality audio visual communication and collaboration from the corporate boardrooms and meeting rooms to the ubiquity of the enterprise desktop. The enterprise communication equipment makers whether it is Alcatel with Lucent or Cisco, or Avaya a company that traces its heritage back to AT&T, today have products that build in the capability to communicate over video.

In the early days of the technology it was about cameras and grainy slow moving pictures with no quality to speak off. Today however it is about presence and collaboration and integration with the desktop. Right now technology is available that can connect a traveling clip_image010business executive with his laptop computer and a web cam at an airport Wi Fi Lounge to perhaps the corporate boardroom equipped with a high end a room based VC system for a video call. Surveys of communication methodologies and techniques have evaluated that even email – what one always thought was as good as it gets is only 40% of the message getting across. Being really there is a 100% and video collaboration technology actually moves things up to 70 to 80% of the ‘message’ being conveyed actually being understood. The time for the video and the audio to travel to the other end on those corporate networks has indeed come and IT managers and their CIOs are beginning to see the value in this technology. Today true life like video with High Definition displays are changing the way people communicate and impacts the way people and organizations interact and engage. For the enterprise this can translates into productivity gains and the benefits the bottom line. Some of the benefits may be surmised:

  1. It accelerates the decision-making process and improves intra-company communications and increases flexibility and encourages collaboration across time zones and distances for the large enterprise.
  2. It can get you expert advice from remote sites and the benefits of this have been realized in distance learning and telemedicine projects that have proven their value across India and the world.
  3. And of course there is something to be said about the reduction in travel and time and expenses and the return on investment on this capital expenditure head once you really get around to doing it.

But in IT and Telecom – serious business as they are, fads and mindsets prevail and a lot of choices are made without often thinking through and identifying what in fact are the key ‘customer’ needs and requirements. There is a difference in choosing standardized and clip_image012to an extent commoditized components & applications like ERP; email; RDBMS. There isn’t much that you can go wrong with and there again there aren’t that many vendor choices to be made either. In choosing technology that is for the communication network however it is often more sensible to find a vendors that can today do it all and also pack something for tomorrow even if they are slightly expensive right now. Vendors who swear by interoperability and those that are standards oriented from the core will usually be able to deliver the best solution for the end customer. This kind of a vendor usually has a growth plan about how the technology will unfold and where they would fit in as it evolves. For the customer this means a longer life line on the product with less service requirements but clear and demonstrable benefits.

The right vendor usually has a technology road map for the way ahead and what they want to do. They may often not be the cheapest priced solution provider but however they will be flexible and will have a nuanced approach to the ever changing market realities. Accepting and expecting change is great but to be able to cause change will be how great vendors should be judged by. If your IT & Telecom vendor is a technology organization driven solely on sales quotas and smart sales people; they are often not what will solve the enterprise’s problems. The guys who do are the people that understood that the receipt of the customer’s purchase instruction was in fact the beginning of a relationship. After all at a company no one ever buys just one phone and vendors today realize that with conferencing and video and collaboration and telepresence this is exactly the way ahead with real value of this technology being realized only through wider deployments.

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About Soumya
A technology enthusiast, forever enamored by all that it hath wrought and of course here is an attempt at making sense of it all and perhaps simplifying it!

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