With the rise in adoption and availability of enterprise videoconferencing systems comes a warning from IT pioneers: Thinking this technology is simply plug-and-play will lead to disaster.
"If you're going to spend all that money on videoconferencing - especially HD, which isn't cheap - don't cut corners. Otherwise, users will turn videoconferencing off and you'll do damage to your business," says Sergio Soto, videoconference technician supervisor at CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information provider.
Soto says IT teams should do their homework ahead of time and focus on all elements of building a broadcast-quality videoconferencing system, such as bandwidth allocation, traffic shaping and end-user training.
"You don't want to say to your users, 'Here's a camera and you might look fuzzy.' Instead, take the time to get the [broadcasting] room ready, determine the right lighting, make sure the sound is good and that you have enough bandwidth," Soto says.
No detail too small
In fact, according to Soto, who uses a blend of HD and standard videoconferencing technology to connect 3,000 CoStar workers in the US and abroad, there are no details too small to consider. He found out early on that something as seemingly mundane as the colour of a conference room wall can have a profound effect on the user experience.
"We noticed that the person on camera was getting washed out by the white walls and that the camera would start to focus on other things," he says. This distracted users and posed a threat to CoStar's significant investment in high-definition conferencing equipment. "We painted the walls a couple different colours before we settled on light blue," he says, adding that solid colours like green also work well.
Another lesson: Be careful with plasma TVs and videoconferencing. "While plasmas look very nice, you have to stretch the image, and the images can quickly get burnt in unless you turn the sets off every night," Soto says. Instead, he recommends LCD TVs, but they, too, come with trade-offs, he warns: "The screen images don't get burnt in, but they do have a little delay and less colour."
An industry on the rise
While Soto might be ahead of the learning curve, a 2007 study by The Nemertes Research Group showed that the industry isn't far behind. Two-thirds of the respondents to the Nemertes study said that they had already deployed IP video to connect room-based systems. And almost 50 percent reported that they, like Soto, were evaluating or deploying high-definition and telepresence technology for those systems.
Nemertes credits this uptick in interest - only 22 percent had room-based or desktop-based in 2005 - to a growing comfort level with videoconferencing among business units.
"There is a perceived value in the use of video for group communications, as people in group settings stay more focused on meetings when they know they are on camera. They're less likely to get distracted surfing the web or checking email while others are talking," says Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes.
Soto has seen the warming trend among his own users. "When we first started with videoconferencing a few years ago, we simply wanted a way to reduce travel costs for our sales team. Now we have developers and researchers on both [US] coasts who use our videoconferencing rooms eight hours a day," he says.
Charles Shairs, senior special projects co-ordinator at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, has also seen a rise in interest in enterprise videoconferencing. In addition to his users, Shairs lets high school and area university students hook onto his IP network to attend classes.
For example, he has partnered with Mount Holyoke College to offer Bunker Hill students the chance to participate in a rare pharmacy program. "Videoconferencing has given us the opportunity to put students through this program without hiring faculty here or having students drive there," he says.
He also uses the technology to enable area high school kids to gain advanced placement credits through an after-school program that they can attend on their own campuses.
Like Soto, Shairs has found the learning curve to be difficult on occasion. "But if you take your time and pay attention, it's not rocket science," he says. The biggest thing, he says, is to be attentive to little things in the network.
For example, he found that he was getting a lot of feedback during conferences and quickly added ancillary equipment such as echo cancellation systems to mitigate the problems.
He also finds he has to be careful in scheduling conferences so that Bunker Hill's network performance doesn't suffer during regular school hours. He's hoping that adding a 10MB pipe within the next six months will alleviate the current capacity strain.
As Shairs has done, the CoStar team has worked hard to build out its network and keep users satisfied with the system. "There have been growing pains, but as soon as something is noticed, like feedback or delay, we fix it right away," Soto says.
He has also had to react to the need for increased bandwidth and better traffic shaping for high-definition calls. "We've noticed a threefold increase already between the locations that have high-definition. We've gone from making 768Kbit/s calls to 2Mbit/s calls. And that's for several hours at a time. We had to be careful on Tuesdays, because the salespeople were having their calls and could bring the network down," he says. To better handle these surges, he purchased a Codian HD videoconferencing bridge, which works with his Polycom HD gear to connect the calls together.
In addition, he is a proponent of close communication with the networking team to ensure that enterprise performance as a whole doesn't take a hit from the demands of conferencing. "You can't just say, 'I have a videoconferencing guy over here and a networking guy over there.' It takes a big team effort to get this technology out there and working," he says.
His current challenge is moving to an MPLS network so he can easily prioritise applications and improve latency. He has already brought 95 percent of his sites online and is hoping to be completed by year's end.
The art of being on screen
The final piece to the videoconferencing success puzzle is user training, according to Shairs. He says you could have the best equipment in the world, but if the users aren't comfortable on screen, the project will fail.
To avoid this, Shairs offers training to teachers. "Early on, we rounded up folks from different colleges and had professional coaches train them to be on television," he says. He also gives them access to props and backdrops from the campus television station. "We try to prevent the talking head syndrome as much as we can," he adds.
Soto also is a fan of user training. "We train them on how to use the equipment, how to centre their image in the picture, and how to adjust the lighting," he says. "The best advice we give them: Don't worry about being watched. Just zoom in and act like you're in a normal meeting," he says.