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Guide to Implementing Videoconferencing As Part of Your Communications Strategy.

The successful implementation of a videoconference system is key in any corporate telecommunications strategy. Once the decision has been made to integrate such a system, the whole project becomes exposed to the scrutinizing eye of management, potential users and often outside corporations "looking in" to see if videoconferencing is a valid modern-day productivity tool. Although a broad range of technical parameters as well as human perceptions and attitudes need to be addressed, it is not difficult to orchestrate a videoconferencing plan. It does, however, require diligence in attention to detail of all the interacting parameters. This article offers practical considerations based upon experience gained as a videoconferencing systems integrator.

Most videoconference systems are managed by the telecommunications staff of the company. A single person is usually the pivotal point for selling the idea to corporate management, justifying and procuring funds, properly applying videoconferencing technology to the situation and interfacing with end users. A problem occurs many times in properly meshing corporate management's view of what videoconferencing should do with the day-to-day desires of end users. The deciphering of what the true corporate requirements are is the delicate task of the videoconferencing manager. For maximum productivty and best cost/performance ratio, the system functions and hardware need to be closely aligned with actual requirements.

The following parameters are the main areas where clear-cut decisions need to be made. These, of course, are to be tempered by future growth and availability of equipment and communication channels. Decide on System Type

The first question to be answered is whether to use a limited-motion or freeze-frame system. Keep in mind that neither option will look like a Hollywood production. Limited-motion almost exclusively shows the conferees sitting on one side of a semi-circular table. Its intent is to allow intimate face-to-face meetings. In most applications the cameras are fixed and show a panoramic view of the conferees. The system operates in real time, and very little operator intervention is necessary, but it requires expensive communication channels and equipment. Freeze-frame installations typically have a remote-controlled camera for giving an initial view of the conferees. After the meeting is underway, attention is focused on graphics material placed on a special stand or viewed by the remote-control camera on a wall. An operator needs to press a button to send desired images to the other site. Freeze-frame is the most adaptable to technical meetings and is less expensive to buy and operate. Pay Attention to Audio

Second, the type of audio system requires attention. The conversational exchange is still the most important aspect of videoconferencing. Attention to audio is often slighted until the installation is complete because it is less spectacular than video. At that point it becomes very apparent in a poorly designed system that audio is something we take for granted. Bear in mind that the audio will not have the quality of "just like" being in the room at the other site. Full-duplex audio is what we expect after using the common telephone, allowing both parties to speak and to be heard simultaneously. Because of room acoustics and the resulting feedback, this system has its limiations. Half-duplex, with its annoying cut-off, is familiar to most speakerphone users, but is usually not acceptable for videoconferencing. The best-suited audio systems are those that employ "quasi-duplex" audio. They use microphone gating, level shifting, echo suppression and interrupt capability for the best trade-off in performance.

The extent of networking is the third Question. In the past, most systems have been installed on a point A to point B basis. This has been for three reasons. The first is that videoconferencing is so new that companies want to ascertain the viability of installed systems. Second, point A to point B systems are the least complicated from both technical and user viewpoints. Last, complex network systems are much more expensive to install. Yet, as more and more companies turn to videoconferencing, increasing numbers of intra-company networks have been formed. The creation and control of a company network requires considerable effort from the telecommunications staff. The bottom line appears to be: use separate point A to point B systems unless networking is absolutely required. In any case, plan for the possibility of some kind of networking in the future. Plan Operator Control

The last major question, and an often neglected area in the planning stages of a videoconference system, is that of operator control. In actuality it is the makeup, ability and perception of the operator that dictates the requirements of the system. Because of the real-time nature of limited-motion and its use of fixed cameras, system control is reduced to just a few buttons. Thinking through all the possible algorithms of a conference alows the system planner insight into the best way to allocate functions to push buttons on a control panel. It cannot be over-emphasized how crucial this point is. In freeze-frame systems it is more acute because an operator is required to transform a static system into one that provides a continuous flow of information to keep pace with the meeting.

Limited-motion systems will never need an operator separate from the conferees under most circumstances. On the other hand, complex freeze-frame systems that use multiple, movable cameras with picture buffers and more than two monitors almost always require a separate operator to to ensure a well-coordinated meeting. However, a limited-function control panel with defaults allows a conferee operator to successfully control such a system. No matter what the situation is, there always seems to be two conflicting viewpoints: limit the control to the operator so they will not get confused, or give the operator complete control of all the bells and whistles to take full advantage of the system's capabilities. The answer lies in going back to: who the "average" operator is; the possible and desirable algorithms of a meeting; the complexity of the system and its peripheral devices (facsimile, 35mm projectors, VCRs and so on). Many control panels look aesthetically pleasing and deceptively adequate at first glance, yet few control panels accomplish the original goals of the system planner in a convenient manner.

There is still very little equipment manufactured expressly for videoconferencing. Video codecs and audio systems are in essence the only pieces of equipment manufactured for the videoconferencing marketplace. Cameras, monitors, peripheral equipment and system controllers from other market places are either modified or are custom-made to meet the needs of the videoconference environment. Most system have "black boxes" used by the integrator to control, generate and modify electronic signals. Video Codec Critical

The most critical piece of equipment is obviously the video codec. Its selection has long-range effects in the area of compatibility with other networks, future standards, conversion to different transmssion speeds, future multiplexing of data and the stability of the manufacturer for parts and service. This is more critical for limited-motion codecs as opposed to freeze-frame codecs. While selecting a limited-motion codec, don't overlook the wide range of graphics resolution and handling capabilities available among manufacturers. This is because an increasing number of limited-motion rooms are now including a type of workstation for graphic materials. Other key items to look for are extended audio bandwidth, remote control capabilities and internal diagnostics.

Manufacturers of audio systems suitable for videoconferencing are more limited than for codecs. Look for ease of control and adaptability to changing accoustical environments. Placement of microphones, speakers and interconnecting wires is a dilemma reserved for the consultant or systems integrator. The audio system should be thoroughly demonstrated under actual operating conditions by the prospective manufacturer. A side benefit of this demonstration is the opportunity to properly choose among the many types of microphones and speakers available.

Cameras and monitors should also be demonstrated if possible. A "good" camera or monitor is not necessarily the "best" for a given environment. Pick the monitor that gives the best apparent resolution and quality of color to the average viewers. Controls are also key. Some monitors are easier for operators to adjust than others. Cameras are more critical. Choose a camera that gives good color and a minimum of noise in a low light level. High lights in a conference room add glare and make conferees uncomfortable. The last factor is the ease of performing white balance and the color stability of the camera. A camera that electronically stores white balance indefinitely requires no setup before each meeting. Room Considerations

Many corporations remodel old conference rooms to provide their videoconference facilities. This poses several potential problems: the room is shaped wrong or is not adequate in size; lighting is of the wrong type and intensity; sound treatment is usually nil; power outlet location is inadequate; there's no room for equipment; air conditioning and heating are noisy; communications ports are minimal; and there's a lack of built-in conduits to eliminate cords on the floor. Certainly the best alternative would be to have a room custom built when a new building is erected, but this is seldom the case.

In most rooms, the above deficiencies can be corrected. The main problem that arises in this area is expense. The cost of remodeling a room often becomes a significant part of the videoconference system. Add to this the costs of a custom table, chairs and credenza, and justification of the expenses becomes more difficult. System planners again need to realize that concessions need to be made in order that the true corporate requirements are met. Many companies simply are not able to budget the money required for a deluxe videoconferencing room, yet most can afford a workable system.

Videoconference systems are not known for being used to capacity as soon as they are operational. The implementation plan has actually just begun when the doors of the new room open. Preliminary "propaganda," articles and meetings are necesary beforehand to prepare and condition future users of the facility. Successful videoconference companies even print glossy brochures explaining the concept, layout, availability and operating instructions of the facility. Emphasize User Training

Education of the user is tremendously important in the development of high system utilization. A partial list of important topics would include: What is a videoconference?, why videoconference?, applications, planning a videoconference, preparing graphics, conferee interaction, misconceptions and pitfalls, scheduling and future potential.

The potential system planner is referred to the growing list of books, newsletters, articles and excellent seminars on the subject. Consultants and system intergrators are also excellent sources of information. They are professionals experienced in guiding clients all the way from concepts to an installed teleconference system. The successful system planner must tap all these sources to keep up to date and implement dynamic videoconferencing in their own company.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
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Author:Rowan, P.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1985
Words:1771
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