This was one of the first technologies I covered as an analyst back in the 1980s and, back then, I had access to the massive research budgets of IBM and AT&T to look at why it wasnt working. Most of the reasons have been addressed over the years but video conferencing, which we are increasingly calling Telepresence, still isnt a success. And it took a Facebook message from ex-IDC Video Conferencing analyst Ed Buckingham to help me refine my thoughts.
Well start by reviewing the working assumptions and then go into a broader discussion of why video conferencing is wrong-headed if it wants to get people off planes and into conference rooms.
The working assumptions for much of the last three decades (yes this stuff has been around actually longer than this in some form or other) has been that the problems to overcome were ease of use, video quality, and latency.
Generally people using early systems required a substantial amount of training. And often the trained people werent around when a call was to be made resulting in substantial frustration.
When a call was made the picture quality generally wasnt like being there. It was more like analog TV on a bad channel, and there was so much network latency that voices and lips often werent in sync. People had a tendency to talk over each other much like they did in the early days of long distance.
The primary justification for the system wasnt better meetings but reduced travel expenses. This is somewhat unique as most other technology purchases have a direct benefit tied to their primary purpose (in this case it would be making meetings better). But video conferencing systems primary benefit isnt better meetings but reducing travel cost and saving time.
Its interesting to note that travel time likely drives the use of these systems more consistently than travel cost because, with the former, if you need to do a high quality meeting immediately travel isnt a real option anyway.
Why do people go to meetings? Think about it: We have conference room speaker phones, many of which are just fine. And products like WebEx and Live Meeting make collaboration over distances productive.
So why get on a plane?
The reason isnt to see people across a table but to connect with them and to better understand the dynamics of the people and remote location. Meetings are held in person for the social aspects. Often it isnt the meeting itself but getting to know the related people, getting them to understand better who you are and where youre coming from. Not to mention learning the local gossip, which makes going to a location very critical.
If all you need is to see foils or pictures, WebEx or Live meeting are more than acceptable to most. And my industry did meetings over the phone with hard copy foils for years.
This opens up another reason to be at the location: You can see when people are getting bored or may have questions that often dont make it over the phone but you dont need high quality video for that, low quality video is just fine.
In short, for video conferencing to work you need a social framework to wrap around it so that people no longer feel the need to go to a location to connect with the people at that location. For instance if you chat with people regularly over the phone do you feel the need to physically see them more or less than if you didnt?
I know when I worked in a big office I dreaded big meetings. But when I was remote I felt left out as the only one calling in because there were clearly inside jokes and side comments I couldnt hear (and worried they might be about me).
Polycom CX5000 Example
Ive recently been in a number of meetings (mostly at NVIDIA) where the Polycom CX5000 is in use.
NVIDIA is a graphics company and you would think theyd use a High Definition system like Cisco, Tandberg or HP but they dont, they use this little Polycom. It works vastly differently in that it sits in the middle of a table and works with Live Meeting to create a blended presentation video conference without changing the layout of the room. You sit around a table naturally and the device points a camera in the direction of the speaker.