Video conferencing finally seems to have found its feet.
Sales of video conferencing equipment finally appear to be taking off. Industry experts claim that the global market is growing by between 60% and 80% a year - albeit from a fairly low base - and a further acceleration in sales is expected. The pick-up seems genuine, but the industry has suffered a series of false dawns in the past. Why has it taken so long for video conferencing to become popular?
Price is one familiar answer. Chris Baxter-Moore is a consultant for a large City institution which now uses video conferencing extensively in its daily operations. Baxter-Moore has been involved in the industry since the early 1980s. When he started, he says, 'we had big equipment sending black and white still pictures down a phone line with people talking down another one'. The price for such a cumbersome practice was prohibitively high to most businesses in those days. While the technology developed, the price resolutely refused to come down. Baxter-Moore adds, a little bluntly: 'I said to the major manufacturers "when the Japanese start marketing these things, you guys are going to get a kicking".'
Marketing manager for video conferencing at Sony's Broadcast and Professional Division, Paul Ingram, confirms that value for money from the original manufacturers left rather a lot to be desired. 'It used to cost something in the region of £80,000 to £100,000 for an individual unit. This usually required a large room, leased lines and engineers hanging around all day just to keep the thing running.' Aside from falling prices (video conferencing systems now tend to cost around £12,000 on average and some are now selling at about half that amount) Ingram now points to a more sophisticated truly global telephone network and a critical mass of users as other reasons for faster growth.
This mass of users, wanting to communicate across companies, as well as within them, has been dependent on the development of industry standards. There is now some sign of commonality in this area, but according to Baxter-Moore, 'one of the major factors of slow growth has been a lack of inter-operability on the part of the manufacturers'. Phillip Keenan, vice-president of international operations for Video Server, manufacturer of devices enabling multi-point conferencing (that is more than two locations) points out the differences in the market between group conferencing systems (in which several users are involved) and the desktop market (often a spontaneous one-to-one conversation). While the former is now enjoying rapid growth the latter is in its infancy. But he remains confident that desktop PC conferencing will grow rapidly once people start to realise that software giants like Microsoft are now including video conferencing as part of their overall package of applications. Says Keenan: 'If Microsoft say it's going to happen then you can be sure that it's going to happen.'
Clare Willis, senior consultant with SpeakEasy Training, which specialises in training people in the use of video conferencing facilities, has seen the way in which people are put off by the technical difficulties of using different systems. 'Some cameras are voice activated, which can get confusing when there is an argument or discussion going on between two or more people at one end of the link. Other cameras have focused on the whole group, which looks a bit like something out of University Challenge.' Most of these familiarity problems can be sorted out by good training, but people are sometimes still a bit put off from using video conferencing by the thought of being in front of a camera, she says, 'and although there is less of a problem with the sound delay these days you still need to speak more slowly and clearly'.