by August 2, 2008 0 comments



In today’s world of traffic jammed roads, jam-packed public transport
systems, and over-crowded airports, delays have become a part and parcel of
everyone’s lives. Earlier for instance, one could easily catch an early morning
flight from one metro city to another (del-bom-blr), and still reach in time to
catch a morning meeting. Today however, thanks to the inadvertent flight delays,
this is just not possible. Instead, you end up taking the previous evening’s
flight and reaching your destination very late in the night (because even the
evening flight gets horribly delayed), and attend a morning meeting all bleary
eyed because you couldn’t catch enough sleep.

And then there are the infamous govt. infrastructure projects like the High
Capacity Bus System Corridor in Delhi, which has completely thrown traffic out
of gear over a 14-km stretch. There are also the floods in Mumbai, which happen
during every monsoon, and bring the city to a complete standstill. There are
also the dreaded one-ways in Bangalore, which confuse the hell out of even local
commuters because the routes keep getting redefined.

So what’s the solution to all these delays? No business can wait for the
public infrastructure to catch up. If you need to discuss something important
with a customer, then it has to happen at any cost, no matter what the
infrastructure. A phone call doesn’t always fulfill the need, and travelling
wastes a lot of time. The only solution left therefore is to deploy video
conferencing.

The first significant boost that video conferencing industry received was
after 9/11, because people were avoiding travel due to fear. Today, air travel
is once again on a high. In fact, it’s so high
that the infrastructure is playing catch up to cope with the increasing traffic.
The delays it causes in air travel makes everyone wish that they could somehow
avoid it. That makes another perfect case for video conferencing.

Interesting applications of Video Conferencing
Besides saving time and money in travel for business meetings, many other
interesting applications of video conferencing have also emerged. One of them is
the famous tele-justice project, a video conferencing deployment by Polycom in
Indian jails and district courts. This has cut down on the transport expenses
(fuel + manpower) associated with taking the accused from jails to courts for
trial. It also reduces the security risk of transporting hard core criminals.
Then there are industrial uses of video conferencing, such as Tandberg’s
FieldView, a WiFi-based handheld video device that can be used for remote
inspection of sites, allowing on the spot troubleshooting.

The latest application being talked about is mobile video conferencing,
wherein you can be on the move and still be able to have a video conference with
others. So imagine being able to video conference with others from your phone
over a GPRS or 3G connection.

Let’s now look at the different video conferencing solutions that have
emerged to cater to all these requirements.

One size doesn’t fit all
Before implementing a video conferencing solution, remember that there’s no
single video conferencing solution that will fulfill every organization’s
requirements. For instance, a healthcare institute would use video conferencing
to provide remote diagnostics and tele-medicine services to remote areas. The
tele-medicine deployment at AIIMS is one such example, which is used to provide
medical training and consultation to over 100 locations across the country.

A manufacturing company on the other hand, could use it to monitor production
machinery, or for sharing blueprints of an engineering prototype. Here, the
customer could be sitting abroad, the production plant could be in a remote
area, and the marketing and sales office could be in another area. This would
make it impossible to hold a meeting between sales, customer, and
production/engineering representatives. So, a multi-point video conferencing
solution is the best option. Moreover, the customer might want to suggest a few
changes in the blueprint, so real-time solution collaboration would also be
required.

Likewise, a financial institute might need to keep all branches up to date on
the latest banking schemes and changes in govt. policies. Perhaps the bank’s MD
wants to always remain in touch with all his key bank managers across the
country. With so many branches, travelling to each one, or bringing all
executives in one place would be extremely difficult, time consuming, and
expensive.

Likewise, an educational institute might use video conferencing to provide
remote education to students. Many institutes are already using video
conferencing to host virtual classrooms for their distant learning programs.
Others are recording lessons and streaming them over the Internet for students,
who could be sitting around the world.

As you can see, the video conferencing requirements are completely different
industries for each industry we talked of. So it’s not possible to have one
solution for every one.


Tele-Presence in Action
Left Notice the conference table
on both sides. It appears as if the virtual and real tables combine to form
one table. Right: The camera placement is such that when one person talks,
everyone turns to him or her.

Key elements in a video conferencing solution
Simply speaking, a video conferencing system comprises of a microphone, camera,
display unit, speakers, and a codec. As simple as it sounds, the deployment
isn’t as simple, because there are lots of choices available for each component.
All components could be fitted into one standalone unit, a laptop, mobile phone,
or even be available as separate units. You decide what you want depending upon
your requirements. If it’s an immersive experience you need, where you feel as
if you’re sitting face to face with the person at the remote location, then you
need a high-definition video conferencing solution. This would require a
high-definition camera, a large screen, surround sound speakers, and oodles of
bandwidth.

But if it’s just a face you want to see, purely for eye-contact, then a
desktop with a webcam and codec are all you need. All other video conferencing
solutions fit between these extremes. Let’s look at the different options that
are available:

Simple Desktop video conferencing: This solution comprises of a web
cam and a software codec installed on a PC or laptop. Most laptops today come
with a built-in webcam. This solution is of course, purely IP based. You could
use it while on the move, but don’t expect great video quality because of codec
quality and inconsistent bandwidth.

Dedicated Standalone Unit: These are dedicated units, complete with
all video conferencing elements like LCD TV, camera, microphone, etc. These are
costlier, but provide better quality. You could use them in a small office, or
even out of home, because they’re small and portable.

Group Video Conferencing: The equipment needed here would be
individual cameras, screens, microphones, all connected to a MCU (multipoint
control unit). The numbers and type of each depends upon the size of the meeting
room, the number of locations that need to be connected, and the quality of
conference that’s required. This sort of a solution is suitable for conference
rooms, boardrooms, etc.

Web Conferencing: If you need to go beyond face to face meetings and
into sharing data like presentations, engineering blueprints, etc, then a
web-based meeting is the best option. Multiple people can join into the meeting
with their laptops and webcams. Due to this, you don’t need to invest in any
equipment. All you need is bandwidth, and even the requirement for that is not
very high. There are many online collaboration sites that provide this service.
Web-Ex for instance is a well-known solution in this domain.

Deploying Tele-Presence
This is actually a group video conferencing system, ideal for the boardroom of a
large enterprise, but we’ve kept it as a separate category because it’s suddenly
started gaining momentum in the market. Tele-presence is the ability to have
life-like images of the remote locations right into your meeting room, on the
other side of the table. A tele-presence solution comprises of very large
displays that produce life-like images of the person sitting at the remote
location. Images will be captured using high-definition cameras, which will be
strategically placed to create the appearance of direct eye contact. This, along
with surround sound speakers will make you almost feel as if you’re sitting face
to face with all others in the conference.

One key point to remember while deploying tele-presence is that it’s supposed
to give you the impression of a face-to-face meeting. It’s the experience you
get from such a solution that really matters, and you have to ensure that the
solution you deploy provides you that experience. So many finer points need to
be looked into while deploying a tele-presence solution. One is the quality of
cameras and their placing. They should be placed so as to give you the
impression of eye contact. It should not appear that anybody is looking at the
camera. The cameras must be able to follow the sound, so the moment anybody
speaks, then the cameras need to focus on that person.

If you really want to get the feeling of sitting face to face with somebody,
then the meeting room environments of both areas have to look similar. A tele-presence
system should be able to provide you this kind of a setup.

Another very critical part of a tele-presence solution is ease of use.
Remember, it’s a company’s top brass that would be using it, and they don’t have
time to toil with the technicalities of a technology.

Deploying high-definition video conferencing
Another rising star is high-definition video conferencing, which provides much
better quality than conventional video conferencing. As the name implies,
high-definition video conferencing provides much better visual quality than
standard definition. So while a SDVC setup would provide a resolution of 480p or
640×480, an HDVC setup can offer 720p or 1280 x 720 resolution, leading to far
better quality. You obviously need high-definition equipment in a tele-presence
deployment, but you can also use it otherwise. Benefits of high-definition are
quite obvious. As you use larger screens, the image quality of standard
definition is likely to distort because you’re basically ‘stretching’ a lower
resolution picture on a higher resolution screen. But with high-definition this
doesn’t happen, thereby giving you excellent picture quality.

While there can be many applications for it, one interesting application is
for conducting remote operations. The objective of using high-definition is that
the patient should be able to see the expressions on the doctor’s face during
the operation. This instills confidence in the patient’s mind for the doctor.

How much bandwidth?
Bandwidth plays a critical role in any video conferencing system. You might have
spent a bomb on the video conferencing solution, but if you haven’t provisioned
for sufficient bandwidth, then your deployment will just not succeed. Since
video conferencing is about the ability to have a face-to-face meeting, you
can’t afford to have connection difficulties, poor image quality, jitters,
dropped calls, etc. These will dissuade anybody from using the video
conferencing system, and people would resort back to phone calls or personal
meetings.

So the question obviously is-how much bandwidth? For a conventional video
conferencing solution, you need 384 kbps bandwidth for a full-screen, jitter
free video conference. Similarly, high definition video conferencing would
require at least 1 Mbps, while tele presence requires 15-20 Mbps. Not only that,
video conferencing traffic is also delay sensitive; so you need to configure QoS
policies on your network. In case of tele-presence, you need to even check your
service provider’s network and ensure it’s able to handle the load.

What to expect in future?
On the technology front, you can already get a feel of a face-to-face meeting
thanks to tele-presence. The only thing that’s left now is to convert the
high-definition image into a 3D one. Holographic displays are the answer to
this, which actually create a 3D image of a person. This technology is of course
still far from being commercially deployed for video conferencing, but given the
pace at which things are moving, you never know.

Other developments in video conferencing include integration with unified
communication, and moving away from the H.323 standard to SIP. Currently video
conferencing is still considered to be an overlay network, but in the near
future, it will form a part of the IP network, and you’ll have to enforce strong
QoS policies to ensure good quality video conferencing.

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