I’ve been covering video conferencing (now often called “telepresence”) products since the late 80s and saw my first offering in the mid-60s as a child at Disneyland. Over the years, product wave after product wave has come to market with the promise of the next big thing in telecommunications only to fail to meet even reasonable expectations for deployment in a market where users are measured in billions.
Andy Grove, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, referred to Intel’s axed video conferencing effort as his biggest mistake while running that company. We have laptops, tablets and, most recently, smartphones capable of video conferencing, but only a tiny percentage use them for it, and even fewer do so regularly. It isn’t technology, availability or cost that is the problem — it is people, and I’d like to explore that this week.
I was briefed on what may be the best video conferencing system in the world recently — a product called Vidyo, which got me thinking about this. So, with some irony, it will be my product of the week.
Video Conferencing to Telepresence: a Brief History
AT&T first showcased video conferencing in the middle of the last century. It was incredibly impractical because networks weren’t yet digital, but you could walk into a booth at Disneyland and talk to someone in another booth and see that person on a camera. Granted, since the booths were next to each other it wasn’t that stunning as a communications technology, but everyone seemed to agree it was the near-term future. It was crafted into Disney’s home of the future and written into the “The Jetsons” (predecessor to “Futurama”).
Jump ahead to the late 80s, when there was a wave of room conferencing system companies. They proliferated like rabbits during the 90s and then largely vanished into Polycom by the beginning of this century. The promise of saved travel expenses was replaced by the image of little-used rooms full of largely nonfunctioning hardware that was never used (and to my recollection rarely dusted).
Last decade, we saw the birth of HD video conferencing systems because hardware makers figured that the problem was that we couldn’t see each other clearly enough. They did address some of the more troubling aspects — like the fact it took a near graduate degree to operate some of the older systems — but one known problem remained.
The systems largely wouldn’t interoperate. This interoperability issue kept them from being used for anything but in-company meetings — and given the good ones cost upwards of half a million dollars, this meant that small remote offices and home workers (Jerry Seinfeld had one) generally couldn’t afford them.
The systems were used more, but video conferencing didn’t even look like it was getting close to critical mass. This year HP — which had one of the best systems — exited the market. It sold its solution to Polycom, which has kind of become the great video conferencing system graveyard.
The big problem that no one seems to want to address is that we generally don’t like conversing for long looking someone else in the eye. Try this: Sit across a table and look right at someone for an extended period of time while working with them. We had an exercise in college that put students together this way to emphasize human interaction. Generally, particularly for guys, this is not only uncomfortable, but also leads to confrontational behavior. It is OK for a few minutes — but for longer meetings, you have this increasing feeling of discomfort.
I think this response can be unlearned, but I also think this is why people generally need to be forced to use these systems.
Where It’s Successful
The real test is whether people just use these systems naturally when given the choice, and most don’t. Even though airline travel is anything but fun these days, it is generally preferable to using a video conferencing room based on employee behavior. How companies get folks to use the system is to restrict air travel and force the rooms as the only option for in-face meetings that otherwise would involve travel.
The clue that most seem to have missed is that people generally have to be forced to use the systems, and that wasn’t the case with phones or audio conference room systems. It isn’t that people don’t want to talk to each other — it is that they don’t like to stare at each other for long periods of time.
Over the years, other problems have become evident as well. The folks who are remote have the greatest affinity for a video solution, but what they need is to feel they can see into a meeting without being a head on a screen where folks focus their attention.
In short, they want to feel like they are part of the meeting but not the presentation themselves. Desktop users worry that executives are using desktop video systems to watch them in secret, and women generally feel very uncomfortable that someone can see their face before they’ve had a chance to check their makeup.
Oh, I’m not making this up — we did a ton of surveys over a period of about 10 years as to why this stuff wasn’t being used, and these are the things that came up.
Wrapping Up: Lessons Learned
Understanding human interaction isn’t easy. We tend to be complex and very different. The reason we aren’t doing video conferencing calls regularly is partially because these systems don’t interoperate, but it is mostly because these systems don’t embrace the way we actually like to communicate.
One final thought: If you look at how this is implemented, even by Apple on smartphones, the focus is on the camera looking at the speaker rather than the camera looking at what the speaker is seeing — the vastly more interesting subject matter. I mean wouldn’t you rather see a vista than a wobbly close up of someone’s nose hairs?
The most interesting test I’ve seen recently was when Marvell took a 65-inch HDTV, stood it on its edge on the floor, put a camera on the upper edge, and made it a video conferencing demo. This allowed people to chat like they would in a hallway. It seemed to shorten the conversations, and it also seemed vastly more natural for both speakers and for teachers.
Something to ponder this week as we see our retirement funds melt down.
Product of the Week: Vidyo
Every few years, I pick what I think is the best video conferencing product in the market; this time, Vidyo wins by a mile. Part of the reason is massive scalability, starting with a PC client at the low end and graduating up to systems that can have nine screens. This last is particularly interesting, because HDTVs are relatively cheap, and while some of the systems use proprietary TVs costing upwards of US$30K, Vidyo uses off-the-shelf HDTVs.
The system engages through email. You send emails out and folks click on the links, which can be put into calendars to enable the session, making it very easy to use.
If you were wondering about the 9+ screen part, this is particularly useful for department meetings where the employees are remote, because each employee gets a screen. Typical three-screen high end systems are limited to three people. Anything more than that puts the extras on an audio-only call.
Vidyo’s highest-end system, the Panorama, goes up to 20 screens and costs $40K — which is still a fraction of what most systems in its class cost, and it doesn’t require a dedicated network.
Vidyo is currently working to put the client on tablets and smartphones. Hey, I’ve been traveling all week, and if telepresence/video conferencing systems ever take off, my tired butt will stay at home more often. The Vidyo system is the best yet, and it’s a great candidate for my product of the week.
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