The first round of layoffs has taken hold, your annual bonus seems like a cruel joke, and travel is off-limits. So how are you going to give your presentation next week in Omaha to show off your company's upcoming products to your biggest customer?
I have one word for you: videoconferencing. By combining video and audio over the Internet, businesspeople can present ideas and work together digitally. In other words, it's time to collaborate and interact with people across the planet without leaving the office.
“As travel gets squeezed out of budgets, videoconferences are increasingly becoming the way business is being done,” explains Roopam Jain, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “It can provide face time without getting in the way of working.”
In fact, videoconferencing is already having an effect on business. Rip Curl, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based maker of surfing equipment, conducts video calls so that its designers, marketers, and manufacturers can collaborate on new products. 1-800-Flowers.com conducts video meetings to make sure that seasonal employees can consistently create its most elaborate holiday decorations. Executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International conducts video interviews to screen potential candidates before presenting them to clients.
In the past, videoconferencing wasn't much of an alternative. Desktop videoconferencing systems rightfully got a black eye for choppy video, out-of-sync audio, and a lack of reliability. The only way to conduct a high-quality videoconference was to use a dedicated video room that required an investment upward of $100,000, or rental fees between $500 and $1,000 an hour.
Today's videoconferencing services have improved to the point where they can give the dedicated rooms a run for their money. These services provide the ability to talk face-to-face with someone across town or across the globe, share documents and make annotations, at a fraction the cost of a dedicated video room.
It helps that most current desktop and notebook computers have sufficient power for decent videoconferencing. Obviously, the machine needs to have video camera, audio and reasonably up-to-date graphics, but these are becoming standard on even the cheapest notebooks these days.
A 50Kbps or 100Kbps Internet connection is adequate. This allows the peripatetic among us to use a Wi-Fi connection at a hotel or cafe and even a cell-network data card to connect.
To get a handle on the state of the art of videoconferencing services, I signed up for three business services that let people talk, see one another, interact and exchange ideas online: SightSpeed Business, InterCall Genesys Meeting Center, and WebEx Meeting Center. They all put businesspeople face to face and offer the ability to collaborate with each other. They differ, however, on price, how easy they are to use and the quality of the video they display.
InterCall Genesys Meeting Center
By integrating the ability to view each participant while sharing any application with the group, InterCall's Genesys Meeting Center points the way to a future where we won't have to travel as much. Unfortunately, Meeting Center sells for three times what the other products go for.
To get started, Genesys requires that you download and install a 14MB application. It takes about 10 minutes to load, set up, and be ready to make your first video call, but the software is only for PCs, not Macs or Linux computers like the others are. Non-PC conference participants can view the action via any up-to-date browser, but they can't be seen by the conference's other participants.
Once the software is installed, Genesys adds buttons to Microsoft Outlook and Messenger as well as Lotus Notes for setting up a conference, making it the quickest and easiest in this roundup for getting a videoconference started.
However, it doesn't set up the system's hardware as completely as SightSpeed does — you'll need to tell the application where your camera is, as well as adjust parameters such as frame rate and resolution to suit your circumstances.
A Genesys videoconference starts with a traditional phone call, with either the host calling in or the server automatically calling the host. Other participants can use VoIP for audio. There's no limit to the number of conference participants, but you can see only nine at a time.
As host, you can choose to open with a rather bland welcome screen or a presentation. After that, you can advance slides and annotate them with excellent tools, including lines and symbols. In testing, there was a slight delay between the actual annotation and the broadcast, and the movement of the pen or cursor was not as smooth as it was with WebEx.
Unfortunately, while Genesys excels in application sharing, its video is from the Dark Ages. The best it can do is about 10 frames per second; at times during testing, it displayed no better than 3 or 4 frames per second. The video is restricted to a small window, and you can't see both sending and receiving videos at once, a feature that's available on SightSpeed and WebEx.
Genesys has a polling feature and a mute button; however, you can't freeze the video or put up a gray screen to protect your privacy. Unlike SightSpeed, you can't have a video chat with a support technician, although the company's support hot line is open 24 hours a day.
Genesys was not only able to work on wired and Wi-Fi connections but did well with a cell-network data connection. The most expensive of the three, it costs $75 a month to use, although that comes down to $50 a month if a company buys 50 subscriptions. You can also set up conferences on the fly for 35 cents per minute. A 15-day free trial is available.
All told, Genesys Meeting Center lives up to its name by providing a place to support interaction and collaboration, but it falls short on video quality.
The newest of the three services, SightSpeed Business has been designed from the ground up to deliver top-quality video — and makes the most of it with an incredibly easy interface that puts everything needed at your fingertips. While it provides the user with a variety of video features, SightSpeed doesn't allow participants to share what's on their desktops, but they can send files in the background that can be run locally.
Compatible with Windows and Mac systems, the SightSpeed application takes about five minutes to download and install. (Linux users can attend conferences via a Web browser.) After setup, the program searches your system, locates the webcam and optimizes its own settings for the hardware at hand.
If you don't like the result, you can manually tweak all the settings. At any time, you can type Control-S to see statistics like frames per second, resolution and bandwidth, which are excellent for optimizing the video or troubleshooting a problem.
While WebEx and Genesys hide some major functions in a traditional Windows menu structure (it can take three or more mouse clicks to get to them), SightSpeed places them on buttons right out in front where you can't miss them. For example, it takes only one click to record a videoconference, while the others require you to wade through a traditional menu structure.
My favorite feature is SightSpeed's address book, which has photos of all your contacts. Just click on the camera icon, and you're making a call; alternatively, you can set up an audioconference or text chat, or send the person a video e-mail. At the bottom of the screen are controls for the current call, audio and video; at any time, you can mute the audio or freeze the video.
You can see up to nine participants at all times, along with an inset of the video your system is sending — something that Genesys' Meeting Center doesn't have. There is also a feature that lets the moderator take a poll of those connected.
The service can handle video at up to 640-by-480 resolution; it automatically scales back if your available bandwidth declines. During test conferences, the video was limited to roughly 320-by-240 resolution but still looked good, without any choppiness or out-of-sync audio. SightSpeed's video showed good color balance, although the image could get washed out by bright lights in the background.
There's a slight delay in switching from one participant to another, but the whole system worked surprisingly well, regardless of whether it was connected via a LAN cable, Wi-Fi or a cell-network data card.
If something goes wrong, SightSpeed has tech support people available from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Pacific) weekdays for a video chat. The other two videoconferencing services reviewed here have support personnel available 24/7 but rely on e-mail and phone calls to troubleshoot problems.
Logitech, the computer peripheral maker, recently bought SightSpeed, but the company says it has no plans to change the basic offering or pricing. At $20 for a monthly subscription, this service is cheap but limited in what it can do. You can cut that to $14 per seat if you buy 50 subscriptions. On top of video, SightSpeed offers inexpensive VoIP phone calls, and the monthly plan includes 500 minutes of talk time within the U.S. and Canada; after that, it costs 2 cents per minute.