Video conferencing gets a Halo

If your customer is interested in a video conferencing solution, well, the sky is the limit.

Today video conferencing solutions are as cheap as a $30 Webcam run on a Hotmail account. For about $100 that same Webcam can be Web-based, if you can live with jittery video and poor audio quality.

At the other end of the scale is the recently released Halo Collaboration Studio from Hewlett-Packard in association with DreamWorks Animation SKG.

At US$550,000 per Halo studio, people in different locations are able to communicate in a vivid, face-to-face environment in real time regardless of distance, said Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice-president of HP’s Imaging and Printing Group.

For Halo to work, companies must purchase at least two six-person Halo rooms, which will also cost US$18,000 per year to service and maintain.

“I travel 50 per cent of the time from San Francisco to London. That’s 11 hours for a two-hour meeting, and then I go back. I lost a lot of hours. This is not just financial, but the wear and tear on the executive is harsh even if you are flying on a corporate jet,” Joshi said.

Halo was not conceived as an executive-saving machine. Companies such as PepsiCo, AMD and DreamWorks have purchased Halo rooms initially so they can collaborate better. Halo enables people to share documents and data directly from their notebooks with others using a collaboration screen mounted above the plasma displays. The rooms also contain a high-magnification camera that enables individuals to zoom in on objects on a table, revealing the finest of details and colour shading.

Video conferencing’s past
According to Joshi, video conferencing does not work in a face-to-face conference approach. “There’s no conversation. It is a monologue,” he said.

Taxing set-up, reliability problems and image latency all led to video conferencing’s near death 10 years ago.

Back then, companies such as PictureTel and Intel made big splashes with video conferencing solutions.

Intel is no longer in the video conferencing business. The remnants of its Proshare offering were transferred to Microsoft for its NetMeeting application.

After slugging it out for a decade, PictureTel allowed itself to be acquired by Polycom, a PC video communications architecture vendor in 2001.

The market for video conferencing was also plagued by the quality of the video.

Performance was another issue as most machines running video conferencing in those days were Pentium PCs. “Doing video on today’s machines is not a strenuous task. It all conspired against video conferencing, but today kids are doing video conferencing every day with Internet Messaging. It’s not the quality of a Halo, but the argument is, will better quality video mean more businesses using it?” Cooper believes they will.

HP believes in the technology enough that it has 13 Halo rooms around its offices worldwide, Joshi said. And, HP’s travel expenses have decreased by two per cent.

“You get quality of life,” Joshi said. “People who spend three days a week on the road can take it down to two days a week and still maintain the same level of productivity,” he said.

Video conferencing is making a comeback. Gartner Group said by 2007, 80 per cent of enterprise communications purchases will require support for unified communications.

Don Conaby, president of Oshawa, Ont.-based solution provider Conpute, said he has seen an increased interest in video conferencing. “I would say in the last 12 months it started to become a mainstream concern,” he said.

Before that, video conferencing was a specialty play requiring a dedicated TI or ISDN connection.

Today, Conaby sees two types of video conferencing customer: One wants a professional system with huge bandwidth. The other is looking for a low-cost collaboration tool.

“There is a huge market for a more distributed video conferencing environment,” said Conaby. “There are smaller parties out there of four or five users gathered around a notebook. This is more of an SMB target.”

A product such as Mitel Network’s Your Assistant is the type of collaboration tool that SMBs can implement for less than $4,000.

VoIP credited
Credit for the turnaround in this market, Conaby believes, is voice over IP. “VoIP is more accepted,” he said, because the sound quality has improved.

Conaby does not believe Conpute will ever carry the US$550,000 Halo product, even if HP is willing to finance it so that customers only pay US$30,000 per month on a 48-month plan.

Conpute’s focus is on SMB. But, in that space Conaby said there are $100,000 video conferencing solutions, such as Mitel’s VCon, that are enterprise-class.

It may have taken more than a decade but video conferencing is viable today, Cooper said.

Cost and communications issues have been solved. Every customer can afford a video conferencing system of some kind. “You have to ask yourself what is essential to the task,” said Cooper. “Video will be part of how one communicates with a handset or desktop. And, with performance over the link to an end point being almost free, you can imagine a situation where you connect with a person and you see them. A lot of this is being pioneered with IM even if you don’t want video you get a picture of what you want them to see.”

Cooper added that not many years ago a picture on a cell phone was a ludicrous idea.

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Paolo Del Nibletto
Paolo Del Nibletto
Former editor of Computer Dealer News, covering Canada's IT channel community.

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