The truth about people and cameras: Beware videoconferencing pitfalls

Thinking videoconferencing is plug-and-play could get you into hot water

With the rise in adoption and availability of enterprise videoconferencing systems comes a warning from IT pioneers: Thinking this technology is simply plug-and-play will lead to disaster.

"If you're going to spend all that money on videoconferencing -- especially HD, which isn't cheap -- don't cut corners. Otherwise, users will turn videoconferencing off and you'll do damage to your business," says Sergio Soto, videoconference technician supervisor at CoStar Group Inc., a commercial real estate information provider in Bethesda, Md.

Soto says IT teams should do their homework ahead of time and focus on all elements of building a broadcast-quality videoconferencing system, such as bandwidth allocation, traffic shaping and end-user training.

"You don't want to say to your users, 'Here's a camera and you might look fuzzy.' Instead, take the time to get the [broadcasting] room ready, determine the right lighting, make sure the sound is good and that you have enough bandwidth," Soto says.

No detail too small

In fact, according to Soto, who uses a blend of high-definition and standard videoconferencing technology to connect 3,000 CoStar workers in the U.S. and abroad, there are no details too small to consider. He found out early on that something as seemingly mundane as the color of a conference room wall can have a profound effect on the user experience.

"We noticed that the person on camera was getting washed out by the white walls and that the camera would start to focus on other things," he says. This distracted users and posed a threat to CoStar's significant investment in high-definition conferencing equipment. "We painted the walls a couple different colors before we settled on light blue," he says, adding that solid colors like green also work well.

Another lesson: Be careful with plasma TVs and videoconferencing. "While plasmas look very nice, you have to stretch the image, and the images can quickly get burnt in unless you turn the sets off every night," Soto says. Instead, he recommends LCD TVs, but they, too, come with trade-offs, he warns: "The screen images don't get burnt in, but they do have a little delay and less color."

An industry on the rise

While Soto might be ahead of the learning curve, a 2007 study by The Nemertes Research Group Inc. showed that the industry isn't far behind. Two-thirds of the respondents to the Nemertes study said that they had already deployed IP video to connect room-based systems. And almost 50% of them reported that they, like Soto, were evaluating or deploying high-definition and telepresence technology for those systems.

Nemertes credits this uptick in interest -- only 22% had room-based or desktop-based in 2005 -- to a growing comfort level with videoconferencing among business units. "There is a perceived value in the of use of video for group communications as people in group settings stay more focused on meetings when they know they are on camera. They're less likely to get distracted surfing the Web or checking e-mail while others are talking," says Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes.

Soto has seen the warming trend among his own users. "When we first started with videoconferencing a few years ago, we simply wanted a way to reduce travel costs for our sales team. Now we have developers and researchers on both coasts who use our videoconferencing rooms eight hours a day," he says.

Charles Shairs, senior special projects coordinator at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, has also seen a rise in interest in enterprise videoconferencing. In addition to his users, Shairs lets high school and area university students hook onto his IP network to attend classes.

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