Watch Those Calls

VTC Part I

by Will Rourk

JaneFor those of us fortunate enough to grow up watching The Jetsons on Saturday mornings, we all laughed at George and Jane as they stumbled through dilemmas that the fictional life of the future brought them. But little did we realize the foretelling of actual technologies that were yet to come. In one classic episode Jane, his wife, had to don her “morning mask” while answering an early morning call on the Jetsons’ videophone because she hadn’t quite gotten herself ready to present herself to the public … on her phone! Here in the real future world, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Jetsons’ videophone, where face to face conversations are now the norm with the advent of video tele-conferencing or VTC.

Tele-conferencing solutions are in abundance these days and span a wide range of devices and services. On the least expensive end there are options that are nearly free or at least will practically cost you pennies to connect you to anyone in the world. If you were on a Macintosh in the early 2000s you probably used iChat for video chat communications with your other Mac-a-philic colleagues. Now better tools from Apple have evolved to provide communications across device platforms like Face Time which allows connections between iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers so that face-to-face meetings can take place anywhere you go.

But then, you don’t have to be tied to any one operating system when we have solutions from other third party tools like Google Voice, which will work on just about any Web browser on just about any computing device including mobile. It’s free for anyone with a Google account, which is free as well, and with any account, Google gives you a real live phone number, which was next to impossible to get without a two-year contract to a phone service provider prior to public access to Voice.

Then there’s Skype, which at one time was well known as the tool for calling your long lost relatives on the other side of the world for a few mere pesos. Now Skype is a full-blown VTC solution for allowing high-definition audio/video connections as well as the ability to share documents and presentations to other Skype clients. And now that most laptops and mobile devices come equipped with cameras, you have more freedom to make face-to-face contact with anyone in the world.

telepresenceAt the high end of the VTC spectrum there’s telepresence. Telepresence is the “Cadillac of VTC.” It’s not just software and hardware but a total “environment” dedicated to video telecommunications. Telepresence communications are currently being championed by Cisco Systems Inc, one of the top 3 companies in VTC solutions along with Polycom and Lifesize Communications. Cisco designs telepresence rooms that are much like a standard boardroom meeting space, except that one of the walls is composed of high resolution, large scale monitors. Separate telepresence rooms share a coincident design layout so that when connected to another telepresence room, the image on the monitors exactly reflects and virtually extends the space in the current room. This gives the illusion that the participants are actually in the same room with you though they may be thousands of miles away. A high speed dedicated network connects telepresence facilities to allow for meetings to occur in high definition audio and video.

Telepresence goes beyond mere face-to-face/one-to-one communications by including visual and audio contact with all participants involved in a meeting and presents them as full bodied participants, not just talking heads. As Sara Jones, Account Manager for Cisco informs us, “TelePresence is very useful for developing client relationships, particularly with those who do not reside in the same geographical region. TelePresence and WebEx enable you to have several meetings with key partners from different locations in one day.”

The Cisco TelePresence solution is not necessarily confined to an immersive video room. With Cisco’s WebEx solution anyone can connect to a TelePresence session via desktop, laptop or mobile device. As Jones explains, WebEx and TelePresence “…are great for people who are mobile and/or travel frequently, but still need to participate in a meeting as if they were there in-person. It’s also perfect for people who are geographically dispersed. For instance the team I work with is spread out over Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC; and because of this it is often difficult for us to be in one location for trainings or meetings. WebEx is great because it allows us to actively participate in the meetings without physically being there.”

But if VTC technologies can be so cheap why would anyone consider an expensive alternative? What do higher end technologies provide that nearly free services don’t? To answer that we can look to A/V experts who install and maintain these systems like Bryan Lewis, Enterprise and Instructional Technology VP for Mediatech, Inc., a company that is actively engaged in researching and designing advanced presentation systems for academic institutions and private businesses.

Lewis explains that with inexpensive VTC technologies “local connections will look great, but over distance that quality decreases over public networks. Systems like telepresence use dedicated delivery networks to prioritize information. There is lossiness in communications information across the country from coast to coast. When there are drops in communication attention span decreases dramatically. The solution is to use a local service provider with dedicated networks.”

skypeVTC solutions like Skype and Google Voice use public Internet services as their mode of connection. Public lines are susceptible to slow network connections since everyone in the world is using them. So a quality connection with your client might not be insured on a non-dedicated line. Communications via telepresence or other services hosted over a dedicated, non-public network may ensure that you don’t lose contact in the middle of an important presentation.

In today’s tight economy video tele-conferencing is quickly becoming recognized as an affordable and effective way to communicate with your clients and colleagues. The biggest cost saving effects are of course those that involve travel expenses. Video teleconferencing is the next best thing to an actual meeting by providing a stronger relational means of communication with your constituents since participants are directly presented visually and audibly, as opposed to an impersonal phone call or e-mail. By obviating the need to travel and expend time, money, and especially fuel, VTC technology is recognized as a green method of conducting business by reducing the impact of travel on the environment.

In “The Telepresence Revolution,” released by The Carbon Disclosure Project in 2010, researchers found that for large-scale businesses, video teleconferencing solutions potentially have an enormous impact on reducing a carbon footprint by 25 percent while generating an ROI of 77-80 percent. In a nutshell their findings state that: “Telepresence delivers payback in 15 months and cuts 401 metric tons of CO2 in 1 year.” Although these results are for large corporate businesses the benefits scale to all sizes of offices as long as design of an effective VTC setup is taken into consideration.

Just as a high-end tele-presence room is designed for the ultimate video communications experience, so must any space be considered when designing for effective communications to take place. Again, Brian Lewis explains that when designing a VTC system for any size office, “we figure out scenarios for communications and design around that, starting with sound, then go to display, then go to video to find out the basic-use cases, who the audiences are, and where they are and then figure out the spatial needs for a particular office.”

For example, when considering an optimal environment for VTC communications, Lewis says that “your background needs to be consistent and minimal to maybe only include a banner or company logo so that you can maintain eye contact with a person on the other end without distraction of location.”

Psychology and the role of communication participants are key to designing an effective space. A paper entitled “More than Face-to-Face: Empathy Effects of Video Framing,” delivered in 2009 by researchers David T. Nguyen of Accenture Technology Labs and John Canny of The Berkeley Institute of Design, outlines important nonverbal communication cues such as facial expression, gaze, posture, gesture, and proxemics in determining a proper video teleconferencing set up.

Nguyen and Canny stress the importance of full-body or at least an upper-body presentation of VTC participants to fulfill satisfaction of these cues. Mere face-to-face presentation could disregard important visual cues that are necessary for participants in any conversation to establish a suitable level of comprehension of the subject being discussed. The crux of their argument is that a mere face-to-face communication does not satisfy the need for trust in a conversation.


Body language clarifies communication.

Body language clarifies communication.

In their paper the authors state: “The trope of a ‘face-to-face meeting’ may be to blame for the emphasis on head-only video in the design of video conferencing systems. The trope is quite misleading: humans rarely, if ever, have head-only encounters. Body language plays a major role with in-person encounters. Empathy also plays a role in the satisfaction of relationships. Upper-body framing improves empathy measures.” They recognize that older VTC systems that only focus on the face to face communications presented on smaller screens may decrease reliability of trust in a conversation, and that larger screen displays combined with better audio and video technologies can dramatically increase the potential for a more productive conversation.

You know your client and your employees better than anyone else. It’s up to you to decide when face-to-face is socially important and when to use VTC. VTC does not necessarily need to replace face-to-face communication but it can augment discussions in a more productive manner by inexpensively bridging distances and saving your office time to connect with your constituents. Just don’t forget your “morning mask” for those important early morning calls.

Will Rourk is a digital media specialist with the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia.

Connect to VTC Part II.

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