In recent years cost-effective broadband connections, inexpensive cameras and enhanced processing power have made videoconferencing a reality. So much so that anyone can now buy a webcam, plug it into his or her PC and, using readily available software such as AOL Instant Messenger, conduct a video conference with a suitably equipped colleague.
So why would anyone want to pay thousands of euro for a videoconferencing system? The answer is summed up in three words: functionality, quality and versatility. The desktop systems mentioned above may be cheap, but they are short on functions. The webcams are typically fixed focus: they are fixed in one direction and are suitable only for ‘talking heads’-type conferences. Also the number of participants is limited.
And the same technological advances that have made desktop videoconferencing a reality have also allowed higher-end systems to offer a much better service. Eircom believes there is a market for these high-end videoconferencing and has recently launched IP Videoconferencing.
IP Videoconferencing uses internet protocols and Eircom’s IP Videoconferencing product uses its business IP+ network. This is a dedicated IP network that uses the same protocols as the internet but is separate from it and is managed by Eircom. In theory, this means higher connection speeds, improved ease of use and better-quality pictures. But how does this translate into practice? The short answer is very well. According to Seán Loughman, head of innovation at Eircom, last year sales of IP Videoconferencing equipment outstripped ISDN-based equipment for the first time.
“The idea is people already have the infrastructure in place. They have the connectivity and we are now saying you can run videoconferencing over your existing connectivity,” he says. “What they need to do is upgrade to premium-class service. Our network prioritises videoconferencing traffic so that it will operate in real-time. We also offer network-based bridging so that means you can have three, 10 or 12 sites calling into a bridge and seeing all the other users without having to invest in bridging technology.
This interview with Loughman was conducted over Eircom’s IP Videoconferencing with Silicon Republic in its St Stephen’s Green head office and Loughman at another location.
Setting up the call was easy. As part of the managed service, Eircom hosts an address book or directory that clients can access once they are logged in. To make a call, users simply choose the name from the directory using a remote control handset and connection is almost instantaneous. Once connected, the user can control the system from the remote control. For instance, if the appropriate hardware is installed, the user can switch cameras, zoom in or out and swivel the camera. A user can also take control of the camera at the other end of the conference.
The system can also be integrated with scheduling software such as Lotus Notes or Outlook. A user can schedule a video conference in advance and not only will they get a reminder, but the system will automatically establish a connection.
Other functions include the ability to run presentations from a PC over the conference connection and the ability to select different screen arrangements for multi-party conferences. The system can be configured to recognise who is speaking and to switch from a multiple picture-in-picture view to a full-screen image of the speaker.
Hardware prices start at approximately €7,000 for a single LCD system with fixed-position, zoom camera. This includes all of the software.
To conclude, while desktop videoconferencing systems may be fine for person-to-person conferences, Eircom’s IP Videoconferencing service will appeal to large corporates that want to conduct meetings with large numbers of people or distance educators that wish to conduct classes online.
By David Stewart