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Mon 17 Dec 2007 12:20 PM

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Virtually there

Video conferencing is an increasingly viable option in a globalised marketplace. Laura Collacott looks at some of the cutting edge technology available.

Isn't anyone going to say ‘wow'?" asked the Polycom team as they demonstrated the RPX High Definition (HD) video conference solution. But what they mistook for indifference was in fact a stunned silence.

Video conferencing technology has come a long way since its initial inception and culminates (in the case of Polycom) in the RPX HD product. In this specially-installed room, users can talk at a normal volume to a life-sized projection of another user, anywhere else in the world. It is almost like being in a meeting. High definition sound quality in combination with high definition video avoids any miscommunications. Two cameras have been carefully positioned in the middle of the screen so that eye contact is practically maintained between the remote speakers.

If organisations can minimise the amount of time spent travelling for meetings...they can can drastically improve their productivity.

If making a presentation, one of the two screens can be used to project a powerpoint presentation to all delegates. Smaller screens have been integrated into the desk for viewing files and images more closely. The features of the equipment are too numerous to mention but it has been designed meticulously to cater for established customer preferences at the same time as providing a flexible solution for future needs.

Polycom make a range of products that can also be integrated into a conference or used in their own right. Many devices can be called into a meeting, from a standard 3G phone to a personal computer to a portable suitcase-sized unit. At the touch of a button (or through the operator service available), representatives on the move or scattered around the world can contribute their knowledge or opinion to a meeting.

The RPX HD does not come cheap, costing in excess of US$300,000 per unit and to make full use of the conferencing facility a company would need to purchase at least two. It is a significant investment but one that many organisations are now seeing the advantages of.

Today, if an executive is travelling from London to Paris for a meeting, they can lose three hours of their working day. They can work on the move using Blackberrys and laptops but they will not work as well as they would in an office environment. Extrapolate this for further flung trips and you have days potentially wasted.

It is not just when travelling to foreign countries that time can be lost; Polycom tell of one customer who has offices on opposite sides of Cairo. His staff were spending so much time sitting in traffic as they tried to cross the city to reach the other office that as soon as he saw the RPX HD solution, he snapped it up.

Examples like these show where the key benefit of high quality video conferencing lie. Business is no longer bounded by national borders and often survives on a diet of international trade. Those working in multi-national companies need to travel to reach the source of their trade but this takes valuable time. If organisations can minimise the amount of time spent travelling for meetings that do not need to be face-to-face, they can drastically improve their productivity and efficiency.

These two buzz words are vital considerations in order to stay competitive today and are coming to the attention of a growing number of businesses as they look to rationalise their operations and develop trade further. An abundance of traffic on the roads, flexible working conditions (including working from home) and environmental concerns associated with transport have popularised alternative working practices. Even former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, mentioned video conferencing in a recent address to the World Business Forum. As the least-travelled US Secretary of State in 30 years, video conferencing could well explain how he remained effective.

Polycom has defined several factors that comprise a high performance workplace: good communications, agility and ability to respond, fast decision-making, collaborative decisions and a flattened organisational structure. Companies that install video conferencing can use the technology to improve their operations on each of these fronts. At the touch of a button, employees across the globe can ‘meet', discuss issues and come to swift decisions without wasting time and resources travelling to meetings. Telephone conferencing has been around for some time but video conferencing, especially high definition technology, offers something more. Where on the ‘phone it can be difficult to judge someone's true reaction and opinion just from the words and tone used, a real-time image removes this issue and allows participants to get a real sense of the meeting's objectives and outcomes.

However, it should be acknowledged that good though virtual meetings may be, they do not render a face-to-face meeting obsolete. Forging new relationships and rapport with clients can only successfully be done by truly engaging with them in person. Some business decisions are too important to conduct in an online environment. In actual fact, the introduction of this technology to corporations has done little to reduce the amount of trips executives make. What it has done is increase the frequency of meetings and so impacted on the speed of decision-making and company efficiency.

Interestingly, in the Middle East market it has not only been business players who have taken up the technology. Education and health services make up around 30% of sales in this region. With a fast-growing population, the region can be prone to a paucity of trained professionals in both these sectors. Video conferencing allows lecturers to teach classes in a number of different locations simultaneously, spreading their knowledge to a greater number of students. This has reportedly been especially useful in countries like Saudi Arabia where teaching staff in all-girls' schools are exclusively female. Authorities struggle to recruit enough female teachers, so installing a video solution allows the female teachers available to teach more girls and also for male academics to use a one-way system to teach virtually.

The healthcare sector also faces a lack of trained professionals. Similarly, video conferencing allows the diffusion of expertise to a greater number of healthcare workers which is especially aided by the high-resolution file transfer facility. Even in the operating theatre doctors can take footage of a problematic manoeuvre and get remote instructions to allow them to complete the procedure.

The capacity to communicate so effectively with colleagues and peers worldwide has unfathomable potential. Competitive companies in the modern economy that have not already taken up video conferencing will surely not be long in joining the virtual revolution.

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