Videoconferencing: The Best Way to Go

by Jim Hanks

When the economy slows, one of the first areas businesses mark for cutbacks is travel. But since companies also know that people would rather give business to a friend than to an e-mail correspondent, client meetings cannot be curtailed completely. This is a large part of why the videoconferencing market is performing so well today. Though you can't actually shake hands over a video connection, conferencing devices still let you imbue professional relationships with some personality.

Videoconferencing systems come in many shapes and formats. Some are inexpensive and have choppier transmissions. Others use dedicated lines. And high-end equipment can give you broadcasts that look no different from live news programs. In this article, I'm going to talk about the different technologies on the market and how each can help people with different needs.

Web cameras
If you have a teenager in the home, you probably already know a fair amount about these cameras. Transmitting over the web, these devices are excellent for people with limited budgets. Probably the easiest devices to set up, most web cams provide streaming video at about 15 frames per second. Because the speed is rather slow, you won't be able to see subtle changes in facial expressions, but you can definitely converse on a more personable level than you could on a telephone. Additionally, web cams often let you photograph and save snapshots. This allows you to e-mail documents or drawings.

One such web camera is the Logitech QuickCam Pro 3000. This fairly high-end web cam has a built-in microphone and is excellent for the occasional videoconferencer. And with a maximum resolution of 640x480 and a frame relay of up to 30 frames per second, PC and Mac owners can have acceptable conversations with anyone connected to the internet. The QuickCam also includes video and audio editing software that lets you create small films or claymation-style animation.

The price of a web camera can be anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on frame rate, features included, and on the manufacturer.

ISDN cameras
One main problem with web cams is that you are dependent on the internet and if your connection is down or traffic is heavy, your conversation will be anything but professional. It will surely be very, very frustrating.

Another option is to use a dedicated line for videoconferencing. The mm225 Videophone from Motion Media transmits information across high-speed ISDN lines. So not only will your connection be more reliable, the quality and speed of your video will be better, too. The Motion Media supports both H.324 and H.320 standards, allowing you to communicate with people using ISDN videophones.

While you are videoconferencing, the mm225 shows your participant as well as your own transmission (in a smaller inset picture). If you do not like the framing of either picture, you can adjust your cameras with keys on the videophone. The mm225's best feature, though, is its ability to support a VCR. So not only can you record phone conversations, you can also let others view videos without having to send them the tape.

Unfortunately, ISDN can be finicky and isn't as cost-efficient as other broadband options. As it stands, a large number of ISDN users are in areas where DSL or cable modem is not available.

Videoconferencing units
The best option for videoconferencing is to buy a videoconferencing unit. These units generally sit atop a television monitor and deliver very high-resolution pictures at real-time frame speeds.

Polycom manufactures an extensive array of videoconferencing units, and many of them can be ordered from the Hello Direct web site, HelloDirect.com. I've reviewed many of these Polycom videoconferencers for Hello Direct, from the models suited for smaller offices (ViaVideo™) to the more elaborate systems, as well.

TANDBERG is another very big name in video, and a few months back I reviewed one of their systems for Hello Direct, as well, the TANDBERG 1000. Hello Direct offers a variety of models for different needs, and these can be found in the Polycom Online Store. Within these presentations, you will find systems that can accommodate from 3 participants to more than 30.

Final thoughts
A very important consideration that I haven't mentioned yet is price. Though some of the models described above can be somewhat expensive, you should get more than your money back once you start using them. Because not only will you save on travel and hotel costs, if your videoconferencer is using your data lines or the internet, you won't incur telephone charges.

With the technology out there today, there's no reason you should be relying on just one of your senses for getting information across. Whatever your budget, integrating an occasional—or frequent—videoconference into your work week will improve internal and client relations.

Incidentally, videoconferencing is a lot more fun than gabbing on the phone.