PRESENTATION TECHNOLOGY Videoconferencing Naturally

When Tony Nowell first sat down to meet via video some seven years ago, videoconferencing was still slow, jerky, and somewhat frustrating technology. It was also very expensive to purchase and deploy, and therefore generally only found in the largest of multinationals.

Today, as managing director for Griffins Foods, he finds it hard to imagine doing business without the technology.

“Initially I didn’t like it, it all felt so detached, and it was definitely learning curve for everyone,” Nowell recalls.

“But once we gained experience, and mastered comfort factors such as lighting, we soon became very familiar with it.”

He believes that the key to successfully adopting VC technology is to ensure the hardware is more than up to the job. His company has installed state-of-the-art PictureTel roll-about systems at its Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch offices complete with large (35-inch) wide-screen monitors. In the Auckland office one particular room is permanently made available as mini studio. This is well lit and can comfortably seat three or four people. Management staff stay in regular contact with overseas cities via videocon-
ferencing – in particular Paris and Singapore.

“For videoconferences to work effectively, the environment must be absolutely right,” says Nowell. “This especially applies to lighting – make sure there are no hot-spots or glare bouncing off walls, and ensure that there is no background noise.”

Nowell maintains that the entire VC process should be kept as natural as possible, and therefore close-ups of participants should be avoided.

“Better to go to more distant shot of the person sitting behind desk, close-ups only remind us that there is no eye-contact in video meetings, due to the positioning of the camera.”

This lack of eye contact highlights perhaps the major failing of VC meetings over face-to-face meetings.”

“Videoconferencing has its place in business, but it does not replace every type of human transaction,” Nowell points out.

He doesn’t recommend videoconferencing for business negotiations. “In these situations it’s very important to read the body language and see their eyes. If you can’t ‘sense’ the person you don’t always know exactly what you’re dealing with.”

Nowell regularly uses his VC set-up to interview job candidates internationally, but admits the process must be handled very carefully.

“Because you’re not in the same room it is possible to misread each other. They feel detached and nervous, and can take while to settle. Therefore it’s vital you allow time to build the comfort factor before starting the meeting.”

For regular team or project meetings, Nowell believes quick 15-minute videoconference can be much more productive than telephone conversation.

“It’s more personal, more interactive, and it saves lot of time and money flying people around the country.”

But having said that, he recommends at least one face-to-face meeting with new prospects or colleagues before going down the VC path on regular basis.

It is possible to go overboard when it comes to videoconferencing technology, and Nowell points to his Singapore regional office as an example of this.

“They operate very sophisticated, multi-channel set-up with multiple screens, and with up to eight people from different locations all on the screen at the same time. That’s lot to keep track of, and while it may work for them, at our end we can hear all the people talking but can’t see them, so it doesn’t really work for us.”

The other big mistake people make, he believes, is thinking that videoconferencing is just like being in the same room.

“It’s not, and it never will be. Videoconferencing works best on one-to-one basis. If you have three people at each end and the camera zoomed out to cover all participants, then the experience is going to seem even more distant.”

A secure future
Since September 11, and the more recent SARS epidemic, the future of videoconferencing has been well and truly secured. Business executives now no longer think twice about dialling somebody up for VC meeting. Compared to phone calls, with all their distractions, videoconferencing is powerful way to engage in conversation with person, without any distractions.

“There’s definitely more focus of attention with VC meeting, compared to phone conversations or even face-to-face meetings,” says Nowell. “When you’re on screen you know you’re being watched, so you tend to get business done in more concise manner.”

Expect to see mobile videoconferencing develop significantly in the next two to five years, and for VC systems to become standard hardware in an increasing number of organisations.

“Any medium to large enterprise would be crazy if it didn’t install system when moving into new office,” says Nowell, “or at least put it in the budget for the next financial year – particularly if they have remote locations and report regularly to people in Australia or further afield.”

Robots in the boardroom?
In the not-too-distant future you may be able to send your robot double to an important meeting.

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories have built gadget that allows remote business colleague to be more accurately represented at meeting than is possible through traditional videoconferencing.

The set-up requires the remote person to sit in small room surrounded by projectors that display the meeting environment. The robot’s LCD screen beams in sounds and images from the meeting.

Meanwhile, the robot’s head, which is made up of several flat-panel displays, shows the worker’s face and facial expressions to those actually attending the meeting.

Such technology allows the remote worker to hear the formal part of the meeting as well as participate in the chitchat around the room (by using joystick).

HP’s robot is still under development. Although it allows people to see the face of the co-worker in near real time, there is around one-second delay on the audio. Also, the pricetag is currently well in excess of few plane tickets. The remote set-up uses five PCs, five cameras and surround-sound system to create virtual environment, while the in-office robot consists of two PCs, number of cameras, four directional microphones, several speakers, and high-speed wireless network.

HP’s original robot resembled slightly bulkier version of “No.5” from the ’80s movie Short Circuit. However, because those shiny metal parts were distraction, the latest version has more human looking form – resembling giant blue piece of Lego.

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