A videoconference or video conference (also known as a videoteleconference) is a set of interactive telecommunication technologies which allow two or more locations to interact via two-way video and audio transmissions simultaneously. It has also been called 'visual collaboration' and is a type of groupware.
Videoconferencing differs from videophone calls in that it's designed to serve a conference rather than individuals. It is an intermediate form of videotelephony, first deployed commercially by AT&T during the early 1970s using their Picturephone technology.
Videoconferencing uses telecommunications of audio and video to bring people at different sites together for a meeting. This can be as simple as a conversation between two people in private offices (point-to-point) or involve several sites (multi-point) with more than one person in large rooms at different sites. Besides the audio and visual transmission of meeting activities, videoconferencing can be used to share documents, computer-displayed information, and whiteboards.
Simple analog videoconferences could be established as early as the invention of the television. Such videoconferencing systems usually consisted of two closed-circuit television systems connected via cable. An example of that was the German Reich Postzentralamt (Post Office) network set up in Berlin and several other cities from 1936 to 1940.
During the first manned space flights, NASA used two radiofrequency (UHF or VHF) links, one in each direction. TV channels routinely use this kind of videoconferencing when reporting from distant locations, for instance. Then mobile links to satellites using specially equipped trucks became rather common.
This technique was very expensive, though, and could not be used for applications such as telemedicine, distance education, and business meetings. Attempts at using normal telephony networks to transmit slow-scan video, such as the first systems developed by AT&T, failed mostly due to the poor picture quality and the lack of efficient video compression techniques. The greater 1 MHz bandwidth and 6 Mbit/s bit rate of Picturephone in the 1970s also did not cause the service to prosper.
It was only in the 1980s that digital telephony transmission networks became possible, such as ISDN, assuring a minimum bit rate (usually 128 kilobits/s) for compressed video and audio transmission. The first dedicated systems started to appear in the market as ISDN networks were expanding throughout the world. Video teleconference systems throughout the 1990s rapidly evolved from highly expensive proprietary equipment, software and network requirements to standards based technology that is readily available to the general public at a reasonable cost.
Finally, in the 1990s, IP (Internet Protocol) based videoconferencing became possible, and more efficient video compression technologies were developed, permitting desktop, or personal computer (PC)-based videoconferencing. In 1992 CU-SeeMe was developed at Cornell by Tim Dorcey et al. In the 2000s, VTC finally arrived for the masses via free services, web plugins and on-line telecommunication programs which brought cheap, albeit low-quality, videoconferencing to almost every home with an Internet connection.
The core technology used in a videoteleconference (VTC) system is digital compression of audio and video streams in real time. The hardware or software that performs compression is called a codec (coder/decoder). Compression rates of up to 1:500 can be achieved. The resulting digital stream of 1s and 0s is subdivided into labelled packets, which are then transmitted through a digital network of some kind (usually ISDN or IP). The use of audio modems in the transmission line allow for the use of POTS, or the Plain Old Telephone System, in some low-speed applications, such as videotelephony, because they convert the digital pulses to/from analog waves in the audio spectrum range.
The other components required for a VTC system include:
There are basically two kinds of VTC systems:
A fundamental feature of professional VTC systems is acoustic echo cancellation (AEC). Echo can be defined as the reflected source wave interference with new wave created by source. AEC is an algorithm which is able to detect when sounds or utterances reenter the audio input of the VTC codec, which came from the audio output of the same system, after some time delay. If unchecked, this can lead to several problems including:
Simultaneous videoconferencing among three or more remote points is possible by means of a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU). This is a bridge that interconnects calls from several sources (in a similar way to the audio conference call). All parties call the MCU unit, or the MCU unit can also call the parties which are going to participate, in sequence. There are MCU bridges for IP and ISDN-based videoconferencing. There are MCUs which are pure software, and others which are a combination of hardware and software. An MCU is characterised according to the number of simultaneous calls it can handle, its ability to conduct transposing of data rates and protocols, and features such as Continuous Presence, in which multiple parties can be seen onscreen at once. MCUs can be stand-alone hardware devices, or they can be embedded into dedicated VTC units.
Some systems are capable of multipoint conferencing with no MCU, stand-alone, embedded or otherwise. These use a standards-based H.323 technique known as "decentralized multipoint", where each station in a multipoint call exchanges video and audio directly with the other stations with no central "manager" or other bottleneck. The advantages of this technique are that the video and audio will generally be of higher quality because they don't have to be relayed through a central point. Also, users can make ad-hoc multipoint calls without any concern for the availability or control of an MCU. This added convenience and quality comes at the expense of some increased network bandwidth, because every station must transmit to every other station directly.
Some observers argue that two outstanding issues are preventing videoconferencing from becoming a standard form of communication, despite the ubiquity of videoconferencing-capable systems. These issues are:
The issue of eye-contact may be solved with advancing technology, and presumably the issue of appearance consciousness will fade as people become accustomed to videoconferencing.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (formerly: Consultative Committee on International Telegraphy and Telephony (CCITT)) has three umbrellas of standards for VTC.
In recent years, IP based videoconferencing has emerged as a common communications interface and standard provided by VTC manufacturers in their traditional ISDN-based systems. Business, government and military organizations still predominantly use H.320 and ISDN VTC. Though, due to the price point and proliferation of the Internet, and broadband in particular, there has been a strong spurt of growth and use of H.323, IP VTC. H.323 has the advantage that it is accessible to anyone with a high speed Internet connection, such as DSL.
H.264 SVC (Scalable Video Coding) is a compression standard that enables video conferencing systems to achieve highly error resilient IP video transmission over the public Internet without quality of service enhanced lines. This standard has enabled wide scale deployment of high definition desktop video conferencing and made possible new architectures which reduce latency between transmitting source and receiver, resulting in fluid communication without pauses.
In addition, an attractive factor for IP VTC is that it is easier to set-up for use with a live VTC call along with web conferencing for use in data collaboration. These combined technologies enable users to have a much richer multimedia environment for live meetings, collaboration and presentations.
ITU V.80: videoconferencing is generally compatibilized with H.324 standard point-to-point video telephony over regular phone lines.
High speed Internet connectivity has become more widely available at a reasonable cost and the cost of video capture and display technology has decreased. Consequently personal video teleconference systems based on a webcam, personal computer system, software compression and broadband Internet connectivity have become affordable for the general public. Also, the hardware used for this technology has continued to improve in quality, and prices have dropped dramatically. The availability of freeware (often as part of chat programs) has made software based videoconferencing accessible to many.
For many years, futurists have envisioned a future where telephone conversations will take place as actual face-to-face encounters with video as well as audio. Sometimes it is simply not possible or practical to have a face-to-face meeting with two or more people. Sometimes a telephone conversation or conference call is adequate. Other times, an email exchange is adequate.
Videoconferencing adds another possible alternative, and can be considered when:
Deaf, hard-of-hearing and mute individuals have a particular interest in the development of affordable high-quality videoconferencing as a means of communicating with each other in sign language. Unlike Video Relay Service, which is intended to support communication between a caller using sign language and another party using spoken language, videoconferencing can be used between two signers.
Mass adoption and use of video conferencing is still relatively low, with the following often claimed as causes:
For these reasons many hardware systems are often used for internal corporate use only, as they are less likely to run into problems and lose a sale. An alternative is companies that hire out video conferencing equipped meeting rooms in cities around the world. Customers simply book the rooms and turn up for the meeting - everything else is arranged and support is readily available if anything should go wrong.
One of the first demonstrations of the ability for telecommunications to help sign language users communicate with each other occurred when AT&T's videophone (trademarked as the 'Picturephone') was introduced to the public at the 1964 New York World's Fair –two deaf users were able to freely communicate with each other between the fair and another city. Various other organizations have also conducted research on signing via videotelephony.
Using such video equipment, the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired can communicate between themselves and with hearing individuals using sign language. The United States and several other countries compensate companies to provide 'Video Relay Services' (VRS). Telecommunication equipment can be used to talk to others via a sign language interpreter, who uses a conventional telephone at the same time to communicate with the deaf person's party. Video equipment is also used to do on-site sign language translation via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). The relative low cost and widespread availability of 3G mobile phone technology with video calling capabilities have given deaf and speech-impaired users a greater ability to communicate with the same ease as others. Some wireless operators have even started free sign language gateways.
Sign language interpretation services via VRS or by VRI are useful in the present-day where one of the parties is deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired (mute). In such cases the interpretation flow is normally within the same principal language, such as French Sign Language (FSL) to spoken French, Spanish Sign Language (SSL) to spoken Spanish, British Sign Language (BSL) to spoken English, and American Sign Language (ASL) also to spoken English (since BSL and ASL are completely distinct), etc.... Multilingual sign language interpreters, who can also translate as well across principal languages (such as to and from SSL, to and from spoken English), are also available, albeit less frequently. Such activities involve considerable effort on the part of the translator, since sign languages are distinct natural languages with their own construction, semantics and syntax, different from the aural version of the same principal language.
With video interpreting, sign language interpreters work remotely with live video and audio feeds, so that the interpreter can see the deaf or mute party, and converse with the hearing party, and vice versa. Much like telephone interpreting, video interpreting can be used for situations in which no on-site interpreters are available. However, video interpreting cannot be used for situations in which all parties are speaking via telephone alone. VRI and VRS interpretation requires all parties to have the necessary equipment. Some advanced equipment enables interpreters to remotely control the video camera, in order to zoom in and out or to point the camera toward the party that is signing.
Videoconferencing provides students with the opportunity to learn by participating in a 2-way communication platform. Furthermore, teachers and lecturers from all over the world can be brought to classes in remote or otherwise isolated places. Students from diverse communities and backgrounds can come together to learn about one another. Students are able to explore, communicate, analyze and share information and ideas with one another. Through videoconferencing students can visit another part of the world to speak with others, visit a zoo, a museum and so on, to learn. These "virtual field trips" (see history of virtual learning environments) can bring opportunities to children, especially those in geographically isolated locations, or the economically disadvantaged. Small schools can use this technology to pool resources and teach courses (such as foreign languages) which could not otherwise be offered.
Here are a few examples of how videoconferencing can benefit people around campus:
Videoconferencing is a very useful technology for telemedicine and telenursing applications, such as diagnosis, consulting, transmission of medical images, etc., in real time in countries where this is legal. Using VTC, patients may contact nurses and physicians in emergency or routine situations, physicians and other paramedical professionals can discuss cases across large distances. Rural areas can use this technology for diagnostic purposes, thus saving lives and making more efficient use of health care money.
Special peripherals such as microscopes fitted with digital cameras, videoendoscopes, medical ultrasound imaging devices, otoscopes, etc., can be used in conjunction with VTC equipment to transmit data about a patient.
Videoconferencing can enable individuals in faraway places to have meetings on short notice. Time and money that used to be spent in travelling can be used to have short meetings. Technology such as VOIP can be used in conjunction with desktop videoconferencing to enable low-cost face-to-face business meetings without leaving the desk, especially for businesses with wide-spread offices. The technology is also used for telecommuting, in which employees work from home.
Videoconferencing is now being introduced to online networking websites, in order to help businesses form profitable relationships quickly and efficiently without leaving their place of work. This has been leveraged by banks to connect busy banking professionals with customer in various locations using video banking technology.
Although it already has proven its potential value, research has shown that many employees do not use the videoconference equipment because they are afraid that they will appear to be wasting time or looking for the easiest way if they use videoconferencing to enhance customer and supplier relationships. This anxiety can be avoided if managers use the technology in front of their employees.
Researchers find that attendees of business and medical videoconferences must work harder to interpret information delivered during a conference than they would if they attended face-to-face. They recommend that those coordinating videoconferences make adjustments to procedures and equipment.
Videoconferencing has allowed testimony to be used for individuals who are not able to attend the physical legal settings. In a military investigation in North Carolina, Afghan witnesses have testified using videoconferencing.
The concept of press videoconferencing (or press videoconference) was developed in October 2007 by the African Press Organization (APO), a Swiss based Non-governmental organization, to allow African journalists to participate in international press conferences on the subject of development and good governance.
Press videoconferencing permits international press conferences via videoconferencing over the Internet. Journalists can participate on an international press conference from any location, without leaving their offices or countries. They need only be seated by a computer connected to the Internet in order to ask their questions to the speaker.
In 2004, the International Monetary Fund introduced the Online Media Briefing Center, a password-protected site available only to professional journalists. The site enables the IMF to present press briefings globally and facilitates direct questions to briefers from the press. The site has been copied by other international organizations since its inception. More than 4,000 journalists worldwide are currently registered with the IMF.
Videophone calls (or 'videocalls'), differ from videoconferencing in that they expect to serve individuals, not groups. However that distinction has becoming increasingly blurred with technology improvements such as increased bandwidth and sophisticated software clients that can allow for multiple parties on a call. In general everyday usage the term videoconferencing is now frequently used instead of videocall for point-to-point calls between two units. Both videophone calls and videoconferencing are also now commonly referred to as a 'video link'.
A videoconference system is generally higher cost than a videophone and deploys greater capabilities. A videoconference (also known as a videoteleconference) allows two or more locations to communicate via live, simultaneous two-way video and audio transmissions. This is often accomplished by the use of a multipoint control unit (a centralized distribution and call management system) or by a similar non-centralized multipoint capability embedded in each videoconferencing unit. Again, technology improvements have circumvented traditional definitions by allowing multiple party videoconferencing via web-based applications. A separate webpage article is devoted to videoconferencing.
A telepresence system is a high-end videoconferencing system and service usually employed by enterprise-level corporate offices. Telepresence conference rooms use state-of-the art room designs, video cameras, displays, sound-systems and processors, coupled with high-to-very-high capacity bandwidth transmissions.
Typical uses of the various technologies described above include videocalling or videoconferencing on a one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many basis for personal, business, educational, deaf Tele-Relay and tele-medical, diagnostic and rehabilitative use or services. New services utilizing videocalling and videoconferencing, such as personal videocalls to inmates incarcerated in penitentiaries, and videoconferencing to resolve airline engineering issues at maintenance facilities, are being created or evolving on an on-going basis.