Video conferencing - where are we now?

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Video conferencing is a classic example of a service that has had to wait for technology to catch up with a good idea. Go back  five years or so, many businesses were put off by poor quality images across slow connections, and there just wasn't enough barriers to real, in-person travel.

Move forward to 2010 and the picture has changed. Video codecs, plasma screens and network bandwidth have improved immeasurably, giving users a much more engaging experience, and companies now have more reasons to deploy video communications widely. The business drivers for this - which again have only really come to the fore in the last five years - are the major global economic slowdown and widespread corporate awareness of environmental issues.

There are now reckoned to be in excess of one million video conferencing systems deployed in conference rooms and executive offices around the world. Frost & Sullivan reckons the European videoconferencing market was worth $383 million last year and will grow to more than one billion dollars by 2015. Sales of telepresence hardware, software and services grew to $567 million in 2009 according to ABI Research.

'Nearly any size company has access to telepresence and video conferencing services,' says David Lemelin, director of ABI Research's enterprise communications research service. 'Suppliers are helping businesses transition to telepresence by introducing personal and room-based high definition video conferencing solutions.'

Falling equipment prices have given the sector a boost, although future growth could be fuelled by conferencing as a managed service. Wainhouse Research predicts that the combined conferencing and hosted/managed unified communications market will be worth in excess of $4 billion by the end of 2014.

In addition to cost savings from reduced air travel, the potential environmental benefits are also considerable. The Carbon Disclosure Project claims that if companies in the US and UK with over $1 billion in revenue switched from business travel to telepresence by 2020, they could reduce CO2 emissions by 5.5 million metric tons (the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing more than one million passenger vehicles from the road for one year) and save nearly $19 billion on travel costs.

Speaking at a recent conference, the head of Accenture's climate change solutions department said the company had reduced the emissions generated by its employees' flying by 6200 metric tons between November 2007 and August 2009 by deploying 50 telepresence rooms around the world.

Industry experts reckon a professionally deployed video conferencing solution could reduce the requirement to travel by up to 60 per cent and increase the number of meetings that take place by about 25 per cent. While it will never entirely remove the requirement for face to face meetings, conferencing technology has at last won over most skeptics.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.