Video vs Audio

There is often a chill that runs up your spine when something is really well done. That happened for me the first time I heard the “THX chord” in a theater. It reinforced that audio gives us the emotion and can be much more than 50 percent of the experience. Even the early “silent” movies had music played by a local pianist to bring images and emotions to life.

In some venues, video may be king, but on a basic level, audio is still at the heart of distance communication. While the promise of integrated videoconferencing is appealing, it comes with a fair amount of challenges.

One example is the recent migration in our offices to a new IP phone system. Even with sufficient planning and expertise, we missed getting our videoconferencing systems functional for that first staff meeting. We fought with bad QOS (Quality Of Service) for about two minutes and decided it was time for a basic conference call instead. After one “Can you hear me now?” we were up and running.

PictureTel and CLI told us in the ’80s and ’90s we could roll a TV set and camera system into any room and video-conference from that room. Unfortunately in many offices that “roll-about” sat in a corner, unused for many months (if at all). When we asked the owner why the roll-about had not been used, the answer usually included something about lack of network drops, or bad audio or video quality.

Fast-forward 25 years and we seem to be in the same dilemma. While we now have phones that send video and let us chat with our loved ones on opposite ends of the globe, the increase in audio and video quality hasn’t kept pace with advances in shrinking hardware. Poor quality is tolerated because it’s still relatively novel, good enough for casual use, and the price is right: free or almost free.

However, in a professional business situation, that quality (not to mention reliability) becomes paramount for success, and in making that important first impression upon clients and prospects.

So what is needed for a professional, business oriented video-conference? It’s a combination of technology and environment; figuring out how to make them match up isn’t always apparent. As my good friend and colleague Scott Sharer stated, “A good video (conferencing) room can make a great presentation room, but a great presentation room does not necessarily make a good video room.”

In other words, it requires a blending of technology, proper acoustics in the proper space, and the right team to put it all together. The experience in our own office shows how tenuous the balance can be. On the environment side, what is needed for quality video communication is a room where the audio, acoustics, and video image all feel “right” to the participants, eye contact between both ends of the call can easily be made, and the sharing of information and actual control of the meeting is transparent.

On the technology side, we still have to remember that video calls are still just bad TV. The turnkey solutions from the major players are actually stepping back in time to the first video rooms from the early ’80s. These were custom and purpose-built rooms based on good television production techniques such as acoustics, audio, lighting. and quality video equipment. The only difference was it went to a codec that compressed the signal down to run over a phone line. Now we have these great custom built rooms with signals only compressed to a much bigger telephone (network) connection.

Over the next few months we will look at current standalone and computer based codec systems and what is required for good videoconferencing. Until then, count how many times your video meetings start with some form of “Can you hear us?” At least in the business world, audio wins!

The Long View

The “Granny Cam” is here to stay. Anybody with a computer, microphone/ camera, and internet access can download any one of a dozen or more programs like Skype and stay connected to friends and family for free.

Because these free web-based videoconferencing systems are convenient, they have migrated into the business world. I for one have started to see a lot of “Skype addresses” on business cards and email footers. This started with our European friends (they were the early Skype adopters) but now we see it with some of the manufacturers in our own industry. At a recent event, one person saw me use a document camera to annotate a drawing. He came up afterwards and said, “I am on Skype four to six hours a day doing training. How can I get one of these in my system?”

Four to six hours a day with a program that in my opinion is not business quality, “What are you thinking?” was my first reaction. But as an early adopter of interactive web-based training, the convenience for him outweighed the quality. Polycom, Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Adobe Connect are the most common business-quality web conferencing systems we deal with. Maybe this convenience thing is not bad; if we live with it and can tolerate the bad quality, we may find a way to make it better, just as we have seen the quality of fixed conference systems improve over time.


This article was originally published in System Contractor News.