HD video conferencing a way of life for some VIPs

In an uncertain economy, HD video conferencing seems like a luxury. Not so, says a CIO for a far-flung research consortium. Analysts increasingly agree.

When CIO Michael Williams pushes "connect" on the LifeSize video-conference system at the California university where he works, big egos and big money are at the digital table.

"We represent a half-billion dollars' worth of clinical translational research with tier-one scientists at the top 25-ranked universities in the U.S," said Williams, who serves as CIO of the Epilepsy Phenome/Genome Project and director of IT for the Immune Tolerance Network, two large, federally funded research projects aimed at better understanding the biological underpinnings of epilepsy and other serious conditions.

Williams, who is not permitted to use his university's name when promoting a commercial product, is a big fan of LifeSize Communications Inc.'s high-definition (HD) video-conference technology, a $500,000 upgrade of the university's low-definition legacy system.

"This is an important improvement because it essentially allows the scientists to have 12 times the amount of visual data and about five times the quality of audio data for these important discovery, business and resourcing discussions," Williams said.

A year after launch day, the system now encompasses 50 high-definition video-conferencing endpoints located in about 40 buildings from coast to coast, with the capacity for 20 participants to pow-wow up close and personal, Williams said.

Video-conferencing technology: Green and poised to grow

At a time when many CIOs are looking to hold the line on IT spending, a new high-definition video-conferencing system might seem like a luxury. Certainly, the technology is not high on many IT shopping lists. According to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., high-definition video-conferencing is in the early stages of maturity, with market penetration in the single digits, or less than 5%.

But as prices fall, with some high-definition systems selling for less than $10,000 per endpoint, Gartner is urging organizations to pay the purchase serious mind.

"Organizations considering a refresh of traditional, standard-definition video systems should purchase high-definition video systems from now on," said Rich Costello, a Gartner research director, in a March 27 statement.

An investment in new HD video-conferencing equipment can produce long-term benefits for the customer and the environment, Costello said. Decreasing the amount of executive travel is an important factor, especially with fuel prices so high. The technology can contribute to a company's "green IT" initiative, as well as arguably increase employee productivity and quality of life.

Ready for your close-up on your HD video-conferencing system?

For Williams' clientele of "VIP" scientists, "collaboration is everything," and video conferencing is becoming a way of life, he said. He estimated that the créme de le créme in his group spend an average three to five hours a day in video conferences.

"I am not kidding. We're starting to see them work from home; we are also starting to see less national travel, which has huge environmental impact," Williams said.

We're starting to see them work from home; we are also starting to see less national travel, which has huge environmental impact.

Michael Williams, CIO, Epilepsy Phenome/Genome Project

"This is a very green technology," he said. "It has literally saved us a huge amount of money in terms of travel, and a huge amount in money in terms of communication being more precise and clear."

His proof points? An instant message transmits 1 kilobit of data per second (Kbps); a phone call, 64 Kbps; and a legacy video-conferencing system, 384 Kbps with about four times data compression, Williams noted. An HD video conference is 1 Mb, or 1 million bits per second, with 10 times data compression. "So if you are a scientist, on a video conference you are getting 10 million bits per second of information that your brain's massively parallel neural network is very well adapted to process and interpret and make meaning and purpose out of," he said.

That is not to say communicating via HD video conferencing comes naturally, warned Williams, who has compiled "dos and don'ts" for CIOs.

"When users first use it they are a little bit embarrassed to see themselves on camera; they get over that in about two weeks," Williams said, "But then there is a usability issue."

The human technology interface, in his view, is a good five years from being super user-friendly to a novice, say, on par with the telephone. For example, when a user dials a colleague's number and pushes connect, he or she is quickly connected to the users on the far side, but the camera tends to be off to the side, not centered on the person. The adjustments should not be left to the participants.

"You're dealing with a VIP stakeholder; they are brilliant scientists, but these are oftentimes kind of nerdy people, so they are not the most mechanically skilled people," Williams opines. "So if you're this prestigious genius and the other guy is your junior, you don't want to look funny fiddling around with the remote control with the other guy staring at you; it could have political implications."

He always has an engineer in the room, "so they never futz around with the technology." CIOs need a senior-level engineer who understands the overall architecture and a midlevel engineer capable of administrating the architecture, he said, adding that this expertise should be a core competency in IT organizations, not something to outsource.

The latency is about 0.2 seconds, he said, and "it does cause issues." His scientists often talk over each other when they first use the technology, especially when there is an agreement or point of contention.

"It is difficult to assertively state your position without looking like you are trying to cut other people off, or feeling like you're being talked over," he said. People do adapt, but if the technology could get rid of that, "That would be a great plus," he said, adding that he believes that improvement is still 10 years away.

Challenges of HD video-conferencing systems

CIOs will also likely get pushback from their network experts, Williams said. "Network administrators will tell you, you can't do that, you need quality of service this and you need package filtering that and you need firewalls, this is impossible!" he said. Don't believe them.

"We say, 'You know, that is a very good opinion … but we'll just try it,' and now we have some 60 endpoints to the home of these scientists on everything from Comcast to Verizon and AT&T, as well as Internet2-connected tier-one networks, and we can get video conferencing to work on all of those networks."

Also, the notion that you have to have buy a premium network to optimize the video is, well, "a bunch of crap," said Williams, adding that you can use any tier-one service provider.

One important warning: His engineers employ a completely separate platform using Internet-based desktop sharing software to transmit desktop and notebook computer data. "HD video conferencing is not a mature enough platform," he said, to share desktop data that requires high resolution.

That is a controversial statement, from a vendor's perspective, he admits, "but I can tell you if any CIO in the country tries to do that with a VIP stakeholders, given the state of the art, they would hurt themselves -- that would be a very bad decision."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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