Want to be in two places at once? The laws of physics won't allow it, but videoconferencing comes close. A&S examines this niche market's demand, applications and future outlook.
Boarding a plane is so passé. Instead, video and networking advances allow individuals to be anywhere in the world instantly, or even more than one place. A videoconference allows people at different locations to see and hear one another, saving them the hassle of travel.
A number of providers offer videoconferencing solutions. “Teleconferencing is enjoying spectacular growth due to increased globalization and the need to stay in touch without constantly traveling over long distances,” said Stefan Karapetkov, Director of Emerging Technologies for Polycom, a videoconferencing specialist. The volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded planes worldwide, making virtual meetings an attractive alternative.
A hyper realistic videoconference is telepresence, which features enormous screens and intelligent cameras which can track faces. For users, it can seem like the other person is there, instead of conversing with thin air. “The telepresence illusion is so real that many execs forget the person they're talking to is not really in the same room,” said Stan Schatt, VP of ABI Research, in a prepared statement.
The telepresence is expected to reach US$2.5 billion in 2013, according to ABI Research report “The Global Telepresence Market.” While demand is high, the price tag can be astronomical as well. “What would induce companies to spend up to $330,000 for a telepresence setup? The high cost of travel — in money, wasted time and carbon emissions — is one reason,” Schatt said.
Overall, the whole videoconferencing market will grow, due to its maturity and cost-saving benefits. More businesses will purchase equipment, driving videoconferencing product revenues from $1.9 billion in 2009 to more than $8.7 billion in 2014, according to IDC study “Worldwide Enterprise Videoconferencing and Telepresence 2010-2014 Forecast.”
New Surveillance Application?
With so much demand for virtual “face-to-face” meetings, would security products fit the bill? The answer is yes and no, depending on user expectations. If businesses wanted to replicate the telepresence experience with off-the-shelf surveillance equipment, they're in for disappointment. “Using security cameras for video conferencing is not the right application,” said Philip Siow, Senior Technical Manager, Axis Communications.
However, security equipment can be modified. A network video system using standard video compression could be adapted for remote monitoring. “Teleconference systems compress the video using H.264 and packetize it in RTP/UDP/IP, then send it over the IP network,” Karapetkov said. “The receiver extracts the compressed video from the RTP/UDP/IP envelop and decompresses it to the original.”
H.264's efficient profile means it takes up less bandwidth, enabling real-time transmission. “It does not take much Internet resources to view video remotely,” Siow said. “As H.264 also has audio in its data stream, it is possible now to have a live view and hear audio.”
A surveillance camera yields better image quality than a webcam, giving security equipment another opportunity to shine, Siow said. However, videoconferencing is usually run over a dedicated network instead of commercial DSL. A security camera can get the job done, but not to the level of professional teleconference equipment.
Image lag is a concern for security cameras but not a deal-breaker, since they are installed for forensic purposes rather than real-time streaming. “Teleconferencing is very delay-sensitive, which is not the case for video surveillance,” Karapetkov said. “The encoding and decoding resources must be able to process video and audio very fast.”
Video surveillance has made leaps and bounds, but it cannot compare to real-time broadcast-quality teleconferencing. Several applications require the increased image quality that videoconferencing offers, such as telemedicine and manufacturing quality controls, Karapetkov said.
The closest security equivalent to videoconferencing is the “talking camera.” Only the security operators see the other party, who then address them as if over an intercom. Bristol's city surveillance deployed Synectics video management to streamline operations, with one-touch communication for cameras outfitted with speakers. The cameras were effective for minor situations, such as littering, and audio recordings ensured operators used the system responsibly.
IndigoVision deployed similar audiovisual integration for Malaysian town ship Cyberjaya. Cameras with speakers and an intercom system allowed control room staff to broadcast warning or help messages.
The same one-way approach can be used for distance learning. Cameras are required at all locations for both teachers and students to see each other. Video services are expected to increase, with 53 percent of administrators and information technology decision makers in K-12 institutions, community colleges and universities willing to invest in video for 2010, according to a Clarus Research Group survey commissioned by Cisco Systems.
Remote video applications offer exciting possibilities. There is talk of videoconferencing coming to smart camera phones, with providers like Skype and Logitech aiming for the mass market. The latest iPhone 4 features a forward-facing camera for real-time video talk.
For professional use, a dedicated videoconferencing setup must record sound and video properly. “Implementing teleconferencing is not just about compression technology,” Karapetkov said. “Similar to photography, light plays a very important role.
Teleconference rooms have to be well-lit so that people appear in their natural colors.” Camera placement is tricky enough for video surveillance, but even more challenging for teleconference, when all participants need to be in focus. PTZ cameras help, but still need to be optimized for the best user experience, Karapetkov said. Microphone location is another issue, as how audio is perceived affects the teleconference experience.
Despite the higher price tag for videoconferencing solutions, they are unlikely to be replaced by surveillance cameras or webcams. “Security cameras are a niche of their own for surveillance applications,” Siow said. Advancements in video and networking are just being realized, making videoconferencing an exciting harbinger of things to come.