However, in the past 12 months the industry has begun to blossom at both ends of the market. At the lower end, it’s now possible to video-conference from your normal desktop PC, or for the even more adventurous your mobile phone. At the high end of the market, virtual reality is the latest trend, with massive banks of plasma screens giving you a life-sized and eerily realistic view of your colleagues, wherever in the world they may be.
Does it actually work?
However, this is an industry that still has something to prove. "The issue now for video-conferencing is that a lot of firms don’t believe it can deliver what we say it can," says Paul Gullet of video-conferencing specialist Tandberg. "The challenge now is to get the technology in front of people and prove it now works and is easy to use."
Oddly, the rise in home webcam chats is the catalyst behind many business users taking a second look at video-conferencing, according to Gullet. "People understand these technologies work in the consumer environment and they are starting to demand them in business," he claims.
Another hugely important factor in the growth of video-conferencing in the past months has been a concerted effort by companies to reduce their carbon footprint. A recent study found UK employees think over a third of face-to-face business meetings are both unnecessary and counter-productive. The study, from web collaboration company WebEx, found people attend more than 91 face-to-face meetings per year, which means at least 30 could be unnecessary.
"If the UK is to cut carbon emissions by up to 32 per cent by 2020, everyone will have to embrace smarter alternatives to commuting and business travel," said Bert van der Zwan of WebEx. "But it’s not about replacing face-to-face meetings altogether. It’s about considering which meetings don’t need to be done in person and using online technology to have effective meetings from anywhere."
According to Professor Peter James of the UK Centre for Environmental and Economic Development, there are several simple rules employees should follow when using video-conferencing. "As with any meeting it is really important you have a chairperson," he advises. "It is not as bad as with pure phone conferences, but with video and online conferences you can still have some people uninvolved and it is important there is someone to manage the meeting."
Professor James also believes the rise of video-conferencing has led to an increase in teleworking, with many employees choosing to stay at home and work. He and his team recently carried out the first major study into the area, and found many companies were actually better off by letting staff stay at home. "This research has increased the amount of hard data on the economic benefits of teleworking. The surveys and many of the cases provide solid evidence of improved work performance," he says.
Even the traditionally technologically illiterate have discovered the benefits of video-conferencing. "As MPs, we are constantly having meetings with constituents, colleagues and other stakeholders," said Nick Hurd, the Conservative MP for Ruislip-Northwood. "Many of these face-to-face meetings are necessary, but many are not."
Saving time and money
Martin Bowman, sales director of Scottish software company Gael Quality, has been using online meetings for product demonstrations and customer events since 2003. "We used to spend around ten days per month on the road, often holding no more than two meetings per day," explains Bowman. "Bringing meetings online means we’ve made huge savings. In fact, for our latest web event, we are due to have over 300 attendees from as far away as the US, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, and nobody needs to leave their desks."
For large meetings, the dedicated video-conferencing set-up is still king. But before splashing out on a pricey piece of kit you simply may not need, it’s worth taking a look at web technology, in the shape of instant messaging. The online chat systems from Microsoft, Yahoo and the like have now seriously encroached on video-conferencing territory, with industry-standard video being supported. In many cases, the more traditional text-only chat has also simply negated the need for video-conferencing altogether.
The other budget option is audio-conferencing, which has been updated to keep pace with new technology. Ring2’s Conference Controller combines the traditional teleconference with a Blackberry functionality, allowing users to view and control conference participants. The call leader is able to invite participants from their address book, monitor in real time a list of connected callers, drop or mute participants, and record the calls for future use.
Of course, many will never be persuaded of the virtues of remote conferencing – but with greens issues coming to the fore, and all this new technology on the table, it’s getting much harder to ignore.