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Feature Article
October 2002

Enterprise Video: Ready For Prime Time


Humans are fundamentally visual animals. More than half of our brain, in fact, is dedicated to the processing of visual information. Humans are also fundamentally social animals. We often prefer doing business with people we know, we supplement workday interactions with business lunches and happy hours, and we spend hours traveling to attend job interviews and close big sales. These natural proclivities make us wish that we could conduct more business face-to-face. We have had to rely, however, on limited technologies such as phone and e-mail to help us cross continents and cultures. These tools are poor at conveying all the subtle cues that we instinctively collect during a visual encounter. A picture of your customer's furrowed brow or your supervisor�s proud smile can indeed be worth a thousand words -- or dollars. Fortunately, vBusiness -- the use of visual technology to improve and even transform key business processes -- is ready for prime time.

The true value of video in the enterprise has never been well articulated. This could be because the true value of video has never been fully realized. Everyone thinks they know about video -- and many think they know it's unnecessary. They have a hard time envisioning the circumstances under which they might come to find it useful. In many cases, they can't even imagine how video can be (and is being) used now in the enterprise. Video simply has been too long dismissed as a disappointing, under-performing, luxury technology to win cadres of supporters immediately. For these reasons, vBusiness may be easier to understand in terms of what it isn�t than in terms of what it is. So we'll try both. 

vBusiness is video collaboration in a familiar context. You don't have to schedule a meeting, move to a room, and sit there talking distantly and distractedly with another room full of people. You just keep working the same way you always have, and video will be there, even embedded in your everyday enterprise applications, from e-mail to CRM software systems. vBusiness makes video another transparent information source (streamed) or communication tool (interactive); it's not the aggravatingly out-of-sync talking heads or mystifyingly complex calling processes of the video conferencing past. vBusiness is seamless -- on the desktop, at your fingertips, instantly available to you, perhaps in the software you already use. One click and you�re face-to-face with a colleague in New York, London, Hong Kong, or the next building on campus. Another click and you�ve added another colleague, a recorded video clip, or a live TV feed to the call. You don't have to leave your desk; you don't need to send an SOS to the AV or IT staff. You don�t have to deal with strange network configurations, heavy-duty hardware, or Tolstoy-esque user manuals.

Here's an ideal vBusiness scenario involving CRM. Imagine a stockbroker, Irene, who arrives at her office one morning and learns about a stock, Widget Inc., that has been upgraded to a strong buy by one of her firm�s covering analysts. In a vBusiness world, she opens up her CRM application, clicks on a link, and learns more by watching an explanatory video clip recorded by the expert analyst who upgraded the stock. She checks the news, other literature, and a video clip by another expert in Widget's industry. Then, after commanding her CRM system to generate a list of customers who are interested in Widget, she places a video call -- right from her desktop -- to Peter, one of her best clients. Peter has some questions about Widget's prospects, so Irene adds her Widget expert analyst -- live, not recorded, though she could do that, too -- to the video call, and the three of them discuss. After wrapping up the call, Irene tries to contact the rest of her customers on video. To people she can't reach live, she sends a video e-mail containing a brief clip and links to relevant info about the Widget announcement.

In such ways, video simultaneously speeds and enhances business communications. By using video during her workday, Irene gains easier access to people and information (servicing customers and leveraging team members more effectively), builds stronger relationships, and derives deeper understanding from every interaction. Irene can solve complex problems more quickly, closing more business, satisfying her customers (and superiors) and differentiating herself from hundreds of other professionals clamoring for their attention. She may find herself with more time to do more work because she can spend less of her day away from her desk, tracking people down for quick conversations or traveling to more distant meetings. Thus, in vBusiness, communication becomes more effective AND more efficient. This is the real value-add of vBusiness, especially when compared to other communications tools.

Some communications tools, such as e-mail, are very efficient, but they're not very effective. You can dash off a quick note at your convenience, and you can bring several team members "into the loop" easily. If you're dealing with a large group or with a thorny issue, however, the trail of e-mails becomes unmanageable. Time delay can be a problem, as can unclear writing or misinterpreted tones. You can resort to using little smiley faces to convey your tone, but that isn't always appropriate. A slight misinterpretation can precipitate an e-mail "war" that blows minor issues out of proportion, damages team relationships, and wastes time. By the time a series of clarifying e-mails are passed around, this efficient tool has become anything but.

Other forms of communication, such as in-person meetings, are very effective, but they're not always very efficient. Traveling from downtown to midtown Manhattan and back again can consume a whole morning. Any trip involving an airport these days is an even bigger waste of time. Even the meeting itself can veer off track; by some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the time spent in every meeting is lost to chitchat, tangential digressions, or other discussions that could best be handled in another forum. Effectiveness, then, comes at a considerable price: time and patience.

vBusiness doesn't require such hassle, choice, or sacrifice; it increases both the effectiveness and the efficiency of business applications by adding video. Efficient tools grow more effective with a visual component that adds detail and clarity without adding time. A video-enhanced e-mail, for example, grows rich with content: facial expressions, tone of voice, and links to additional information augment the traditional text note. There's more information in myriad forms, including the sparkle in the speaker's eye. Effective communication methods grow more efficient when video eliminates inconvenience and wasted time and motion. Interactive video demands total immersion in the experience, so doodling and dozing through conference calls becomes a thing of the past. Furthermore, interaction from the desktop means a closer view of people's faces (not a distant conference table) and easy access to relevant materials such as files and e-mails. Video thus increases efficiency.

Video also benefits technologies like Web conferencing that are already fairly efficient and effective. Currently, information is easily shared, and some interactivity (either over audio or IM) is possible. Technically, Web conferencing in its current form falls under the vBusiness umbrella because of its shared visual dimension, though typically limited to slides and a picture of the speaker. But imagine the possibilities when an audience can watch a speaker in full motion and feel his enthusiasm (or his reprimand) more acutely. The speaker could add further value by bringing another party into the call for additional expertise or a lively debate. If all of this can be recorded for colleagues in a time zone across the world, the technology becomes truly efficient and effective.

vBusiness can build communities, putting the personal touch back into a business world that's been digitally whitewashed by too much "e." The social animal in all of us loves the idea of being one click (or two) away from our key people. Up until recently, that one click has been the "send" button on our e-mail program or cell phone. So why has it taken so long to get a "call" button on our computer screens?
Video technologies have only recently met certain conditions that are necessary for them to be widely used and widely useful in the enterprise.

Reliability. Reliability, which has long been a problem with video, must be constant: every time you want to use it, you can, just like the phone on your desk. IP video calls on some systems are now 99 percent reliable -- certainly a lot better than cell phones (which we all grudgingly tolerate at 90 percent reliability). 

Ease of use. Ease-of-use is essential. Video must fit seamlessly into a busy workday, up and running on the desktop without extra setup or training.

Quality. Video quality is paramount. The human brain reacts extremely negatively to asynchrony between audio and video. In fact, studies have shown that people subconsciously judge a speaker on video to be less smart if the synchrony of his speech is off -- even when they consciously know that the technology is to blame. Latency, the lag time while the video data is transferred, is also frustrating for users. 

Availability. Availability increases the utility of video technology. When users can sit down at their desk and use video to reach everyone in their community at their desks, they�ll use the system more. Only recently have video systems been scalable to thousands of desktops, due to architectural limitations -- and budget limitations. 

Application range. A range of applications enables more professionals to find compelling business utility in their use of video, especially when these functions are seamlessly integrated into systems already in use. People need to see that video doesn't just add a face to a phone. Video applications such as wide-area video broadcasting, recording for later playback, and publishing to Web sites and e-mails power new opportunities for intra-enterprise and inter-enterprise communication.

vBusiness brings video to business in a complementary, unobtrusive way. The existing habits and inclinations of enterprise professionals come first; the technology naturally follows to meet their needs. And vBusiness is not a wishful fad for the future; it's ready today to help enterprises conduct business more efficiently and effectively.

Gerald J. Burnett is Chairman and CEO of Avistar Communications Corporation. Avistar brings video communications to the desktop as part of day-to-day business processes to help companies make money, save money, mitigate risk, and differentiate themselves. For more information, visit the company's website at www.avistar.com.

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