Definition

video conferencing

Video conferencing is live, visual connection between two or more remote parties over the internet that simulates a face-to-face meeting. Video conferencing is important because it joins people who would not normally be able to form a face-to-face connection.

At its simplest, video conferencing provides transmission of static images and text between two locations. At its most sophisticated, it provides transmission of full-motion video images and high-quality audio between multiple locations.

In the business world, desktop video conferencing is a core component of unified communications platforms that also include calling and messaging capabilities. Standalone on-premises and cloud-based video conferencing platforms are also available from numerous vendors who support desktop- and room-based video, as well as the ability to embed video conferencing into business applications, such as telehealth, customer service and distance learning.

The widespread availability of cloud-based services enables organizations to implement video conferencing with minimal upfront investment and to take advantage of rapidly emerging AI-powered features to improve audio and video performance.

How video conferencing works

The video conferencing process can be split into two steps: compression and transfer.

During compression, the camera and microphone capture analog audiovisual (AV) input. The data collected is in the form of continuous waves of frequencies and amplitudes. These represent the captured sounds, colors, brightness, depth and shades. Once captured, codecs convert data into digital packets, typically with compression to minimize bandwidth usage.

During the transfer phase, packets are sent over the network, typically to the cloud service provider, which then transmits them to other conference participants (and combines voice and video from multiple participants).

Once packets reach the endpoint, the codecs decompress the data. The codecs convert it back into analog audio and video. This enables the receiving screen and speakers to correctly view and hear the AV data.

Components of video conferencing systems

The components of a video conferencing system include the following:

  • A network for data transfer, such as wired/wireless local area network, wide area network, cellular wireless and residential broadband.
  • Two or more video cameras or webcams that provide video input.
  • Two or more microphones -- either an external microphone or one built into the accessing device.
  • A computer screen, monitor, TV or projector that can broadcast video output.
  • Headphones, laptop speakers or external speakers that can be used for audio output.
  • Codecs, which can be hardware- or software-based, to reduce bandwidth by compressing and decompressing AV data. They typically include acoustic echo cancellation capabilities, which reduce audio delays to support real-time communication. Codecs may also include features like noise cancellation and acoustic fencing to minimize background noise during conferences.

Benefits of video conferencing

Video conferencing services carry many benefits. In businesses, they can increase productivity among employees, as well as provide an improved way of communicating and interacting with colleagues, partners and customers.

For businesses, the tangible benefits of video conferencing include lower travel costs -- especially, for employee training -- and shortened meeting and project times as a result of improved communications among team members. Businesses can also increase revenue through higher quality virtual sales meetings.

The intangible benefits of video conferencing include more efficient meetings with the exchange of nonverbal communications and a stronger sense of community among business contacts, both within and between companies, as well as with customers.

On a personal level, the face-to-face connection enables participants to develop a stronger sense of familiarity with individuals they may never actually meet in person. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies now use video conferencing for community-building activities and social gatherings, including lunch and learns, health and wellness activities, happy hours and games.

Disadvantages of video conferencing

While video conferencing provides numerous benefits for businesses and individuals, it also has several disadvantages. For example, high-quality video calling and conferencing demands a consistently reliable high-speed internet connection with minimal latency and jitter. Only a strong internet connection can guarantee the voice audio and visuals will be reliably and smoothly communicated. Any issues with bandwidth or internet connectivity could cause the audio and/or video displays to be interrupted or lost, so quality of service measures may be required for important calls.

Another disadvantage is the cost of high-quality video conferencing systems. While many companies adopt video conferencing services to reduce business travel costs, they will still end up spending large amounts of money on a video conferencing system, especially for larger offices. In addition to all the costly equipment and technology, companies will often also need to pay for the installation, deployment and maintenance of endpoints and on-premises servers if using an on-premises platform.

History of video conferencing

The first developments in video conferencing can be traced back to the 1920s, when AT&T Bell Labs and John Logie Baird started experimenting with video phones.

In the 1930s, early video conferencing experiments were also conducted in Germany. This early technology included image phones that would send still pictures over phone lines.

In the early 1970s, AT&T started using video conferencing with its Picturephone service. However, the widespread adoption of video conferencing began in the 1980s with the computer revolution. The revolution brought about the invention of codecs, as well as the rise of broadband services, such as Integrated Services Digital Network, enabling the sending of visual images to become possible for personal use. The later introduction of mobile phones further enabled the popularity of video conferencing.

Webcams started appearing on college campuses in the 1990s. In August 1994, the QuickCam -- the first commercial webcam -- was introduced. However, it was only compatible with Mac, so a Windows-compatible version was released in 1995. In 2010, Time magazine named QuickCam one of the top computer devices of all time.

In 1992, Cornell University IT department personnel developed the CU-SeeMe video conferencing software for Mac. They developed the software for Windows in 1994. The CU-SeeMe software was commercially released in 1995; it introduced the first internet radio stations.

In 2004, many businesses started adopting video conferencing systems for the first time, because broadband technology was finally more affordable and widespread. Video conferencing adoption grew throughout the 2010s, but rapidly accelerated as the COVID-19 pandemic drove the vast majority of employees out of their offices and into their homes, requiring an improved video meeting experience.

Video conferencing vendors

Consumer services -- like, Apple's FaceTime, Google's Meet and Microsoft's Skype -- have made video conferencing ubiquitous on desktops and mobile devices that have an embedded camera. Facebook also expanded its reach from consumer video into enterprise video with Workplace Rooms. In the enterprise space, video conferencing platforms include those offering conferencing applications, personal or room-based conferencing endpoints, or both applications and endpoints.

Other video conferencing vendors and their products include the following:

Adobe Connect FreeConferenceCall.com Neat
Amazon Chime Fuze Owl Labs
Angekis GoToMeeting Pexip
AudioCodes Jabra PGi
Avaya Join.me Poly
Blackboard Collaborate Konftel RingCentral
BlueJeans by Verizon Lifesize TeamViewer Meeting
Cisco Webex Logitech Yealink
Dialpad Microsoft Teams Zoom
DTEN Mitel ZTE

Video conferencing and remote working

Video conferencing is particularly useful for remote workers, who likely rely on these services to host the majority of their work-related meetings. As remote workers typically do not make use of companies' traditional office spaces, use of video conferencing can provide simulated face-to-face contact between team members and colleagues. Furthermore, augmenting video conference tools, such as screen sharing, can make video calls far more useful for employee collaboration than being limited to voice communications.

Not only can video conferencing provide better communication and productivity, but it can also foster the development of important coworking relationships, as it is more engaging than simply hearing voices over the phone or corresponding via email.

However, the increased use of video in remote work has also led to the rise of video fatigue. Users who are frequently on video meetings can experience symptoms including eye strain, exhaustion and headaches.

Video conferencing trends

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working became the "new normal" for many companies. Companies look to video conferencing technologies to maintain business operations, while enforcing the recommended social distancing protocols, as video conferencing provides the closest approximation to an actual, face-to-face meeting. Beyond use for intraorganizational meetings, video conferencing has been adopted for job candidate interviews in lieu of on-site interviews.

Zoom, a widely popular video conferencing vendor that experienced explosive growth in 2020, became the face of pandemic video conferencing to many. As a result, the name Zoom is eponymous for video conferencing in general, giving rise to popular terms such as Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue. Factors that contributed to the rise of Zoom include an intuitive user interface, as well as offering its users free one-on-one conferences with no time limit and group conferences for up to 40 minutes long and 100 users.

As organizations prepare for a post-pandemic workplace, many are turning to a hybrid workplace setup. Video conferencing will continue to be the preferred method of communication, as most meetings will contain at least one remote participant. Video conferencing providers are enhancing their services to support hybrid meetings and create an equitable experience for remote and in-office participants.

Zoom, for example, launched in 2021 a public beta of Smart Gallery, which displays remote and Zoom Rooms meeting participants in individual frames. Microsoft also rolled out a similar feature for Teams Rooms meeting participants.

This was last updated in August 2021

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