Friday, April 16, 2010

Videoconferencing: "Good enough" is good enough

I'm watching seminars put on by Stanford University's MediaX program. The first seminar, on the impact and use of new mobile video technology for news gathering, was technically a little shaky, but informative. The second seminar, on the value of new video technologies in business and education, seems to be more a sales pitch for Cisco's telepresence technology and similar offerings than a real discussion of the value of video. (If you haven't seen Cisco's commercials, their telepresence model uses big screens that allow you to see the participants in both sides of a teleconference in near life-size. Cisco's even bigger telepresence systems, which haven't been featured in television ads, use specially-built rooms and wall-size displays to give the illusion that the participants are all in the same room.)

Cisco-style solutions are very expensive; tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per site, with major bandwidth requirements. To vendors of these systems, Skype and similar services will never be a good substitute, because you can't see and hear every nuance of every participant. Sometimes the picture freezes. It's not immersive.

The problem with these arguments is that time and time again, high-end, high-quality offerings are rejected in favor of "good enough" solutions. CDs are being replaced by MP3 files that don't have the same sound quality but are far more flexible and less expensive to buy. Consumers eagerly watch video on their computers (or their phones, for that matter) that isn't the equal of what they can see on a HDTV, because they can watch what they want, how, when and where they want.

Teleconferencing works the same way. If I can use Skype or Apple's iChat to pull together an ad hoc videoconference with existing equipment and at little or no cost, do I really need to see if someone in the 23rd row is picking his nose? Just as consumers gravitate toward "good enough", smart businesses and educators will do the same thing.
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