Video Conferencing & Volcanic Ash

The volcanic eruption in Iceland, and its associated ash cloud, has certainly been a major topic of discussion this past week. My brother and his wife were caught in France on vacation. Their two week skiing vacation has become three weeks, quite unexpectedly.

Further, while we were focused on the NAB convention in Las Vegas three of my UK-based associates ended up extending their stay in the US by over a week, unable to get flights home. I suspect that I’m not the only one wishing that we had pushed forward with our plans to install room type video conference systems in Cambridge and Burbank. Those systems would certainly have been very handy this week.

This weeks eComm event in San Francisco was also forced to adapt to the events of the day. Lee Dryburgh, the principal organizer of the event, could not get to SFO from his home in Ljubljani, Slovenia. Testament to his standing in the community, several friends and associates have helped Lee run the show from afar.

By all accounts the eComm event, which sadly I cannot attend, went very well. Some of the presenters also could not make it to San Francisco. A couple have reportedly made their presentation via electronic means.

Martin Geddes apparently used Skype to make the video call. According to the Twitterverse the call video was dropped a couple of times, but for such an ad hoc arrangement it was worth a shot. It certainly seemed like the right solution in the context of the gathered eComm crowd.

I wonder if the video projector used at the hotel was HD capable? That is, what was the defining thing about the quality of the video call? Available bandwidth, or perhaps the equipment that they could get assembled in a hurry? While HD-capable TVs and monitors are easy to find, HD-capable projectors are still pricey and not yet commonplace.

This whole circumstance has put something of a spotlight on videoconferencing as an alternative to physical meetings. According to some reports interest in video conferencing facilities has spiked by 108% this past week. Not only is telecommuting greener, but it can be cheaper than travel. It’s a lot easier on families as well.

I know for a fact that services like GotoMeeting, TeamViewer and Webex have saved me thousands of air miles flown and hundreds of nights spent in hotels. The scope of my activities to date has revolved more around hands-on technology, not so much meetings and presentations. Remote access technologies have truly revolutionized my life these past few years.

When the news from CES in January was that Skype and various TV manufacturers were cooperating to incorporate 720p video conferencing into consumer TV sets I was truly stoked. That has the potential to drive the cost of small video conference systems way down, far enough that I could justify one right here in my home office. Hopefully those vendors that focus on more open standards compliant systems will have a competitive offering as well.

Polycom recently announced their use of H.264 High Profile to reduce the bandwidth requirements of a video stream by 50%. That means you can get real HD video conferencing in around 1 Mbit in each direction. This is achievable in a lot of places without resorting to costly dedicated connectivity as in the past.

The past years economic realities have a lot of companies looking at video conferencing as a valid alternative to more traditional requirements for business travel. This past weeks volcanic plume simply serves to underscore that, even as the economy continues to improve, we should consider when there’s greater wisdom to deploy new technology rather than call a cab for the airport.