- Video Conferencing
- Media Technology
DEKOM (formerly ViDOFON) was quoted in an article on video conferencing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 12 March 2008.
A line to New York
by Josefine Janert
The prospective mechanical engineer was in Germany; the expert who had read his paper was in São Paulo - but able to watch and join in the discussion while the candidate at the TU Dresden defended his thesis, thanks to video conferencing. After one and a half hours, the examiners had agreed on the grade - and without incurring any travel costs. “For this video conference, all that the two parties needed was a computer, a camera and a microphone,” says Wolfgang Wunsch. He runs the centre of excellence for video conferencing services at the TU Dresden. His staff study current hardware and software and provide advice to members of the German research network.
Video conferencing is becoming increasingly popular, not only at universities but also in business. According to the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (BITKOM), it is used by almost all companies with global operations. Multipoint conferences, which have participants at a number of locations instead of just two, are popular. Product managers at different branches gather in front of the cameras at an agreed time to discuss marketing channels. Suppliers discuss car bodywork details with their customers. The monitors display more than just the video conference participants. Employees can also simultaneously view texts, images, three dimensional objects and PowerPoint presentations. “Engineers based in different cities can push the walls of a building back and forth on the plan,” says Wunsch.
Costs far in excess of DEM 100,000
Video conferencing has been available since the late 1980s. However, back then it cost around 100,000 German Marks (DEM) to equip a room with the necessary technology. There was usually a one-off connection fee of DEM 20,000 and a further monthly fee of DEM 1,500 for a broadband line. A one-hour connection within Germany cost DEM 600; an international connection cost as much as DEM 1,500. This method of communication was primarily used by executive boards - partly due to the prestige. Now, simple devices are available for as little as EUR 5,000. “The fees for telephone lines are so low that they’re barely even mentioned anymore,” says Hermann J. Schanz, head of marketing for the professional division at electronics group Sony.
Manufacturers like Sony and medium-sized company DEKOM (formerly ViDOFON) in Hamburg make use of the climate protection debate and argue that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by video conferencing because fewer business trips are needed. “Once it was an honour for executives to travel to New York twice a year,” says Jörg Weisflog, CEO of DEKOM (formerly ViDOFON). “Now, most find it a burden to fly overseas for a two-hour meeting every two months.”
Idle time transformed into active work time for employees
Sony representative Schanz argues that the new technology “transforms idle time into active work time for employees”. Instead of being stuck in the airport or hotel, after a video conference an employee can immediately sit back down at their desk and continue working. Weisflog’s only regret is that the Americans and Brits are quicker to accept the method of communication. “Germans are initially sceptical - as so often with new technology.” One reason for the quick acceptance in English-speaking countries could be that they use videos more frequently in everyday work, and that telephone conferences are also more common there.
And in this country, too, those employed by companies with global operations can hardly avoid video conferencing. Carl Zeiss AG has 39 systems in use around the world. Twenty of those are at the company’s headquarters in Oberkochen. “They’re well used,” says Zeiss spokesman Jörg Nitschke. Usage, he says, is “not hierarchy-dependent”. Anyone who wants to communicate with a colleague or customer at another location can book a room for this - whether they’re a subject specialist or a manager.
HR manager connected in job interviews
At network supplier Cisco Systems, HR managers are patched in to job interviews by video conference. At Sony and other groups, employees who have an office set up at home are included in conferences with the help of a camera and microphone. Even small and medium-sized businesses use this method of communication - particularly if they have international contacts or an affinity with the IT industry.
But video conferencing is not suitable for every business situation. They are not advisable for a company’s first contact with a new customer; a meeting in person should take place first. And in recruitment, the initial job interview by video conference is usually followed by a second interview with the candidate sitting opposite the HR manager. Personal impressions matter a great deal.
But for people who already know each other, video conferencing makes work easier. “When I speak to colleagues in our headquarters in Great Britain about prices and developing new products, I like to be able to see from their faces whether they’ve understood,” says Sony expert Schanz. People who only use the telephone in these situations can’t see that. They don’t know whether the other party is still listening, or if they’re checking their emails or cleaning their fingernails. Does the other person look sceptical or annoyed? Is there any misunderstanding? “Unlike a telephone conference, it’s also always clear who is speaking,” says communications trainer Carolin Ludemann from Stuttgart. The participants can indicate by a hand signal that they want to say something, and don’t need to interrupt each other.
At home and in top form
Thanks to technical progress, it is now actually possible to carefully study the other party’s facial expressions and gestures. The first generation conferencing systems produced rather indistinct pictures. Several manufactures are currently bringing devices onto the market which offer high definition quality, and the image detail is larger now too. “Many companies make sure that the conference rooms in their branches are set up in the same style,” reports Ludemann. A glance at the monitor tells an employee that their colleagues in Madrid and Paris have the same round tables, immediately making them feel at home and perform at their best.
Tips for video conferences
Text: F.A.Z., 8 March 2008, No. 58/page C5
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