Organizations spend enormous amounts of money on video conferencing systems, support personnel and training users to operate their video conferencing systems, but many users still have bad experiences. Users report a variety of issues including:
- The system is too confusing/complicated
- When they try to call, they don't get a connection
- In the middle of a call, the connection drops
- Echo, both of voices and images
- Frozen, blurry or scrambled images
All of this brings to mind the old joke "If Microsoft Designed GM Cars."
Why Video Conferences Break Down
Although to the user it seems like it should be as simple as a phone call, secure, high quality video conferencing entails an enormous amount of complexity.
- The Endpoint or Video Conferencing device -- could be any of a variety of devices, operating systems, or hardware architectures but needs to interact seamlessly with one, or several other endpoints, often with no prior "experience" connecting to the other endpoints. Many vendors address this problem by providing proprietary hardware, which is expensive, and creates the need for a separate support infrastructure.
- Network -- Public internet, VPN, MPLS, their are a variety of transport media that might be in use for given organization, and several different networks on a given call. Negotiating the hand-offs, providing error-correction on the Public internet are no small feat. Again, some vendors suggest that you buy giant, private network pipes to ensure consistent, high quality network availability. If you can afford it, there is no better solution. If you choose not to, hopefully your video conferencing vendor has thought about how to deal with networks that are more challenging.
- Security -- Security software, firewalls, and traffic filters are important tools to IT departments charged with keeping the infrastructure of an organization safe from external attack. But security poses additional challenges for video conferencing infrastructure. Ensuring that the correct ports are open, or that firewalls, proxy servers and NAT can be negotiated is an ongoing challenge.
- Multi-media -- Unlike most applications, video conferencing includes transmission of audio, video, and often desktop content. A typical application moves data from A to B, and may even be interactive, but not across three separate media that use different standards.
- Real-time -- Saving the best for last...all of the above has to happen in real-time to provide a "like you are there" experience. Our eyes and ears are incredibly sensitive to the differences from "normal" communication. There are various tricks to overcome some of these challenges, but they inevitably dull-down the experience with less interactive audio, or less crisp video. To have a true, real-time interaction, your video conferencing system needs to make the stars align for all the factors above in microseconds.
In this complicated mix of technologies, how do you isolate user error vs. video conferencing technology vs. other factors?
It is hard to do and like most things, the more experience you have with the tool, the more likely your are to be able to tell instinctually whether you are having network trouble, software trouble, security trouble, etc. At VeaMea we have built a statistics panel into the system so user's can monitor what is happening and diagnose problems.
The world of self-evident, self-aware and network-aware software is coming closer, but we still have a ways to go. In the interim, for the 99% of the time that video conferencing works as expected, it provides a significant step forward over a telephone or getting on a plane to go meet in person.
What was your most frustrating video conferencing experience?