Wonder what the current Big Thing in web collaboration is? Let me call your attention to these recent press releases:
There is no question that web conferencing vendors are hot to promote their video capabilities. I continue to urge caution however when deciding whether to add video to your webinars. Video tends to have the greatest positive impact on the upper and lower ends of the scale when you look at types of web conferences.
On the lower end you have peer-to-peer collaborative meetings. A fantastic opportunity to add the interpersonal touch provided by facial expressions and that extra sense of presence. Go for it!
On the high end you have professional quality webcasts shot in controlled environments with proper setup of sound, lighting, background, and cameras. Trained videographers make sure the presenters look their best. Incredibly powerful and satisfying for attendees. I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the benefits of video here.
But between those two extremes you get the vast majority of business webinars… These are usually given by overworked businesspersons without much presentation training. They don't rehearse their presentation enough because of time pressures. They are not used to the isolated experience of presenting via web, where you can't see audience reaction and response. They present from their cubicle, a conference room, or a hotel room. Video comes from a poorly adjusted webcam or a built-in laptop webcam shooting up into their nostrils. Overhead fluorescent lighting is harsh and casts shadows. They look nervous or distracted on camera. Instead of adding value to your webinar, video under these conditions will reduce your effectiveness and your perceived professionalism and will result in attendee dissatisfaction.
Video is not just tough on the presenters… It is tough from a technology standpoint when trying to create a universally satisfying attendee experience. Business webinars might reach audiences of anywhere from 50 to 5000 people. Hosts have no control over attendee technology. Some people have slow, outdated computers. Some are on overloaded network hubs or slow wi-fi connections. The problem of bringing a reliable, smooth video presentation to this diverse audience is a serious one.
To take one illustrative example, let's focus on Citrix's announcement about making HDFaces available for GoToWebinar and GoToTraining. I spoke to Cailin Pitcher, the Product Line Director for both products. The first thing I said to her was "19 months?!? Really??" I was referring to the fact that Citrix has had their HDFaces high definition video conferencing capability in GoToMeeting since August of 2011. It has taken 19 months to add the same functionality with the same underlying technology to their larger audience platforms.
And even at this point, video is only being offered to customers on plans that max out at a 100-person room capacity. Customers with larger 500 and 1,000 attendee plans can only use HDFaces under a beta agreement that limits the functionality to the first 100 attendees. Subsequent attendees will not see the video feed.
Cailin pointed out the obvious… It was simply harder than expected to bullet proof the video quality for larger, more diverse audiences than you get in a typical 25-person web meeting. I asked for details on how Citrix handles lower-speed/lower-quality connections from attendees. Citrix's Chief Technology Officer, Bernd Christiansen, followed up with some answers for me.
Bernd wrote that the HDFaces technology constantly monitors each user's connection parameters to apply an individually optimized video stream for that person, independent of what others see. People with connection problems will see a lower quality image. If that isn't sufficient, the resolution of the image will drop. As a last resort, the frame rate will be lowered, which can lead to juttery motion. Bernd said they wanted to avoid buffering, since this ruins the real-time, synchronous nature of a webinar.
I asked if the adjustments always seek downwards to the lowest acceptable level and stay there. I was pleased to hear that the system continues monitoring and if it detects an improvement in the connection, it steps up the video quality again. This is not always the case for competing products.
As you can see from the preceding paragraphs, comparing video performance between vendors can be a daunting task. It requires asking about and understanding concepts of computer video transmission that are technical in nature. The average technical support person or sales rep will have no idea how the video algorithms are implemented. And a simple test on your nice high speed connection with two or three people in the meeting room may be no indication of what happens when you have a large audience all trying to consume the video stream on sub-optimal equipment.
Video is here to stay. Vendors need to offer the functionality. It is good and right that we have the option to use it. But remember that it is still an option. Video is not right for every webinar, and you should take extra care before offering it in your presentations. Used correctly, it can be a tremendous communication asset.