For 10 years, their distance learning business, Web-Centric Alternative Certification Program, of Cypress, Texas, had been using a limited number of Polycom ViewStations, an expensive room-based videoconferencing system that didnt operate over dial-up. As a result, said Bob Brackett, WCACPs program director, the stations got little use.
That changed in 2005, when the Bracketts adopted a free-to-low-cost desktop videoconferencing solution from SightSpeed, of Berkeley, Calif. Now, their 175 students—from any location—can use videoconferencing to communicate with the Bracketts.
"[SightSpeed] enables us to connect with our students as if we were in a classroom setting," said Nancy Brackett, WCACPs executive director. In the past, training was done asynchronously, not in real time. With SightSpeed, Bob said, "[were able] to do more face to face than read and do."
A tool for training, videoconferencing also can be used to better understand what co-workers are trying to say.
Brian Lange, founder of San Diego-based Perim Consulting, provides executive consulting and training to companies. As a user of SightSpeed, he said he not only uses it to connect with clients but also with his colleagues in the companys Philadelphia office. Now that he has video, Lange said he is able to interpret previously unseen communication.
When talking to his co-worker, Doug Shupinski, in Philadelphia, Lange said, "I can watch his reaction … his hesitation. I catch the nonverbal signals that are difficult to catch in just audio communications."
For some businesses, videoconferencing has become a standard communications tool for conducting meetings.
Volter Lelli, an IT manager at Think3, a Cincinnati-based three-dimensional-software development company, uses Skype Technologies multiparty videoconferencing Skype add-on known as Festoon, from Santa Cruz Networks, of Campbell, Calif. Lelli concurred with Langes estimation of the extended value of seeing who youre communicating with.
"[With Festoon,] I can see if you understand me or dont understand me," Lelli said.
"I couldnt be doing this job effectively if I simply had audio conference calling," said Peter Csathy, SightSpeeds CEO, who uses his companys videoconferencing tool to run his Northern California small business from his home in San Diego. "I can stay in touch with them and have a deeper form of communication that allows me to run a company. That kind of intimacy is unique to visual communications."
Videoconferencing for small and midsize businesses is not new. Whats new is that theyre actually using it.
"Weve tried a number of kinds of videoconferencing. The quality hasnt always been what we wanted," said Jim Sailer, senior director of corporate affairs at the Population Council, in New York. The international reproductive health organization—with 18 offices around the world—had tried Microsofts NetMeeting but now uses Skype videoconferencing, a feature made available with the release of Skype Version 2.0.
"[Skype] enables us to have a very low-cost way of connecting with people when its obviously time-intensive and resource-intensive to travel," Sailer said.
SightSpeeds Csathy, who said he first marketed his product to consumers and then to businesses, said he welcomes the competition from other consumer-level instant messaging and peer-to-peer VOIP (voice over IP) applications that have integrated video.
Today, Csathy estimates that approximately 30 percent of his customers are business users. SightSpeed Chief Operating Officer and President J. Scott Lomond adds that many are seeking inexpensive video communications for disparate international offices.
Population Councils Sailer said he sees his organization actually increasing its level of communication simply because of the availability of Skype videoconferencing.
"It encourages you to have videoconferences [that] are slightly more formal," Sailer said.
Beyond using SightSpeed as a tool to sell their service, the Bracketts hope the technology will empower these new educators to transform their knowledge into the classroom.
"[We] want to greet these young people (the students)—generation M—with the world that they know instead of a slate and a piece of chalk," Nancy said.
Rick Lillie, a lecturer and accounting program coordinator at California State University in San Bernardino, studies how to converge technologies in ways to deliver distance learning. He uses Festoon to teach accounting to his students.
"Theyre learning a great deal about how to use technology as an ordinary tool. [By using Festoon], they get over the fear of videoconferencing, audio conferencing, working together in groups," Lillie said.
Lelli and his colleagues use Festoon to conduct weekly meetings with up to 15 people. When Think3 conducts global company communications, there can be as many as 50 users on a video call, Lelli said.
Live, face-to-face chat is not the only reason to use video. Lange said he uses video e-mail to introduce himself to his clients and for ongoing communications. He said he believes its use gives him an edge over the competition.
"It is the personal connection. It is managing expectations ahead of time. And, quite frankly, theres a coolness factor to it," Lange said.
Sailer hopes video calls become standard for the Population Council. "If I have a sense that they have the system and the camera to do it, I would prefer video in every case," Sailer said.
David Spark is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.