Three Myths About Videoconferencing

I was fortunate enough to cross paths with the senior editor of a well-respected technology magazine while I was over in London last week.  It was a far-ranging discussion, but on the flight back, I continued to think about the question he’d put to me regarding software that enables collaboration when we are together and how it relates to existing video teleconferencing systems.

You see, there has been relatively little technology developed that supports us when we are together with our colleagues, but a huge history of technologies that focus on when we aren’t in the room together. It’s a bit strange when you think about it until you realize videoconferencing fundamentally evolved from telephony and hasn’t shed user interaction models created in the 1960s. I’d also argue that developing software to better enable face-to-face collaboration is more difficult as it needs to enhance a basic human activity without detracting from it. If your collaboration software doesn’t help, you’ll simply fall back to pen and paper and face-to-face discussion. Videoconferencing gets a pass (How many of us have entered the PIN/phone number/country code/participant ID and wondered: Does it have to be this way?) because it’s technology that enables something you can’t do on your own.

In thinking about these things, it became clear that our (maybe overzealous) focus on remote meetings is based on some myths that have emerged over the years when using those systems. I’d like to see the AV, software and technology community dispel those myths. Here are three:

Myth 1: Most meetings require videoconferencing. This simply isn’t the case. Let’s define a meeting as at least two people who come together, however briefly, to accomplish a shared task within a finite window of time. This includes group decision making, status updates, consensus building, exploratory dialog and general collaboration. Now think about your day — how often are you doing this with your colleagues in your office, a huddle space, a hallway or a traditional conference room? Out of all those meetings, how many involved a participant that wasn’t in the room? It turns out that about 18-20 percent of meetings involve a remote participant. This data comes from reports from both Futuresource Consulting* and Wainhouse. This doesn’t mean that videoconferencing isn’t important. When you encounter a meeting that needs a remote user, it’s great. However, we shouldn’t design our workflows based on the myth that most meetings need videoconferencing.

Myth 2: Videoconferencing is important for most meeting types. This myth has been around awhile and can cause awkward behaviors — like using video conferencing for one-directional information transfer. Email is great at that. I’ve recently had a colleague that I’ve been working with for years (you know who you are!) Skype me at 8 a.m., and enable video to report the status of an upcoming release. At the end of the awkward early morning chat, I asked, “Can you put that in email?”

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Research shows that videoconferencing is very useful when building trust and rapport. It’s why early meetings often make use of video. When a working relationship is in the getting-to-know-you stage, video can help build trust and common ground — both very important components of collaboration. But most meeting types — decision making, updates, consensus building — are centered around important content and voice. Particularly when the meeting involves participants who already know each other well — content is king, not live video of participant faces. These meetings are outcome-oriented and as Jerry Maguire would say: “Show me the content!”

Myth 3: Videoconferencing at 1080p or 4K matters. Clarity and fidelity are great goals for any videoconferencing product, but there is little to no evidence that videoconferencing at high resolution impacts the value of a meeting. Of course, there is a threshold at which poor video quality will impact the call, but if we think about the purpose behind the video of remote participants — eye-contact, assessment of their interest level, emotional state and shared rapport — those things can be transmitted via video in surprisingly few pixels. This is something I know a little about based on my research in face recognition and tracking.

There is a tremendous amount of information contained in even small numbers of pixels of the human face that move over time in a video stream. When you combine that with our incredible ability to recognize expressions, it’s surprising how low resolution an image of a face can be and still be recognized. Take a look at the images below:

This woman’s expressions are clear. From left to right — neutral, happy but attending to something else, distracted and wry acceptance. All of this is contained in an image that is only 55 pixels high by 47 pixels wide. I’m being extreme to make a point here, but I think you get it.

What does the world look like when these myths are dispelled? In my opinion, it’ll allow us (the technologists) to build better products for ALL meeting types and to focus on what matters — making our meetings more productive, more enjoyable and more meaningful.

*“Corporate Meeting Room. End-User Perspective, Western Europe & US”, Anthony Brennan, Ben Davis, Chris Mcintyre-Brown, May 2018