Smile! You're on a videolink

It used to be science fiction, but now the video conference is an affordable reality for businesses, says JoJo Moyes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As industrial tribunals go, it was not unusual. A City employee claimed sexual harassment; her boss denied it. They sat at opposite ends of the conference table, flanked by lawyers and studiously avoiding eye contact.

All eyes, meanwhile, were on the witness, Martha Wilke Murray, the company's vice-president. Under cross-examination she became tense, relaxed, flicked through the case documents in front of her, and after two and a half hours of questioning, looked relieved to leave.

What made her cross-examination so compelling was the fact that she was more than 3,000 miles away, in Chicago. Her near-perfect image gazed out from a television screen at the end of the table, next to another screen that showed the conference room as it appeared to her. As the lawyer questioned her, a technician sat by him, fiddling with the controls of a small black box to ensure good sound and picture quality.

It was the first time that video conferencing had been used in a British industrial tribunal, and one of the few times it has been used here in court. That tribunal, insignificant to all but those involved, was testament to the fact that this technology, once the stuff of bad science fiction, is rapidly becoming everyday.

Videolinking has been used in child abuse trials to prevent the need for face-to-face confrontation (and to avoid the pitfalls of videotaped evidence) and in some high-profile court cases. The recent War Crimes Act included provision for such links to be used, owing to the age and fragility of many of the witnesses. But in general it has been considered too expensive or outlandish.

But growth and competition in the telecommunications market have meant that companies are finding video conferencing can be both useful and economic. Dale Langley, principal of the employment lawyers Langley & Co, who decided to use the tribunal's videolink, said it had been the best of three options because Ms Murray, who was one of the main witnesses, was pregnant.

"She was due to give birth a month after the hearing, and is in any case a very busy executive," said Mr Langley. "She was advised by her doctors not to travel to London, so we had the choice of postponing the hearing, or going ahead without her evidence, or taking it in statement form. But that would have meant that she could not be cross-examined. The advantage of the link was that it was contemporaneous."

The company used equipment made by the American telecoms company PictureTel. Unlike a satellite link, the equipment needs only to be hooked up to dedicated ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) telephone lines. Essentially, each ISDN "line" consists of a pair of high-speed phone lines with an extra control line.

To achieve the link, the analogue signals from the video camera are transformed into digital form and compressed by a device known as a codec (compression/ decompression). In this form the signals travel down the ISDN lines, and are then decompressed and retransformed into analogue form for television by the codec at the other end. In this case, to achieve the high-quality picture and sound, three ISDN lines were used simultaneously.

"I was very happy with the quality of it. There was a slight time delay, which was a little strange, but I don't believe it prejudiced the process of taking the evidence," said Mr Langley. The delay allows the video image, which is harder to compress, to arrive at the same time as the sound.

"The only disadvantage is that it's relatively expensive, although you have to compare that with the cost of shipping witnesses over. In a case where you have five witnesses, for example, the video conference would be much cheaper and less disruptive of their executive time," Mr Langley added.

Langley & Co rented the equipment from the Broadgate Business Centre. Although installing a two-way video link could cost between pounds 20,000 and pounds 40,000, the law firm was able to rent the equipment for pounds 150 per hour. On top of this, the firm had to pay for the telephone lines, which in this case meant two and a half hours' worth of transatlantic phone calls for six lines.

The affordability of telephone lines means that more than 3,000 British firms have now jumped on the video-conferencing bandwagon. The Gulf war sparked the first big boom in sales by disrupting the international travel plans of hundreds of companies.

Now people are finding other reasons to use them. Tanya Walsh, of GPT Communication Systems Ltd, uses a video to save going to meetings. It was better than the telephone, she says, as "you can get a feeling for people's facial expressions. If you're trying to discuss an idea on the telephone, for instance with a new client, you just don't get that.

"We actually recruited one of our video support specialists from a video company from the States and interviewed him over the video network," she added. "It was economical, and yet we got to talk face-to-face."

Ms Walsh believes the video-conferencing market has "definitely entered its growth period". More than 1,000 systems based on BT technology, for instance, were sold during the three months to June. And the technology is becoming increasingly affordable: BT's VC 7000, which can link up to 14 offices, costs pounds 6,000.

It appears that one of the biggest obstacles to widespread use is that to many people it still seems remote and fantastical. Georgia Smith, centre manager for the Broadgate Business Centre, anticipates rapid change.

"We've had it installed here since the beginning of the year and initially people were curious but now more and more people are using it," she says. "It's quite reliable and it's simply using telephone lines, rather than satellites, which are way out of the cost realm of most ordinary people.

"I think it's a bit like faxes. At the outset everyone said: 'It's not worth getting, as the other party won't have one.' But more and more people are getting interested and as soon as a few important players start using it, then everyone else will have to follow."