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How does Video Conferencing work?

Videoconferencing is the conduct of a videoconference (also known as a video conference or videoteleconference) by a set of telecommunication technologies which allow two or more locations to communicate by simultaneous two-way video and audio transmissions. It has also been called 'visual collaboration' and is a type of groupware.

Videoconferencing differs from videophone calls in that it's designed to serve a conference or multiple locations rather than individuals. It is an intermediate form of videotelephony, first deployed commercially in the United States by AT&T during the early 1970s as part of their development of Picturephone technology.

With the introduction of relatively low cost, high capacity broadband telecommunication services in the late 1990s, coupled with powerful computing processors and video compression techniques, videoconferencing usage has made significant inroads in business, education, medicine and media.

Technology

Dual display: An older Polycom VSX 7000 system and camera used for videoconferencing, with two displays for simultaneous broadcast from separate locations (2008). Various components and the camera of a LifeSize Communications Room 220 high definition multipoint system (2010).

The core technology used in a videoconferencing system is digital compression of audio and video streams in real time. The hardware or software that performs compression is called a codec (coder/decoder). Compression rates of up to 1:500 can be achieved. The resulting digital stream of 1s and 0s is subdivided into labeled packets, which are then transmitted through a digital network of some kind (usually ISDN or IP). The use of audio modems in the transmission line allow for the use of POTS, or the Plain Old Telephone System, in some low-speed applications, such as videotelephony, because they convert the digital pulses to/from analog waves in the audio spectrum range.

The other components required for a videoconferencing system include:

There are basically two kinds of videoconferencing systems:

  1. Dedicated systems have all required components packaged into a single piece of equipment, usually a console with a high quality remote controlled video camera. These cameras can be controlled at a distance to pan left and right, tilt up and down, and zoom. They became known as PTZ cameras. The console contains all electrical interfaces, the control computer, and the software or hardware-based codec. Omnidirectional microphones are connected to the console, as well as a TV monitor with loudspeakers and/or a video projector. There are several types of dedicated videoconferencing devices:
    1. Large group videoconferencing are non-portable, large, more expensive devices used for large rooms and auditoriums.
    2. Small group videoconferencing are non-portable or portable, smaller, less expensive devices used for small meeting rooms.
    3. Individual videoconferencing are usually portable devices, meant for single users, have fixed cameras, microphones and loudspeakers integrated into the console.
  2. Desktop systems are add-ons (hardware boards, usually) to normal PCs, transforming them into videoconferencing devices. A range of different cameras and microphones can be used with the board, which contains the necessary codec and transmission interfaces. Most of the desktops systems work with the H.323 standard. Videoconferences carried out via dispersed PCs are also known as e-meetings.

Conferencing layers

The components within a Conferencing System can be divided up into several different layers: User Interface, Conference Control, Control or Signal Plane and Media Plane.

Video Conferencing User Interfaces could either be graphical or voice responsive. Many of us have encountered both types of interfaces, normally we encounter graphical interfaces on the computer or television, and Voice Responsive we normally get on the phone, where we are told to select a number of choices by either saying it or pressing a number. User interfaces for conferencing have a number of different uses; it could be used for scheduling, setup, and making the call. Through the User Interface the administrator is able to control the other three layers of the system.

Conference Control performs resource allocation, management and routing. This layer along with the User Interface creates meetings (scheduled or unscheduled) or adds and removes participants from a conference.

Control (Signaling) Plane contains the stacks that signal different endpoints to create a call and/or a conference. Signals can be, but aren't limited to, H.323 and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) Protocols. These signals control incoming and outgoing connections as well as session parameters.

The Media Plane controls the audio and video mixing and streaming. This layer manages Real-Time Transport Protocols, User Datagram Packets (UDP) and Real-Time Transport Control Protocols (RTCP). The RTP and UDP normally carry information such the payload type which is the type of codec, frame rate, video size and many others. RTCP on the other hand acts as a quality control Protocol for detecting errors during streaming.

Multipoint videoconferencing

Simultaneous videoconferencing among three or more remote points is possible by means of a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU). This is a bridge that interconnects calls from several sources (in a similar way to the audio conference call). All parties call the MCU unit, or the MCU unit can also call the parties which are going to participate, in sequence. There are MCU bridges for IP and ISDN-based videoconferencing. There are MCUs which are pure software, and others which are a combination of hardware and software. An MCU is characterised according to the number of simultaneous calls it can handle, its ability to conduct transposing of data rates and protocols, and features such as Continuous Presence, in which multiple parties can be seen on-screen at once. MCUs can be stand-alone hardware devices, or they can be embedded into dedicated videoconferencing units.

The MCU consists of two logical components:

  1. A single multipoint controller (MC), and
  2. Multipoint Processors (MP), sometimes referred to as the mixer.

The MC controls the conferencing while it is active on the signaling plane, which is simply where the system manages conferencing creation, endpoint signaling and in-conferencing controls. This component negotiates parameters with every endpoint in the network and controls conferencing resources While the MC controls resources and signaling negotiations, the MP operates on the media plane and receives media from each endpoint. The MP generates output streams from each endpoint and redirects the information to other endpoints in the conference.

Some systems are capable of multipoint conferencing with no MCU, stand-alone, embedded or otherwise. These use a standards-based H.323 technique known as "decentralized multipoint", where each station in a multipoint call exchanges video and audio directly with the other stations with no central "manager" or other bottleneck. The advantages of this technique are that the video and audio will generally be of higher quality because they don't have to be relayed through a central point. Also, users can make ad-hoc multipoint calls without any concern for the availability or control of an MCU. This added convenience and quality comes at the expense of some increased network bandwidth, because every station must transmit to every other station directly.

Videoconferencing modes

Videoconferencing systems use several common operating modes:

  1. Voice-Activated Switch (VAS);
  2. Continuous Presence.

In VAS mode, the MCU switches which endpoint can be seen by the other endpoints by the levels of one's voice. If there are four people in a conference, the only one that will be seen in the conference is the site which is talking; the location with the loudest voice will be seen by the other participants.

Continuous Presence mode displays multiple participants at the same time. The MP in this mode takes the streams from the different endpoints and puts them all together into a single video image. In this mode, the MCU normally sends the same type of images to all participants. Typically these types of images are called - layouts - and can vary depending on the number of participants in a conference.

Echo cancellation

A fundamental feature of professional videoconferencing systems is Acoustic Echo Cancellation (AEC). Echo can be defined as the reflected source wave interference with new wave created by source. AEC is an algorithm which is able to detect when sounds or utterances reenter the audio input of the videoconferencing codec, which came from the audio output of the same system, after some time delay. If unchecked, this can lead to several problems including:

  1. the remote party hearing their own voice coming back at them (usually significantly delayed)
  2. strong reverberation, rendering the voice channel useless as it becomes hard to understand and
  3. howling created by feedback. Echo cancellation is a processor-intensive task that usually works over a narrow range of sound delays.


Technical and other issues

Computer security experts have shown that poorly configured or inadequately supervised videoconferencing system can permit an easy 'virtual' entry by computer hackers and criminals into company premises and corporate boardrooms, via their own videoconferencing systems.

Some observers argue that three outstanding issues have prevented videoconferencing from becoming a standard form of communication, despite the ubiquity of videoconferencing-capable systems. These issues are:

  1. Eye contact: Eye contact plays a large role in conversational turn-taking, perceived attention and intent, and other aspects of group communication. While traditional telephone conversations give no eye contact cues, many videoconferencing systems are arguably worse in that they provide an incorrect impression that the remote interlocutor is avoiding eye contact. Some telepresence systems have cameras located in the screens that reduce the amount of parallax observed by the users. This issue is also being addressed through research that generates a synthetic image with eye contact using stereo reconstruction.
    Telcordia Technologies, formerly Bell Communications Research, owns a patent for eye-to-eye videoconferencing using rear projection screens with the video camera behind it, evolved from a 1960s U.S. military system that provided videoconferencing services between the White House and various other government and military facilities. This technique eliminates the need for special cameras or image processing.
  2. Appearance consciousness: A second psychological problem with videoconferencing is being on camera, with the video stream possibly even being recorded. The burden of presenting an acceptable on-screen appearance is not present in audio-only communication. Early studies by Alphonse Chapanis found that the addition of video actually impaired communication, possibly because of the consciousness of being on camera.
  3. Signal latency: The information transport of digital signals in many steps need time. In a telecommunicated conversation, an increased latency (time lag) larger than about 150 - 300 ms becomes noticeable and is soon observed as unnatural and distracting. Therefore, next to a stable large bandwidth, a small total round-trip time is another major technical requirement for the communication channel for interactive videoconferencing.

The issue of eye-contact may be solved with advancing technology, and presumably the issue of appearance consciousness will fade as people become accustomed to videoconferencing.

Standards

The Tandberg E20 is an example of a SIP-only device. Such devices need to route calls through a Video Communication Server to be able to reach H.323 systems, a process known as "interworking" (2009).

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (formerly: Consultative Committee on International Telegraphy and Telephony (CCITT)) has three umbrellas of standards for videoconferencing:

The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), a non-profit alliance between communications vendors, launched in May 2010. The organization's vision is to maximize the interoperability of UC based on existing standards. Founding members of UCIF include HP, Microsoft, Polycom, Logitech/LifeSize Communications and Juniper Networks.

Videotelephony descriptive names & terminology

Videophone calls (also: videocalls and video chat), differ from videoconferencing in that they expect to serve individuals, not groups. However that distinction has become increasingly blurred with technology improvements such as increased bandwidth and sophisticated software clients that can allow for multiple parties on a call. In general everyday usage the term videoconferencing is now frequently used instead of videocall for point-to-point calls between two units. Both videophone calls and videoconferencing are also now commonly referred to as a video link.

Webcams are popular, relatively low cost devices which can provide live video and audio streams via personal computers, and can be used with many software clients for both video calls and videoconferencing.

A videoconference system is generally higher cost than a videophone and deploys greater capabilities. A videoconference (also known as a videoteleconference) allows two or more locations to communicate via live, simultaneous two-way video and audio transmissions. This is often accomplished by the use of a multipoint control unit (a centralized distribution and call management system) or by a similar non-centralized multipoint capability embedded in each videoconferencing unit. Again, technology improvements have circumvented traditional definitions by allowing multiple party videoconferencing via web-based applications. A separate webpage article is devoted to videoconferencing.

A telepresence system is a high-end videoconferencing system and service usually employed by enterprise-level corporate offices. Telepresence conference rooms use state-of-the art room designs, video cameras, displays, sound-systems and processors, coupled with high-to-very-high capacity bandwidth transmissions.

Typical uses of the various technologies described above include videocalling or videoconferencing on a one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many basis for personal, business, educational, deaf Video Relay Service and tele-medical, diagnostic and rehabilitative use or services. New services utilizing videocalling and videoconferencing, such as teachers and psychologists conducting online sessions, personal videocalls to inmates incarcerated in penitentiaries, and videoconferencing to resolve airline engineering issues at maintenance facilities, are being created or evolving on an on-going basis.

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