The Evolution of the Conference Call

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The conference call is a common component of the average communication stack in many modern businesses. If you need to get in touch with a group of people fast, and an in-office meeting isn’t appropriate, it’s incredibly simple to get everyone dialed into a shared virtual conference room. 

The arrival of new technology even means that many companies are beginning to discover the advantages of video conferencing for the first time. Simpler connections and user-friendly tools have made the provisioning of video conferencing technology easier than ever. 

However, the conference call hasn’t always been the immersive solution that we have today. When we explore the evolution of this technology over the years, it’s easy to see just how significant the transformation has been. 

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From Audio to Video: The Communication Revolution

In basic terms, a conference call provides a platform through which numerous people can connect to each other at the same time. 

The earliest instance of a conference call happened in Bulgaria, with the Jordanphone designed by Asen Yordanoff in 1945. The wireless device could transmit voice on a standard phone to a loudspeaker, so that various people could hear the person at the other end of the conversation. 

Bell Labs then became the first company to work on the larger concept of telephone conferencing in 1956. In 1960, AT&T picked up on the idea and dabbled with teleconferencing. With AT&T’s creation, users were able to communicate through three phones lines managing audio and video. There was even a picture on a very small screen that appeared every two seconds. However, the device was bulky, expensive, and not very easy to adopt in the corporate world. 

The AT&T PicturePhone didn’t give us a very good introduction to the possibilities of video conferencing. However, it did get people thinking about what video conferencing solutions could potentially do for the business world. Being able to see someone from the other side of the world on your phone was an exciting idea in the 1960s. 

It took a while for companies to find the innovation required to make video conferencing a more achievable reality, however. The idea of video didn’t have a chance to go mainstream until the 1980s when systems began to be introduced from Compression Labs. These systems sold for about $250,000, meaning that they were only available to larger corporations. However, there was definitely a demand for video elsewhere. People were excited by the idea of being able to communicate with groups and individuals through voice and video at the same time. We wanted an evolution to the audio conference. 

IBM dropped the price of their video systems to $20,000, and other companies began to experiment with the latest advancements in IP technology, video compression, and internet streaming. In 1992, Cornell University’s IT department introduced the CU-SeeMe application – the first video conferencing application in the world at that point. At the same time, AT&T introduced their videophone for home use – the AT&T videophone 2500. 

By 1993, the World Wide Web had entered the public domain, and PictureTel was introducing new products that converted the standard PC into videophones with camera technology. In 1994, the world’s first webcam was born, offering 16 shades of grey for video transmission. By 1995, PictureTel was able to conduct the world’s largest multipoint global dial-up conference using video with more than 50 sites worldwide. 

The Rapid Development of Video Conferencing

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By the late 90s, the drive to create better video conferencing experiences was more significant than ever. In 1996 alone, the BT Presence desktop phone was introduced – offering a unique 6-inch colour touchscreen with seven frames per second. At the same time, Panasonic was building the world’s first cordless video phone, and Microsoft was building their “NetMeeting” service. 

As we moved into the new century, 2001 brought with it the arrival of “Operation Lindbergh”, the first telesurgery ever to be conducted through a video connection. By 2003, all major instant messaging clients, including AOL and Yahoo, came with video calling support. Skype even introduced video call solutions for up to 25 people at a time. 

Later in the 2000s, the quality of video conferencing began to evolve. Polycom introduced the first HD video conferencing system in 2006, and in 2010, tools like Apple Facetime became available, making video more of a mainstream concept for the masses. In less than 20 years, video went from being something only available to the largest brands, to something that everyone could access at the tap of a button on their smartphones. 

Companies worldwide were starting to recognise the benefits of video conferencing as a tool for immersive communication. We saw that video could build on the average conference call by giving us access to a much deeper connection. An online video conference could eliminate the need for world-wide travel and help teams around the world work together, wherever they were. The world’s highest-ever video call was made on Mount Everest in 2013

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As the years went on, companies like RingCentral invested more time and effort into the possibilities of video-conferencing software. We discovered how to create more crystal-clear images and combine them with high-quality audio. We innovated until we discovered things like smart framing tools and intelligent focus to bring more depth into the images provided in each conference. All the while, as the technology improved, it became more accessible too. 

Video calling today is no longer reserved just for those with the best budgets or the strongest tech team. Tools like RingCentral Meetings offer businesses of all sizes the chance to video conference anywhere, using HD images and enterprise-quality voice. 

3 Major Innovations That Transformed the Conference Call

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In a world brimming with trends like globalisation and dispersed workforces, video conferencing is more valuable today than it has ever been. Through video-conferencing equipment, remote and mobile workers can stay connected to their peers wherever they are. 

At the same time, video conferencing solutions can expand into the customer service environment too. The advantages of video conferencing can include everything from better customer experiences, to faster response times. It’s no wonder that the market for video conferencing is set to reach $6.7 billion by 2025. 

While there have clearly been many changes that contributed to the evolution of conference video calls and software over the years, three major innovations have been crucial to shaping the way that we communicate. These were:

1. Central Exchange

The conference call has been around for a lot longer than most people realise. The first conference call was made in 1915, and cost an average of $485 per minute. However, hosting conference calls today isn’t as ridiculously expensive as it used to be, thanks to the central exchange. The central exchange means that there’s less routing required over hundreds of switches to get everyone connected on the same platform. Fewer lines were required to connect callers after this, making the conference call more accessible to all. 

2. Digital Conference Bridges

As the technology available in the communication landscape evolved, we moved into a more digital world. For many years, companies were reliant on analogue audio bridges to transfer voice from one environment to another. Unfortunately, these analogue systems weren’t great at delivering the enterprise-quality voice that we rely on today. Attempts to amplify audio often led to noise interference, making it difficult to hear what other people said. Digital audio bridges now make it possible to mute lines that would otherwise add background noise. This means that we get more clarity in our calls, less background noise, and increased call capacity. 

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3. Internet Audio Codecs

Finally, while digital audio bridges initiated the movement away from the analogue conference call, internet codecs magnified that value even further. Internet audio codecs compress and decompress files using advanced algorithms. This meant that larger packets of information could be sent across the web without compromising on audio quality. Internet codecs also led to the rise of video codecs for conferencing. This allowed for video data packages, just like audio packages, to be transmitted by video-conferencing software and equipment.

Today, the internet and the right codecs mean that modern teams can access truly collaborative experiences over the web. The rise of meetings tools has begun, allowing for real-time collaboration with video, screen sharing, and audio all combined into a simple, cost-effective, and lightweight service. 

Here’s What Video Conferencing Can Offer Today

At the beginning of conferencing history, video was a complex concept. 

Even years after video was introduced as a method of communication, businesses still had a hard time finding the cash required to invest in such advanced technology. Now, we’re entering a brand-new world, where anyone can access video, without having to worry about excessive expenses or complicated tech. 

In the age of digital transformation, defined by dispersed workforces, global communication, and remote working, we’re all embracing the benefits of video conferencing. Not only that, but we’re discovering new ways to improve the way that video conferences are held. For instance, with the right meeting software you can:

  • Access HD video instantly: There are no more grainy pictures or black-and-white images to worry about with today’s video conferencing. Companies can immediately and easily dial into high-quality conferences at a moment’s notice. There’s even the option to download an app straight to your phone so that you can access a conference without a specialist device. 
  • Share content and screens: Video conferencing is now just one piece of a comprehensive collaboration puzzle. Through meeting tools, businesses can host large training sessions and conferences, or manage one-on-one interactions with team members. At the same time, they can share files, screens, and documents in real-time to bring more context to the conversation. 
  • Connect additional technology: Speaking of adding context to meetings, there are various tools beyond the standard webcam and conference phone to add to the modern meeting. Today’s employees have access to things like digital whiteboards, where they can share information and visual ideas in real time. You can even connect your meetings to smart devices that take notes on the behalf of attendees and schedule future meetings. 
  • Integrate with other software: As video-conferencing software becomes more accessible, it’s also becoming more extendable. Today’s video conferencing software can integrate with everything from file sharing tools to CRM systems, so people can access all the information they need for an effective meeting in the same pane of glass.
  • Build immersive rooms: Video conferencing rooms no longer have to be expensive and huge boardrooms. The rise of technology like RingCentral Rooms means that businesses can build HD telepresence huddle rooms in seconds. There’s even access to things like seamless calendar integrations so you can schedule and start video-boosted meetings with a tap on an Android or Apple device. 
  • Stay flexible: If companies already have on-premise telepresence endpoints in their business, they don’t have to rip and replace them to access the latest in video conferencing. Systems like the RingCentral Room Connector mean that you can just connect the system to the cloud to link into any RingCentral Meeting. 
  • Access crucial information: Your video conferencing systems can also provide in-depth information on how your teams use their telepresence equipment. Many video conferencing software solutions now come with access to technology that allows for the development of insightful reports on employee adoption and use. 

The Trends Driving the Evolution of Video-Conferencing Equipment

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So, why is video conferencing growing at such a phenomenal pace?

One obvious answer is that globalisation is present in virtually every industry. As the digital world has evolved and the internet has become more immersive, IT is empowering consumers and businesses alike to reach further out into the world. 75% of international calls are now made over the internet, highlighting the fact that we can now connect virtually with almost anyone. 

Additionally, it’s worth noting that people are more comfortable with video today than they ever have been. When video conferencing first emerged in the marketplace, it was a novelty – but not something that most businesses felt they needed. However, as workplaces grew more dispersed, and new generations arrived in the workforce, the demand for video grew. Around half of all smartphone users now make video calls on their phones. Younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z expect to be able to communicate face-to-face, even when they’re not in the same space as their colleagues. 

Video apps and chat apps have shown us how convenient it is to communicate via video. As such, companies are beginning to take the following trends and push them into the video conferencing experience:

1. User Experience 

Now that today’s workers can see just how simple video conferencing can be with things like Apple FaceTime, they expect the same kind of convenience in today’s video-conferencing equipment. Companies rolling out video technology for the modern employee need to make sure that they’re not just delivering the latest functionality, but the easiest usability too. The easier it is for people to tap into your video conferencing tools, the less you’ll need to worry about some of the most common concerns usually associated with having a conference video call, like adoption. 

Part of developing that excellent user experience will also be ensuring that the video system works seamlessly with the tools that your employees already know and love. Interoperability emerged as a crucial trend within the conference call environment in 2019. In 2020, businesses will likely continue to focus on integrations with third-party video software, equipment, and other tools. 

Additionally, it’s worth ensuring that your video systems can work with the latest collaboration services too. Collaboration and team tools like RingCentral Glip are at the heart of many business communication plans today. A video system that can work at a click from within a collaboration service will deliver incredible UX. 

2. Mobility is Essential

We’re moving into a world where today’s employees don’t necessarily have to be chained to a desk to get work done. It’s more common than ever for people to work outside the office. Businesses from all industries are taking advantage of the benefits of video conferencing to help them connect with remote and mobile workers worldwide. 

Through video conferencing, it’s possible for companies to access the best talent wherever they might be, and keep those employees immersed within the business culture. However, the only way to allow for this mobile revolution is to ensure that you have the right video technology in place. This means that organisations will need to think about more than just video conferencing rooms. 

It will be important for future staff members to be able to dial into a video conference using the service available on their phone, without having to worry about downloading specific software on their computers. Click-to-call functionality and easy conferencing for team members on the go will be essential in the modern workplace. 

At the same time, however, it’s worth making sure that the video conferencing software you choose doesn’t offer mobility at the expense of security. Just because you can access your service from any device that you need to, doesn’t mean that you should be compromising on safety. 

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3. Flexibility Is a Must-Have

Finally, the flexibility of the cloud has truly transformed the way that we communicate via video conference calls. Studies suggest that around 90% of today’s organisations are using cloud technology in some format. Additionally, around 47% of companies have moved their messaging platforms to the cloud to allow for simpler and more scalable communication strategies. 

Accessing video conferencing as part of a complete cloud-based solution for unified communications will allow tomorrow’s companies to obtain a more flexible environment for their workers and their communication stack. At the same time, meeting on the cloud will mean that modern brands can access more information about their video conferencing calls too. 

Much of the best video conferencing software comes with access to analytics and data that you can collect on the cloud and transform into actionable insights. You could even find out where the bottlenecks in communication and collaboration are for your team members. 

The more information today’s businesses have about their teams and their collaboration and communication preferences, the more they can strengthen future strategies. 

Web Conferencing vs Video Conferencing

To fully understand video conferencing and what it means to the modern world, it’s important to recognise that video conferencing and web conferencing aren’t the same thing. 

Though awareness and understanding of video conferencing is growing, there are still people that confuse this technology with other forms of communication. Very often, web and video conferencing are seen as the same thing, referred to by different names. However:

Video conferencing is a two-way visual and audio communication strategy that involves sharing content between two or more people. The video stream is sent between different locations, and often requires the setup of crucial endpoint equipment like cameras, speakers, or even a phone at each end of the conversation. Video conferencing software provides a real-time linkup between participants over the internet in a way that feels very similar to a face-to-face meeting environment. 

Used correctly, video conferencing allows teams to conduct highly effective and interactive meetings, which make it feel as though you’re connecting with your colleagues face-to-face. 

Web conferencing, on the other hand, is more about sharing information. While a web conference can include video and audio communication, the entrance point is always a web browser. Endpoints are usually represented by the web browser using something called WebRTC technology, or third-party plugins and applications. Some people refer to web conferencing as “webinars.” 

While the main aim of video conferencing is face-to-face communications, web conferencing is all about sharing details and providing information. Companies often use web conferencing to host impromptu meetings over a browser or deliver large amounts of information to a group. 

The Difference Between Web Conferencing and Video Conferencing

Video conferencing systems require the installation of special equipment or applications, and they can work without any internet connection if necessary. However, they always require a server to control multipoint conferencing sessions. Depending on the capabilities of the system, companies can use video conferencing to organise different kinds of conferences, including web conferences. 

Here are a few main differences between web and video conferencing:

Feature Web conferencing Video conferencing
Application Presentations, training, distance education. Regular and occasional meetings, discussions, and negotiations. 
Integrations  Calendars Virtually any software or system.
Conference room use From laptop or desktop Via any dedicated endpoint
Number of viewers Unlimited Based on server capacity
Number of speakers 1 or 2  Based on server capacity
Security/confidentiality Easy link access High level of control and authorisation
Internet connection Mandatory Optional
Purpose Content sharing Communication 

 

Video conferencing can be organised either through the internet or within a company’s local network. The deployment usually requires some basic equipment, including a camera, PC, and a microphone. It’s also possible to expand system capabilities using speakerphones, high-quality cameras, and other tools. For web conferencing, internet connections are mandatory, as the conference is hosted via a browser. Most web conferencing platforms come with a broad set of features, including telephony, recording, participant registration and so on. 

While the main purpose of web conferencing is to show presentations and host live events, video conferencing can be a substitute for business trips. It brings people together for an instant and intimate communication through a technology that mimics face-to-face interaction. 

Why Do Businesses Prefer Video Conferencing?

So, what makes video conferencing such an excellent choice for businesses today?

Simply put, we’re living in an era where people are connected constantly by technology. We now have access to a much more sophisticated set of solutions for communication. People can interact with each other using various electronic media, and this paves the way for businesses and corporations to connect better with employees and partners alike. 

Here are just some of the biggest benefits of video conferencing. 

1. Video Is Great for the Era of Mobility

The demand for mobile has continued to grow in recent years, particularly as employees are now looking for more flexibility in their careers. Going forward, we can expect to see more remote workers entering the marketplace. Additionally, businesses will want to take advantage of the telecommuting landscape so that they can access the people with the best skills to help them grow their businesses. As the workplace becomes more digital, video will ensure that today and tomorrow’s employees can stay connected to the workforce wherever they are. Video will reduce the isolation that many team members feel when they miss out on face-to-face in person conversations. 

2. Video Allows for Better Conversations

As methods of communication become more digital, it’s easy for miscommunication to be a problem within the business landscape. In many emails and texts today, people tend to fill in the blanks for themselves, adding facial expressions and inflections to the words that they’re reading. This can even happen during phone calls when people can’t see the smile of their colleague. A key benefit of video is that it allows us to see the non-verbal communication that we’re missing. This allows for the development of better relationships between colleagues, coworkers, and customers. 

3. Video Keeps Employees Happy

Ultimately, today’s team members want access to video in their communication stack. Studies have shown that a solution that integrates email, video, telephony, and instant messaging is highly desirable in the modern landscape. People want to be able to choose how they communicate each day. Sometimes, the best way to send a message will be through a quick instant message on a team collaboration app. Other times, it will be essential to use video to bring more information and context to a conversation. Either way, adding video to your strategy will ensure that your employees have access to the tools they need for better collaboration. 

4. Video Creates Better Meetings

Aside from just displaying body language and non-verbal communication to allow for better connections between workers, videos can also deliver extra information in a conference in other ways. For instance, when in a video conference, team members can use virtual whiteboards to demonstrate ideas in a more engaging format for their colleagues. They can also show the product or graph that they’re talking about, rather than just sending pictures over email. 

Teams can also combine their video conferencing strategy with other tools like file sharing and calendar systems to make every meeting more structured and cohesive. 

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5. Video Saves Time and Money

Finally, in-person conversations will always be a necessary part of business. Sometimes, some discussions just can’t be had over the phone or sent via email. In the past, businesses have had to rely heavily on extensive travel to make these face-to-to-face conversations possible. However, this means taking large chunks of money out of the company budget to allow for air travel and other expenses. 

At the same time, when crucial executives are travelling around the country to engage in meetings, they can’t also be focussing on the tasks that they’re usually responsible for in the office. However, with video conferencing, it’s possible to host face-to-face meetings, without having to travel across the globe. Once a close and intimate conversation is required, video conferencing can provide all the context and body language you would get if you were there in person, without the expense or the lost productivity. 

The Future Is in Video

We’ve come a long way from the days when video conferencing solutions were reserved only for the most innovative and budget-rich companies in the market. Today, businesses of all shapes and sizes can embrace the benefits of video conferencing without having to break the bank. 

Simple meeting solutions that make it easier for team members to connect over video at the click of a button are transforming the way that internal teams collaborate. At the same time, the ability to host conversations over video also means that companies can strengthen the relationships that they have with customers and clients without as much global travel. 

As we continue to develop the possibilities of video conferencing with new HD streaming services, AI, and intelligent integrations, it’s fair to say that video conferencing will only become more appealing in the years to come. If you haven’t invested in the video revolution yet, now is the time to get started. 

Sunny Dhami, Director of Product Marketing for RingCentral

Author

Sunny Dhami is the Senior Director, EMEA Product Marketing & GTM for RingCentral, the leader in cloud communication solutions and is responsible for driving and delivering the messaging strategy, GTM and positioning across the EMEA business and strategic partners. Sunny has a passion to create differentiation and value for the customer and to share this through messaging and positioning, during his time at RingCentral he has successfully led major product launches across EMEA and APAC.

Sunny has extensive Marketing experience across SaaS, Telecommunications and Technology sectors within companies such as Vodafone, Reed Elsevier, Calor Gas and SapientNitro. Dhami is a student of Marketing having earned his BA in Business Management and following this up with an MA in Advertising and Marketing.

In his spare time Sunny enjoys learning about tech, playing sports and travelling.