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The History of Video Conferencing

The following commentary is provided by Nefsis regarding the history of video conferencing and the general outlook for video conferencing technology in business communications.


Any new invention, or technology for that matter, must prove its usefulness, cost-effectiveness and solve a problem that warrants its existence. Video conferencing provides us with a solid history lesson in a technology that has had many starts, stops and stalls along the way to becoming a commonplace real-time communication system used throughout most industries, the government, the military and schools around the world.

Along with the invention of the television came the ability to conduct simple analog conferencing. It was a very simple system that consisted of two closed circuit television systems connected by cable. In fact, NASA used two radiofrequency UHF or VHF links, in both directions. Even today, television stations frequently use this type of video conferencing to report live from distant locations.

When video conferencing was first introduced, with a grand introduction at the 1964 World's Fair held in New York, it had a futuristic quality that no one could possibly dream would take the place of the standard telephone. Though AT&T introduced the Picturephone many years later in 1970, it was still impractical and expensive when first offered to consumers ($160/month for each fixed end-point).

It wasn't until Ericsson demonstrated the very first trans-Atlantic LME video telephone call that companies saw the real potential for success and profitability and began to refine their own video conferencing technologies. Advancements such as Network Video Protocol (NVP), in 1976, and the Packet Video Protocol (PVP), in 1981, both helped the maturation of video conferencing, but both stayed in the laboratory or for private corporate usage.

Even before that, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone established video conferencing between Tokyo and Osaka in 1976. In 1982, IBM Japan took video conferencing (VC) one-step further and established a 48,000 bps to link up with IBM's internal video conferencing links in the U.S. for weekly business meetings.

The 1980s Bring Video Conferencing to the Commercial Market

When VC finally did hit the commercial market, it was extremely expensive, too expensive to make widespread adoption possible. Compression Labs introduced their VC product in 1982 for $250,000 that had lines that cost $1,000 per hour. The system required vast resources that were capable of tripping 15 amp circuit breakers. It was the only working video conferencing system available until PictureTel introduced their VC offering in 1986 and in just four years time the price had dropped dramatically at $80,000 with a $100 per hour line fee.

In between these two landmark systems that helped further the development of video conferencing systems, software and technology, there were other VC systems that were designed for in-house use by several corporations and also the U.S. military. In the early to mid-1980s, Datapoint was utilizing the Datapoint MINX system on their Texas campus, which they also sold to the military.

Of course video conferencing history has had its share of flops because it had not yet been embraced by consumers or by business. In the late 1980s, Mitsubishi began selling a still-picture phone. One can only imagine the cost of product design and development of this picture-phone; nevertheless, Mitsubishi dropped the line just two years after introducing it.

The 1990s saw the advancement and development of video conferencing systems due to many factors, including technical advances in Internet Protocol (IP) and also more efficient video compression technologies were developed that would permit desktop or PC-based videoconferencing. In 1991, IBM introduced the first PC-based video conferencing system, named PicTel. Although it was a black and white system that was very inexpensive, costing only $30 per line, per hour, the system itself cost $20,000. Not much later in 1991, DARTnet made video conferencing history by successfully connecting a transcontinental IP network consisting of more than 12 research sites in the U.S. and the U.K. using T1 trunks. DARTnet, now known as the CAIRN system, still exists today and connects dozens of institutions.

It wasn't long after that VC started infiltrating the masses through free services and software, such as NetMeeting, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, to name a few. While the video quality was poor at best, the price was right and slowly it started to be adopted by the consumer market. It was now only a matter of time before video conferencing made its way to corporate desktops around the world.

The CU-SeeMe Revolution

One of the VC systems that would make history and dramatically impacted the future of commercial video conferencing is CU-SeeMe, which ran on the Apple Macintosh and became available to the public in 1992. Even though it lacked audio, it was by far the best video system developed to date. CU-SeeMe rapidly progressed and by 1993 it had multipoint capability and in 1994 added audio to its list of features. Early on, the limitations of CU-SeeMe for Mac in a mostly PC world were recognized and its developers quickly began working on a Windows-compatible version. In 1994, Windows-based CU-SeeMe was launched and in 1995, CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 complete with audio followed. While CU-SeeMe was popular, its combination of [UDP] broadcasting and peer-to-peer connection methodology limited applications to school rooms and training facilities with all users on the same network (with no intervening firewalls or network address translators).

In parallel with CU-SeeMe, AT&T targeted consumers in 1992 with its $1,500 videophone. It was moderately successful. There were at least two other firsts in 1992, a combined audio and video broadcast took place utilizing the MBone system and in July of the same year INRIA introduced their VC system. This is the first year that real traction was taking place in the video conferencing market and this momentum prompted the quiet development and ratification of compatibility standards by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

ITU Standards Set the Pace for Video Conferencing

A combination of specifications and standards paved the way for video conferencing as an application to be taken seriously in the business world. The ITU established the Standard H.263, which reduced bandwidth transmission for low bit-rate communications. Other standards were already in development, such as H.323 for packet-based multimedia applications, both H.263 and H.323 among other standards were revised and updated in 1998. The Moving Picture Experts Group developed MPEG-4 as an ISO standard for multimedia content and while not directly related to video conferencing as a desktop application, all standards previously mentioned worked together to further advance the concept of interoperability with regard to data content and its transmission.

Still, there were setbacks and some companies failed in their attempts at success in the video conferencing market. VocalChat Novell IPX Networks introduced their first video conferencing system but it never found a market niche and it failed commercially. Microsoft entered the video conferencing market in August 1996, with NetMeeting, which was a descendent of PictureTel's Liveshare Plus, but it didn't have video capabilities initially. In December of 1996, Microsoft introduced NetMeeting v2.0b2 with video. While NetMeeting had, and still has its disadvantages, it definitely set the stage and raised the bar for new entrants into the video conferencing market at the same time.

Caltech-CERN Project Connects Research Centers Around the World

The Caltech-CERN project, also known as the Virtual Room Videoconferencing System (VRVS), officially launched in July 1997. Caltech-CERN researchers initially developed VRVS to provide researchers and scientists with a means to videoconference and collaborate on the Large Hadron Collider Project and in the U.S. and European High Energy and Nuclear Physics communities. It was extremely successful. So much so, that seed money was raised for Phase Two, CalREN-2, which would expand and improve on the VRVS system. The expansion would make VRVS available to geneticists, doctors and other scientists around the globe.

Cornell University's development team released CU-SeeMe 1.0 in 1998. Version 1.0 not only supported both the Mac and the PC, but it featured color video — this was a huge leap for desktop video conferencing in terms of feature functionality and broadened the market for CU-SeeMe considerably.

In the meantime, groups were busy developing standards that could only help further video conferencing as a business communication technology. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) was officially announced by MMUSIC in 1999. SIP proved to have some user-related advantages not found in H.323 that helped it gain a fair share of supporters, including Microsoft eventually. There was plenty of activity from standards committees and vendors alike in 1999. NetMeeting v3.0b came out with Version 3.0 of the ITU standard H.323 followed by the first version of the Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP). Later in the year, ISO standard MPEG-4 version two was released and PSInet became the first company to rollout automated multipoint services based on the H.323 standard.

While relatively young, SIP continued to develop and evolve as it entered version 1.30 in November of 2000. Following that, the fourth version of H.323 was released. In conjunction with developments in the video conferencing space, wireless mobile phone manufacturers started competing vigorously for their fair share of the consumer market. Realizing that video could indeed be the future, and a goldmine for makers of digital mobile phones, Samsung released their MPEG-4 streaming 3G video mobile phone, the very first on the shelves and a particularly huge success in Japan.

Microsoft made a bold move by announcing in 2001 that its Windows XP Messenger would support SIP. It was also the year that video conferencing was getting attention from vertical industries that saw its potential. The first transatlantic "telesurgery", with video conferencing center stage, took place allowing a surgeon in the U.S. to control a robot overseas to perform gall bladder surgery. To date it was the most compelling, non-business use of video conferencing and indeed brought VC to the attention of medical practitioners and the general public throughout the world.

Not long after the "War on Terror" commenced, TV reporters used a portable satellite and a videophone to broadcast live from Afghanistan in October 2001. It was the first time that video conferencing technology was used to talk in real-time with someone in the war zone via video. For the first time, war was being broadcast in real-time to people around the world rather than by taped broadcast.

By the end of 2002, the Joint Video Team finished research that led to the ITU-T H.264 protocol. This protocol standardized video compression technology for both MPEG-4 and ITU-T for a wide range of application areas. It was much more versatile than preceding protocols. The new technology would be ready for its introduction to the video industry in March 2004.

Video Conferencing Evolves

Video conferencing hardware evolves towards PC-based periperals and online meetings.By 2003, high-speed Internet access became widely available at a very reasonable cost. At the same time, the cost of video capture and display technology also decreased. The general public was able to afford web cameras, the cost of PCs at the time was minimal and broadband Internet access was available in nearly every region of the country. All of these factors, including the availability of free software from leading IM service providers, combine to make video conferencing even more accessible for the consumer market.

Higher education started to embrace the benefits of video conferencing in 2003. Schools around the world began to integrate video conferencing into their distance learning programs to enhance classes with more interactive classroom-like environments. As the quality of streaming video increased, with disruptive streaming delays decreased, video conferencing became much more popular to schools. Administrators and teachers alike realized the immense benefits of real-time interaction between professors and students. VBrick began providing various MPEG-4 video systems to universities in the U.S. and desktop video was rapidly gaining favor and popularity as an effective means to communicate and interact in real-time for business organizations throughout the country.

In 2004, video conferencing companies continued refining their applications and fine-tune it for more reliable performance and usability. In March 2004, a Linux-based free video conferencing platform that is H.323 compliant and NetMeeting-compatible was released. In April of the same year, Applied Global Technologies developed a web camera that when used in conjunction with video, tracks the voice of the speaker in order to focus on whomever is speaking at the time.

Later in 2004, WiredRed Software became the first company to incorporate multipoint video as a standard feature in a web conferencing solution. This marked the beginning of web conferencing software products incorporating video features and overlapping with the video conferencing industry. In March 2005, WiredRed made another first by offering web, VoIP and video conferencing over secure connections that can utilize third-party, or on-premise public key infrastructure (PKI) systems.

In 2008, WiredRed introduced a cloud-based, online service version of its software products under the Nefsis brand name. Cloud computing made its debut in the video conferencing industry (Nefsis timeline). By 2009, the Nefsis product incorporated software-based echo cancellation (AEC) for voice over Internet conferencing and more sophisticated collaboration tools such as annotation over live application sharing and playing movie files during a video conference, among other new features.

Present day, Nefsis can deliver virtually unlimited multipoint HD video conferencing with live collaboration tools via the cloud. Virtually anyone with a personal computer or  conference room PC and standard Internet access can utilize Nefsis video conferencing.

Proprietary Hardware vs. Cloud-Based Delivery

Video Conferencing Present Day

With the advancement of software technologies, PC processor speeds and broadband Internet connectivity, it is now possible to rely entirely on standard PC servers and desktops to accomplish boardroom-quality video conferencing. However, hardware-based systems are still available today. Dedicated video conferencing systems generally have all required components in a single piece of equipment. Usually this is a console with a high quality video camera that is controlled remotely. These cameras, also known as PTZ cameras, can be controlled from a distance to pan left, tilt up and down, and zoom. The console itself contains all electrical interfaces, the control computer and the software or hardware-based itself. Omni directional microphones, a TV monitor with speakers and/or video projector are connected to the console.

There are several types of dedicated video conferencing devices that range in price and quality:

  • Individual devices are usually portable and meant for single users.
    It has fixed cameras, microphones and loudspeakers integrated into the console.
  • Desktop systems are usually manufactured by integrating add-on boards to standard PCs. A variety of cameras and microphones can be used with the board, which contains the necessary codec and transmission interfaces. Most of the desktop systems support the H.323 standard.
  • Large group systems are expensive, non-portable devices used in one-way type seminars in large rooms and auditoriums.
  • Small group systems can be non-portable or portable. This type of system is smaller and a less expensive device used in small meeting applications.

The history of video conferencing, although always a work in process, illustrates just how far the technology has come since its debut in 1964. It has clearly broken through nearly every roadblock it has faced and is still in a state of growth and transition.

Video conferencing will continue to evolve until it becomes an integral part of business and personal life. As the technology undergoes further transformation, it will undoubtedly become more affordable and eventually ubiquitous.

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 The Nefsis cloud-based approach provides HD quality, supports desktops and multipurpose conference rooms, and comes with a full suite of built-in web collaboration tools. Moreover, the cloud-based approach is far less expensive, more flexible, and easier to expand the pre-Internet video conferencing architectures that required complex equipment, MCUs, collaboration add-ons and desktop gateway servers.

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