Can you get your cell phone to read out your e-mail? Or what if you want to shift seamlessly from a desktop-based to a mobile phone conversation with the same person without the slightest interruption?

These and other feats are possible today in the wacky, wonderful environment of unified communications.

Some of these advances are most evident in the area of video-conferencing, experts say.

Gone the days, they say, when video conference participants needed to rely heavily on network specialists or IT technicians to set up meeting equipment and ensure device compatibility.

Advances in unified communication (UC) technology has now made conferencing a piece of cake, industry insiders say.

Streamlined video conferencing and online meeting processes are enabling non-technical users to set up meetings by themselves.

“Today, it’s as simple as connecting to a UM system and dialing in the parties extension numbers,” said Amir Hameed, national sales director for application and software, Avaya Canada Corp.

For instance, he said, Avaya UC systems offer interoperability with a wide variety of devices and communication networks, eliminating the need for complicated set-up procedures.

Hameed spoke at a presentation of UC products and video conferencing tools from its partner Polycom Inc. in Toronto yesterday.

Growing pressures to cut travel expenses is pushing demand for UC enabled devices, the Avaya exec said.

He said changing work structures today are fuelling a demand for technology tools that enable workers to connect with the headquarters office when their on the road or unable to make it to the office.

And the same principle is true in academic environments as well.

Hameed cited the example of Western Kentucky University (WKU) that is using Avaya’s softphones and video integrators, Internet Protocol (IP)-based extension to cellular systems, Avaya Communication Manager hardware and Avaya one-X Mobile Edition that enables students to use cell phones to access the university’s PBX-based network.

The system brings together faculty members and students from in online and video meetings across WKU’s seven campuses.

The university wanted to deploy a Web-based portal that would be available to students from a wide range of communication capabilities such as, instant messaging, e-mail, mobile calls and videoconferencing.

WKU chose to steer clear of isolated, disconnected communications products, according to a university spokesperson.

Instead it wanted communication capabilities that functioned seamlessly across a wide variety of devices, according Edwin Craft, IT director for WKU.

He said the new system offers this capability, while enabling students to interact with remotely located faculty members for detailed discussions about lessons or assignments.

Students and faculty members’ privacy is protected because the system does not reveal the user’s private cell numbers.

The system also allows faculty and school personnel to move freely from a desktop-based conversation to a cellular connection with out any interruption or check e-mail or voicemail from any device.

This ease of connectivity can apply to mobile business users as well, according to Jamie Wong of Avaya’s sales and marketing team.

For instance, he said, mobile workers can use Avaya’s Speech Access or speech recognition feature to “tell your cell phone to read out your e-mail.”

“For people who are driving the convenience of not having to scroll through a BlackBerry phone while navigating the roads is extremely useful,” he said.

At least 26 classrooms are also equipped with Polycom’s Path Navigator MGC video bridge products and HDX high definition video screens to support more than 70 videoconferencing enhanced courses.

Deployment of the Avaya system and Polycom videoconferencing tools help the university increase its video course offering by as much as 13 per cent and increase enrollment in video course by three per cent in 2007, Craft said.

In Canada, one of the largest users of videoconferencing technology is Ontario’s Telehealth Network (OTN), the not-for-profit, government-backed organization connects patients and healthcare providers in remote locations with the help of IP-enabled conferencing tools.

The 150 staff members of Telehealth Network conduct at least 50,000 videoconferences a year through the organization’s 900 videoconferencing systems.

OTN uses a variety of videoconferencing products from various vendors but Polycom is its largest provider.

“For thousands of patients and healthcare practitioners in rural communities, the ability to connect via video conferencing has eased a lot of hardships,” said Ron Riesenbach, CIO of OTN.

Without videoconferencing patients in isolated areas might have to travel two to four hours to reach a health centre or physician to get a diagnosis.

But with remote cameras and remote stethoscopes, doctors are able to view a patient and listen to a patient’s heartbeat to provide basic diagnosis, Riesenbach said.

The system also reduces the need for patients to schedule days off in order to see doctor for minor ailments. “With the system, a patient can have a consultation in a few minutes even if the doctor is located hundreds of miles away.”

Jack Shemavon, vice-president for Polycom Inc. Canadian office, said the increasing mobility and dispersed nature of enterprises will drive the adoption of videoconferencing devices.

“Studies show that nearly 90 per cent of employees conduct part of their work outside the headquarters and 70 per cent of personnel are working in a location away from their supervisors,” Shemavon said.

Companies unable to provide technology-based tools that accommodate this type of environment risk loosing valuable talent, he said.

Riesenbach of OTN agrees that UC tools can aid talent retention.

“For professionals who are working in remote areas, UC tools are very helpful in eliminating that feeling of professional isolation.”

With the use of videoconferencing tools, he said OTN workers health care providers are able to conduct seminars and face-to-face meetings with peers and even family members who are far away.

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