Video conferencing waiting to see ‘the whites of their eyes’ for mainstream adoption

I sat across the table from Magor Communications Corp. CEO Mike Pascoe and looked him in the eye. What was extraordinary about this was I was sitting in a Toronto office and he was behind his own desk in Kanata, Ont.

Brian Jackson, journalist
Brian Jackson

Video collaboration is nothing new, and the technology to hold a video conference is fairly commonplace. I’ve held many Skype conversations from my living room using a low-cost Web cam, for example. But the experience was nothing like this.

I almost forgot Pascoe was on a video screen. At the end of our conversation, I almost wanted to reach across the table and shake his hand. Displayed in full 1080p HD on a large flat screen monitor, the detail was such that I could really make eye contact and see facial expression.

Ottawa-based Magor brands this as “telecollaboration”, saying it is the next step up the evolutionary ladder in video conferencing. The start-up is in its second round of fundraising, preparing for an IPO in the second half of 2012. The key piece of Magor’s offering is a compression algorithm that allows a real-time, two-way, HD video signal to be exchanged over broadband Internet connections.

Unlike my Skype calls that are low resolution and prone to latency disruptions, this experience was seamless.

“The software we employ adapts in a manner you don’t even notice,” Pascoe told me from behind his desk in Kanata. “We want to create the sense that people can connect from anywhere in the world and collaborate in the same room.”

Pascoe’s vision may soon be true for more than just clients of Magor. Video conferencing is a technology that’s been possible for more than a decade, but never has caught on as a commercial success in a big way. It’s not something the mainstream has embraced yet.

But that might change soon enough. Technology is at a tipping point that video conferencing can be reliable, high-quality, and easy to do. To make that happen, there are three technology ingredients to mainstream videoconferencing: ubiquitous broadband Internet, low-cost HD video cameras, and a good video encryption algorithm designed for the Internet.

Broadband Internet (speeds of 5 mbps or greater) is certainly widely available across Canada, in many different forms. Rural areas can pick up connections using microwave towers or satellite hook-ups. Travelers can connect to wireless 3G networks at high speeds.

Hi-definition video cameras are included in many pocket-sized consumer digital cameras now, and even in the latest smartphones. The iPhone 4 can take 720p video for example, even if that’s not the front-facing camera used for its Facetime application. HD web cams are sold for about $70.

Now Magor has shown that HD video can be reliably compressed and sent over the Internet for an uninterrupted experience. During my video conference experience, some artefacts appeared on screen when the bandwidth dipped. But the conversation was never interrupted. The 1080p resolution was reduced when bandwidth was hindered, but this wasn’t noticeable to me until I was looking at the real-time analysis figures.

“I can actually see the whites of the eyes of the people I’m talking too,” Pascoe says. “I get the sense of whether people are agreeing with me, or not agreeing with me.”

Most of the time, the bandwidth ran at 2 mbps and the video conference ran at 1080p and 30 frames per second. Magor also segments the video to concentrate rendering out the more important parts (like Pascoe’s face) in greater detail, while the beige wall behind him isn’t as important.

Most people haven’t adopted video conferencing as a habit yet because not everyone has access to the technology, it’s unreliable, and can be hard to set up. But it wont’ be long now until those problems fade into the background, and you’ll find yourself looking right past the screen, and into someone’s eyes.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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