Sight or sound? Video or audio? A human face or a human voice?
If these were the only questions that confronted you before your next planned conference call, the choice would be obvious–a video conference is more personal, more engaging, and more dynamic than an audio call.
Things aren’t that straightforward though. A video call requires cameras and a screen. It makes much higher demands on your internet connection than audio. Connecting a video call means checking that the people on the other end are using the same video conferencing providers–for all their advances VC vendors still refuse to cross-communicate with each other.
So, do you settle for audio only? That seems so 80s. Luckily, the video conferencing industry is aware of the extra burden video entails. And they’re trying to make things simpler.
If they succeed, then video conferencing vs. audio conferencing will no longer be a debate–because video conferencing is audio conferencing–just upgraded with human faces.
Video Conferencing Vs. Audio Conferencing
In truth, we live in an age of messaging in which the conference call is one of the few areas where the clash between audio and video even matters. The average adult is 2.6 times more likely to send a message than make a call. No one calls from the train to say they’re going to get home a little late–they send a text. No one jumps on Skype to show off their new shoes–they just send a Snap. Even in the office, workplace collaboration apps like Slack and Microsoft’s Teams are replacing calls with message threads.
Messages won’t cut it, however, when it comes time for a big presentation or office-to-office meeting–times when you want a more personal touch and a greater ability to present and discuss information.
Now the decision becomes: Audio or visual? The answer lies in the consideration of three things–equipment, starting a call, and the in-call experience.
The Ease of Audio
The hardware side of the debate is where audio has it over video. Polycom’s premium audio conferencing equipment, the RealPresence Trio 8800, for instance, is in the vicinity of $1,500–that’s half the price of the most affordable Polycom video conferencing room setup. Polycom is a high-end enterprise manufacturer, but the difference in price among their own solutions highlights the cost disparity between audio and video.
The reason why is obvious. Audio only requires a conference bridge, so multiple callers can call in over a network or the internet (VoIP) through a central control hub equipped with microphones and speakers. Video, at a minimum, needs all that plus screens and cameras to display and convey images.
Google recently introduced its Hangouts Meet Kit to combine the basics required for a video conference–a smart 4K webcam, central hub, and speaker mics–and couldn’t get the cost under $2,000 (and it doesn’t include a screen to actually display the video meeting).
All those necessary peripherals also make setting up a video conference-enabled room much more complicated than its audio-only cousin.
The Complication of Video
There’s only one thing you have to worry about when setting up an audio-only conference call: Can everyone be heard? Generally, this involves placing the main hub in the center of the room and then scattering around some attached microphones, or ensuring the central phone is sensitive enough to be used by the entire group.
Video, on the other hand, requires you to think about how each person appears on camera. Traditionally, this means seating everyone in a horseshoe shape around a central screen and camera. There are some great active-speaker, automated cameras available that will track from person to person around the table as each person speaks, but these are expensive and still require thoughtful seating.
While both audio and visual solutions must combat in-room noise, video has the added bugbear of having to account for lighting. Again, there are solutions around, such as technology built into webcams that can adjust to compensate for a change in light levels, but it’s an added problem audio doesn’t care about.
As we mentioned before, video will also make far more demands on an internet connection than audio ever will. While it’s safe to assume most companies are on unlimited corporate data plans, having to push through a signal that’s many times heavier than audio means many connections can’t handle high-end streaming, especially 4K visuals, at all.
So, why go to all this trouble and expense to host a video conference? It’s nature. We’re visual creatures, and we understand through our eyes just as much as through our ears.
Video Offers a Better Experience
In general, most people prefer the real-time reactions and emotions of a human face when conducting a meeting over a disembodied voice. In addition to better mimicking the human side of a meeting, video conferencing also lets callers exchange media-rich information–you can display videos and photos, share your computer screen, or watch third-party content like YouTube. Also, you can share files and documents instantly without having to consult a BYO computer as you would with audio only.
Video conferencing vendors are trying to make things easier for their users to capitalize on this natural superiority. Microsoft recently unveiled a new range of Skype Room Systems, which act as central touchscreen hubs to make starting a video call simple. Larger room systems are being expanded to provide control over everything from the webcams to the air conditioning and the blinds. VC is also going portable with all-in-one webcams that can be deployed quickly and that cater for small huddle room groups.
Comparing the experience of an audio conference with that of a video conference is not like comparing a Honda Civic with a BMW 4 Series. It’s like comparing a bicycle with a car. Yes, bikes are a lot cheaper and they’ll get the job done, but come on…for most things, a car is just a more convenient and complete solution, even if it’s a little more complicated to operate.