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Video conferencing gets personal

With its roots in the Google development labs, and championed by companies like Facebook and Amazon, WebRTC (short for Real Time Communications) is an open-source project that has transformed ordinary web browsers on PCs, tablets and smartphones into rich communications and collaboration tools. Already available to millions of Internet users (WebRTC is built-in to Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers) it enables them to launch video calls with no additional infrastructure, plugins or applications.

With WebRTC, users literally click a link, the browser opens and a video call can be up and running - all without needing to know their recipients’ phone numbers or email addresses. Simple.

If you’ve even been a Skype user, you’ll understand why WebRTC’s lack of necessary infrastructure is so exciting; gone for good will be the hassle of downloading software, managing frequent software updates, searching for contacts to join a video call, and the disappointment of finding your contact isn’t even a Skype user and prefers FaceTime! Anyone can use WebRTC.

WebRTC is here now and ready to use. Facebook, with its 1.9 billion worldwide users, recently added a WebRTC powered feature that lets Chromebook users initiate video calls without the need to install plugins or go through workarounds. Previously, Chromebook users had to install a plugin before they could initiate Facebook video calls.

Amazon also makes use of WebRTC in its Kindle Fire devices. Available in the US, UK and Japan, the ‘Mayday’ feature is activated by a simple screen-icon tap; then the user is connected with an Amazon technical advisor via a WebRTC session. The Amazon representative can hear the user speak, while the user can hear and see the Amazon representative and also watch their screen be manipulated by the tech rep.

One of the most obvious WebRTC uses is for customer engagement on websites. Businesses often look for ways to engage visitors, such as through pop-up chat windows and other methods. WebRTC enables visitors to click a button to call or video chat with a call centre agent immediately - without waiting. We use WebRTC ourselves on our own customer support page.

In an enterprise environment, WebRTC can extend collaboration beyond the corporate borders and for instance, enable individual sales people to more easily conduct video conferences that let customers see not only the salesperson’s face, but also slides, on-screen demos, videos and other supporting material.

Even in the public sector and the NHS, WebRTC could make a difference. Andrena Logue, health expert at public sector technology analyst firm Kable, says: “Collaborative tools are starting to be used more extensively by clinicians, not only to consult with peers, but also to offer online patient consultations. GP practices and hospitals are already offering this capability. Once use becomes more prolific, there will be considerable scope to offer services in sensitive areas such as social care via public sector agencies.”

I’m sure this list is just the beginning. We are starting to see WebRTC real-world applications in gaming, social networks, content streaming, job interviews, online retailing and even real-time language translation.

In most cases, personal video conference services that make use of WebRTC operate monthly, pay-for-use fees; offering plenty of quick scalability; and the freedom from having to own expensive and difficult-to-manage hardware.

Our own Virtual Meeting Room, offered within our UCaaS solution, makes use of WebRTC technology to enable our customers to host video calls for as many as 25 guests or locations. To join the meeting, attendees don’t need to download any software or register in advance; they simply open the URL in their browser to start chatting. And our system includes security provisions to ensure the confidentiality of the conference and its members.

Video conferencing has been little more than a vague promise for many years now. Right back to 1964 where Bell Labs first showed its Picturephone, companies have been promising that video conferencing would change our lives. However, WebRTC is democratising video conferencing in a simple but profound way. And, with so many people using mobile technology, the universe of those who are comfortable using video is expanding rapidly. If you’re not incorporating WebRTC enabled video in your organisation, you need to!

Dean Manzoori, Vice President of Product Management for UCaaS, Masergy Communications

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov