The science fiction writers of the past got it all wrong. The dream of everyday visual communication between remote sites has taken longer than expected. Even the Dan Dare comic strip of the 1950s depicted video telephone kiosks on the street by Year 2000.

Other technologies such as the mobile phone and the PC may have usurped this vision of the future, but video conferencing is already assisting management communications. Applications in healthcare consultancy and construction are making progress, and the vehicle repair sector is also forging the way ahead. There are three major driving forces pushing imaging in the field of vehicle repair – cost savings; quicker claims settlement; and better inspection productivity.

Coffee time
The first remote video inspection (RVI) system was pioneered by Guardian in 1997, developed in association with British Telecom (BT). The video link to Guardian offices allowed accident damage to be viewed, discussed, and assessed "all in the time it takes to have a cup of coffee" a Guardian advert of the time stated. Axa has since taken up the initiative and the original Guardian pilot of six RVI units has been expanded to a national network of 48.

Barry Jones, Axa's manager of motor engineering services, considers moving image is superior because it takes place in a real time, interactive environment. "The other difficulty with still images is that choice of image is left to the repairer," he says. There is a natural trade-off between picture quality and cost. "Obviously the more ISDN lines being used, the better the picture, but these cost more." However, Jones notes that unit costs are coming down. Axa is looking at several new developments to improve the technology. Needless to say it is still coping with the integration aspects following its merger and for the time being is giving careful consideration as to which image system it will adopt for the future, being aware this could have significant impact on repairers.

The crucial element in any remote expert application is the ability for the expert to record details gathered at the remote end. This can be still images captured during the call with associated notes, or can be expanded to include audio and video clips. Still image can be equally useful as moving video, according to Ian Holloway of ImageCom, for example when an assessor needs to study any fine detail of damage or the identification number of a particular component. He believes the ideal is to provide the expert with an integrated package to both manage the call efficiently, and allow the information to be saved into standard format for later use. This export capability should allow the expert to combine this database with other applications such as estimating system information.

ImageCom was founded in May 1993 to develop the emerging market for simultaneous transmission of voice, moving video, still image and data over low bandwidths. Their expertise is in video conferencing, codec and systems development.

Holloway believes the ultimate application for repairers is the remote hand-held camera without wires, combined with duplex (two-way) audio communication between the assessor and the remote user. The wireless link provides greater flexibility for the operator, unencumbered by cables, without the need to move vehicles nearer the connection point. This link provides video transmission from the camera, two-way audio contact between the audio headset worn by the operator, and a data link for control and telemetry information. Wired video is an alternative lower cost option, suitable for more cost sensitive applications. In this case the cable can be up to 50 metres in length.

Easy listening
Good quality audio is a prime requirement, although some applications only require telephone quality. "There is always a compromise between video and audio quality for the low bandwidth applications," says Holloway, who confirms ImageCom wants to address specific niche areas not covered by the more traditional "box shifter" suppliers to provide unique facilities and features not found elsewhere. "An important feature for the insurance industry is our ability to customise hardware and software to meet customer requirements, while always allowing complete flexibility for ongoing development," he says.

Audatex (UK) offers both still and moving image technology. Managing director Alex Leonard believes that 70% of all repairs can now be approved by still imaging, with the remainder handled by RVI. He is convinced that imaging systems will become the norm for all bodyshops. "Imaging is set to become the standard format through which insurance companies approve repair work because the quality of image is now such that a video link, is almost as good as standing in the bodyshop" he says. "The traditional visit from an engineer often led to week-long approval times which can now be cut to a mere 30 minutes."

Leonard points out that such visits are even less cost effective when the damage is only minor. "Smaller companies that do not have their own engineers will reduce their costs, leaving the larger companies who employ in-house engineers to re-deploy them more effectively," he says.

Glass's supplies all its Glassmatix bodyshop users with free digital imaging as part of the standard subscription. Those requiring moving image do so via BT's Infomotion system. Glass's has also developed an internet-based salvage disposal service called eSalvage, in partnership with Alternative Business Solutions.

Salvage disposal
Currently being piloted by accident management company Elite Repair Services, the system allows all organisations that dispose of salvage to review images and descriptions of salvage vehicles on the e-Salvage web site. Registered salvage buyers are able to access the site and bid for vehicles on screen.

Richard Perry, a director of Elite Repair, confirms that image based salvage disposal is a logical extension of the services they already offer in accident management cost control. "It ties in with our overall claims handling, third party capture and motor engineering solutions" he says.

Video communication seems set to become a vital cog of insurance administration, even though the rest of us may have to wait a little longer before we can see Aunt Nellie when we ring her.