Videoconferencing tools

Some people love to travel, and there’s no denying that a face-to-face meeting
affords a depth and subtlety of communication unavailable by other means.

But if you’re getting on an airplane just to hold a half-hour meeting, chances are
you can find more productive ways to spend your time and your agency’s budget.

Until recently, managers considering videoconferencing for meetings had few choices
other than renting satellite time at a conference center—a more expensive alternative
than just hopping on that airplane.

But today’s videoconferencing is so good, so cheap and so easy to install that the
technology has gone mainstream. Now it’s not just top management sitting in front of
a video camera.

Good, low-end videoconferencing software and video cameras that cost less than a
monitor have led to video mail and videoconferencing over LANs or even intranets. They
link offices in different cities, campuses or even parts of the same building.

At one end of the videoconferencing spectrum are high-end conference room systems with
large monitors or projection screens, a control room that would make a small television
station engineer jealous and leased satellite transponder or high-speed land-line

Such top-of-the-line installations can cost millions of dollars and provide a
conference environment that improves on some in-person meeting rooms.

Much of the expense for such installations can be justified by designing them for both
videoconferencing and local meetings.

To add videoconferencing to such a meeting room, you need only add the software and
hardware needed to connect to the high-speed data link.

At the other end of the spectrum are videoconferencing systems that use LAN or Internet
connections and can operate at multiple points or between two individuals.

Inexpensive—about $200 per unit—personal, or desktop, videoconferencing
systems can quickly pay back their purchase price.

Within the low-end category of videoconferencing products, a range of options, features
and quality is available.

Frames per second is the most basic measure of the quality of a video or film image. At
24 fps, the speed of big-screen movies, the human eye is fooled into interpreting a series
of still images as a completely smooth, changing image.

Software such as CU-SeeMe from White Pine Software Inc. can make slower images
viewable, but speech will always be out of sync.

If you want fast images—not TV or movie fast but at least 20 fps—a 128- by
96-pixel window is the largest image you can expect to use with a 33.6-Kbps or 56-Kbps
modem connection. On a 14-inch 640- by 480-pixel VGA monitor, a 128- by 96-pixel image is
only about as big as a credit card.

Want a larger image? One big enough to be able to identify the person on the screen or
see his lips move?

Most systems will let you choose the image size so you can increase the image to a
quarter-screen. At that size you can see the other person, but the image will probably
update about once every two seconds.

At that rate, you’re better off leaning a photograph against your monitor and
using a telephone. Trying to watch such a slowly updating image while talking with a
person hinders more than helps communication.

How well a user of one brand-name product can communicate with a user of
another—if they can connect at all—depends in part on the standards adhered to
in the coder-decoder of their videoconferencing hardware and software.

A coder-decoder, or codec, does the compression and decompression that converts video
and audio signals between digital and analog standards.

A codec can be powered by a dedicated board, or processing can be done by your
PC’s main processor.

Much of the quality you get also will depend on your connection. If it’s
slow—say, dial-up or Internet—audio will be marginal and images will be small
and less than full-motion. But it still beats e-mail when you’re only looking for a
quick discussion of an ongoing project.

With a fast connection—such as a satellite Internet link or an Integrated Services
Digital Network connection—the same $200 videoconferencing installation provides a
powerful and cheap way to broadcast brief training sessions or keep in touch with remote
offices or telecommuters.

Enhanced CU-SeeMe may well be the most commonly encountered desktop videoconferencing
software. Partly that is because a freeware version is available but also because the $99
Enhanced version is the best I’ve seen over slow connections.

Other software can match or even outperform Enhanced CU-SeeMe over fast network links.
But once you drop to ISDN, 56-Kbps or slower dial-up connections, the White Pine
application, which has been optimized for videoconferencing over slow connections, comes
into its own.

True, audio quality is less than perfect and the images are small, but, because of the
software optimization, they’re not so painfully jerky as to be unwatchable.

The dream of using videoconferencing to catch the nuances of body language and facial
expressions is no more than a dream if you’re limited to dial-up connections.

Some new PCs, billed as videoconferencing-ready, come bundled with the VideoPhone from
Intel Corp. Most come with the receive-only version, which may be suitable for training or
playing announcements from the home office.

If you pick one of these for interoperability, two-way videoconferencing upgrades from
Intel will cost about $200 for a Universal Serial Bus camera or $400 for a camera and
video capture board.

At the low end, videoconferencing training may not be as impressive as getting a
roomful of workers together for a two-day conference, but it’s a lot more effective
than handing someone a book.

As videoconferencing technology improves and air travel becomes ever more congested,
the appeal of holding a meeting in less time than it takes to drive to the airport likely
will grow. As with e-mail, personal videoconferencing can become a powerful communication
tool or just another time-waster, but its potential is immense.

Many agencies are looking into videoconferencing. See
for information about an ongoing NASA evaluation of videoconferencing systems. 

The day you’re setting up a videoconference between distant locations run by
different organizations is no time to start thinking about standards.

That thinking should have taken place during planning. And there’s plenty to
ponder in a field as replete with International Telecommunication Union standards as

H.320 is a suite of standards for videoconferencing over digital
switched connections such as Integrated Services Digital Network and T1 lines. It includes
the H.261 video coder-decoder along with three audio codecs.

H.263 is a video codec that makes possible 8- to 15-frame-per-second
video transmissions over plain old telephone service without the necessity of using a
special computer video card to handle the processing load.

H.323 is a packet-switching videoconferencing standard used on
intranets, the Internet and Ethernet LANs.

It covers not just videophones but also multipoint conferencing and network
administration tools for ISDN (H.320) and POTS (H.324) video packages. H.323 also defines
the H.263 video codec.

H.324 is the analog telephone service videoconferencing standard and
includes the V.80 modem standard.

Multipoint conferencing is the videoconferencing equivalent of
conference calls. H.323 includes this feature, but H.324 and H.320 are point-to-point
systems and require a separate multipoint control unit for multi-user videoconferencing

V.80 is a relatively new modem standard, which most newer 33.6-Kbps
(V.34) and 56-Kbps modems use. V.80 support is required for H.324 telephone service
videoconferencing systems.

It turns the normally asynchronous modem to a synchronous mode and switches off V.42
error correction. Both changes work fine for video, greatly improving performance. 

For the ultimate in conference room videoconferencing, nothing beats a really big view.
Beyond the conventional LCD projectors lie video walls—gigantic video displays that
join from four to eight rear-projection units. Video walls use a special video processor,
priced from $5,000 to $100,000, to form a seamless image from several smaller screens.
Complete systems start at about $20,000. Look for high-definition TV and digital video
disk systems in the near future. Major video wall vendors include:

Clarity Visual Systems Inc.
9025 S.W. Hillman Court
Wilsonville, Ore. 97070
tel. 503-507-0700

Electrosonic Systems Inc.
3320 N. San Fernando Blvd.
Burbank, Calif. 91504
tel. 818-566-3045

Panasonic Large Screen Systems
1341 Old 41 Highway
Marietta, Ga. 30060
tel. 770-795-7544

Pioneer New Media  Technologies Inc.
2265 E. 220th St.
Long Beach, Calif. 90810
tel. 800-926-4329

Sony Electronics Corp.
1 Sony Drive
Oak Ridge, N.J. 07656
tel. 800-686-7669

Synelac USA Inc.
2050 Center Ave.
Fort Lee, N.J. 07024
tel. 201-585-8565

Videoconferencing can’t duplicate the human elements of face-to-face meetings or
in-person training, but it has its pluses.

With the same budget as in-person meetings, videoconferencing can replace yearly
conferences with weekly meetings. It can help improve productivity either by enhancing a
feeling of camaraderie and teamwork or by offering ongoing training, updating users on
software or procedure changes as they come rather than once a year or once a quarter.

The value of enhanced cooperation among remote offices is intangible, but real—an
important, if difficult to quantify, benefit of videoconferencing.

While you’re evaluating the software and what it can do for your organization,
keep a few things in mind:

But the metamorphosis doesn’t happen automatically; don’t expect to plunk
down your dollars for high-end software and get a complete system.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.


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