Energy labs hook into video
- By William Jackson
- May 10, 1999
For 10 years, managers and researchers at the Energy Departments Sandia National
Laboratories have held regular videoconferences with peers at distant Energy labs and
Sandia has more than 70 videoconferencing systems in use, from auditorium facilities
with dedicated links between the labs Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif.,
sites down to LAN systems built from inexpensive PC-mounted cameras and free software.
Because of the market commoditization, the stuff is becoming cheap, said
Jim Berry, head engineer for Sandia videoconferencing services in California.
Most of the labs videoconferencing facilities are dial-up room setups for groups.
Berry would like to install more downscale systems but has encountered resistance to the
idea of moving cameras out of the conference room and into the office.
Desktop video is just not taking off like the other videoconferencing did,
Berry said. Were pursuing desktop, but its complicated and a burden on
Sandia uses some small standalone systems such as SwiftSite from PictureTel Corp. of
Andover, Mass. But, Berry said, many people are not comfortable with a camera in
Despite resistance to one-on-one conferences, videoconferencing has changed the way
Sandia works, Berry said.
You participate in things you didnt have the opportunity to before,
he said. It takes you away from your office for some things but makes more time for
The Albuquerque lab was developed as part of the atomic bomb project in World War II,
and the Livermore facility in 1956 undertook nuclear weapons development. Lockheed Martin
Corp. now runs both sites to support Energys missionconcentrating less on
developing and testing weapons and more on data-intensive modeling.
The first videoconferencing system, from Compression Labs Inc. of San Jose, Calif.,
arrived in 1988 to link the New Mexico and California facilities.
A second Compression Labs system was installed in 1989 with a dedicated T1 line to an
Energy satellite link.
They worked well for their day, Berry said, but the users were not very
demanding at the time. Video quality was good, but satellite hops imposed delays of
Today, over a 384-Kbps asynchronous transfer mode link, people notice the delay,
but not the transport rate being down, Berry said.
Sandia installed its first PictureTel 4000 in 1990 to have a more flexible dial-up
system for conferencing with other research centers. Use ballooned after that,
Most of Sandias systems now are high-end PictureTel units such as the Concorde
4500. There are a half-dozen Compression Labs systems and a scattering of other devices
from vendors such as PolyCom Inc. of San Jose, Calif. Serving the desktop end are CU-SeeMe
from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H., Intel VideoPhone, Microsoft NetMeeting,
PictureTels LiveLAN, and smaller SwiftSite units.
Because of our security requirements, Integrated Services Digital Network is not
a viable desktop conferencing option for most users connected to a private internal
network, Berry said. We elected to use the H.323 [LAN videoconferencing] and
T.120 [data conferencing] standards for desktop communications.
He does not expect rapid growth in desktop PC conferencing. Aside from the CPU demands,
its still a problem introducing new hardware and software, he said.
Were going to have to see the software version of videoconferencing come along
before it is used by most people.
Berry said the return on investment does not show up as lower costs for established
processes because the processes change.
You cant say it reduces travel, because people never give their travel
money back, he said. They find something else to do with it.
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.