Energy labs hook into video

For 10 years, managers and researchers at the Energy Department’s Sandia National
Laboratories have held regular videoconferences with peers at distant Energy labs and
universities.


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. “We’re pursuing desktop, but it’s complicated and a burden on
the CPU.”


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
their office.”


Despite resistance to one-on-one conferences, videoconferencing has changed the way
Sandia works, Berry said.


“You participate in things you didn’t have the opportunity to before,”
he said. “It takes you away from your office for some things but makes more time for
other things.”


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 Energy’s mission—concentrating 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
several seconds.


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,”
Berry said.


Most of Sandia’s 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,
PictureTel’s 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,
“it’s still a problem introducing new hardware and software,” he said.
“We’re 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 can’t say it reduces travel, because people never give their travel
money back,” he said. “They find something else to do with it.”  


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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