Call a meeting

Call a meeting<@VM>Big improvements in NetMeeting 3

The Lowdown

  • What is it? A videoconferencing system provides visual and verbal communications between two or more people at several locations over Internet or intranet connections. In the last few years, desktop systems have improved in quality, price and usability.



  • What is the range of products? A basic system using dial-up Internet connections and a webcam can be installed for less than $100 per station with no ongoing extra costs.

    Sophisticated systems that cost up to tens of thousands of dollars per station serve for complex tasks such as telemedicine, even telesurgery.



    Between these extremes are very usable $500 systems that employ inexpensive webcams, commercial software and fast network connections. They run on fast PCs and provide a lot of functions, including whiteboarding, conference management and file sharing.



    Low-end shareware and even free software, including video chat products, also might provide the features you need.



  • What is video chat? Video chat provides two-way, real-time audio and video. It uses a computer video phone that lacks file-transfer and whiteboard capabilities, but it might be all you need for quick face-to-face chats. It's easy to use and can supplement a full videoconferencing center.



  • What about security? Recent discoveries in the security field, specifically of the things called Web bugs that do everything a cookie can do and far more, have raised the question of just how secure any Internet communication is. Such bugs might be able to capture video and audio conference files. Be wary about holding confidential meetings via videoconference.



  • Must-know info? Video pictures might be worth 1,000 words, but don't forget about sound quality'still the most important factor in remote conferencing.

  • ADS Technologies' Pyro WebCam delivers images at 30 frames per second and works with Microsoft Windows and Mac OS. It's priced at $179.

    Desktop videoconferencing systems provide the means for group discussions and personal chats

    E-mail is a fantastic productivity tool. Everyone has a complaint about it, but it saves you from waiting in line at the fax machine, playing phone tag, and navigating time-consuming and sometimes frustrating voice mail.

    E-mail has its drawbacks, too, among them the lost nuances of face-to-face communication.

    The first attempt to overcome the latter was the ill-fated Bell System'remember Ma Bell?'PicturePhone, which was seen at several world's fairs and test marketed in the Chicago area in the mid-1960s.

    But because the premicroprocessor infrastructure of the time couldn't handle any substantial volume of PicturePhone traffic, it was a colossal flop.

    The original PicturePhone might have been useful in a business setting but was incompatible with existing office networks because it required three twisted-pair wires connecting each PicturePhone to the telephone company's central office.

    Today, a reasonably fast PC, some basic software, a fast Internet or intranet connection and a cheap camera can produce a two-way phone conference complete with full-motion color video right from a desktop PC.

    Users can even videoconference over dial-up connections, although they are generally limited to small images that sometimes look more like stop-motion animation than full video.

    The real problem comes when you try to connect multiple users. A true videoconferencing system requires connecting multiple PCs with sophisticated hardware and software that goes beyond the basics of low-end systems. It's useless to try dial-up connections for carrying a dozen image streams.

    But the hurdles to videoconferencing aren't insurmountable. If you're building a videoconferencing center for multiple users and file sharing, start with bandwidth, because you'll need a lot of it.

    Set a spell

    You also should prepare locations carefully because seemingly unimportant things, such as the physical environment, could prove to be very important to your overall satisfaction with the system.

    Because desktop conferencing systems use data compression to squeeze the video through a relatively small pipe, it's important to remember that video compression works best on a plain image with few changes from frame to frame.

    Video compression adds significantly to a processor's workload, so you'll need a fast computer. If your PC can't keep up, you will have to decrease image size or suffer with dropped frames and jerky-looking video.

    This is especially true for dial-up connections, but even network bandwidth will be taxed by streaming video from multiple users if there isn't enough compression.

    Incandescent lights provide better color and more attractive images of people than fluorescent lights. Walls and other background details should be extremely plain, preferably far enough from the speaker that they are out of focus. This saves bandwidth by reducing the image details being processed.

    To further reduce compression loads, there should be no background movement. Don't sit in front of a window.

    In most cases, sound quality is even more important than video quality. To improve user experience, buy good-quality headsets, install sound-absorbing cubicle walls and hold your videoconferences in a quiet area.

    Aside from videoconferences that essentially take the place of group meetings, you might want to host more personal conversations via your desktop PC. In this case, low-cost systems, including video chat software, might be all you need. The software is inexpensive or even free'Microsoft's NetMeeting, for instance, can be downloaded for free.

    Basic video chat, of course, is easier to manage than complex sessions, which are best left to conference room settings. But even freeware often comes with basic whiteboard tools.

    A big advantage of these low-end videoconferencing programs is that some of them will run on older, low-power PCs and under Microsoft Windows 95.

    Many webcams come with all the software you need to videoconference right out of the box. That makes it possible to add videoconferencing for $100 per station or less if the PCs have Universal Serial Bus ports.

    Video chat or low-end videoconference systems can supplement formal conference sessions or demonstrate the usefulness of desktop videoconferencing before you embark on a major project.

    John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

    Microsoft Corp. has made significant improvements in Release 3 of its NetMeeting videoconferencing software, which comes with Windows 2000 and will almost certainly be included with XP this fall.



    NetMeeting Release 3 is easier to set up and use than the earlier release. Application sharing is now feasible, and there are limited whiteboard capabilities.

    Both audio and video now work better on dial-up connections. And it's easier to host group meetings.

    On the downside, NetMeeting works through Microsoft servers which, understandably enough, are almost always overloaded.

    Agency managers should think twice before running a videoconference through a server owned or controlled by a third party. Nothing confidential can be discussed unless you at least control the server'and even then the Internet is not safe for unscrambled videoconferencing unless the subject is routine enough to trust to regular e-mail.

    For information about the Internet locator servers available to host desktop videoconference sessions, check out www.netmeet.net.

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