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Home / Special Report / Videoconferencing is but
one eye on the future

Videoconferencing is but
one eye on the future

What ever happened to the videophonic vision of the future that was forecast at the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs? The promise of real-time video interaction with a person on the other end of the conventional telephone was made to look like it was just around the corner. Yet today most people do not have a video camera mounted on top of their computer. Nor do they have the ability to retrieve and display video images sent over the phone line to their computer.
Or do they?
According to some industry experts, many home computers soon will come equipped with the hardware and software necessary to receive and display video images. But even if the computers are ready, the real reason this has not become a self-fulfilling prophecy is insufficient bandwidth. Standard telephone wires simply do not have the information-carrying capacity necessary to produce acceptable video images.
Peter Lewis, in an article written in the August 1996 issue of Home Office Computing, says one picture uses the memory that it takes to store 10,000 words. Since a video segment can be made up of thousands of pictures, the requirements to transmit a real-time video image are enormous.
“The technology to deliver desktop video exists on the PC,” says Edward Tauer, director of product development for ConferTech, a subsidiary of Frontier Corp. “The biggest issue is bandwidth. Good-quality video needs a certain band- width back and forth.”
Another problem is modem capacity. With a standard 14,000-bits-per-second modem, the resulting image is choppy and annoying, and nowhere near the television-quality broadcast people are used to. A 28,800-bits-per-second modem improves the image slightly. However, Lewis says what is really needed to give video-savvy customers an acceptable image is an ISDN (integrated servicesdigital network) phone line, which enables two channels to run at 64,000 bits per second.
Stephen Snyder, general manager of Frontier Network Systems, says videoconferencing kits are available at a cost of $1,000 to $1,500. Connection to ISDN lines is required, but these can be accessed by dialing into a special telephone number. The kits consist of a high-speed modem board that enables the computer to connect to the ISDN line; asecond board that compresses and decompresses the video signals; a video camera; a microphone; and the necessary software.
Another issue is that in order to use the technology, people on the other end of the phone line must have it, too. Most of the top executives at Frontier are equipped with their own desktop-videoconferencing systems, so they can communicate with one another, or link up to any one of Frontier’s 26 videoconfer-encing sites. However, most of us do not have what it takes to join that crowd.
Still, there is another, low-cost desktop-videoconferencing option that may be more readily available than you think.
At its Web site (//cu-seeme.cornell.edu), Cornell University has available CU-SeeMe software that prospective desktop-video users can download free of charge. In addition to the software, users need to have a video camera and Internet connection. The total setup can cost as little as $100.
Some industry experts say there are other options that may provide an even more effective means of communication at a lower cost.
James Wilson, director of marketing communications for ConferTech, asks why people should use videoconfer-encing at all when simple audioconferencing will do the job. So, too, the cheaper and newly developing document-conferencing technologies that use the Internet and modems in conjunction with the standard audioconference.
“For many calls, video doesn’t convey
the majority of the information,” Wilson says. “You spend five minutes saying hello, then talk about a document on the screen, or (you have) a split screen with a talking head where 75 percent of the screen is document.”
Snyder notes that one time when videoconferencing definitely is a better option than audioconferencing is in conducting personnel interviews.
“There’s only one big disadvantage: You can’t see the person’s shoes,” Snyder says. “I can tell a lot from the shoes. Whether they’re shined or not says something about the person’s attention to detail.
“Otherwise, it’s 100 percent interactive, and saves time and money.”
Though Wilson and Tauer agree that video is preferable for negotiation or other “relationship” issues where a virtual meeting is a necessity, they suggest two “document-call” technologies where participants can view and modify documents while using standard audio-conferencing technology to make a presentation or have a discussion.
One option uses two standard phone lines and special software that enables the computers to hook up so that conference participants can literally be on the same page. The second option calls for users to connect to the Internet, dial up a specific Web site and select the designated document conference from the Web page.
“Instead of making just one presentation, you can make four (presentations) to people all over in one day,” says Tauer.
Snyder talks about another option–collaborative computing–in which split- screen technology enables two workers in distant locations to work on the same document at the same time, while viewing one another in a small window on the screen. He says the approximate cost of software is $200 to $300, not including the video camera.
Another option in widespread use at area companies is collective videoconferencing. As opposed to desktop videoconferencing, this is a point-to-point option where participants gather at a designated site that houses the required technology.
As with Frontier’s 26 remote videoconferencing sites, Northern Telecom Inc. Network Directory and Operator Services Division maintains a dedicated videoconference room that is in constant use, says Doug Sprei, company spokesman and manager of marketing communications. Parent Northern Telecom Ltd. also has 150 remote sites around the world. Sprei notes that with 68,000 employees scattered around the world, videoconferencing capability has been a lifesaver.
“I really appreciate this technology,” Sprei says, referring to its assistance in helping him manage his team in Rochester and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
At Nortel, managers use videoconferencing because of its ability to facilitate teamwork among team members who are geographically separated, and because of the subsequent reduction in travel costs.
Sprei says employees at Nortel also are heavy users of audioconferencing.
“Videoconferencing is used for specific needs–when we need to look at graphics together, or feel a need to see each other.”
As a manager, Rochester Telephone Corp.’s director of operator services, John Tassone, uses weekly audioconferences as a means of keeping in touch with his 18 supervisors who reside on- site in an area that ranges from Webster to Brockport to Dansville.
“This way we keep people in their areas,” Tassone says.
Though many of Rochester Tel’saudioconferencing customers are large companies that purchase the service on a contract basis, Tassone says it also is available on a one-time-only basis, and can be a cost-effective alternative for many small businesses for “meeting” with their clients and colleagues.
Janet Marfuggi, a staff analyst at Rochester Tel, compiled some cost profiles for the audioconferencing service:
For a five-participant, 53-minute “Meet Me Local” (all local participants) conference, the total setup and usage charge is $105.25.
For a three-participant, 19-minute “Operator Dial Out” call to sales associates in Pennsylvania and England, the setup and usage cost is $55.95.
For a six-participant, 120-minute unattended emergency conference, total setup and usage cost is $267.
(Mary Anne Donovan is a Rochester- area free-lance writer.)

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