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May 1999

Collaborative Conferencing Meets The Network


A cost-effective alternative to ISDN-based visual collaboration is taking root in corporate infrastructures large and small. IP-based videoconferencing, with its broad reach across corporate networks and relatively low implementation and operation costs, is an alternative that complements and extends the reach of ISDN-based conferencing systems.

IP-based visual collaboration is the fastest growing segment of the market, and its potential is expansive. With improved speed and reliability across corporate networks, companies are finding that IP-based visual collaboration solutions can lead to increased productivity and lower costs by enabling face-to-face communication over intranets, extranets, and virtual private networks (VPNs) - when time, distance, or cost prohibit in-person meetings.

IP-based visual collaboration brings high-quality conferencing solutions to desktops, conference rooms, and offices. These same solutions, when used in conjunction with a gateway, can also interoperate with ISDN-based videoconferencing systems and connect with systems outside corporate networks.

Improved corporate communication and reduced costs have always been two top benefits to implementing an enterprise-wide videoconferencing system. The return on investment from visual collaboration comes with increased work productivity and travel cost savings. Employees can spend more time on work projects and less time driving to remote offices or making flight connections. IP-based visual collaboration increases the cost savings even further. Not only is it easier to implement across an entire enterprise, but it also saves the expense of ISDN usage charges. More importantly, visual collaboration can happen every day among colleagues in remote locations when videoconferencing is part of an overall visual-collaboration solution integrated into an enterprise network, allowing for more effective corporate communication.

While business-quality, IP-based visual collaboration is possible over an enterprise local area network, today's Web is somewhat limited in its ability to deliver such high-quality performance. Because the Web is asynchronous and not built for real-time communication, even networks that have high-speed Internet connections will be unable to take full advantage of voice, video, and data collaboration on the Web. However, networks are being built all around the world today that will deliver much higher performance for this type of visual collaboration. These next-generation Internet networks are being built primarily to accommodate visual collaboration and real-time videoconferencing applications. Until those networks are online, large-scale VPNs can connect disparate corporate locations in an intranet or extranet environment.

Still, packet-switched, IP networks can transmit real-time audio, video, and data - and provide top-quality visual collaboration. But it is a complex process. Companies that are considering deploying an IP-based videoconferencing solution must determine if their local or wide area network has the ability to handle audio, video, and data without drastically slowing the overall network.

Some videoconferencing vendors offer a complete service program to help businesses evaluate and expand existing infrastructure, choose the right solutions, integrate IP-based visual collaboration into the network, and ensure interoperability with ISDN systems. Once in place, service providers offer continuing support and consultation so businesses can maximize their investment.

International standards also enable connectivity between networks and systems. All business-quality, IP-based visual collaboration is based on a protocol known as H.323 - the comprehensive standard for simultaneous voice, video, and data over IP. H.323 is based on a series of standards that encompasses synchronization, transmission, and audio coding. Products that adhere to the H.323 standard will interoperate with one another regardless of the network, platform, and application that is being used. However, a gateway is needed when users of H.323 standards-based solutions want to collaborate with systems run on other protocols, such as H.320 for ISDN-based conferencing.

Today, videoconferencing vendors are integrating streaming video and document-sharing capabilities into their IP-based conferencing solutions for added benefits and value that broaden the potential uses for visual collaboration.

Streaming video enables hundreds or even thousands of people to simultaneously view a live or stored videoconference from a Web-enabled desktop. Applications for streaming video extend from the executive office suite to the boardroom and classroom. Chief executives can address their entire organization live or store their speeches for later broadcast throughout the network. Trainers can offer seminars from their offices and reach off-site salespeople and distributors. Question-and-answer sessions can be conducted via chat or e-mail technologies.

Videoconferences can hold long-term value with the benefits of streaming media. Live videoconferences between multiple locations can be streamed to one or many Web-attached desktops. That same conference can also be stored for later viewing by people who may have missed the meeting.

Tradeshow and conference organizers may have a better chance at getting top industry experts to present a keynote speech if the speakers don't have to travel. In March 1999 at the Federal Office Systems Exposition (FOSE) in Washington DC, some keynote presenters addressed FOSE attendees via videoconference. Streaming video also delivered presentations to a broader audience, as speeches were broadcast live via an IP network throughout the showroom floor.

Document and data-sharing technologies also add value to a videoconference by actively engaging meeting participants. Whiteboarding, which enables users to share and edit text, graphics, and data, allows meeting participants to brainstorm ideas using a common electronic document, or suggest changes and revisions to a presentation.

To get the most from an investment in visual collaboration, users should understand all of the components to a complete, H.323 standards-compliant videoconferencing product family. A network audit from a qualified vendor is the most important first step, and the audit provides important recommendations on what network upgrades are needed to help create a seamless, IP-based conferencing solution. Vendors with comprehensive service plans can lead businesses through the entire process of network evaluation, implementation and maintenance.

Ensuring high-caliber audio is vital to the successful implementation of a visual collaboration solution. Less-than-perfect video can still provide a quality conferencing experience - less-than-perfect audio can ruin a meeting. Television-quality video runs at 30 frames per second, but with visual collaboration, video can run anywhere between 15 and 30 frames per second. Network transmission rates, system specifications, and the amount of traffic on a network can all lead to less than optimum video transmission. However, full-duplex, FM-quality audio performance - which most upgraded networks can easily support - is a necessary component for ensuring a rich collaborative experience.

A complete solution includes the endpoint or client videoconferencing station, a gateway product that provides interoperability with H.320, ISDN-based videoconferencing products, and software for bandwidth control, conference management, and multi-location connectivity. The client includes the most obvious components of a videoconferencing solution: A camera, a video and audio codec card, speakers, and a microphone. Many solutions include hardware components that process the audio and video. In the future, it is expected that computer processors will eventually become powerful enough to deliver high-quality visual collaboration with less reliance on specialized hardware assistance.

Gateway solutions allow for interoperability between IP-based solutions and ISDN-based, H.320-compliant products. In short, the gateway translates between the two protocols. This component is vital to making a complete videoconferencing infrastructure. The gateway enables companies with existing ISDN-based videoconferencing infrastructures to protect their investments in those visual collaboration solutions while expanding and jointly implementing the cost-efficient, emerging standard of IP-based conferencing. Gateway products should also provide scalability to run at a wide variety of network transmission speeds, enabling both 128 Kbps and high-speed 384 Kbps transmission rates, as well as audio conferences using voice-over-IP (VoIP) standards.

Companies that want to videoconference with multiple locations on a single call should certainly invest in virtual conference server software to enable multiple point conferencing on demand. Conference server products can allow three locations - or dozens of locations - to participate in a single videoconference. The software can accommodate several different conference environments as well. Switch-on voice lets all participants see whoever is speaking, and continuous presence allows for up to four locations to be viewed simultaneously on a single screen. Broadcaster select allows an operator to control which site is being viewed by meeting participants.

For those who decide not to invest in multiple-point server software, there are many telecommunication service providers who can supply the network bridging and support for multiple-location videoconferences as needed.

As DSL and broadband network infrastructure are laid in place, the next-generation Internet will emerge ready to sustain real-time audio, video, and data traffic. With IP-based conferencing products, videoconferencing providers are already developing and producing the solutions that will be needed to make high-quality conferencing possible on the next-generation Internet.

In the meantime, IP-based videoconferencing is a way for companies to reduce extraneous travel time and expense while providing a means for colleagues who are miles apart to collaborate daily via video. In a global economy, technology eliminates the barriers of distance and enables business units in remote locations to seamlessly work together.

Marty Takessian is senior product manager, Internet multipoint solutions, for PictureTel Corporation. PictureTel is the world leader in developing, manufacturing and marketing a full range of visual- and audio-collaboration and streaming-video solutions. The company's systems meet customers' collaboration needs from the desktop to the boardroom. PictureTel also markets network conferencing servers and a comprehensive portfolio of enterprise-wide services. For more information, visit the company's Web site at www.picturetel.com/ipvc.

Collaborating For Presentation


Web conferencing is a cost-effective way to bring people together for group training, sales presentations, or corporate briefings. Compelling presentations and training sessions can be delivered without incurring the inconvenience and expense of travel through collaborative conferencing.

A Web presentation sharing service combines the real-time communication benefits of an in-person meeting with the visual power of the Internet. During a Web presentation, participants can view a presentation at their computers and respond either online or through traditional audio conferencing. The only equipment needed is a telephone for the audio portion of the call and an Internet-connected PC. A leader or moderator can deliver a compelling presentation over the Internet without leaving the desktop.

During a Web presentation, the conference moderator or leader controls the pace, flow, and delivery of a presentation by advancing the slides as if in person. The moderator can skip slides or return to previously viewed slides as well as view a list of participants on-screen. Conference moderators also have the ability to take participants to any site on the Internet in real time. Participants use their existing Internet access capabilities to view the presentation with security provided via a password-protected interface.

Additional available options for a Web conference include:

  • Enhanced Multimedia. Text, graphics, video clips, animation, and pre-recorded audio can be combined to provide a media-rich presentation experience for conference participants.
  • Virtual Hand-raising. Audience members can visually signal the moderator to indicate that they have a question or comment.
  • Polling. Questions can be built right into a presentation, and immediate feedback obtained from participants by having them click on the appropriate answer on their screen. Once participants' answers are collected, a pie chart is generated and displayed as part of the presentation.
  • Text Messaging (Chat). During the conference, participants can send text messages to each other or to the conference leader without disturbing the presentation.

Many benefits can be achieved by utilizing a Web conferencing presentation service, as long as participants are kept focused on the meeting. Since the leader controls the advancement of the slides, participants can't jump ahead, aiding in unifying their focus.

Interactive presentation is one of the main benefits of collaborative conferencing. Polling questions and text-based chats keep participants interested and engaged throughout the presentation. Another benefit is the elimination of travel and costs. Participants no longer have to endure time-consuming and costly trips to participate in short duration meetings and training updates. Finally, this type of conferencing reduces resources by eliminating the need for extra conference rooms and facilities.

There are numerous applications for web conferencing - from weekly sales updates and marketing training sessions to new product introductions and "cyberseminars." Following are some examples of how Web collaborative conferencing is being used today:

  • A bi-coastal law firm utilizes Web conferencing to update clients on a spate of recent rulings regarding sexual harassment in the health care industry.
  • A telecommunications service provider delivers a training session to its remotely-located sales force on a new company service offering.
  • A large publishing company uses Web conferencing to conduct its weekly international task force meeting to prepare for the launch of a new product.
  • An electronic commerce company delivers a series of Web seminars to prospective customers.

Tony Terranova is director of product management at Vialog Group Communications, a leading provider of audio, video, and web conferencing solutions. For more information on Vialog Group Communications and its services, visit the company's Web site at www.vialog.com.

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