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Computer-Based Teleconferencing Begins Migration into the Office.

The teleconferencing and the microcomputer industries are converging. In the past few months, companies like RacalMilgo, Pptel Communications, Digigraphics Systems, Imedia and Tori have introduced microcomputer-based teleconferencing products.

Major teleconferencing users have also gotten into the act. In April 1984, Procter & Gamble began using a freeze-frame videoconferencing system designed by IBM. And in August 1984, The Travelers Companies unveiled a computer-based teleconferencing system made by American Video Teleconferencing Corporation.

While the impact computers will have on the teleconferencing industry is debatable--some say the added competition may hurt some vendors, while others hope the competition from companies like IBM will raise the technical and marketing expertise of everyone--it is clear that, for teleconferencing, the pieces of the microcomputer puzzle are beginning to come together.

One reason for the migration of microcomputers into teleconferencing is sheer numbers--as companies are outfitted with more and more desktop computers, and as more computer manufacturers compete for business, the spillover into telecommunications was only a matter of time.

"With the number of PCs out there, (the movement of computers into teleconferencing) had to be inevitable," says Michael Manginelli, national sales manager of Optel Communications. "People want to use their existing equipment as much as possible, to base systems around what people know to operate."

New transmission services such as AT&T's Alliance service and switched digital services offered by Argo Communications and Dama Telecommunications may hasten the development of computer-based teleconferencing systems.

AT&T Communications' Alliance 2000 service, for example, is a public graphics service accommodating interactive writing devices and freeze-frame video at up to 59 locations. AT&T's Donald Petty says the service has been tested with the IBM PC and several other microcomputers, and the preliminary indications are that the service can accommodate them. AT&T says the Alliance service will be nationwide by February 1985.

Teleconferencing vendors are taking a close look at the microcomputer's entry to their industry. Tom Casey, product line manager for Racal-Milgo, a company that is just branching into teleconferencing, is typical of many vendors viewing the computer-teleconferencing union.

"If for no other reason than the fact that IBM is about to enter the market, i've got to believe that teleconoferencing is about to get more recognition," he says. (IBM is test marketing a freeze-frame videoconferencing system designed for the IBM PC XT.)

"I see the IBMs and the Travelers, and I know they are drawing a lot of attention to the marketplace," adds Casey. "They are opening the teleconferencing market."

Gary Lewis, vice president of marketing for American Video Teleconferencing, says he has been fielding a lot of telephone calls about his company's Inforum system, a microcomputer-based system that integrates information processing and teleconferencing.

"A lot of people feel this is a solution to their decision support needs," he says. He believes the entry of computers into teleconferencing is one sign that the industry is ready to take off.

"It is sign, but users will still have to be very cautious." he says. "They need to see some real successes first."

David MacIntosh, a teleconferencing specialist with Colorado Video, is more cautious of computers' role in generating a teleconferencing boom. He feels general economic conditions still dictate the directions corporations take with technology, and he says some old lessons have to be learned before the market can mature.

"In the past, it has been the technology that has been sold, as opposed to applications," says MacIntosh. "When people begin to recognize that they've got an application that teleconferencing can meet--when business people think in that way--that's when the explosion and blossoming of the industry will come about."

Colorado Video President Glen Southworth believes that computers may stimulate competition, but not necessarily more business, in the teleconferencing industry. "My experience is that sometimes technology can kick off a market and sometimes it can't," he says. "There are a lot of resources in the computer field, and it may make things interesting for teleconferencing. These things stimulate competition but not necessarily markets."

However ones views the potential impact of computer-based systems, the technology does add new capabilities to teleconferencing. Among them are business graphics and spreadsheet software that automatically calculate and draw bar graphs and pie charts. These graphics can then be used as electronic slide presentations that are stored in computer files, easily undated and transmiited for a teleconference.

Many of the new computer-based systems are also multifunctional, providing computer graphic displays and freeze-frame video images. Some systems also have digitizing tablets to allow teleconference participants to annotate on an image and to interact with the display as a shared workspace.

On August 1, 1984, American Video Teleconferencing of Oceanside, New York, and The Travelers Companies of Hartford, Connecticut, unveiled the Inforum Videographics Teleconferencing System, a computer-based system that intergrates information processing and teleconferencing. An End of Full-Motion Video's Hold?

In a presentation, American Video's Gary Lewis said the day was an historic one; he predicted the dawning of the computer age in teleconferencing and urged the end of full-motion video's hold over teleconferencing users.

In general, the Inforum system distributes still video images and computer-generated analytical tools such as spreadsheets pie charts and bar and line graphs to a theoretically unlimited number of distant sites. It operates on an IBM SNA (Systems Network Architecture) data network, transmitting over 9.6kb/s or 19.2-kb/s data lines.

IBM PCs, along with a software package called Decision Images developed by Travelers, allow employees to create presentations at their desks using any combination of text, graphs, spreadsheets and freeform drawings. The presentation is stored on a distkette and, once in the conference rooms, is placed in another IBM PC and distributed to all participating conference sites.

This prepared presentation forms the core of the teleconference; individual frames can be quickly omitted or switched in order before the conference. Since this information is transmitted to IBM PCs at the distant sites, a permanent record of the presentation can be kept. The still video images sent during the conference cannot at this time be recorded and stored.

Inforum is being marketed by both The Travelers Companies and American Video Teleconferencing to organizations having IBM mainframe computer systems, SNA data networks and IBM-compatible microcomputers. Currently, three Travelers locations are using the system--the headquarters in Hartford and offices in Norcross, Georgia, and Orlando.

Officials from American Video and Travelers emphasize the system's reliance on microcomputers and their faith in how computers will improve teleconferencing.

"We spend $50 million each year in travel, plus the down time and wear and tear on people," says Joseph Brophy, Travelers' senior vice president of data processing. "We saw the need for an advanced video teleconferencing system." Travelers, which ranks third among 2,000 life insurers and has assets of more than $30 billion, has 29,000 employees across the U.S.

When Travelers began working with American Video nearly two years ago, it was looking for a system that combined current teleconferencing technology and new options such as microcomputers. "Travelers has made a major commitment to the PC," says Ronald Larity, director of data processing. "We are looking at all our top people being computer literate. In today's world, communications must be analytical, and (this system) creates a valuable way for computer-conversant people to communicates."

To Joseph Brophy, the benefits of Inforum will go beyond reducing travel costs because he sees the system as going beyond full-motion video's capabilities. "The value of a meeting," he says, "is a direct result of the quality of the information that is exchanged or absorbed rather than the need for participants to see the movement of people in other facilities."

American Video's Gary Lewis is more blunt in his assessment of full-motion video and its impact on teleconferencing. "The use of the technology has been limited because of prohibitive costs," he says. "When you look at the marketplace, you see the actual use (of teleconferencing) confined to an elite tier of businesses that can afford full-motion. Full-motion video is nothing more than seeing people rubbing cheeks and noses. We hope to do more."

According to Lewis, the system can accommodate full-motion video without extra room construction costs. He says that, compared to full-motion systems, inforum's lower transmission costs and modular, standardized room design bring its price tag to approximately 10 percent of the recurring costs of a non-computer-based full-motion system. Each Inforum room could cost as much as $150,000, not including transmission charges.

Procter & Gamble turned to IBM for its plunge into computer-based teleconferencing. In April 1984 it received five IBM freeze-frame videoconferencing units. The company is testing the units and may eventually recommend that they become a permanent part of its teleconferencing system.

As of November 1984, IBM still had not officially introduced the product, dubbed Focus One internally; in October of 1984, IBM did exhibit one of the units at the TeleCom IV teleconferencing conference in Anaheim, but the company says it is still in a "test marketing" phase.

Beverly Bach, a former senior systems analyst in teleconferencing development with Procter & Gamble, left that company shortly after spearheading the purchase of the five IBM videoconferencing systems. She reports that the early uses of the system at Procter & Gamble indicated that employees were "very excited" about it. She expects nothing less than a de facto standard in freeze-frame videoconferencing as a result of IBM's product. PCs and Freeze-Frame

Ibm's freeze-frame video system is designed to be used with the IBM PC XT microcomputer. Bach says the complete package consists of: three black-and-white 23-inch monitors with a resolution of 480 by 512 pixels; three General Electric black-and-white cameras (an overhead and a side camera for graphics or object pictures and a front camera for images of people; a hard-copy device manufactured by Honewell; a chartmaker software package with three different font styles so that text to be transmitted during a conference can be pre-generated and stored on a floppy disk; remote controls with a "help" feature, all designed by IBM; a video control unit (VCU) that does all necessary video interpretation, switching, coding and decoding; and an audio system with a modem.

The IBM system has the following features: it uses dial-up phone lines; transmission of text is in three to five seconds; transmission of black-and-white images is in eight to ten seconds and gray-scale images in 30 to 35 seconds; video enhancement of the picture for black-and-white images; a "meeting minutes" feature that records in sequence anything sent or received during a conference (a participant can go back to any point in the conference and re-transmit an image; a feature to rapidly find and transmit (in about five seconds) antyhing that has been pre-recorded and already sent.

"The first two attempts (with the system) were between Sacramento and Cincinnati, and they were highly successful," recalls Bach. "The second meeting went five hours; they really ran through all the capabilities of the system, and they were just ecstatic about it. This group had used a freeze-frame system for a few years, and they were frustrated with it; they were very skeptical about whether videoconferencing would meet their needs. They came in and used the IBM system and went away very excited. They hadn't been trained either. They went through the steepest part of the learning curve and loved it."

She is a firm believer in the future of IBM videoconferencing. "I believe IBM will become the de facto standard, like it did with the PC," she says.

SInce April 1984, though, rumors of IBM's entry into the teleconferencing market has fueled speculation on what IBM might mean to teleconferencing and how current teleconferencing vendors might be affected.

Michael Manginelli of Optel Communiciations says the teleconferencing market is not ripe enough for IBM to make a major impact. "Right now, I don't think the teleconferencing market is that large for IBM to exert all that much effort into it," he says. "The potential is there, but I would think IBM would want to realize profits a lot faster, like they did with the PC market. The basic dollar market in teleconferencing is not that large to begin with. That is why IBM is still beta testing, why they are not bringing (their freeze-frame unit) directly to market."

Many teleconferencing observers stress that, as microcomputers squeeze their way into teleconferencing, the older technology will still have a niche. There is no need for a $100,000 computer-based system to transmit still images of engineering parts between plants, they say, when a much cheaper black-and-white freeze-frame video system can to the job.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rex, S.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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