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Exploring the Various Technologies Being Used for Videoconferencing.

Teleconferencing is designed as an alternative to face-to-face communication. Never have humans invented a more-effective means for resolving a problem, clarifying an issue or reaching a mutual decision than through the use of teleconferencing.

For the geographically dispersed organization, teleconferencing addresses the problems of distance, crisis management and personnel time. In effect, this technology allows you to move the expertise, not the expert. The world of teleconferencing can be as exciting as it is productive, if the user understands the technology and the potential applications before investing in a technology/system. With this in mind, let's explore what video teleconferencing is and what it can offer.

Video teleconferencing systems can be divided into three basic groups:

Full-Motion Videoconferencing--The transmittal of full-motion of people between two or more sites, whether one or two-way, over broadband or compressed video links.

Freeze-Frame Videoconferencing--The transmittal of still images of things, such as documents, maps, photos, charts and graphs, between two or more sites over lowband communications links; namely, dial-up telephone lines. Freeze-frame videoconferencing focuses not on people but on the problem, in whatever from it may take. This technology allows still images to be transmitted to multiple sites over standard dial-up telephone lines, thus reducing the cost of transmission by a very substantial factor as compared to full-motion teleconferencing.

Videographics Teleconferencing--The ability to add interactive foreground-annotation capability to any background video image, whether generated by a full-motion, freeze-frame or computer teleconferencing system. This technology can also be used without a background image as an electronic "blackboard."

Truly Integrated Systems Have been Developed

A few companies have recently begun to offer major teleconferencing technologies that are truly integrated, rather than being ad hoc assemblages of systems. Such advances have placed these companies, their products and the industry at the crossroads of three major industries of tomorrow: Interactive image communications systems that incorporate the capture, processing and interactive transmission of images electronically; decision systems that allow fully interactive, computer-assisted "problem-solving" with communications; and information management that facilitates orderly recording, storage, retrieval and presentation of information via telecommunications.

The real power of the systems, then, lies not in their ability to perform any single function, but in their ability to perform all three functions quickly, simply and cost-effectively.

Today there are systems designed to accept inputs from a wide variety of possible sources. They can also provide outputs in a variety of forms. In Figure 1 (see page 54) a user can take input from the "paper media" and, after discussing it with his counterparts in several remote locations simultaneously, store the document electronically. Conversely, another user can take the output of a computer or the image of a physical object "for exa mple, an automotive part) as his input and, after discussing it, make a hard-copy print or slide of the same image. The system then serves as a "universal media interface," as well as a communications image processor.

the architecture of today's systems must allow the systems to "talk" with a broad range of other "input" and "output" sources that provide video-like images (personal and professional computers, mainframes, CAD/CAM, electronic image-filing systems, printed or drawn documents, x-rays, slides, photographs and all physical objects--anything that can be viewed by a camera). Similarly, the systems must be able to "output" in a wide range of media, including hard-copy, photos, slides or electronic media.

The product line of any videoconferencing company must take into account two factors: the full range of physical settings and applications that exist within host organizations, and the natural desire on the part of many users to "try their technological wings" with less-expensive systems before migrating to the more-powerful (and more-expensive) systems. This can be accomplished by offering a full spectrum of modularized products ranging from custom rooms to the compact desktop models, with modular architecture that allows every user the freedom to customize, expand and upgrade as desired.

Integrating Foreground and Background Visuals

Only recently has the communications industry began to break through the technological barriers to combine video, communications, computer and information-management technologies, into wholly integrated of freeze-frame videoconferencing and videographics teleconferencing. We can better understand the inner workings of such an integration if we visualize the concept in terms of two separate planes--a background and a foreground plane.

The background plane represents the problem being discussed, while the foreground plane represents the possible solution. Typically, this is a static image having a high degree of complexity. The foregound visual plane is superimposed over complexity. Teh foreground visual plane is supermposed over the bacground image, creating a single plane. Unliked the background plane, this occurs in full motion and in real time. The two ground plane, this occurs in full motion and in real time. The two planes have completely different sets of characteristics and, when combined, the probelm (the background plane) and the solution (the foregound plane) result in a fully interactive system. From this integration, a new element comes into view--new technologies/enhancements with more and broaderw applications.

There's a natural hierachy of physical settings within any given organization, as in Figure 2 (page 54). They range from executive boardrooms to conference rooms, individual offices and plant floors. Not surprisingly, the number of participants, the reasons for meeting (such as presentations, workshops, training) and the types of applications range greatly, even within individual organizations. Therefore, generally speaking, videoconferencing manufacturers are required by their users to fulfill five major requirements.

The first is packaging. Sytems must be packaged in such a way that they can be used with equal comfort in a wide variety of settings, including executive boardrooms, large auditoriums, small conference rooms, on individual desktops, or in the hostile environment of a plant floor or remote construction site.

Secondly, sytems must provide the flexibility to be configured in such a way that they can be used in conjunction with full-motion videoconferencing rooms and with multiple "satellite terminas," as well as with freeze-frame-only or videographics-only capabilities.

Next, all systems must be compatible from the standpoint of communications, video standards and peripheral interfaces, so that all of the systems being used can "talk" to each other system both intra and inter-organizationally.

In addition, all systems must be modular, so that a systems capabilities can be expanded as user needs evolve.

Finally, all systems must be microprocessor-based and software-dominated, so that they can be altered to work in a wide range of user-specific applications and their performance features can be upgraded overtime, substantially reducing the risk of obsolescence.

A typical integrated system might include:

Interactive Graphics Display--This subsystem allows the user to reach directly into a dynamic video image, register directly on it, draw, write and annotate over the background video image, and then transmit that image (both the foreground and background image) to multiple remote locations. When used in a broadcast environment, for example, by John Madden during a football game, this technology has often been referred to as the "CBS Chalkboard.c

Electronic Image Storage--This subsystem not only has the capability to transmit an image, but goes one step further--it can store multiple images electro ically and retrieve tehm in an orderly fashion from a powerful electronic "filing cabinet."

Full-Color Image Sent over Telphone Lines

Advanced Image Processing--This subsystem processes full-color still video images through ordinary voice-grade telephone connections anywhere in the world. A complete full-frame image with moderate black-and-white resolution can be transmitt d to all sites in four seconds. The resolution continues to improve and within 21 seconds color is revealed. The system continues to fill in the details of the image, concentrating on the areas of greatest complexity, until a final image is displayed. Foreground annotations can begin almost immediately.

High-Speed Document Transmission--This subsystem allows the transmission of high-contrast black-and-white documents over voice-grade dial-up telephone lines in 10 to 20 seconds at a speed of 9600 b/s. Since the full frame is revealed in just 10 seconds, conference participants can begin discussing the material almost immediately. Complex documents cna be transmitted very rapidly, saving time and increasing productivity.

Universal I/O Interfaces--This subsystem "mates" many input or output devices to the overall system in such a way that they are all conveniently accommodated and easily controlled.

Once the user understands the technology, two important factors must be assessed before choosing a technology, a product and a supplier: the company's video/teleconferencing needs, and the company's application needs against the existing available technolgies, to ensure an optimal approach to the system being purchased.

The most critical step in defining the optimal videoconferencing system is to understand the user organization and its needs and desires (both current and future) as they pertain to videoconferencing. In some instances, the user clearly understands its needs and desires. Others have only begun to explore the range of teleconferencing options available and on the horizon. When considering the matching of user needs with the existing and emerging technologies, the user first must assess the available technologies. Too often teleconferencing users purchase systems that will either become unnecessarily obsolete or will be incompatible with the system components or capabilities desired in the future.

Secondly, it is important to select technologies that allow the video/telecomferencing system to be upgraded and expanded in a logical and cost-effective manner as user needs evolve.

System Must Match Specific Needs

Finally, it is important to focus on the selection of technologies/capabilities that must meet specific user needs and will maximize the user's return on invested capital. One of the greatest errors made by video-teleconferencing users is in the selection of a system that's not designed to meet specific needs. Perhaps the most costly example of mismatched needs and technologies occurs when a user obtains a full-band, full-motion teleconferencing system when, in fact, a much-narrower band, freeze-frame videoconferencing system would have been adeqate. Since the operating costs of freeze-frame videoconferencing are considerably lower than for full-motion, the cost penalty to the user of such a mistake can be significant. With proper planning, such a mismatch of needs and technologies can be avoided.

Teleconferencing id finally becoming a part of our day-to day lives in the business arena. As our needs and demands change, so will the technology, taking us from the the board room to the plant floor and beyond.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Thomas-Phillips, Linda
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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