Innovative Codecs and Many New Services Brighten Nation's Teleconferencing Picture.
Given the soaring costs of energy and the increasing burden of business travel on management, teleconferencing would seem to be an idea whose time has come. Current United States expenditures on business travel, including the cost of executives' time, airfares, motel bills, auto rentals and the like are well in excess of $30 billion per year, according to International Resource Development, Inc. of Norwalk, Connecticut. And it's been estimated that 80 per cent of the time spent getting to and from meetings is unproductive.
Aside from petential cost savings in travel expenses and executive time, teleconferencing also has the ability to make many meetings more effective and productive by allowing greater participation by people who otherwise would not have attended a distant meeting. Further, since teleconferencing eliminates the need for "travel days' the airline and motel reservations, meetings can be held when they are required rather than when they can be arranged. Issues can thus be addressed as they arise, and usually with all the key players present, greatly adding to the efficiency and effectiveness of decisionmaking and corporate management.
Even so, there are still many sceptics who question whether users will accept anything other than face-to-face meetings. They note that employees still associate travel with status. Also, early experiments with teleconferencing pointed up a disturbing trait: strangers tended to dislike each other on meeting for the first time in a teleconference. Further, the sceptics claim that communications costs are still prohibitive, particularly for full-motion color videoconferencing . . . the type of teleconferencing that most closely approximates inperson meetings.
In reply to these changes, proponents of teleconferencing note that the psychological problems associated with early systems have been resolved with "human-engineering' improvements to the meeting room facilities. As for management resistance, it's acknowledged that this will be a problem. Proponents claim, however, that once people try it, they like it.
With regard to the high communications costs for full-motion color videoconferencing, proponents make two points. First, progress is being made with data compression devices that reduce the transmission capacity to 1.544 Mbps and lower. This, coupled with the falling cost of satellite service and earth stations, and the growing availability of T1 and other wideband channels, is changing the price/benefits tradeoff dramatically. Secondly, where full-motion video is not required, users can employ a number of teleconferencing configurations that require less bandwidth, with corresponding savings in communications charges. For instance, the teleconference can be held with one-way full-motion video and two-way audio.
Cheaper still is the freeze-frame, or slow-scan TV video conference. This again uses two-way audio, supplemented by still pictures that are typically updated every 11 seconds or so. Communications for such meetings can be handled by separate telephone lines for the audio and freeze-frame transmissions, or through a land line or satellite link operating at 56 kbps. The still frames can also be used for charts and graphs.
In addition, users can opt for a simple voice conference, using either an in-house system or the telephone operator to make the connections. The in-house system, known as a "meetme bridge,' is generally recommended for conference calls involving half-a-dozen or more locations. At the time of the conference, all the participants dial a single telephone number and are interconnected within a couple of minutes.
There's yet another form of teleconferencing, known as computer conferencing, which differs from the others in that it involves no visual or verbal interaction. Participants type messages at will onto terminals connected by phone to a central computer. Users can send a public message to everyone in the conference, or a private message to designated individuals. In addition, messages can be signed or anonymous. Since the conference dialogue is stored, individuals need not be on the terminals at the same time. Also, a permanent written copy is always available to resolve disputes and to avoid the danger of forgetting or losing messages. While computer conferencing is less "rich' than other forms of teleconferencing, it is also less "self-exposing,' which may be useful in situations requiring relatively emotion-free communications.
With the growing trend of integrating the telephone with computer workstations, audio and computer conferencing are likely to merge in the near future into a highly versatile and popular form of teleconferencing. Elliot Gold, editor of the TeleSpan newsletter, believes this form of teleconferencing will evolve rapidly from the present one-on-one usage, first to three-way conferencing and subsequently to larger groups and multi-site networks. The need for such teleconferencing is there, he notes, and is simply awaiting the development of an inexpensive and easy-to-use integrated workstation.
Videoconferencing Moves Into the Office
While most of the interest to-date has focused on audioconferencing and freeze-frame videoconferencing, the market action is starting to swing more to full-motion color videoconferencing, which is also where the technology is advancing most rapidly. There are now about 50 full-motion videoconferencing rooms in the United States, and this is expected to grow to about 400 by 1985. These rooms are used almost entirely for intracompany meetings, since incompatible equipment impedes meetings between different companies. One major area of incompatibility lies with the codecs (coders/ decoders), which use different vide compression techniques to save on transmission bandwidth. One technique, interframe coding, transmits only the changes in the picture from frame to frame; the other, intraframe coding concentrates on coding high-detail areas of the picture at the expense of the less detailed areas.
Without such compression, the color TV signal generated by a video camera would require a 90-Mbps transmission link. Thanks to rapid progress with both types of video compression, the bandwidth requirement was cut to 3 Mbps by 1981 and last year to the Tl rate of 1.544 Mbps. The latest full-motion video codecs operate at 748 kbps and less. Users of Tl links can thus combine the video signal with still-frame graphics, alphanumeric data and audio, and transmit them simultaneously over the high-speed trunk. Codecs which sacrifice considerable picture quality are also available for operation at 56 kbps. Along with switched digital service at that rate such codecs make feasible a videophone on every desk.
The oldest form of video compression is differential pulse-coding modulation, or interframe coding. This is the technique favored by Nippon Electric Company (NEC) and the British firm, GEC McMichael. In interframe coding, the value of each pixel, or picture element, of succeeding frames is compared, pixel for pixel, with preceding frames and only the differences in value are transmitted. At low levels of motion, the picture quality is good. However, at a certain point, the speed of scene changes overcomes the interframe bandwidth capacity so the scenes appear jerky or parts of them blur momentarily.
In contrast, intraframe techniques apply their processing to each frame. Groups of pixels in rectangular clusters, called segments or cells, are scanned and the digital values encoded. The intraframe algorithm then uses high-speed multiplication to process the pixel segment, compress the digital data and transmit the results segment by segment. Since the compression is applied to each frame, irrespective of scene changes, intraframe coding is comparatively motion-independent. However, because the compression is applied to each frame, picture quality is less crisp than an interframe systems display of a low-motion scene.
Compression Labs which pioneered intraframe coding, recently developed an improved codec that uses both intraframe and interframe coding techniques. Called differential transform coding (DXC), the technique begins by applying CLI's patented intraframe coding, and then uses interframe coding from one frame to another. According to the San Jose, California firm, the DXC technique achieves up to three times more compression and provides the advantages of each individual technique. For example, the firm claims that the picture quality already available at 1.544 Mbps can be met by using DXC at 768 kbps. And, a better picture quality is obtained than with using intraframe techniques exclusively. As scene motion increases, picture stability is maintained by the intraframe coding, so the picture does not become jerky or blur image portions as it might if interframe techniques were used alone.
CLI utilizes DXC in its VTS 1.5E video teleconferencing system, an enhanced version of its popular VTS 1.5. In October, the firm introduced an international version, the VTS 512, which provides automatic conversion among worldwide broadcast display standards for two-way video conferencing between sites throughout the world. The VTS 512 also offers user-selectable transmission alternatives from 512 kbps to 2.048 Mbps, a standard international transmission channel. The VTS 512 uses DXC and is fully compatible with CLI's VTS 1.5 and 1.5E systems. It also interfaces to the portable Mini Conference Systems (MCS), which are designed for use in offices and small conference rooms.
Last fall, CLI introduced two new models to the MCS family, each costing less than $20,000: the PCS 12 personal conference station uses a 12 monitor and is intended for meetings of one or two people at each location; the MCS 19 mini conference station employs a 19 monitor and is designed for up to four people at each location. Both units support full-motion color video, color graphics and audio, but they do not require a full-function video teleconferencing room. Rather, they sit atop an office credenze, conference table or movable stand that can be tucked away when not in use. Within a building or office campus, one station can be connected to another using a local network. Alternatively, a station can be attached to a VTS 1.5E or VTS 512 to transmit and receive among remote conference stations.
NEC's Netec-XV codec offers variable transmission bit rates from 512 kbps to 2.048 Mbps. It also has provision for a 2.4- or 4.8-kbps data port, with higher-speed ports of 56-448 kbps available as options. Other options include an audio codec and encryption of the audio and video signals.
NEC uses the codec in its Computer and Communications, or C&C teleconferencing systems. The Fairfax, Virginia firm customizes the audio, document and video subsystems to the user's specific requirements and can also provide access to information retrieval, message transfer and data processing functions, if needed. The video subsystem may also incorporate NEC's TVS slow-scan unit for freeze-frame transmission over voice-grade or 56-kbps lines.
Later this year, NEC plans to begin deliveries of a full-motion video codec operating at 56 kbps. The portable unit will also operate at 48 kbps for use in Japan and at 64 kbps to meet the European standard. Users will have a choice of displaying the image on a small (11 to 13) monitor, or as part of a larger screen or monitor. In the latter case, the partial video display could overlay a freeze-frame or graphics image. NEC expects the codec to find use for desk-to-desk type conferencing, where the user's facial expression is displayed on a small monitor. Depending on the options, the unit is expected to cost from $20,000 to $35,000.
NEC also offers a "rollabout' system for freeze-frame and full-motion video conferencing in small offices and conference rooms. The system comprises video and graphics consoles mounted on casters and finished in teak wood and a neutral fabric to blend into existing conference rooms. The video console contains two 25 color TV monitors, two broadcast-quality cameras, a loud-speaker and controls to operate the cameras remotely from the conference table.
The graphics console includes a broadcast-quality TV camera, small TV monitor for previewing document displays, 35mm color slide projector and control panel for zoom and focus capabilities. Standard printed documents, viewgraph transparencies and 35mm color slides can be displayed. A video hard-copy unit can be mounted in the console as an option to copy incoming or outgoing video in black-and-white. NEC estimates the cost of a typical rollabout teleconferencing system at $200,000, excluding maintenance.
Vidicom, Incorporated of Westlake Village, California also supplies a transportable full-motion videoconferencing system, which can be rolled into a corporate boardroom or other conference setting and made operational in a few minutes. The Vidicom 4100 teleconferencing system is an outgrowth of a series of systems designed for Citibank. While designed for use with full-motion codecs, the 4100 can also use high-speed private or dial-up links to transmit freeze-frame images. Vidicom's president, L. Darrell Bevan explains that the 4100 uses the most advanced full-duplex audio technology "because the spoken word is the most critical element in videoconferencing.' The 4100 also includes broadcast-quality three-tube cameras and 19 color monitors, with an advanced voice-sensing system switching between group shots of all participants and speaker closeups: Alternatively, the group-individual switching can be controlled by the moderator.
The 4100 comprises two modules, mounted in solid hardwood cabinetry, which can be used in offices and similar facilities provided they meet minimum acoustical and lighting requirements. With the graphics module, participants can transmit images of slides, viewgraphs and documents, as well as three-dimensional objects. The 4100 also incorporates the firm's Telewriter II multi-color graphics tablet, which allows participants to interact through real-time graphics and drawings. These drawings can be overlaid on images on the graphics module monitor to accentuate or modify parts of the visual presentation.
In addition to its graphics and videoconferencing systems, Vidicom also supplies conference telephones and telephone bridging equipment as well as turnkey systems for audio conferencing. Its nationwide service network also handles site surveys, room design, on-site training, installation and maintenance.
Stretching Compression Limits
Like CLI, Avelex of Silver Spring, Maryland is also working on a video compression technique that combines intraframe and interframe coding. With this system, when the motion exceeds the channel capacity, the moving areas suffer a reduction in resolution until the motion stops. According to Avelex's Clyde Shillieto, the result is "very satisfactory to the human eye since the image never breaks up no matter how extreme the motion.' Shillieto adds that another goal was to limit the complexity of the algorithm to reduce the system's cost.
By year's end, Shillieto expects to have the initial teleconferencing system ready to work with channel capacities from 19.2 kbps to 1.544 Mbps. At the lower rate, the system will handle limited motion with a resolution sufficient to recognize individuals and accommodate graphics. At 56 kbps, the system will be able to accommodate levels of motion generally associated with a teleconference. At 112 kbps, the system will handle more extensive motion along with compressed audio over the same channel. With higher transmission rates, Shillieto says the system will be able to handle virtually any motion. For instance, the system was able to show football highlights at 500 kbps with no trouble. The normal resolution of the motion image is 512 pixels by 240 lines, but for rates of 512 kbps and above, a full resolution of 512 pixels by 480 lines is possible.
Perhaps the most innovative codec is the one being developed by Widcom Corp. of San Jose, California under a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Widcom's codec combines intraframe and interframe coding with an additional signal filtering step to achieve a compression ratio of 1400:1, allowing full-motion video to be sent at 56 kbps. A production model of the codec is due to be delivered at Darpa early this year, and President Robert Widergren predicts that by next year the codec will be available generally for a price of about $10,000.
Darpa is also working on a special military videoconferencing system which uses a CLI codec to compress the full-motion video signal to 19.2 kbps, resulting in a sketch-like image. As an alternate presentation mode, the system can also use the 19.2-kbps bandwidth to give a normal black-and-white, freeze-frame image replenished every eight seconds or so.
Developed by Computer Systems Management of Arlington, Virginia, the system is intended for use by geographically dispersed military leaders to make group decisions during a national crisis, when communications bandwidth might be at a premium. Unlike other videoconferencing systems, it uses rooms designed for one person. To simulate a real meeting, the conference sits facing four monitors arranged in an arc. Each monitor displays a different conferee, whose voice emanates from an associated loudspeaker. When you look at a person's monitor, a camera mounted above it transmits your image to that person, simulating eye contact. A third person viewing the monitors in his own room sees your image turned to face in the direction of the other conferee.
Each conferee has a graphics terminal in the form of a video monitor mounted face up in a rolling cart. Using a plastic stylus, the conferee can draw on the pressure-sensitive screen in any of five colors, and have the image appear simultaneously on everyone else's screen. The conferee can also call up maps and other prepared images as graphics underlays. These images are maintained in a local data base. If one users calls up the map of Poland, for example, the system transmits the frame number to the other conferees, not the entire frame. In the pilot system being tested by Darpa, the data base is maintained on a series of video disks, supplemented by magnetic disks.
Another interesting development comes from Interand Corp. of Chicago, Illinois, whose Discon 1000 audiographic teleconferencing system allows users to write directly on a freeze-frame video image, with the markings transmitted live via dial-up telephone lines. This means that conferees at several sites can all make color-coded annotations on the same video image simultaneously, with the marked-up picture appearing identically on the monitors at each location.
Interand also employs a FastScan technique to speed the initial reception of freeze-frame images. Slow-scan techniques can take up to two minutes to transmit the full picture over telephone lines. FastScan produces a rough version of the picture in four seconds, and a computer fills in the details in progressive sweeps of the screen. Conferees can thus begin discussing the image within four seconds. Also, the FastScan technique tolerates bad phone lines better than the slow-scan approach since the computer compares what it receives with what it sent and retransmits bad sections automatically.
The FastScan system requires two voice-grade lines to tie conference rooms together for the graphics, and an additional line for voice communications. A Discon 1000 system with the FastScan option and associated camera, document station, computer and software costs about $80,000 per end. Interand is also working on a hard disk system that will provide users with random access to any of 250 frames stored in "electronic folders' at any of the participating sites. With the disk and a large projection system and hard-copy unit, the system costs about $130,000 per site.
AT&T Goes Public
Meanwhile, the carriers have been busy preparing for the expected surge in demand for wideband channels and turnkey videoconferencing services. With its Picturephone Meeting Service (PMS), AT&T Information Systems has addressed the problem of high start-up costs by constructing 11 fully equipped videoconferencing rooms around the country which users can rent. Alternatively, AT&T will set up private PMS rooms on a customer's premises. Last November the firm announced a 30 per cent price reduction for private PMS rooms and the introduction of an improved picture processor, or codec, from Compression Labs. The VTS 1.5E processor provides improved performance at T1 rates compared with other 1.5-Mbps systems in use today. It also operates at 768 kbps without degradation of today's 1.5-Mbps picture quality, and at 512 kbps with acceptable picture quality. This means that PMS users will be able to take advantage of the lower speed and less expensive transmission services as they become available without having to replace equipment. Also, the new codec supports still-frame graphies, digital data and voice traffic, along with the full-motion color video signal. so users can efficiently allocate bandwidth between PMS and other applications when needed.
"Customers have indicated that the two major actors inhibiting their implementation of video teleconferencing have been its high cost and the rapid advance of picture processing technology that tended to obsolete equipment quickly,' says Ed Fontenot, PMS product manager. "With our new pricing and picture processor, we're addressing both of these concerns.'
AT&T has also retrofitted its public PMS rooms with the new picture processor. All public PMS rooms contain similar equipment and provide for a maximum of six active participants and a gallery for six to ten additional people. A special room controller developed by Bell Labs, allows the chairman to control all of the room's functions from a panel located at the conference table. This master control operates all of the rooms cameras as well as the hardcopy machine, video cassette recorder, slide machine and audio volume. A second control panel near the conference easel allows a person making a chalkboard or flip chart presentation to lead the business meeting by taking control of the cameras.
On the wall directly facing the participants, a single unit houses one face-to-face camera for each two conferees and two color monitors. An additional camera gives an overview of all conferees in the room. When the room controller is in the "auto' mode, voice activation automatically switches the outgoing signal from one conferee to another, and to the overview camera if ten seconds pass with no one speaking. This automatic switching can be overridden by the person chairing the meeting.
The picture being received from the distant location appears on the color monitor on the left. On the right, the picture being transmitted from the room is shown, allowing attendees to watch speakers in their own room without having to turn their eyes away from the monitors. A ceiling-mounted camera and associated light box mounted in the conference table allows conferees to transmit pictures of printed documents, flat artwork, transparencies and three-dimensional objects. A multi-purpose camera located in the wall opposite the conference easel can be used to focus on the easel, or it can be zoomed, tilted and panned to pick up special displays or presentations in other parts of the room. Another camera, optically coupled to a slide projector, is used to transmit full-color 35mm side presentations.
Through a special monitor, conferees can preview and adjust the picture originating from the multipurpose, slide or overhead graphics display cameras before it is transmitted to the other location. This monitor can also be used for playback of a video cassette recordings. Other items include a machine for producing black-and-white paper copies of images on the room's incoming monitor, and an audio add-on feature for bridging outside callers into the meeting on an audio-only basis.
AT&T Information Systems also announced price reductions of 19 to 28 per cent in its Quorum line of audio conferencing products in November. New prices for the Quorum teleconferencing bridge, which allows 14, 21 or 28 locations to establish a conference call automatically, now range from $31,000 to $36,000, or $1,000 to $1,220 on a permonth lease. For the Quorum group audio teleconferencing terminal (Gatt), the purchase price has been reduced 22 per cent to $6,250, or $270 per month on lease, and installation costs have been cut 25 per cent to $900. Designed for conference rooms, classrooms or auditoriums, the Gatt systems use omnidirectional microphones and portable overhead speakers to cater to large groups for participants. AT&T also offers an electronic blackboard and a number of electronic writing tablets for transmitting visual information via telephone lines.
SBS' Criteria for Success
Satellite Business Systems provides organizations with a turnkey teleconferencing consulting service, as well as supplying wideband channels through its Communication Network Service. Included in the turnkey service is requirements analysis, end user orientation and implementation planning. After years of research into the human factors of videoconferencing, SBS has come up with a list of design criteria for successfully simulating face-to-face meetings:
Teleconferencing rooms on the customer's own premises.
Natural meeting room environments, free of obtrusive equipment, harsh lighting and extraneous noise.
Large screens that can display color images of people or objects.
A high-resolution display capability for detailed graphic images such as typed pages and detailed drawings.
Audio fidelity sufficient to allow participants to distinguish among each other by voice as well as image.
Ease of conference control and coordination by the participants themselves, making the mechanics of the teleconference nearly transparent.
A single point of interface for the user in coordinating the suitability and availability of all components of the total system.
Working with E Systems of Dallas, Texas, SBS translated these criteria into its Teleconferencing System Design, which incorporates specially developed TV cameras and a high-resolution document display. The cameras and lenses are designed to provide distortion-free, close up views of meeting participants or objects in any part of the room without requiring special lighting. Freeze-frame and motion capabilities are options, and digital encoding and transmission techniques are used for improved image consistency. Images are projected onto a screen 4 square. The document display subsystem includes a scanner which is built into the meeting table for document input, and a projection system with several times the resolution of standard video systems. According to SBS, even the shape of the table is designed to encourage interaction of people within meeting rooms as well as among them.
Over one-third of SBS' customers use videoconferencing, including Hercules, J.C. Penney and Allstate Insurance, as well as joint venture participants Aetna and IBM. This month. J.C. Penney expands its videoconferencing network with an SBS link between Manhattan and a regional office in Dallas. The nation's third largest retailer will use its videoconferencing facilities for merchandising, marketing, management and other internal communications. The videoconferencing rooms will include a three-camera configuration that facilitates a "continuous presence' of all participants in any two meeting rooms . . . a feature that J.C. Penney sees as important to a "user-friendly system. To obtain the fine visual details needed for retail merchandise presentations, the system will also include very high quality TV cameras.
Aetna has operated a videoconferencing link between its Hartford and Windsor, CT offices since 1981, and in that time has held more than 5,000 meetings involving 30,000 people, saving the firm an estimated $500,000 in what would otherwise have been lost travel time, according to Richard Jackson, an officer in Aetna's corporate communications department and a member of the board of directors of the International Teleconferencing Association. Jackson, who designed Aetna's videoconferencing network recalls that the Hartford-Windsor link was projected to pay for itself in seven years. "At this rate, the rooms will pay for themselves in less than half that time,' he states. Last March, Aetna added its midwestern regional office in Chicago to the network and in November opened a teleconferencing facility in McLean, Virginia to service the Washington, D.C. area. Aetna plans to add San Francisco to its videoconferencing network during the second quarter.
At each location, the videoconferencing facilities look much like other meeting rooms, except for the recessed TV monitors and color TV cameras in their front walls, the black-and-white TV camera in the ceiling for viewing documents, and the higher-than-normal levels of illumination needed by the TV cemeras. Each video room contains a table and six chairs; a telecopier machine for transmitting and receiving documents; a chalkless blackboard, telephone and, hidden from view, a slide projector. Two TV screens in the front wall of each room focus on a meeting's participants in the "other' city. A third screen, seen simultaneously in both cities and operated from either, is used to send information in either direction, as displayed on slides, overhead transparencies, paper documents or the chalkless board.
According to Aetna, most people who have used the room say the way in which they were designed helps them ignore the distance between themselves and their associates on the other side of the video link. After a few minutes of meeting-by-video, users say, they are lured past the late-20th Century technology into an illusion of conversing with people seemingly just beyond the end of their respective conference tables.
Poorly planned rooms can intimidate potential users, Jackson notes, and "intimidating video rooms are seldom used.' One example of needless intimidation is manifest in some videoconferencing instruction books Jackson has seen. "I know of companies that give their employees one-inch-thick documents on how to use their video systems,' Jackson says. "Our instruction book is printed on a single sheet of paper. It contains very few words. Most of its space is taken up with a line drawing of the room.' A sevenminute videotaped primer on effective videoconferencing techniques is also available in the waiting areas outside of Aetna's video rooms "for a quick review before a meeting starts.'
A study by Aetna showed that most video meetings were concluded in less than 45 minutes. Many planners at the company, therefore, set a 45-minute guideline for the meetings when agendas are prepared. This guideline, Jackson says, "lends structure to the metings.' Busy executives especially like the enforced structure that a time guideline provides, he adds. "Video gives Aetna a business edge most of the companies just dream about,' Jackson concludes.
One SBS customer, Ford Motor Company is planning to begin videoconferencing sessions with its European offices by mid-year. For communications between the United States and Europe, the SBS satellite will be used in tandem with an Intelsat V satellite stationed over the Atlantic. Intelsat V is made by Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp.
SBS has already conducted international videoconferencing trials between the United States and Britain, France and Japan using Intelsat satellites for the oceanic hop. In October, 1982, it joined with British Telecom International (BTI) to demonstrate two-way videoconferencing between London and Allstate Insurance offices in Northbrook, Illinois and Menlo Park, California. SBS and BTI have also reached agreement for jointly providing transatlantic digital transmission facilities for advanced commercial services, including videoconferencing. Subsequently SBS has finalized joint operating arrangements with Italcable, the Italian intercontinental communications carrier and with the Netherlands PTT and Cable & Wireless (Hong Kong). These latter operating agreements call for joint development of advanced international communications services, such as videoconferencing, at speeds to 1.544 Mbps.
Satellite Carriers Push Services
Other satellite carriers, including Western union and American Satellite Company, also offer turnkey videoconferencing services in addition to the wideband communications links. Isacomm, a unit of United Telecom, leases satellite circuits and "resells' voice, data and videoconferencing services to insurance companies and other customers at rates to 1.544 Mbps through a growing network of 23 earth stations located throughout the continental United States.
Western Union offers its end-to-end VideoConferencing Service in association with Netcom International, a leading U.S. networking company, and Momentum Enterprises, a production and projection television service. With its Westar satellite system and terrestrial network. Western Union can readily supply links for videoconferences covering 100 or more locations. Netcom provides access to hundreds of transportable up links and down links, while Momentum Enterprises takes care of the meeting room facilities. Last fall, Western Union (United Kingdom) Limited, a subsidiary of Western Union Corporation, joined with Visnews Limited., a United Kingdom firm, to provide two-way transatlantic satellite delivery of video programming. The new corporation, known as BrightStar Communications Limited, is marketing the service principally to United States and European television broadcasters but is also offering a turnkey videoconferencing service.
American Satellite Company can provide completely customized rooms or less expensive videoconferencing consoles as part of its Video Teleconferencing Service. Included in the turnkey service are satellite capacity, earth stations and electronics, customized teleconferencing rooms or portable audio/visual consoles and graphic consoles for remote viewing of hard copy and objects. At the TCA show in San Diego last September, the firm introduced a new service called FlexStream which makes use of a new video digitizer capable of compressing full-motion video signals to 772 kbps, compared with the more conventional 1.544 Mbps. With FlexStream, multiplexers and switches allow the remainder of the 1.544-Mbps channel to be used simultaneously for voice and/or data communications. FlexStream service is available in two configurations, with a single or double multiplexer design. The single multiplexer configuration provides full-time use of video, voice and data channels at transmission speeds tailored to an organization's needs. With the two-multiplexer design, a switch allows additional access to voice and data circuits when videoconferences are not in progress.
In addition to full-motion videoconferencing, ASC offers freeze-frame service at 56 kbps and above on a shared or private network basis. One customer, Fairchild Industries, uses a private freeze-frame videoconferencing system to connect five sites for engineering review meetings, internal audit activities and productivity program reviews. Fairchild's main goal in using the system was to increase productivity. According to Bob Lieg, Fairchild's corporate director of management systems: "We felt that decision-making among all levels of the corporation would be accelerated, and time lost to travel for meetings would be significantly reduced once the system became operational.'
Fairchid uses two 56-kbps digital channels for the video signal and two FM analog channels for voice. When not used for teleconferences, the channels handle facsimile transmission. Within the meeting rooms, Fairchild uses ASC's Video Teleconferencing Package, which consists of two mobile units . . . a main video console and a graphics console. The main video console houses two color cameras for transmitting the participants' images or blackboard drawings; a large-screen video projector for incoming signals; a 10 video monitor for viewing outgoing images; and a video tape recorder. The graphics console allows display of slides, viewgraphs, charts and other objects. It comes equipped with a remote-control zoom camera and slide projector, and the console's table top height allows seated participants to easily work with documents and other graphics directly from the conference table. Fairchild is also using a video printer for reproducing a hard copy of the incoming signal at each site. This printer differs from the facsimile capability since it captures the actual image appearing on the video screen during the conference.
Hotels Join the Fray
To capitalize on the expected teleconferencing boom, a number of firms have begun offering turnkey services for closed-circuit televised meetings. Since these meetings are intended for information dissenmination rather than problemsolving, they generally involve one-way, full-motion, color video and two-way audio telecast to large groups of people gathered in hotels or regional meeting centers. Most of the meetings provide one-way information flow from a few people to many hundreds or thousands of people scattered at different locations. However, the "inward teleconference,' which ties speakers from various locations into large meetings or conventions is becoming increasingly popular.
According to Ken Leddick, president of VideoStar Connections, more than 50 per cent of the 1.2 million "off-premises' meetings held each year by corporations and associations are of a type that could benefit from teleconferencing. These include national or international sales meetings, new product introductions, training seminars and stockholders meetings, among others. Atlanta-based VideoStar Connections is a satellite communications company that provides end-to-end transmission and network coordination services for teleconferencing to hotels, convention centers and civic auditoriums and even directly to clients' offices. Its Tele-Meeting Network employs over 100 fixed and transportable earth stations installed at hotels and conference centers in major cities throughout the country. VideoStar services include booking satellite time, arranging satellite facilities from the conference origination point, providing satellite receiving stations at the various meeting locations and providing large-screen video displays in the meeting rooms. Last year it handled more than 250 major videoconferences, many with more than 50 receive sites.
VideoStar is also the transmission arm of the National University Teleconference Network, the largest teleconferencing network in higher education with over 80 major educational institutions. In addition, the firm also designs, installs and operates permanent satellite communications networks for national corporations. It recently completed a 50-site videoconferencing network for Hewlett-Packard, reportedly the first large network to use Ku-bank technology. HP expects to use the network for internal problem-solving, policy dissemination, training and customer question and answer sessions, among other applications.
For its permanent Tele-Meeting sites, VideoStar uses numerous Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton and Westin hotels throughout the country. One of its more ambitious projects involved the American Express Travel Related Services Company, which used a videoconference last November to announce its plan to donate a percentage of its transactions to the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. For the occasion, the company used live shots from Liberty Island, where the great lady resides, and from France, where she was created. Barbara Walters moderated the show from American Express' world headquarters in New York and James Robinson, the company's chairman delivered his remarks from the firm's landmark building in Paris. Employees joined in from five regional operation centers, while the press were deployed at nine hotels throughout the United States. Both composite and split-screen effects were used as New York on the left side of the screen chatted with Paris on the right side. According to Harry Mahon of VideoStar, "despite the intricacy of the logistics, the show went off without a hitch.'
Holiday Inns Joins Enemy
Concerned about the possible impact of teleconferencing on travel, Holiday Inns of Memphis, Tennessee decided to "join the enemy' by setting up a nationwide chain of videoconferencing facilities in its motels throughout the United States. For its so-called Hi-Net system, the hotel chain employs the RCA Americom satellite which also relays special entertainment programming to the hotels. Late last year, Hilton Hotels announced it will build a network of 35 public videoteleconferencing rooms that will be linked by AT&T's Accunet Reserved 1.5 service (formerly called High Speed Switched Digital Service), which operates at 1.5 Mbps using both satellite and terrestrial links.
According to Jim Collins, a Hilton senior vice president, the new digital network will supplement the corporation's existing analog network, which has been providing videoconferencing for businesses as well as entertainment and specialevents programming. "We'll be able to offer video teleconferencing for small meetings as well as for groups as large as 2,000, depending on the location,' he states. Hilton, headquartered in Beverly Hills, California, will build, own and operate the videoconferencing rooms. Users will be able to set up a videoconference with as little as one hour's notice and be able to originate as well as receive at any point on the network and communicate with compatible non-Hilton videoconferencing rooms using AT&T's Accunet Reserve 1.5 service. The network is expected to be operational by the end of the year.
PSN Originates in Washington
Another new venture that is causing considerable interest is New York-based Private Satellite Network, Incorporated, which was formed to "provide the world's first institutional direct broadcast by satellite (DBS) service.' While other DBS firms are targeting home entertainment, PSN plans to use the technology to provide private television networks for geographically dispersed organizations, such as corporations, labor unions and government agencies. PSN will offer end-to-end service, utilizing the Ku band with small (4-6 feet diameter) easy-to-install antennas mounted on rooftops and other convenient locations. Presentations may originate in an ordinary conference room or studio and can be viewed on a TV set in any office, with people at the receiving sites able to ask questions and make comments. The signal will be scrambled to protect confidentiality and addressed so that presentations can be made to specific audiences.
PSN's first origination point is Washington, D.C.G. William Miller, former Secretary of the Treasury, is the company chairman and Dr. Marc Porat is president. Dr. Porat authored a widely quoted study on the information age and was executive director of the Aspen Institute communications program. The former White House communications policy adviser Richard M. Neustadt is senior vice president and general counsel and C. Thomas Rush, who has served with SBS and Warner-Amex Cable Communications, is executive vice president. General Instrument Corporation is supplying earth station receiving equipment and addressable/ scrambling headend electronics for the network under a $9 million contract. General Instrument also has a minority equity investment in the venture.
Audioconferencing Forges Ahead
Despite the glamor of videoconferencing, many industry observers believe audioconferencing will remain the most popular form of teleconferencing for some time to come. TeleSpan's Elliot Gold predicts that audiographics will be the fastest growing area in teleconferencing during the next half-decade. Gold also believes that audio is the basic building block of all types of teleconferencing. "Without good audio quality, even the most sophisticated video system will not gain user acceptance,' he states.
Jerry Powers, president of Darome, estimates that 85 per cent of all teleconferences currently are voice-only and he predicts that audioconferencing will continue to maintain a significant lead over slow-scan and full-motion video for the next five years. "No matter what improvements are made in the video technology, audioconferencing will keep 70 per cent of the market,' he says.'
"Videoconferencing for business meetings is easier to hype than it is to sell or to use,' claims Powers, who admittedly has something of an ax to grind. Harvard, Illinois-based Darome, claims to be the leading designer and manufacturer of audioconferencing equipment and also the largest private provider of telephone conferencing services through its Darome Connection network. "Effective communications depends on real-time response, not real-time pictures,' Powers states. "Conferees soon realize that to communicate with distant people, you don't need to see them but you do need to be able to talk easily with them.'
Darome Goes International
The Darome Connection has facilities in Chicago, Danbury, Connecticut and Savage, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. This year it plans to go international by opening two more facilities in Toronto and London during the first quarter. The average business teleconference involves eight to ten locations and lasts about 90 minutes. Its cost typically runs from $360 to $600, which Powers claims is less than one-tenth the cost of a comparable videoconference and also requires much less time and effort to set up. All participants need is a phone; Darome does the rest. When there are groups at various conferencing locations, Darome supplies Conveners, microphone-equipped units to amplify the meeting so everyone can hear and participate. Some customers enhance their meeting by transmitting data on analog facsimile machines, and some include slow-scan video to send graphics and pictures of key participants over the phone lines to the remote locations.
New subscribers can find out about teleconferencing by joining with others across the country in Darome's free Conference Line program. The firm holds complimentary half-hour seminars-by-telephone on the first three Wednesday mornings of every month. The programs cover the hows, whys and whens of teleconferencing and the only cost is the price of a phone call to Chicago. To make a Conference Line reservation, call 1-800-435-6174; in Illinois, call 312-399-1613.
Another turnkey service supplier, Connex International, believes that audioconferencing can perform a variety of marketing functions. Susan Pereyra, Connex's president, classifies the various marketing functions as door opener, image maker, promoter, rapport builder, market extender, market penetrator, educator, qualifier and closer. Through audioconferencing, a company can easily reach as many as 300 prospective customers at a cost of as little as $10 or as high as $90 per person. "This is a considerable savings over the cost of a sales call,' Pereyra notes. She cautions that such a marketing program should not replace a sales force but supplement and support it. However, Pereyra maintains that "it is time for the business world to stop viewing audio teleconferencing as merely a substitute for travel and to begin instead to perceive its powerful potential as a marketing device.'
Photo: Compression Labs' portable Mini Conferencing Systems are disigned for use in offices and small conference rooms. They provide complete video teleconferencing capabilities, including full-motion video, graphics, audio and control, for a price of less than $20,000 per station.
Photo: The main video console in the Fairchild system houses two color cameras for transmitting the participants or drawings, a large-screen projector, a 10-inch monitor for viewing outgoing images and a video tape recorder.
Photo: American Satellite's FlexStream service compresses the full-motion video signal to 772 kbps, making the balance of the TI bandwidth available for voice and data traffic.
Photo: Satellite Business Systems recently demonstrated the feasibility of international videoconferencing with Japan using an Intelsat satellite over the Pacific in tandem with its own domestic system. During the 90-minute meeting, freeze-frame images were transmitted at 4.8 kbps and full-motion video signals at 1.544 Mbps.
Photo: CN Editor Morris Edwards says: "Given the soaring costs of energy and the increasing burden of business travel on management, teleconferencing would seem to be an idea whose time has come.'
Photo: Darome's Convener portable teleconferencing unit amplifies conference calls so everyone in the room can hear and participate in audio conferencing sessions.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 1984|
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