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Videoconferencing Network Is Linked by Satellite and 26 Earth Stations.

In recent years, Allstate Insurance Company, like Dean Witter in finance, Coldwell Banker in real estate, and Sears, Roebuck & Company, the parent of all three, has experienced a growing need for improved communications. Media used by the Sears group include data and voice transmission, audio-video production, and teleconferencing.

In 1983, the parent firm decided to form Sears Communications Network Incorporated (SCN) to address the varied, far-reaching needs of the Sears family of businesses, according to John Siko, manager of videoconferencing for the organization. The focus of this article is on the Allstate teleconference operation, its revision and its significant expansion program of the past two years.

Allstate videoconferencing began in 1981 with a pilot project between two locations, the home office located in Northbrook, Illinois, and the site of a regional office and research and planning center in Menlo Park, California. This pilot taught Sears and Allstate much about teleconferencing, including the value of having a less-technical-looking conference room and of the desirability of keeping the necessary components out of sight as much as possible.

Ease of Operation Is Important

Another important factor was simplification of the control-console unit that operates and controls the various room features and functions. Limiting the complexities of the room and keeping the operational procedure easy were major items to consider.

While the original system was innovative, and a pioneering effort in many aspects of interactive videoconferencing, it still presented the "electronic" or "futuristic" concept. However, its overall success soon became apparent to Allstate.

In deciding to move forward with videoconferencing, Allstate and Sears were able to take advantage of the latest developments in technology. Drastic changes were taking place, not only in the transmission capabilities and the capabilities of other components, but also in the "human factor" area.

Sears' Siko and Allstate's Peter Brooks note it was extremely important to incorporate both the technological and human factors in the new teleconference design. The studio look or technical look have been eliminated, resulting in a more-familiar, more-relaxing look, simulating as closely as possible a typical meeting-room environment.

As of last fall, half of the 26-node network has been installed and operational, with the remaining sites scheduled for completion, on a continuing basis, by this spring. No one in private industry has ever undertaken such a massive operation, and considering the pace at which it is being implemented, the dimension of this accomplishment becomes even more impressive.

Speedy Completion Is Under Way

When asked, "Whey the big push to finish the teleconference network in an almost breakneck time period?" the answers came positively and assertively from both Siko and Brooks. First of all, the long research project had finally been completed and the company felt it was necessary to implement the program in as short a time as possible, in order to begin reaping the benefits of this proven communications tool. Secondly, if only part of the 26-site network is completed, then the system is only partially effective. The full value of the network is realized when all sites are operational and complete inter-office communication is possible.

The entire conference-room design has been accomplished internally, with no outside consultants employed. Development and design of the teleconference operation was also accomplished by SCN and Allstate personnel. The entire team in the development stage consisted of four individuals, aided by specific vendor experts. The vendors selected are considered to be among the important keys to the success of this project.

Four Channels Are Available

Today, American Satellite Company provides the satellite transmission service as well as the satellite earth stations at each Allstate conference site. Peirce-Phelps of Philadelphia is the equipment vendor and the integrator of the project.

The capacity of the network presently consists of four available channels for videoconferencing, meaning that four separate conferences in any combination of types can take place at the same time among the 26 Satellite sites (when all are completed) throughout the nation.

Three types of conferences are possible: point-to-point, private boradcast (where one originator selects two or more sites with which to communicate) or general broadcast (where all sites on the network are connected in one conference). In each of the broadcast modes, the originator of the conference can be seen and heard by all locations, and participating locations can systematically respond to the originator with comments or questions. When a room is selected to respond to the originator, those two rooms will be able to see and hear each other (as in a point-to-point conference) and all other participating rooms can see the responder while hearing both the originator and responder. This applies to both private and general broadcast.

The earth stations at 25 locations will be 3.5-meter earth stations, with a 6.1-meter earth station at the Florida location. Siko notes: "We are currently transmitting at 768 kb/s (or one-half TI) utilizing the CLI Rembrandt codec for digitizing the signal. This is a new compact unit and the quality is as good as, and possibly better than, that provided by the 1.5440Mb/s transmission capability of two years ago."

The codec (coder-decoder) is designed to digitize and compress the video signal so that a much-lower transmission rate can be used. During the pilot, Allstate was a pioneer in using the 1.5-Mb/s rate while other users were transmitting at rates that were higher. By reducing the transmission rate even further, to the current 768 kb/s, Sears is able to take advantage of significant savings while at the same time maintaining excellent picture and motion quality.

Rooms Are Basically Indentical

By design, the conference rooms are basically identical in appearance and equipment. The physical space of the rooms is 20 by 40 feet, with a 20 by 14-foot equipment area at one end of the room, leaving the actual teleconference area at 20 by 26 feet. Four subsystems are integrated in the videoconferencing rooms: audio, video, graphics, and the control unit. The system was designed specifically for the Allstate "environment" after extensive research into the company's needs and the available technologies.

the videoconference area is designed to give the appearance of a typical Allstate conference room. Participants involved in the conference are seated at a table. The table can accommodate a maximum of seven people and gallery seating in the rear of the room can accommodate an additiona eight observers or participants. The table position and its shape allow excellent viewing of the display screens, and also allow for continuous interaction between the participants in both the local and remote sites. Additionally, when a room is in a conference, the tables appear to be an extension of each other, giving the appearance of a single unit. Participants seated at the table photograph extremely well and can be viewed easily by the other sites.

The intent is that the conference be a flexible entity, allowing meetings on a one-on-one or seven-on-seven basis. "Continuous presence" is a feature that allows participants to see each other at all times while showing of video tapes.

There are three large rear-projection viewing screens at the front of the room. The center 3 by 7-foot screen is used to display the remote meeting participants or for self-viewing. The right 4 by 4-foot screen is used to display high-resolution graphics. The left 4 by 4-foot screen displays color graphics, three-dimensional objects and 35mm slides.

Room Lighting Is a Major Factor

The room lighting, which is a major technical factor in room design, has changed significantly from the incandescent lighting scheme used in the pilot project. The new lighting scheme creates an atmosphere of greater warmth and relaxation. It's not too different from regular room lighting found in offices or conventional conference rooms. The lighting, rated at 3200k, according to the Sears videoconferencing technical engineer, produces little glare, yet is adequate to provide excellent video color rendition.

Siko describes the video system as having one "people-oriented" camera equipped with a custom-designed and modified lens (CinemaScope-type). This csuper-wide-view" video system differs dramatically from the former design, which consisted of a main camera in the front of the room and two ceiling-mounted cameras. The new single-camera setup is designed to simplify the operation and provide a less-intimidating room. Thus, there are no cameras, hanging microphones or other visible technical equipment in the conference room.

Instead of the convention 3:4 aspect ratio, the new screen is what some might consider "incredible," having a 3:7 aspect ratio. The intent is to see the people, see their expressions and, more or less, "to feel" their individual presence. This is accomplished by displaying the images in a more life-like manner in the Allstate videoconference system by eliminating unusable information at the top and bottom of a standard picture and adding width to allow more "people area."

The projectors used in the system include two Inflight V-Star 5Cs, one a standard model used for color graphics and one modified for teh anamorphic or 3:7-aspect-ratio people display. A high-resolution graphic system manufactured by Teleconferencing Systems Incorporated (Horsham, Pennsylvania) is displayed by a Hughes projector.

Only One Microphone Is Used

The audio operation is even simpler than the video, as only one small microphone is embedded in the conference table. The Shure SM91 microphone provides a directional pickup, sensing voices well, even those in the galery area of the room. The speaker is located under the center "people" screen, placing the sound near the picture. This was an important human-factor in design, as people tend to speak toward the voices (sound) they hear, rather than the picture, so the two should be co-located.

In order to provide a completely interactive sound system, no voice-activated or "gated" setup is used. The system installed allows meeting participants to have the same spontaneous discussions they experience in face-to-face meetings, without the restrictions or cubmersome use of lavaliere microphones. Accoustical treatment of any videoconference room is required to enhance all types of audio systems. However, with the open-microphone system used in the Allstate rooms, the accoustical treatment was slightly more extensive.

The graphic system includes the capability to capture and display various forms of graphics used in typical business meetings. These include high-resolution graphics (for typed or printed balck-and-white material), transparencies or viewgraphs, color graphics and charts, three-dimensional objects and 35mm slides.

The graphics equipment, including the camera, staging area and 35mm projector, is all housed in a single modular unit.

Displayed images, color as well as black-and-white, appear in both the local room and remote room simultaneously. Here, the graphics are separated: the high-resolution display appears on the screen to the right of the center "people" screen and has the capability of providing hard-copies at both sites; all other graphics (color) appear on the left screen. It is important to point out that the screen layout is exactly the same in all locations.

High-Resolution Graphics Needed

Allstate is one of the first corporations to incorporate high-resolution graphic technology in videoconferencing rooms. The business culture of the Sears family of businesses is such that the ability to see an entire 8-1/2 by 11-inch typed or printed page for discussion during a meeting is paramount. NTSC color graphics do not allow viewing of the entire page with clarity, thus the necessity of the high-resolution graphics capability.

Options of the high-resolution system include an interactive pointer to highlight special items on a document and the hard-copy print of the information displayed on the right screen. Multiple copies can be requested and are received from a printer located beneath the center screen. Copies are reproduced in approximately 20 seconds.

The color-graphics system has associated features, such as zoom and preview, so that meeting participants can correctly position documents, engineering drawings, and so on, for viewing. Also, because there are separate viewing screens, color graphics and high-resolution documents can be viewed at the same time while continuing to also see the meeting participants.

two control units handle all operations and functions in the room, one located on the graphics station that handles graphics functions, and the main control console. The main unit, which sits on the table, is wireless and can be easily passed to any meeting participant for operation. The keypad is extremely easy to operate and anyone with a few minutes of training in the operation is generally ready to conduct a full-scale videoconferences.

No Limits on Use by Personnel

In addition to graphics features, the control console can also adjust incoming volume levels and mute, "zooming" capabilities of the front people-camera for correct positioning to include all participants, and placing the camera into selfview. Conferences last from one hour to three hours or more. There is no costback charge system in effect. In addition, no limits have been placed on the level of personnel using the teleconference facilities. To reserve the system, a person simply signs up on the scheduling roster; reservations are handled on a first-come-first-served basis.

During a 90-day period, as many as 1700 people in 13 locations throughout the nation were trained to use and operate the videoconference system. This proved to be a nomumental feat, one which will be equaled by training additional personnel in the 13 locations being put into operation during the fall and winter of 1985-1986. When this article was written, the network had been in operation for only a couple of months and meaningful statistics were not available, although careful, detailed information on usage is being gathered.

Network Design Meets Needs

A demonstration of a teleconference, involving this writer, Siko and Brooks, was made with the St. Petersburg, Florida, site. All subsystems were demonstrated and the simplicity of operation was evident. It appears that the design of the Allstate videoconferencing network has successfully merged available technologies into a corporate need.

The positive points of quick, visual and aural communications were extolled by the Florida participant, especially for emergency situations, when the network becomes invaluable. One excellent example was given of a conference with the home office in Northbrook in which several unscheduled resource people were brought into the conference room on a moment's notice, adding greatly to the information and success of the meeting. It would have been difficult, if not impossible and impractical, to have brought all these individuals together, either in florida or in the Chicago area.

New Uses Are Being Tested

Even at the early stages of the installations, new and innovative uses of videoconferencing are being tried and tested with positive response and results. Expansion of the network's uses appears to be limited only by the imaginations of the users.

Meanwhile, Sears Communications and Allstate will continue to research newer and better means of teleconferencing, from the conference-room atmosphere to the technical aspects.
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.

Article Details
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Author:Danna, Sammy
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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