Video trumps travel
PictureTel system helps national lab deal with budget cuts
- By Bryant Jordan
- Aug 28, 2000
Sandia National Laboratories, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Department of
Energy high-tech research center, saw a 30 percent cut in its travel budget
You might think that would hurt the lab, which closely coordinates its
mission with sister labs in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif.
But the lab found that when Congress closes one door, technology opens
another. Sandia got an opportunity in May to begin beta testing a new teleconferencing
system that enables participants to send audio, video and data across PCs — and even permits them to use Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint and Internet applications in almost real time.
"There's a 200-millisecond delay — that's close enough to be negligible,"
said Jim Barry, manager of the lab's videoconferencing services. Barry has
been managing videoconferencing since 1988.
Videoconferencing, or teleconferencing, has been a promise of the telecommunications
industry for dec-ades. But its use has been stymied by cumbersome equipment,
the inability to quickly switch from clear video images to clear text, and
slow transmission speeds that made conversation and presentations impossible
to conduct in a natural give-and-take atmosphere.
The World Wide Web has changed some of this, but not all. "Because of
the ubiquitousness of the Internet Protocol, we are at a point where voice,
video and data communication has already taken a significant leap...way
beyond anything in the past," said Raj Bansal, a research manager and board
member of the International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium Inc.
But the ability to share materials, such as transparencies, has remained
a problem, he said, as have protocols for people dropping off or coming
in to a conference, or putting participants on hold.
Not anymore, according to PictureTel Corp., the company whose new PictureTel
970 system is being tested at the Sandia lab and by the General Services
Administration and the Navy.
Although the company is still developing technology to permit participation
from multiple locations, it has knocked down some historical impediments
to teleconferencing with a system that permits participants to view and
manipulate the same data in real time.
Norman Gaut, chairman and chief executive officer of PictureTel, said
teleconferencing in the past was equipment-intensive — he likened it to
an old stereo system with multiple components — and each location had to
set up and configure it.
That was not the case with his company's latest system. "The compact
PictureTel is essentially the "boom box' of teleconferencing," he said.
The 970 is a PC-based system that permits high-frame audio and video
streams and high-resolution text — including charts, graphics and even Web
pages — over a single call, separating them for display on one monitor.
The new system enables anyone to enter a conference room and share
information with people at remote locations without faxing documents ahead
of time so that everyone will be working from the same information, Gaut
According to spokeswoman Marsha Hassell, the Navy's Space and Naval
Warfare Systems Center in Charleston, S.C., has used the PictureTel system
since June 1, but only for simulated teleconferences. She said Navy officials
are principally interested in how the system will work in a secure environment.
"We will know better what it can do for us at the end of August or early
September," she said, which is when the testing period will end.
At the Sandia lab, however, Barry is enthusiastic about the system,
which is now used for anywhere from 300 to 400 calls per month. "I intend
to buy the beta unit at a reduced rate," he said.
The travel budget cut and the increased use of teleconferencing may
have brought an unexpected benefit to the lab employees' quality of life,
according to Barry.