C-Phone helps Target Technologies make fed inroads

The Army is buying desktop videoconferencing equipment from Target Technologies Inc., which is taking on such giants as PictureTel Corp. and Intel Corp. in the market.

Target, Wilmington, N.C., offers its C-Phone to the Army and all Defense Department buyers through TRW Inc.'s Desktop Video Tele Conferencing (DVTC) contract with the Army. Target's equipment uses existing standards and familiar metaphors to make its conferencing products easier to use.

So far Army customers have not bought many of the systems because of budget uncertainty, but there is strong interest, said Army Capt. Janice Baker, the contracting officer on DVTC. "There have not been a lot of orders yet because of the budget," she said. "But I anticipate many more orders. There are definitely a number of offices in the Pentagon that can use it." Baker said she saw the product in a demo at Fort Gordon, Ga.

Target's main rivals are PictureTel and Intel's ProShare. The company edged out both vendors to win DVTC, which was awarded in October. "This is a contract where we competed with Intel and PictureTel on their turf and won," said chairman and chief executive officer Daniel Flohr. The government is a major opportunity for the C-Phone, Flohr said. The House of Representatives is considering the system at the prodding of Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), he added.

The C-Phone features a camera that hangs over the front edge of the user's computer monitor. As a result, the user's line of vision is close to the display and the camera recording him. An on-screen, pop-up telephone dial lets users place phone calls to other users.

In addition, a telephone-style handset lets users converse without suffering the office noise levels of using speaker phones.

A C-Phone system works like a PBX because it lets users place and transfer calls to other desks in the office as they would with the telephone system. Off-site calls go through a switch, where they connect to another video PBX on the other end. The C-Phone also uses a dedicated communications path.

Target provides an adapter card that routes a standard NTSC or PAL TV signal into and out of the PC. This means users must run additional wires through their office to carry the signal. The performance is full-speed, 30-frames-per-second video that people are accustomed to seeing on TV.

The video is not processed by the PC's CPU. Instead, the picture is shown over portions of the screen that are a certain shade of pink. The CPU and the video card in the PC think they are displaying an easy-to-draw pink box on the screen, while the C-Phone card substitutes a live video image in that space. It is the same technique that lets TV weather forecasters stand in front of wall-size satellite photos. Even old 386-based machines can be C-Phone stations as long as they have a VGA display.

The PBX phone model not only makes the system more familiar for users, it also makes the C-Phone scalable to the customer's needs. The hardware on the desktop communicates locally with other desktops and the PBX switch. "None of the wide-area stuff should be in the PC," Flohr said. "It should be in the phone closet."

This lets customers who only want on-site video to buy only enough to do that. To connect off-site, a high-speed comm link must be connected to the switch. The speed of that link determines the quality of video from other location. The user can improve the video frame rate for off-site communications by getting a faster connection instead of buying more hardware.

Target's DVTC contract vehicle is a $11.4 million, five-year deal. But Flohr said he expects the TRW-held contract to be extended because customers will buy $11.4 million worth of products much sooner than the end of the five years.

The retail price of the hardware and software for the C-Phone is less than $2,000 per workstation, Flohr said.

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