Agencies zoom into new video tech

Federal agencies will soon be able to buy notebook computers that can display full-motion, TV-quality video for training, videoconferencing and security monitoring applications.

Until now, most computers have used decompression software to show small, halting video images. But a new specification sanctioned by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) and pushed by Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. and Cirrus Logic allows notebook computers to display full-screen, full-motion video.

The Zoomed Video Port (ZV Port) is a PC Card slot design that lets specially designed PC Card peripherals send video information directly to the computer's video adapter, bypassing the system data bus and the processor altogether. This means that the video runs at full speed on the whole screen, while the computer can perform other work at normal speed.

The PC Card peripherals that will exploit ZV Ports include MPEG video decompression cards, TV tuners, video capture cards and video teleconferencing cards. Two new notebooks that feature ZV Port technology in their PC Card sockets are: Compaq Computer Corp.'s Armada 4100 notebook, soon to be available on the Army's Portable-1 contract from Government Technology Solutions Inc. and the General Services Administration schedule, and Toshiba's Tecra 720 notebooks, available on the Navy's TAC-4 contract, the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Computer Store and the GSA schedule.

Because the technology is built into the machine, Zoomed Video adds very little to the cost of an average notebook. However, users will need to buy video-capable PC Cards, such as Zoomed Video MPEG decompression cards, which sell for about $250. Otherwise, buyers can choose standard notebook configurations, which now come with 1G drives and high-quality displays.

Zoomed Video "looks like a promising market," said Andy Prophet, principal in AP Research and Consulting Inc., Cupertino, Calif. "There are applications that require displaying video on a portable PC," he said. "Zoomed Video is an excellent technology"

"Everybody has wanted MPEG," said Jan O'HARA, Toshiba's area sales manager for government sales.

Using a video capture card in a ZV Port, federal agencies can record live video and replay it on their computers as part of a presentation or report. The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants video capture for its agents to record illegal aliens entering the country, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators can record airplane crash-site video on their computers for later use, O'HARA said.

"You can put a video in the middle of a [Microsoft] PowerPoint presentation to really emphasize a point," she said. "It is really impressive."

TV tuners can be used for more than watching soap operas on the job, Prophet said. "It could be used for remote monitoring of a site in a dangerous environment."

The Transportation Department has also expressed interest in doing videoconferencing on notebook computers, O'HARA said.

Many agencies are running video for applications today, but they are doing it with a slow frame speed and in a small picture size, said a contractor in the testing and evaluation office at the Defense Department.

"[Zoomed Video] is good for any application using full-motion video," he said. "It is really a fidelity issue. You can move from the current [low] frames per second to TV-equivalent quality."

Buyers have two other options for running video on notebooks, but neither is as attractive or affordable as ZV Port technology. If you buy a notebook computer without an MPEG decoder, the compressed video data from the hard disk drive, CD-ROM, local-area network adapter or other source is decompressed by the processor and then sent to the video adapter for display. This means that the video runs fitfully, and the audio may not be synchronized.

Notebooks are also available with built-in MPEG hardware support, such as those from IBM Corp. and Panasonic, but these systems are more expensive. In these systems, or when an MPEG card is running in a standard PC Card slot, the uncompressed data from the MPEG hardware must flow through the system bus to reach the video adapter. If the computer is doing anything else at the time, the data streams must contend for the available throughput, making it harder to work on another application at the same time.

Zoomed Video avoids these problems by providing a direct pipeline from the MPEG or other video input PC Card to the PC's video adapter. This lets the video run unfettered at 30 frames per second in a full-size screen, even while the computer churns away on a calculation for another program.

So far only a few notebooks have ZV Ports, but they will soon be an industry standard, Prophet said.

"I think most notebook machines will switch over to Zoomed Video in the short term," he said.

But market growth of the ZV Port will be hurt in the immediate future by a lack of the necessary chips, according to John Usher, president of Greystone Peripherals Inc., Los Gatos, Calif. Greystone sells PC Card adapters for desktop PCs to many federal agencies but has not committed to making Zoomed Video versions of its PC Card sockets.

"I think it is a year off before [Zoomed Video] becomes very widespread," Usher predicted.

Adoption may also be slow in the government because of a wait-and-see attitude by many buyers, according to Bob Guerra, executive vice president of Sysorex Information Systems Inc.

"The government is not at the bleeding edge of technology," he said.

But that does not mean ZV Port technology will not become popular. "I see this fitting solidly into mission-focused environments," he said.

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