Video communications: Getting a strong reception

The outlook for the desktop video communications market is becoming clearer as PC users upgrade to a new generation of computer and network technology that can handle the huge streams of data needed for such applications as videoconferencing and video messaging.

PC users like these applications because they allow users to speak face-to-face, rather than just relying on e-mail. People communicate better and remember more when they are speaking face-to-face, observers said. When people have more than a sentence or two to say, they do not shout over a cubicle wall; instead they get up, walk around and speak directly to the other person.

However, unlike high-end video teleconferencing, these desktop applications do not require specialized equipment beyond a camera that typically sits on top of a monitor and plugs into a computer, a microphone and software for digitizing and compressing video to send across the network.

There is good reason for federal agencies to try out emerging video applications, said James Chan, president of Computer Information Technology Inc., a Vienna, Va., integrator. "To go from one side of the Pentagon to the other for a meeting can take 10 or 15 minutes," he said. "If you can have a virtual meeting, you can save 30 minutes easily."

Emerging Bandwidth

For several years, PC users have been experimenting with applications that allow them to speak face-to-face rather than just relying on e-mail. But the market has been slow to develop because until recently the computers and networks did not have the bandwidth to send, receive and display video.

Without sufficient bandwidth, video images are low-resolution, run in tiny windows on the screen and have a low frame rate that produces jerky motions, vendors said. But, they said, computers and networks with the needed bandwidth to carry improved video are being installed governmentwide. For example, the latest generation of Intel Corp. processors come with MMX technology, which is specially designed to improve graphics processing.

"The infrastructure is becoming capable of doing things that made deploying [compressed video] difficult," said Mike Galli, director of marketing for Opti-

Vision Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based vendor of MPEG tools, the primary industry standard for digital video compression.

The market for computer-based video communications is still in a phase in which products are just beginning to deliver some initial capabilities, observers said. The market's slow emergence can be blamed on unrealistic expectations fueled by 50 years of science-fiction video phones, said Brian Lichorowic, vice president of marketing for White Pine Software Inc., a Nashua, N.H., maker of CU-SeeMe videoconferencing software.

But at long last, products are starting to meet expectations, and as a result, the company is selling its products in more significant numbers. "Instead of the onesie-twosie kinds of buys, we are seeing [orders for] 25 to 50," Lichorowic said.

Video communications technology generally is associated with real-time applications, in which a user views the video as the data is streamed over the network. Real-time video communication has two primary applications: live videoconferencing and on-demand video services.

Videoconferencing is a popular productivity booster for federal agencies, Chan said. On-demand video services can have many applications for distributing video information on an as-needed basis.

"Videoconferencing has been a hot product for the federal market," Chan said. "They have been trying to figure out how to improve productivity without sacrificing face-to-face dialog."

These conferences run particularly well on local-area networks, where 10 megabits/sec Ethernet is the standard, 100 megabits/sec Ethernet is increasingly common, and some users have Gigabit Ethernet, which runs at 1,000 megabits/sec, Chan said.

However, performance may fall off considerably when data is sent over a wide-area network, where bandwidth is not as great, unless users have access to a high-speed connection.

For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) uses the Senate studio and White Pine's CU-SeeMe to videoconference with schoolchildren throughout her home state from her Washington, D.C., office, said Blair Bright, Landrieu's assistant. The Senate studio uses a high-speed T-1 Internet connection (1.544 megabits/sec), along with high-grade video equipment and Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh computers.

The Defense Information Systems Agency does videoconferencing and distribution as part of its Global Fiber Initiative (GFI). This DISA system connects sites with high-speed fiber and uses either Ethernet or Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology to connect to the desktop, said Bruce Bennett, senior systems engineer at DISA.

This speedy connection lets DISA run full-speed 30-frames-per-second video to desktop PCs that are connected to the GFI, Bennett said. DISA is looking at such applications as remote conferencing and distance learning, in which users can access training videos through their computers. Users do not need any special equipment, just "a PC with a decent video card," he said.

DISA runs video at different compression settings. The worst "high-quality" setting is 2 megabits/sec of recorded video data, and the best is 10 megabits/sec, which "is so clear you can use it for telemedicine," Bennett said.

DISA also makes use of the network for on-demand video services. On average, the videos that DISA sends over the system are about 20 minutes long and range in content from important Defense Department briefings to CNN reports and ESPN sports videos sent to troops. At the typical 0.5 megabits/sec MPEG1 compression, the agency's 55G disk drive array holds 35 hours of video at a time.

Unlike broadcast video, the 35 hours of video are available on demand worldwide, and the video can be stopped, rewound and replayed, just like a videotape.

Digital Media Solutions, a Boston integrator, has built similar systems for the Army at Fort Monroe, Va., and for the Oklahoma Army National Guard, using MPEG tools from OptiVision, according to DMS president Jack Battersby.

Those systems are used for distance-learning applications and use a 100 megabits/sec switched Ethernet backbone, compressing video using 1.5 megabits/sec to 2 megabits/sec MPEG1. "The system allows students to log in and find any video session they want," Battersby said. "Students can get real-time video feeds from the other side of the state."

A Low-End Alternative

A popular alternative to videoconferencing is video e-mail. This software lets people communicate using video messages, or video clips, much as they would standard text messages.

"Videoconferencing requires the same equipment at both ends and is very bandwidth-intensive because video has to go both ways at the same time," said Larissa Scors, product manager for Cubic Corp., maker of CVideo Mail.

The Navy has been using CVideo Mail to provide communications between sailors and their families at home. Being able to exchange video messages has been a "quality-of-life improvement" for sailors on the ships, said Chief B.R. Brown at the 32nd Street Naval Station, San Diego. "It expands the possibilities for personal communication. This way, you don't have a stranger come home after six months."

Because CVideo mail messages come with built-in video-player software, sailors can send their messages straight to their families. When families want to send messages to ships, they must come to the naval base to use the video equipment there to record and send the message.

However, at $249 for the complete package— camera, microphone, capture card and software— some families may opt to buy their own video e-mail system to send messages from home, Scors said.

Typical messages sent from the base to the three ships participating in the test are a minute long, about a megabyte in size and take six to eight minutes to download over a 28.8 kilobits/sec dial-up connection. The video frame rate varies between a good 24 frames per second to a fair 15 frames per second, but having clear audio accompany marginal video makes up for any shortcomings, Brown said.

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.


Assembling the Right Solution

Users must consider a variety of factors when building a video communications solution. But two important elements are the camera and the PC/camera interface, vendors said.

The camera is the first checkpoint, said Brian Lichorowic, vice president of marketing for White Pine Software Inc.

"A cheap camera gets you cheap video, a good camera gets you good video, and an exceptional camera gets you exceptional video," Lichorowic said. Also, less expensive cameras may not be as compatible or easy to install as some other models, he said.

A number of vendors offer video cameras for PCs, including Panasonic Computer Peripherals Co. with its EggCam. However, users also can get good quality with an old VHS or Betamax video camera, Lichorowic said.

For compatibility and ease of installation, the most important aspect is to have well-written device drivers and installation software, said Tim Meyerhoff, multimedia program manager for Panasonic. Unfortunately, customers must get this information through product reviews or word of mouth.

Users also must decide among different options for connecting the camera to the PC. For best performance, customers should choose a camera that uses a PCI card as an interface, Meyerhoff said.

The trade-off is the increased difficulty of installation because a card must be installed and may possibly conflict with existing cards, he said. But if performance is important, "you get a much better frame rate right out of the chute with PCI, compared to [Universal Serial Bus] or parallel port," which are the other alternatives, Meyerhoff said. Furthermore, a PCI camera puts less load on the processor, so other tasks are not slowed as much.

However, USB and parallel port devices have the advantage of plugging in without much fuss. The advantages of parallel devices are that all PCs have parallel ports, and the devices may cost a little less. USB devices are supposed to be plug-and-play and have faster performance than parallel devices, but they only work with PCs that have USB ports and drivers installed.



Status: Until recently, the video communications market has been stifled by low bandwidth networks and slower computers. That situation has started to change.

issues: Although many local-area networks have the needed bandwidth, many wide-area networks do not. But users who cannot do high-quality live videoconferencing can take advantage of the same technology to do video messaging.

outlook: Good. The market is still embryonic, but with the underlying technology coming into place, more users should be able to begin developing applications.


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