Lockheed Martin tests multimedia conferencing

Lockheed Martin Corp. has been testing the latest version of a Lucent Technologies Inc. multimedia conferencing solution that allows engineers working on the Defense Department's Joint Strike Fighter to videoconference at their desks while simultaneously collaborating on software code and documents needed to design the aircraft.

The videoconferencing technology, called the Multimedia Communications Exchange, or MMCX, uses a private branch exchange, an MMCX server and PCs on a local- or wide-area network to simultaneously link up to six people using any combination of voice, data and video.

Deploying MMCX appealed to Lockheed Martin because the systems integrator could avoid sending its engineers all around the country for meetings and create more opportunities for ad hoc conferences.

Wynn Joness of the Joint Strike Fighter software infrastructure team said engineers at Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, Northrop Grumman Corp., British Aerospace Defense Ltd. and numerous technical partners across the United States will be working on the plans.

"We needed some way to improve our communications with this distributed work force," Joness said. "It's a way to more quickly and easily communicate with people, especially when you have to look at the same data regardless of where they are physically located."

Lockheed Martin engineers in Palmdale, Calif.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Marietta, Ga., have used MMCX in their collaborative development of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is due to be delivered in 2008. Lockheed Martin has won a $719 million contract to produce demonstration planes and is competing against Boeing Co. for final award of the contract.

MMCX in Action

In an MMCX conference, participants sit at their desks and see each other in small windows on their monitors in real-time video that is somewhat choppy because the video stream has to share bandwidth with text data.

For voice transmission, the system employs full duplex capabilities, which make the audio as smooth as a conference telephone call in which different speakers can talk at the same time without blocking each other out, said Mark Van Lund, product marketing manager for Internet protocol applications at Lucent.

"The MMCX extends the model of the telephone and the PBX to add in things like videoconferencing and data collaboration," Van Lund said.

Users can exit or join an MMCX conference at any time, and if they are away from their PC, they can join from any phone as a voice-only participant. During a conference, users also can view files and data on their desktops and can edit text as other participants watch in real time. MMCX users also can view a file even if they do not have the program on their PC, Van Lund said. That way, if one participant opens a Microsoft Word document for shared viewing, anyone who does not have the program will still be able to see the document but will not be able to save and download the file.

In their trial runs of MMCX, Lockheed engineers connected using Integrated Services Digital Network primary rate interface telephone lines, which offer 23 channels that each can transmit at 64 kilobits/sec. The server supports the H.323 International Telecommunications Union standard for Internet/LAN voice and video data over Internet Protocol.

The task of building a fighter jet involves intense inspection of millions of lines of code, said Richard Cox, a product engineer in the development of virtual collaborative environments.

Lockheed Martin has tested the MMCX system to determine whether it is possible to use it to conduct a Fagan examination, which is a strictly defined collaborative method of proofreading software code. A Fagan examination requires a moderator, author, tester and reader who meet in two-hour sessions to pore over the code and identify defects and why they occurred.

Joness explained that the Fagan participants were skeptical about using the method in a videoconference because traditional Fagan sessions are held face-to-face, and some of the communications the participants are trained to watch for are nonverbal.

The engineers are still in the process of determining whether it is possible to do Fagan examinations over an MMCX system, but the preliminary conclusions are that such examinations can be done despite the reduced reliance on nonverbal communications, Joness and Cox said.

"Just about everybody who participated in the experiment said it was a good solution," Cox said. "There's really nothing critical you can't do using this collaboration tool that you can do in person except maybe shake hands when you've solved your problem."

PCs used in conferencing sessions must have a 133 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium processor or faster and at least 32M of RAM, and the PCs must run on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95, Windows NT 4.0 or Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris.

Other required peripherals, including a camera for the PC, add about $200 to the cost.

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