Creating virtual meeting rooms

For a hardware and software investment of less than $1 million, NASA is using collaborative computing tools to transform the way it works. During the past two months, the space agency has switched on a roomful of the latest collaboration tools in each of its 10 research centers, providing scientists throughout the country with the means to meet online.

Three years in the making, NASA's Collaborative Engineering Environment integrates World Wide Web-based scheduling software, file-sharing systems, videoconferencing, electronic whiteboards and decision-support software to enable employees at remote sites to work together as if they were clustered around the same workstation. Within two years, NASA plans to add virtual reality to the mix for a state-of-the-art, real-time collaborative computing infrastructure. Robert Zalewski, a computer engineer who has been managing the installation at NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, said researchers will be able to share their data, computer-aided design projects and mechanical models without having to travel.

NASA represents one of the early users within the federal government of collaborative computing technology -- tools that enable users to work together online. Users can converse, share remote applications and edit files or data, often all at once. The benefits are obvious: Agencies can cut down on travel expenses while allowing users in different offices to share their expertise. But observers point out that collaborative tools have not yet developed to the point of maturity, and questions regarding bandwidth and security remain largely unanswered.

In This Together

Although new developments in collaborative technology will provide greater capabilities in the coming years, NASA and other federal agencies already are moving from disconnected modes of collaboration, such as e-mail and systems for routing and sharing documents to real-time, online interactions. Today, real-time collaborative tools are being used mainly by early adopters doing scientific research, telemedicine and distance learning, as opposed to conducting routine briefings or meetings.

The impetus for adopting the technology may be budgetary, like it was for NASA, such as saving money on travel. But users also may deploy it to gain access to expertise or equipment that does not exist locally or to allow broader participation in an agency program.

"We realized there was this audience of people that we needed to meet and coordinate with," said John Downey, deputy director for information technology management in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology. DOD uses video-streaming technology to run interactive briefings on the Internet. "Even though the Web was startlingly fresh and new, it left a lot to be desired. So we started dabbling with multimedia. PCs got more robust and cheaper, networks got more powerful; and all of a sudden you realize you can do things you couldn't before."

In three Midwestern states the Department of Veterans Affairs is treating thousands of patients, many of them in rural areas, using telemedicine applications from several vendors. Through the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN), doctors at VA hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin, northern Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and the greater-Chicago area can share X-rays, microscope slide images and ultrasound images with specialists throughout the region.

Agencies that want to use collaborative tools often start with videoconferencing, according to David Jefferson, director of technology with Highway 1, an industry-funded group that promotes using IT to improve government services. "When people are talking about collaboration, they want to see other people with video," Jefferson said. "Then they get into, 'How are we actually going to share information?' "

Rob Fenti, director of business development for Intel Corp.'s Business Communications Division, said he thinks the industry is experiencing "a fairly significant transition" from traditional videoconferencing to collaborative products. For example, Intel's TeamStation server supports collaborative tools to equip a virtual conference room. "The market is effectively realizing that single-purpose videoconferencing systems will not meet their needs going forward," Fenti said.

Noreen Powell, federal business development manager with videoconferencing vendor VTEL Corp., said the Internet explosion is one of the factors driving this transition. "[Users] want to be able to take advantage of the things they can now do with their local-area networks and PCs and incorporate that with videoconferencing," she said.

But Gene Phifer, research director with Gartner Group's Internet Strategies Service, warned that real-time collaborative software needs time to develop. For example, Phifer said NetMeeting, a feature-rich, real-time collaboration application distributed free by Microsoft Corp. since 1996, was until recently limited to users running a Microsoft operating system. He added that cross-platform products, such as CU-SeeMe, an Internet videoconferencing package from White Pine Software Inc., do not allow users to share applications.

Furthermore, Phifer said such products do not work as well if they are not run on a corporate intranet, where access to bandwidth is more predictable. For this reason, earlier this year, Gartner analysts advised clients not to use the Internet for audio- or videoconferencing for another three years. By then, analysts expect real-time collaboration to become a commodity as vendors of office groupware incorporate these tools into their products. Microsoft, Lotus Development Corp. and Novell Inc. are all planning to offer real-time collaboration tools that can be used with their workgroup software.

Bethann Cregg, Lotus product marketing manager for the company's upcoming Sametime software, said the new package will integrate "asynchronous" collaboration tools such as e-mail and Internet newsgroups with the real-time world. Sametime, due for release later this year, will provide instant messaging, document sharing, computer-based telephony and videoconferencing tools that can be integrated with Lotus Notes or used on its own.

Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to integrate NetMeeting with Outlook, its e-mail client, in Office 2000, a new version of its office automation suite that was released for beta testing last month, said Scott Bounds, an architectural engineer with Microsoft Federal Systems.

Novell sales program manager Steve Beus said a real-time collaboration offering from Novell is planned for future release.

Collaborative Efforts

Some users are devising ways to work around the limitations of off-the-shelf products or to make do with their shortcomings. For example, to allow NASA employees to use NetMeeting for sharing Unix-based data analysis tools, Zalewski said he connected an X client to a Microsoft Windows NT box to run the session. But he noted that Sun Microsystems Inc. has released a NetMeeting client geared toward Unix platforms. "We're just starting to test right now how well it's integrated with all of the analysis tools," he said.

The VA hospitals are using commercially available medical software that has emerged in the past few years, along with a mobile videoconferencing unit developed by VTEL. But "the big holdback to a full-fledged telemedicine infiltration...is the wide-area network," said Craig Davis, the associate chief information officer for VISN.

The VA recently installed a Synchronous Optical Network ring at four Chicago-area sites that is capable of transmitting 622 megabits/sec. The fiber-optic network gives data-hungry applications more bandwidth to carry the high-resolution images necessary to diagnose medical problems remotely. But unless the network is expanded, the agency cannot provide services consistently to all sites, Davis said.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Energy Department are funding research for ways to expand the reach and capabilities of collaborative tools as well as how to make networks robust and secure enough to support collaborative applications.

Les Gasser, director of NSF's Computation and Social Systems program, said the long-term goal of many users is to make online collaborators feel as though they are in the same room. But he said researchers are trying to solve the problem of how to help participants know when it's their turn to talk. "It becomes quite difficult to carry on conversation [online] because you just can't react in the same way," he said.

DOD's Downey noted that presenters of online briefings worry about whether their messages are getting through to an audience they can't see. He said listeners can communicate only through text-based "chat" that is filtered through a moderator. Downey said he has asked PictureTel Corp. to supply DOD with videoconferencing systems that he will integrate with StarLive, the video-streaming software from Starlight Networks Inc. that he has been using to distribute his training sessions. PictureTel recently purchased Starlight Networks.

"We have decided the next evolution of this will be to get a scenario under which we have a PictureTel session going point-to-point with two parties talking back and forth, and that entire event is being streamed out to the Internet," Downey said. The integration of the two technologies would overcome the limitations of videoconferencing systems that allow interaction only among people who have direct access to them, he said.

Scientific data analysis applications present similar problems. "What happens if [participants] decide they want to do something with one of the windows you've opened up that's different from what you want to do?" asked Lee Elson, principal investigator for LinkWinds, a 14-year-old data-sharing software package developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that was recently upgraded for the Web. Available tools such as the Habanero software developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications cannot always resolve such conflicts, Elson said.

Users also need better security architectures to enable them to share some of their data on remote computers while keeping other information private, said Mary Ann Scott, a program manager at DOE. She said existing software can authenticate users for specific tasks, but she said some DOE users need full access to computing facilities, which require a different degree of authentication.

Vendors said the market for software that supports real-time collaboration is emerging. Ken Tomaselli, federal sales manager for EdgeMark Systems Inc., a Silver Spring, Md., reseller of Collaborative data visualization tools from Silicon Graphics Inc., said a lot of collaborative tools have become available, but agencies do not yet know much about them.

Nancy Knowlton, president of Smart Technologies Inc., Calgary, Alberta, Canada, said her customers -- which include DOD and the Federal Bureau of Prisons -- recognize the value of collaboration. And although she was upbeat about the future prospects of the technology, she acknowledged that it has not fully arrived. "I think we'll still be in the market education mode for quite some time," she said.

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