System offers better remote interaction

Videoconferencing technology has improved to the point where participants all over the world can see and hear one another with acceptable quality and reliability, but the systems have lacked the ability to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

That's precisely the problem PictureTel Corp., Andover, Mass., aims to solve with the April 16 launch of the 600 Series, a videoconferencing system with PC integration.

Ned Semonite, PictureTel's executive vice president of marketing, said the 600 Series combines the PC, the Internet and videoconferencing to enable users to:

Interact naturally using high-grade audio and video. Share information from network- or laptop-based applications. Connect with any business peripheral, including projectors, flat-panel displays and printers. Semonite said the information- sharing aspect was one that many of PictureTel's government customers had been requesting for quite a while.

"They were trying ways on their own to get it because we didn't do it," he said. "They asked for it all together inside, and working, and we knew that would drive our usage up. So far, the feedback has been tremendous."

The 600 Series follows last summer's launch of the 900 Series and is the second product offering in PictureTel's iPower suite, which was developed in conjunction with Intel Corp. The iPower suite is the software and hardware architecture that enables content-rich remote interaction, and it is being used by many federal, state and local organizations, including the Navy, the Air Force and the Secret Service. Release 2.0 of the 900 Series was launched April 17.

A number of government agencies have already ordered the 600 Series product, which begins shipping at the end of this month. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been beta testing it, even though budget constraints will keep FEMA from ordering it this year.

"Things are going very well," said John Hempe, foreman of electronic maintenance at FEMA. "We've iden-tified a number of little problems, but overall, we really like it a lot. People I've shown it to here are already asking me what it costs and when it's available."

Hempe said the "little problems" included a glitch with the video- switching capability that PictureTel has already corrected and some difficulty with the camera pointing. He said neither problem should dissuade potential users.

"The product integration into the operating system is so much nicer than having to plug in peripherals," Hempe said, adding that he has been testing it with different systems, documents and data, and has been pleased with the results.

PictureTel partnered with Sharp Electronics Corp. to manufacture the 600 Series with components that include a 566 MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128M of RAM, a 10G hard disk and two Universal Serial Bus ports. The PictureTel 600 Series appliance is compact enough to be placed on top of a typical monitor, or its camera-and-microphone component can be separated and mounted, for example, on a wall next to a projector screen.

It is available on the General Services Administration schedule, and pricing starts at just less than $7,000.

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