You Ought to be in Pixels

By David Strom

Is it time for you to tune in to desktop video conferencing? While the technology still has a few bugs to work out, there are plenty of compelling reasons to share live video and audio among your workers. But beware: setting up this gear is not for the timid.

What are the benefits? The biggest one is to make collaboration easier, enabling teams of highly-paid knowledge workers to contribute to projects without having to slog through the time, expense and hassle of putting people on the road. The technology has also helped pull together employees in far-flung outposts of distributed corporations. "Viewing a continuous live video image of a co-worker in a distant location lets us communicate from separate cities more effectively, in many respects, than if we were in the same office without video," says Frederic Parnon, a partner in the law firm of Parnon and Pratt, LLP in New York City.

The firm has taken the unusual approach of having single-person offices around the country, with branches in nearby Huntington, New York, Houston and Los Angeles. Parnon uses Insoft's Communique product running on Unix workstations from Sun Microsystems, and pays for continuous communications links among his offices. This means he is constantly looking at images of his co-workers around the country on his workstation. "I can see if my partners are on the phone or in meetings or free to talk to me -- in many ways it is easier to talk to them than walking down the hall," says Parnon. While the several thousand dollar monthly phone bill for this connectivity may seem steep to some, Parnon claims he gets his money's worth by billing back the time of his, and his partners', expertise to clients that are attracted to having such high-level talent continuously available to collaborate on difficult legal cases.

At the core of any collaboration is a series of applications that enable two or more people to share their digital work. These applications consist of several pieces: first is the video picture shown in a small area on your computer screen. Some products also offer the ability for multiple users to view applications running on each desktop, so that spreadsheet results can be instantly commented on and manipulated.

A good example of this is what Princeton Capital is doing, an innovative mortgage loan company in Campbell, California. The firm, which booked $200 million in loans last year, uses Intel's ProShare running on Windows PCs to connect a loan officer with a real estate agent. "A loan officer can bring up his standard loan origination software (including loan application, loan comparison tools, etc.) on the screen so the client at the realtor's office can see the same information, and understand clearly what the loan officer is describing," says president John Hogan. Hogan spent $1250 for each ProShare unit, not including the costs of the desktop computers.

Clients like the ability to complete a loan application quickly and with visual feedback that the video conference provides. "The real benefits are guaranteed availability of a loan officer and access to a decision maker. These are two things that both realtors and borrowers want most," says Hogan of his virtual loan officers. "Keeping our loan officers centralized and working on 'live' transactions, rather than scouring the countryside looking for referrals, increases our efficiency tremendously."

Finally, there is what is called a whiteboard, a common area on everyone's screen which is used to display graphics while workers make comments, manipulate the data, and come to consensus. The whiteboard can be marked up and simultaneously viewed by all workers connected via the video conference. "The ability to share applications is also very important," says Gary St. Onge, a vice president of Everett Charles Technologies in Clifton Park, N.Y. who is using Insoft's Communique product running on Windows PCs. The firm makes circuit board test equipment, and its customers include computer manufacturers . The firm's workers use Communique to display a picture of a part along with test results with its manufacturing customers such as Intel and Compaq Computer. "At times, we have questionable results, so the ability to see the data and point to an image of a part with the problem with a mouse could yield a speedy resolution and keep our manufacturing line moving," says St. Onge.

What to buy? Video conferencing equipment comes in two major configurations: one that makes use of the desktop computer as a video workstation, while the other is installed in special conference rooms dedicated for two groups to have a joint meeting. Room systems start around $50,000 a piece and can go much higher depending on how much equipment you want to install (multiple cameras for viewing documents, for example) and how good a broadcast quality you desire. Desktop systems cost a tenth as much. The choice depends mainly on the kinds of meetings you want to have over the video link. James Elacqua, a partner with the Houston-based law firm of Arnold, Durkee, and White says that "Desktop cannot be beaten for one-on-one meetings, document and application sharing and for its convenience and accessibility. For large meetings though, the room conference system is still preferred."

John Frame has looked at both room and desktop systems and says that "desktop systems are easier to install and less obtrusive than room systems." Frame is a marketing coordinator at Hendrickson International, an automotive parts manufacturer in Woodbridge, Ill. Hendrickson, has installed V-Tel's 227M Media Max room-based systems, with two cameras in two locations. The rooms have the ability to connect a personal computer's video output so meeting participants can view spreadsheets or computer-based graphics files during the discussions. "We are also contemplating installing video jacks on the manufacturing floor so we can send live video from the floor over the system," says Frame.

"The key difference is the constant availability of the video stream at your desktop, as opposed to the need to reserve and then travel to a special video room for a video conference. The desktop system is also available where most of my work product resides -- on my computer. This is more convenient than having to cart my work or my computer to a room down the hall for each conference," says Parnon.

Desktop equipment has four major components: besides the PC itself, there is software to enable video broadcasts to appear on the computer screen and applications to be shared among remote users, add-on equipment such as cameras, microphones, and speakers along with the adapter cards and cables needed to connect them to the computer, and the telephone equipment (such as high-speed modems) that connect remote offices to each other. Each video conferencing system works with a different kind of computer, video and audio hardware, so it is hard to make any generalizations.

For planning purposes, figure on $1,000 for a video adapter card for your computer, another $1,000 for a video camera, and $1,000 for the software to make everything work. Remember that you'll need matching software and desktop hardware on either end of the connection, since most of the products have their own proprietary protocols and won't work with others.

Some Windows and Apple Macintosh desktops, and some Unix workstations as well, come with video and audio capabilities already built-in, so you won't need special video adapter cards in those circumstances. You'll also need modems to connect to your phone lines or network adapters to enable the communications link. Best to hire a consultant to do your installation, unless you have expertise on staff. "Hire someone to be your 'general contractor' -- if you try to handle it yourself, it will become a full-time job," says Frame.

Much of this gear isn't new, and vendors are getting smarter about how it is packaged to make it easier to setup and install. Different products support a different combination of computers, video gear, and communications links.

Speaking of communications, what kind of telecommunications and networking gear is required? Each video conferencing product is different. For example, Intel's ProShare comes in two versions: one works over Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines, while another works over ordinary Ethernet network connections. Getting an ISDN line installed can be difficult; the lines may not be available everywhere where your offices and customers are located, particularly in the northeast part of the US. Installation can also be tricky. "I tried for two months to get Nynex to install one (ISDN) line and eventually gave up," says Parnon. "We had better experience with our Los Angeles office, where the line has worked well without any glitches."

John Hogan also has had better luck with ISDN in Northern California, where his mortgage company is based. He says his phone charges were less than $70 for installation of each ISDN line. "And, as long as we are doing local calls, we don't pay more for an ISDN call than a normal local call, which is just pennies a minute."

Creative Lab's ShareVision works on ordinary (that is non-digital) phone lines, while Insoft's Communique works over a variety of digital phone connections from ISDN up to the more expensive, and faster T-1 speeds (which are roughly ten times as fast). If your firm has already installed some kind of digital phone service connecting your offices for voice purposes, you may be able to piggyback a video conferencing link on top of these connections for minimal incremental cost.

Picking the right telephone connections will require some skill and careful planning, and you may need a consultant to help navigate it all. If you need a digital line, such as ISDN or T-1 circuits, add at least $50 per month for the former and $1000 a month for the latter. If the words "at least" scare you -- getting information about digital telephone charges from your phone company representatives can be difficult -- you may want to experiment with low-end systems that either make use of standard dial-up phone lines (ShareVision is one example) or with the free software from White Pine Software called CU-See-Me that runs over Internet connections.

Can you really save on travel expenses with all this gear? Yes. "We estimate that the initial investment of $130,000 paid for itself in six months from travel cost savings alone," said Frame.

In another situation, a bicoastal law firm used room-based video conferencing equipment from CLI to collaborate on projects. The firm specializes in developing multimedia exhibits that are shown at trials. "On one patent case, I was in Los Angeles and met daily with the client expert (a physicist) and several attorneys in D.C. to create a 3-D medical animation for an upcoming trial," says Terry Bailey, director of multimedia for Howrey and Simon, a bicoastal law firm in Washington, DC and Los Angeles. "Every day we would work together, taking turns drawing on screen," she says. "In two weeks we had a completed animation--with no traveling! We saved thousands of dollars each month in travel costs."

How good is the video and audio quality? That depends on the nature of the link and product used. Generally, the faster the link, the better the video and audio quality of the connection, and the more that you will pay for communications charges. "Anyone expecting to see 'The Jetsons' quality of video conferencing will surely be disappointed," says St. Onge. "At this time the audio quality is not acceptable, and we are working with Insoft to improve the situation," he says. Parnon says that "these products aren't broadcast quality, but they are getting closer and we are satisfied with the video quality that we are getting."

Your setup will often depend on how many people you are trying to connect. Video conferencing products come in two basic configurations (and not every product will support both): point-to-point, where only two people can communicate similar to a phone call; and multipoint, where multiple connections can be viewed on a desktop computer similar to a party line conversation. Which is best for you depends on your needs and the kinds of projects.

For the video mortgage application at Princeton Capital Intel's ProShare point-to-point connection was appropriate, since the link was only between a single customer and a single banker. Other applications may require multipoint connections, such as at the distributed law firm of Parnon and Pratt: "We wanted "n" way conferencing -- not just two way -- to connect all of our offices from time to time for firm meetings, and to network with teams of attorneys from other firms with whom we will be working on complex litigation's," says Parnon.

One final recommendation: get the buy-in of the CEO. "Two years ago when we did our first pair of V-Tel installations our CEO was skeptical, but now he is the biggest proponent of the concept," says Frame.