Video Teleconferencing: An Evolving Enterprise Necessity

Video Teleconferencing: An Evolving Enterprise Necessity<@VM>Defense Department<@VM>Vialog<@VM>VTC Tips

By John Makulowich

Among all the Next-Big-Thing babbling you overhear at Internet conferences and workshops, rarely does the topic of video teleconferencing, or VTC as it is known, strike your eardrums. Part of the reason is the virtual transition stage we inhabit of voice over IP, where the mantra echoes: audio, audio, audio.

Yet ask a marketing maven like S. Ann Earon, president of Telemanagement Resources International Inc., Skillman, N.J., about the prospects for VTC, and she replies, "VTC will become so big, it will make a fashion statement. People will only care what you wear above the waist."

For Earon, it is only a matter of time before VTC, in one format or another, will be everywhere, to the point of being an enterprise necessity. Sparking yet another business paradigm shift, she said, will be time constraints, distances and work loads.

"With the increase in penetration of network connectivity, along with so-called bandwidth on demand, people will no longer ask if you have VTC. They will simply ask for your video number and dial it," Earon said. "But it will be an evolutionary process."

Evidence of VTC's popularity now comes through disasters, a feast-or-famine scenario. Earon noted the surge of interest and use during the California earthquake several years ago and Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Beyond the catastrophe model, there are banks in New Jersey that have set up remote cameras in shopping centers to allow borrowers to apply for loans at a distance.

One area of interest for Earon is the federal government, especially the military, which tends to be among the first users of sophisticated applications. Her interest is driven by her work in helping organizations plan for the acquisition of VTC.

In a white paper first composed in 1985 and revised innumerable times over the years, Earon laid out seven important steps to successful videoconferencing. They are needs assessment, system design, system management, internal promotion, user training, usage tracking and system expansion.

Strip off all the niceties about learning the technology, its capabilities, features and pitfalls, and you find a critical need to determine how to bring about change in your own group and get everybody on the bandwagon.

"How is a successful videoconferencing system implemented? Very carefully," Earon said. "Be sure everyone is on the same page to start with. The answer is by concentrating on both the human factors and the hardware. Let the business needs drive the technology, not the reverse. If you fail to do this properly, not only will the cause be lost, you may be lost, too. The rewards for a job well done are well worth the risk."

At this point in the evolution of VTC and the continually changing nature of the Internet, Earon said many organizations would be wise to step back and take a breath. Surprisingly, most of those considering starting or expanding their VTC operations are driven not by economics, such as reducing the costs of meetings or travel, but by competition. They are asking questions such as: Can VTC help us get our product to market faster? Can VTC help us satisfy our customers better?
The Department of Defense takes VTC very seriously. It even has a dedicated Web site that details the its VTC standards (disavtc.spawar.navy.mil/new.html). Those were last updated in October 1998.

Klaus Rittenbach, an electronics engineer in the Defense Information Systems Agency's Joint Information Engineering Organization, at the Center for Information Technology Standards, Fort Monmouth, N.J., said the 1998 version of the VTC profile, which covers international standards that are widely accepted and used by industry, added features such as collaborative computing, additional security options, higher quality video at 112-128 kbps and far-end camera control. It is based primarily on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) H.320 family and the T.120 family of standards.

"We are currently working on an enhanced version of the VTC Profile that will add VTC for LANs using the ITU H.323 family of standards. In the future, these same standards might be used for VTC over the Internet and the NIPRNET," Rittenbach said. "Right now, we have a draft of the enhanced VTC profile, but it still must go through an extensive government and industry review cycle before it becomes official."

Once approved, it will become an appendix of Federal Telecommunications Recommendation (FTR) 1080B, replacing Appendix A of FTR 1080A.

One reason the profile has been useful for improving VTC interoperability in the Defense Department is that it buys its VTC equipment from many vendors. Interoperability results from using the international standards specified in the VTC profile.

A key concern of the Defense Department is security. The approved version includes security requirements using the KIV-7 and KG-194 encryption devices. (Details can be found in the VTC Profile, which can be downloaded from the Web sites, www.ncs.gov/n6 and disavtc.spawar.navy.mil).

Some vendors are inserting KIV-7 encryption devices into their VTC equipment. It takes up the space of a drive bay in a PC. While the Defense Department standard is the VTC profile and its requirements are mandatory for the agency, those requirements remain optional for other government agencies.

For the future of VTC, Rittenbach sees as the main drivers the rapidly decreasing cost of VTC equipment and the communications pipelines, and the Internet's rapid expansion and evolution.

"The rapidly decreasing cost will make VTC more cost effective and more widely used. Acceptance of new standards like H.323 is important for worldwide interoperability. Also, ease of use is important for widespread acceptance," Rittenbach said. "VTC technology needs to be made transparent to the user so that it is as simple as using a telephone. It is very likely that there will be more embedded devices, especially integrated into personal computers.

"Once the Internet evolves to a point where business-quality VTC is practical over the Internet and the NIPRNET, these networks may become the medium of choice for VTC," he said.

Mimi Englander

On the commercial side, Vialog Corp., Andover , Mass., is one company that prides itself as the largest independent provider of teleconferencing services. It just announced its new Web conferencing portal, a one-stop shop for teleconferencing and Web conferencing (www.webconferencing.com) that allows users seamless access for remote meetings, presentations and group collaboration.

After users connect to the Web site, they can set up an account that allows them to schedule audioconferences, videoconferences and Web presentations. Alongside the teleconferencing services, Vialog offers fax, e-mail and voicemail broadcasts for delivery of corporate communications, investor information and marketing messages.

In the near future, the company plans to add features such as an e-commerce audioconferencing solution, which will serve as the basis for its Internet strategic partnering strategy. Corporate plans also call for allowing customers to manage account information, to have real-time control of meetings in progress and to synchronize their personal information managers, such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Organizer, with its conferencing services.

Finally, the company is looking to incorporate the next generation of Web presentation technology and other IP-based services into the meeting portal.

According to Mimi Englander, assistant vice president of marketing, Vialog offers a bridging capability for users that need to interconnect at least three sites for a teleconference. Among the key questions that must be asked when setting up a VTC, for example, include whether or not the call will originate from Vialog (Operator Dial Out) or from the participating companies dialing into the Vialog bridge (Meet Me Mode).

A second question covers an optional feature called Continuous Presence. This allows participants to see all the sites at once, much like the TV game show "Hollywood Squares," rather than seeing only the site currently talking. Finally, there is the question of the number of public rooms to be available for the VTC.

"The benefit of the WebConfer-
encing.com site is that someone can schedule a teleconference anytime without having to interact with an individual," Englander said. From her standpoint, a company such as Vialog, with its bread-and-butter audio conferencing services, is a competitor to long-distance phone companies. And VTC is only one trend of many in this space.

"Some large multinationals are adopting VTC as a mainstream option, a cost-effective alternative to meeting. We even see its use for payroll processing by companies that have 50 locations worldwide," said Englander.

Another growth area is what the company calls Web Presentation Sharing, where users need only an Internet connection and a separate telephone line.

The service amounts to pushing a Microsoft PowerPoint-type presentation at an audience, for example, in a seminar. Not only does Vialog offer to package the presentation for the user, replete with audio and animation, it also has a polling feature that allows users to vote on an issue or select an answer to a question and get an automatic tabulation delivered in a pie chart format.

Overall, Englander sized up the VTC situation in terms similar to Earon's: With its convenience, minor investment and absence of technical hassles, audioconferencing will continue to experience stable growth.

"One of the biggest trends is everything over the Internet; it is just a question of time and bandwidth," Englander said. "VTC will continue to grow, simply because of the increasing need to communicate that the globalization of e-commerce will demand."
Looking at the VTC scene from a purely practical point of view is "VTC Tips" (web2.airmail.net/plong/vctips.html) author Paul Long. His eminently useful personal points cover things such as lighting, locale, body movement and clothing color.

In his day job, Long is a computer programmer in the video products division of Smith Micro Software Inc., Austin, Texas. He has a telecommunications and language-tools background. He is developing videoconferencing products for Smith Micro.

Asked whether people need to be seen to communicate effectively, Long said in interpersonal communication, there is a correlation between credibility and vulnerability.

"To make our message more credible, we must simultaneously make ourselves more vulnerable," he said. "Yet all forms have their uses. One is not better [emphasis] than another. Consider these progressive forms, which range from the highly suspect, anonymous rumor to the credible, in-person visit which, however, makes all parties physically vulnerable to each other: rumor, e-mail, letter, telephone, videophone, in-person visit."

His point is that VTC is not intended to replace telephone calls or in-person visits. It is simply a new form of communication that fills a gap in the continuum.

Compared to a telephone call, one is more vulnerable by exposing one's image to the other party. However, the message is more credible because visual cues are present, such as smirking or leaning into the camera. Compared to a personal visit, one has the safety (also the savings) of not being physically present, yet the credibility of providing added visual cues.

While some may see increased bandwidth as the answer to greater VTC acceptance, Long is quick to note two key problems: delays imposed by routers and packet loss. In fact, increased bandwidth actually may make those problems worse for VTC users.

"A different issue is the existence of firewalls. That is not a performance question, but whether VTC works at all for use with vendors and partners," he said.

With all the attention paid to VTC, however, the killer app for teleconferencing right now, as most observers agree, is voice over IP. The goal, as Long said, is for the enterprise to put everything over the same network and offer more sophisticated services to employees.

"VTC is, to some degree, a novelty. Interesting, but still delays and at times choppy. It needs a well-managed network," Long said. "Still, it is a new technology, and it will take a while for things to shake out."

According to Long, stand-alone, conference-room systems will continue to dominate the high-end, corporate market, and "we'll see a variety of vertical-market solutions, and handheld and palm-sized wireless VTC clients will start showing up."

But the big news is that desktop, PC-based, consumer VTC will become service-oriented rather than product-oriented, he said. Desktop VTC will go the way of e-mail, calendars and fax: They will become increasingly Web-based.

There are already a couple of voice-only services and one video-and-voice service like this. The World Wide Web will be the dominant delivery method for VTC technology, Long said.

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