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July 11, 1993

VIDEOCONFERENCING SYSTEMS COME TO MARKET IN BEWILDERING PROLIFERATION

By CBR Staff Writer

Clear your throat, comb your hair and sit up straight, because it has arrived: the age of videoconferencing is upon us. Your counterpart in Sydney is a mere phone call away, and if you cannot quite smell Bondi Beach on his skin, you can see him, hear him and interact with him. Some may wince at the prospect, but a plethora of companies is offering to make that happen. It is a big and growing market; as British Telecommunications Plc confidently predicts: The world market in visual services is projected to exceed $3,000m in the next three years. Just as fax machines and photocopiers swept through offices in the last decade, videoconferencing and its products are projected to do the same in the 1990s. And just as networks have miraculously sprung up between hardware boxes over the last few years, so the dial-up telephone network could be the next and ultimate local network. It has been estimated that 60% of senior executives from small to medium sized companies are out of the office one day a week going to meetings. Now meetings can be set up more spontaneously and frequently, saving time, money and patience. Face to face contact sends a message home, and British Telecom research suggests body language accounts for 80% of the impressions made in conversations, while 13% comes from tone of voice and 7% from the words used. Or perhaps it depends on which words.

Concentration

Another supposed advantage of videoconferencing is the concentration it both gives to and demands of participants. If those are some of the reasons why there is a market, what is on the market? There are videocabinets, video phones both analogue and digital, and now an increasingly wide choice of desktop options. If you listen to Northern Telecom Ltd, you could believe they have cornered the market. Its Visit system was launched in the US and Canada last year and has just arrived amidst much trumpeting in Europe. Northern Telecom calls it the first commercially available desktop multimedia communications system. Well, that is arguable, but what it does do is let you combine the desktop telephone and computer, throw in a bit of video, and start communicating. It is also the first H.261 standard desktop video system to use the video coder-decoder chip set from Santa Clara, California-based Integrated Information Technology Inc, and the first to use the CCITT codec for both the Windows and Macintosh environments. It operates over 64Kbps Integrated Services Digital Network basic rate access dial-up lines as well as the standard switched 56Kbps lines in North America. Your own face can go live on screen alongside your remote colleague’s; the two of you can view and annotate the same image simultaneously; you have a high-speed file transfer which, it is claimed, exchanges information 20 times faster than a modem. Plus you can activate phone services with a point and click, and create unlimited, customised directories, automatically log incoming and outgoing calls, store memos that flash up when needed, and perhaps best of all, know who is calling before you answer the phone, when caller identification is delivered through your network. There is even an incoming call-alert function which plays a custom sound for each incoming call. The system can involve only three separate desktops, but the company has plans to manage eight, and this kind of range is what any system needs if is to excite the customer and stand out in the crowd. It does not have to look far over its shoulder.

By Kate Potter

Visit was developed by Workstation Technologies Inc of Irvine, California and in mid-June it launched its version of the system itself. A month before this, MCI Communications Corp of Washington, revealed a deal with Danvers, Massachussets PictureTel Corp to introduce a new multipoint dial-up videoconferencing service package. Around this time there was a spate of launches. Intervision Systems Corp of Virginia is shipping InVision, video conferencing for Windows, which uses an Intel 80750-based codec board. When it was first shown in beta test version at Intermedia

’93 in California, the picture quality was criticised, but the final version can generate from five to 25 frames per second. The system runs under Windows 3.1, and delivers bidirectional full-duplex audio and video. A higher speed version that uses Intel’s codec board, the Action-Media 2, is available for $3,400. Intervision has priced InVision at $3,000 and claims it already has orders from a clutch of Fortune 500 companies. At the recent National Cable Television Association conference in San Francisco, Intervision ran a demonstration using Ethernet bridging hardware from LANcity of Andover, Massachusetts, to show that Invision can operate on a pre-installed cable television infrastucture, thus removing the need to install a computer network. Singapore’s Creative Technology Ltd, maker of the popular Sound Blaster boards will be an interesting company to watch, as in early June it paid $11m for Sharevision Technology Inc of San Jose, California. Sharevision has just brought out a video conferencing product on the Mac. Creative’s strength is with MS-DOS personal computers, so what it learns from Sharevision will be very useful. Up the road in Malaysia, Animated Electronic Industrials Bhd has shown a mobile video telecommunicator, which is a mobile version of its desktop video-conferencing system, also sold under OEM agreements to unnamed US telecommunication firms. ISDN was slow coming in Malaysia, but is expected to be extended across the whole country by mid-1994. Only law enforcement agencies are using mobile video telecommunication at the moment, as independent network operators like AT&T Co, Pacific Bell and MCI cannot agree on a common switch that will allow dial-up connection between private users. This autumn, desktop units are set to drop as quickly as the leaves. AT&T will ship its desktop unit, the Personal Visual System Model 70 which uses the AT&T 4000 video compression chip set and offers motion video at 10 to 15 frames per second at transmission rates of 112Kbps or 128Kbps. The systems must be bought in quantities of four, starting at $7,000 per unit.

Olivetti

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Ing C Olivetti & Co SpA is making a dual asssault on video conferencing, first through research at its Cambridge, England laboratories on the Pandora and Medusa systems (CI No 2,197) and secondly through joint ventures with British Telecom. BT is currently selling the VC7000, which costs a pricey UKP7,500. It launched the BT-partnered multimedia personal communication computer in October 1992, offering the BT ISDN basic rate video codec (VC9120) and the Six-Tel ISDN basic rate boards. But at the end of this quarter it will integrate these two boards with a third, supplied by VideoLogic Ltd of King’s Langley, Hertfordshire, to produce the VC8000. This offers similar services to Visit, with the addition of a shared editing facility not available with Northern Telecom’s system, access from 16 different calls and will cost UKP3,500 with software. Unlike Visit, it does not operate with the Macintosh system, and Olivetti marketing manager Elias Kanaris said: We have no current plans to offer a Windows to Mac version. The market requirement is not sufficient. But looking at the number of systems now out or in the pipeline, have any of the suppliers really considered either what the market wants, or what it can stand? And will future systems come with personal grooming kits to ensure they are genuinely user-friendly?

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