Videoconferencing on 
the 'Net

first published in ComputorEdge Magazine, 
September 18, 1998, Laura Bergells

by Laura Bergells

Ursel is a brilliant, self-employed investor relations consultant. She has her fingers on the pulses of multiple economic indicators, and works tirelessly to connect her corporate customers to the investment community and the Street.

While Ursel loathes the minutia of loading software and troubleshooting the small problems that arise with any computer, she is acutely aware that the larger issue of connecting and communicating with customers makes her personal computer a necessary tool in today’s business environment.

Ursel dials her national on-line service provider daily. She uses the World Wide Web to research information. She reads trade journals on-line. She trades stock on line. She emails. She reads and writes press releases and articles.

Ursel wanted to learn more about videoconferencing on the net. Should she recommend it to clients as a less expensive alternative to meetings and traditional videoconferencing? Meetings require a significant amount of coordination and travel – and many in the investor relations community have come to rely on videoconferencing. Traditional videoconferencing requires a substantial investment in infrastructure – hard wiring, a conference room, camera, monitors, microphones and lighting. But videoconferencing over the net has several cost-saving advantages: no long distance phone calls, PC video cameras for under $200, inexpensive Internet videoconferencing software like VDOPhone and CUSeeMe, or even free software like NetMeeting from Microsoft.

Ursel reasoned that like most of her clients and associates, she already had a Pentium II computer with a built in microphone and speakers and more than enough RAM, as well as a dial-up Internet connection. All Ursel would need to do is download the appropriate software, get it to her clients, and buy inexpensive video cameras.

Since I had experimented with Internet conferencing last year, I told her I would be happy to help her test drive a few applications. I was curious: last year, I found that while Internet videoconferencing worked technically, it suffered from significant audio lag. Also, the video frames were quite jerky. Since clear communication is the goal in any meeting, the poor audio and video quality made Internet videoconferencing unfeasible for business communications.

Nonetheless, this area holds great promise: as more people develop a personal interest in communicating through the Internet, which is inevitable, the more infrastructure will be developed. In short, this particular application is only going to get better, and quickly, too.

Ursel promptly went on-line and purchased the Connectix VC Camera for $123 with a $30 rebate. Later, she told me she went to a local store to see if she could get it cheaper – she couldn’t. Ursel couldn’t find this camera in her local area for within $50 of her rebated on-line purchase price. Further, her sleek black camera was delivered to her door within three days.

Add "purchasing office supplies" as yet another regular task that Ursel promised to perform regularly over the net.

Ursel hooked up her new camera with only one false start that necessitated a five minute phone call to the folks at Connectix (she claimed it was her impatience, not the fault of the folks at Connectix). She downloaded NetMeeting (www.microsoft.com) and the demo versions of VDOphone (www.vdo.net) and Cuseeme (http://www.wpine.com/Products/CU-SeeMe/). Ursel cursed at the time and effort it took to download and install the programs (about 2 hours for all three programs on a 28.8 baud modem – I thought this was reasonable. Ursel as previously noted, was impatient.) Fits of pique notwithstanding, we began our first Internet video teleconference.

Ursel squealed with delight when she saw my face grimacing on her computer. Since she lives in Cleveland, Ohio and I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we attempted to share our joy at "cheating" the phone company out of the price of a long distance phone call.

However, our communication slowly broke down due to the time lag in the audio, which ranged between two and ten seconds. Similarly, the video suffered a significant lag time and broke apart and stopped frames frequently.

We switched almost immediately from using audio communication to using the chat room features. We furiously typed our comments back and forth as we looked at our grim expressions.

Ursel: I can’t hear you, you’re breaking up.

Laura: Is that a teddy bear in your office?

Ursel: Yes, I bought it for my grandson.

I looked at the video image of Ursel marching the teddy bear across the face of the camera. The bear lurched across the screen. I grabbed a toy zebra that I had gotten as a birthday gift a month previously.

Ursel and I grinned foolishly at each other. After two hours of experimenting, we readily agreed that Internet Video Conferencing is not quite ready for mass business use:

I broke away from my conversations with Ursel and found other people on various server sights that were testing their new cameras and software. I videoconferenced with a business man in Australia and a fifteen-year old boy and his father in Cleveland. The different software programs elicited significantly different results in audio quality and video streaming. Also, as more people joined a conference, the audio and video lag time became much greater.

Note: the fifteen year old’s father insisted on being in the room to protect the lad from any perversion that might be going on live and on-camera and broadcasted into his son’s computer. Smart man. The people I ran into were G-rated, but the potential for viewing R-rated (or worse) content when you invite unknown people to join a video teleconference is certainly a hazard of testing.

To put it very succinctly, Internet Video Teleconferencing is not ready for business for one compelling reason:

Impatience.

As a society, we are accustomed to the immediacy or relative ease of the telephone, fax, TV, radio and even email. We punch a few buttons, and we find ourselves communicating rapidly. Until Internet video conferencing matches the audio, visual, speed and ease-of-use standards we have for other common communication devices, don’t use it with executives who expect high quality and immediacy.

1998 by Laura Bergells

Maniactive. Copyright 1998-2007

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