For years, conferencing technology has seemed out of step with its time. Visual conferencing in particular - both interactive video and data sharing - illustrates this sense of anachronism. Potential demand is enormous. What business, for instance, could fail to benefit from remote visual communication between workers or with customers? And yet, for all its efficacy (and just plain sex appeal), the technology has decidedly failed to catch fire. Though videoconferencing is heavily used in certain niche markets (e.g., telemedicine) and in certain high-end applications (e.g., boardroom-to-boardroom), general market acceptance has been elusive.
At least, thus far. We believe that conferencing - and video in particular - is about to hit; and that the crucial breakthrough to mass business market acceptance will be crossed sometime this year. As with certain other "obvious killer apps that have somehow failed to catch fire" (e.g., unified messaging), the
lever enabling video conferencing's big push will be rendered by the Net.
The Net (and its attendant economy, logistics, and culture) provide a technology platform and a business environment in which video and other forms of high-level conferencing will thrive.
Bandwidth will shortly be ubiquitously available. Most forward-looking companies have already implemented broadband Internet access from discrete locations. Inter-office communications are starting to switch from low-bandwidth S56, expensive leased T-span, frame relay, and similar technologies to more-rational "IP everywhere" VPN technologies. Consumers, too, are beginning to move towards broadband IP, as cable and DSL service-offerings become available. The result: Increasingly, any two points you might wish to connect are likely to be served by cheap, plentiful IP bandwidth.
Quality of service problems are being addressed. The drive to provide QoS for IP voice is forcing rapid implementation of network elements capable of TOS-bit forwarding, weighted fair queueing, FECN/BECN, RSVP, and similar protocols and strategies. Video - similar to voice in that it demands effective isochronicity for proper transmission - will be a direct beneficiary.
Standards are now in place. H.323, T.120, and its related standards are now concrete and broadly available.
The web is everywhere. Conferencing is already benefiting hugely from web standards - both in terms of the web providing a ubiquitous user interface to conferencing systems, and in terms of its nurturing a set of official and de-facto standards (e.g., RealVideo) that facilitate certain kinds of conferencing
Mobility is still on the rise. More and more work is done out of the office. The demand for "work at home" privileges is increasing. Video and other conferencing solutions play directly into these growing trends.
E-commerce is changing the call center. The rise of e-commerce underscores a dramatically increasing need for companies to provide remote customers with efficient means of obtaining service. Enhanced conferencing provides a global solution-set that can exploit the e-commerce infrastructure directly: From customer web browser to server to call center.
Next-gen "B to B" will have a video component. Net technologies such as XML are profoundly changing the way businesses communicate with one another; old, inflexible methods such as EDI are rapidly falling by the wayside, in favor of easier-to-manage, swifter-to-implement solutions. We believe that "B to B video" will begin to emerge as a key component of any technologically-enabled business partnership, and will eventually be viewed as de rigeur.
The "telecom culture" is changing. Perhaps the most important benefit the Net (and the broader concept of "convergence") confers is in changing the nature of telecom
management - both in corporations and among service providers. In the past, voice- and PSTN-oriented telecom managers have been confused and put off by the data-centric demands of video and other forms of high-level conferencing. Telcos, by the same token, have only slowly started learning how to package and present data-centric forms of connectivity - mostly in response to the sudden demand for Internet-related services. Today,
as the function of telecom management comes more and more under the aegis of IS, the technical challenges of video will be easier to overcome. At the same time, the benefits of video will likely be apparent to IS managers, schooled in thinking of all forms of connectivity as strategic assets, rather than simply as "cost centers."
Collaboration over the web is already taking place. Defined broadly, this can mean sharing documents or other visual materials with some degree of further interaction among the parties involved. On the more basic end, you have
the ability to share a PowerPoint presentation in sync between
two web-connected PCs. Slightly more complex are application sharing and collaborative whiteboarding. In many instances, streaming media technologies also play a role, whether they involve audio only or audio and video - investor relations calls, press conferences, and corporate training are all using streaming to reach large audiences.
Increasingly, we find carriers offering collaboration apps on an ad hoc basis to enterprise users. Colorado-based Vstream, in fact, has built a business around it. Using a kind of next-gen conference bridge supplied by Voyant Technologies, Vstream users can set up on-the-fly conferences from a website, and combine multipoint audio over the PSTN with visual content shared via the web. Further, any conference can be recorded and streamed, either in realtime or archived format, to a potentially vast number of individuals. While it may not be loaded with frills and realtime interactive features, such a service is extremely pragmatic: It is low cost, convenient, uses absolutely ubiquitous technology (phone and web browser), and it integrates processes that are very much a part of the way most any business operates.
Polycom offers a somewhat more specialized type of product, though similar in concept, aimed mainly at customers with an installed base of conferencing equipment. The StreamStation, for instance, hooks up to existing audio or video conferencing gear and captures the content of a call for unicast or multicast streaming to any users equipped with a Real Player G2 client. For presentation of documents and visual materials, Polycom makes a system that IP-enables LCD projectors, as well as an IP-based projector that can read Microsoft Office documents.
What these products and services, and several others like them, have in common is that they use the web and IP as a complement to existing technologies that people use and trust. By making a broader range of content available to a larger group of people, they broaden the channels of communication without demanding
fundamental changes in them.
While web collaboration can be an extremely useful supplement to standard conference calls, informal workgroups, and a myriad of other environments, we are still a long way from being able to use the web for effective realtime, interactive videoconferencing. At the same time, there has been a good
deal of progress in freeing up traditional videoconferencing systems from the barriers that have slowed their deployment.
Aside from streaming media, most of the attention has centered on H.323 as a replacement for H.320. From our standpoint, there seems to be no question that IP will eventually replace ISDN as the method for transporting video traffic, and that video will become "just
another app" on the converged broadband network. The protocol shift, however, is not in itself adequate to solve many of the concrete problems associated with videoconferencing. Rather,
much of the progress being made in this direction is happening independently from the protocol debate, or at least on a course parallel to it.
Several videoconferencing endpoint vendors have released "protocol agnostic" products in the past year, that can support both IP and ISDN. As importantly, however, many of them have introduced products which, even if they are mainly still used for ISDN conferencing, have come significantly down in cost and are much easier to use and integrate. Set-top boxes, for example, are viable, inexpensive products that let even smaller companies actually start to use it. Similarly, more intuitive user interfaces and especially browser-based tools have eased the process of scheduling and initiating a conference.
On the back end, and further along in the network, we are also seeing a number of positive changes. Accord Networks, for example, now offers an Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) with built-in IP/ATM/ISDN gateway functionality, as well as multi-way transcoding that tailors available bandwidth, frame rate, and compression to individual users' endpoints.
FVC.com is building out managed network operations centers to let carriers integrate video as a service offering directly into their broadband networks.
A good deal of network integration and enhancement still needs to take place before we get to instant videoconferencing "dial tone." With players like Cisco Systems getting involved, however, and building the necessary QoS, IP multicasting, and directory services capabilities into their routers and switches, the
industry appears to be edging closer to that point of convergence.
AUDIO AND BEYOND
Cisco's recent activity in conferencing, in fact, can serve as an interesting roadmap, or at least a rough outline, of the path we see conferencing taking in general. On one level, the company is using its IP/TV streaming product to address the particular needs of large IP broadcasting. They've also recently signed an OEM deal with RADVision from which Cisco gains an H.323 MCU and 323-to-320 gateway. These OEM products are a necessary migratory step - they are the type of product that lets businesses get into videoconferencing now, and they have the forward looking slant of being IP-based. At the same time, these products are not positioned in isolation, but rather as one part of one layer of an enterprise architecture
- what Cisco is calling AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video, and Data). And, ironically, some of the most interesting aspects of AVVID for IP-based conferencing wouldn't necessarily be recognized as conferencing products at all.
Presently, AVVID centers around an IP PBX, Cisco's Call Manager. As it evolves, however, the architecture is becoming much less a phone system and much more a distributed collection of network elements that inter-relate in a modular, rather than a strictly hierarchical, fashion. The whole point of this design is to remove the applications layer of the network from the transport
and access layers. And if we accept that, in the future, "the network will be the phone system," it is only a small hop to imagine the network as the conference bridge, as well. Given the potential of IP multicasting, there seems no theoretical reason why this should not be.
As IP telephony begins to take root at the enterprise level, we think we'll start to see this hypothesis crystallize first as a tool for simplified, more efficient audioconferencing, and perhaps
later as a way of blurring the line between audio and video. For the moment, however, we've rounded up a whole slew of new products that are out there today, using IP and the Internet to
help you improve your workgroups and extend your presence.
Accord Networks' (Atlanta, GA - 770-641-4400, www.accordtelecom.com
) MGC-100 addresses two key issues that have traditionally plagued MCUs: Network flexibility and ease-of-use. The MGC-100 is one of the only MCUs we know of that can support ISDN (H.320), ATM (H.321), and IP (H.323) all in the same chassis. Built-in gateway functionality lets it translate
between all these protocols. And, perhaps most significantly, a multi-way transcoding feature ensures that each user is assigned the bandwidth, frame rate, and compression ratios best suited to his or her connection.
To make the system controls more intuitive, users and operators can manage conferences through a Windows-based drag-and-drop GUI, a browser-based web application, or touch-tone commands on a standard phone. A "Greet and Guide" feature lets you create customized welcome screens that walk participants through the
process of joining a conference.
The MGC-100 holds from 8 to 132 IP ports, or up to 96 ports of ISDN or ATM. Accord's ARENA, a newly released open API, lets you develop IP-based visual applications for e-commerce, help desk, call center, and chat room environments to work in conjunction with the MGC-100. List price for the MGC-100 starts at around $25,000.
AudioTalk Networks (Mountain View, CA - 650-988-2040, www.audiotalk.com)
provides a number of web-based VoIP applications that include click-to-talk call centers, voice-enabled chat rooms and instant messaging, and interactive distance learning. The service works with any H.323 or SIP-compliant client endpoints, and uses a combination of VoIP gateways and application servers
in the network. The distance learning app lets it do a streaming broadcast of any presentation, and offers a variety of Q&A and other interactive features. Students (or conference attendees) can also form smaller groups in which to chat with one another live, separately, or as a break-out from the main conference. Integrated audioconferencing lets participants
dial in from a standard phone, in addition to a VoIP client.
Cisco Systems (San Jose, CA - 408-526-4000, www.cisco.com) has been very active in developing conferencing applications and equipment
at a number of different levels of its IP telephony architecture. Most recently, Cisco signed an OEM deal with RADVision (see below) through which they will offer an H.323-based MCU, an H.323-to-H.320 gateway, a Video Terminal Adapter, and Cisco's Multimedia Conference Manager (MCM), an H.323 gatekeeper and proxy. (The MCM is a part of Cisco IOS,
which runs on all of Cisco's enterprise routers, and is used to manage bandwidth and improve QoS on video conferences.) Collectively, the product family is called IP/VC.
Separately, Cisco has also been developing IP/TV , a line of broadcast servers and streaming software built on Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies. IP/TV uses IP multicasting to distribute large-scale events to a multitude of users - as exemplified by Cisco's 14-hour live broadcast of the NetAid
benefit concert in conjunction with the University of Oregon.
Finally, Cisco is integrating conferencing features directly into its IP-based enterprise phone system (based on the former Selsius product, now Cisco Call Manager). The first and most concrete feature to emerge from that effort is a one-button conference feature on Cisco's IP phones. Users simply press a button while
speaking to another IP phone, and NetMeeting is launched on both parties' desktops.
Cisco plans to continue its efforts as part of the developing AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video, and Integrated Data) initiative, basing its systems and software IP multicasting
technology to build a more converged and distributed model for multipoint voice, video, and data conferencing.
Ezenia! (Burlington, MA - 781-229-2000, www.ezenia.com), formerly known as VideoServer, makes the Encounter line of IP conferencing products. Encounter includes an IP/ISDN gateway and a software-based gatekeeper. The core product in the line is Encounter NetServer, an MCU for H.323 conferencing across an enterprise. NetServer supports both POTS and H.323 connections, so that endpoints can be any combination of standard phone lines, H.323-compatible conferencing units, or multimedia PCs with a TCP/IP connection and T.120 data. Using the Encounter gateway, traditional H.320 endpoints can also be brought into a conference. You can schedule and manage conferences using a browser-based interface. The NetServer also performs audio transcoding between G.711 and G.723, to mix POTS and VoIP in the same conference. The NetServer ADX1000 is an entry-level model that comes with the same audio and data conferencing capability as the original, but supports video only with a software upgrade.
Recently, Ezenia! added the Interactivity Server to its offerings. Incorporating the same basic design and functionality as NetServer (though without standard support for video), this model includes a set of APIs that let web developers build web-based conferencing applications like online communities and
chat rooms. The primary focus of Interactivity Server is to promote interaction between a firm and its clients, or to create
communities among a company's customer base.
Forum Communication Systems (Richardson, TX - 972-680-0700, www.forum-com.com) makes the Consortium Conference System
, a PC-based audioconferencing bridge that runs on NT server. Consortium scales between 24 and 96 ports and connects to a PBX via T-1, and to the LAN/WAN via 10BaseT Ethernet.
Client software is installed on users' desktops, and lets them access configuration, scheduling, and setup options - communicating with the server via TCP/IP. Conference management and most other features can also be accessed via the web, either though the Internet or a corporate Intranet. Further integration with the enterprise LAN and WAN lets you send out
e-mail notifications to participants, as well as distribute meeting documents via e-mail or the web. Other features include: Internal digital recording, dynamic breakout sessions, PIN/security, and blast dialing. Full- duplex audio and automatic gain control are standard. Consortium tailors particularly well to ad hoc conferencing: Its features are easy to control, and it has special capabilities to do immediate scheduling and initiation of conferences.
FVC.com (Santa Clara, CA - 800-351-8539, www.fvc.com) is a videoconferencing infrastructure provider. Its main business is building and maintaining Video Operations Centers (VOCs), from which it offers managed network equipment to carriers who want to provide videoconferencing services without owning their own hardware. An FVC.com VOC contains MCUs, web servers, IP multicasting systems, gateways, gatekeepers, switches, and OSS databases. A broadband fiber interconnection links the VOC to a service provider's own network. As part of the package, FVC.com offers a Video Portal, which consists of a browser-based interface through which customers can schedule conferences, and access capabilities like multipoint bridging and video recording and streaming. While FVC.com's facilities
can support ISDN (H.320) conference endpoints via gateways, it is specifically intended for delivery of video services over broadband pipes, whether IP or ATM based.
FVC.com also sells all of the systems it uses in its Operations Centers directly to customers. Most recently, the company announced a strategic partnership with White Pine Software to jointly develop and market IP video products. As a result, FVC.com will OEM White Pine's Meeting Point software-only conference server,
and White Pine will OEM FVC.com's V-Gate 4000, an IP-to-ISDN-to-ATM gateway.
Gentner Communications (Salt Lake City, UT - 800-945-7730, www.gentner.com)
recently released the APV200-IP, an H.323-compatible videoconferencing codec. The box connects to any TV, LCD projector, flat screen, PC or laptop, and works with most any other videoconferencing system or MCU using ISDN or T-1/E-1 lines. The system can operate standalone, or be combined with
other products in Gentner's Audio Perfect line, which supports up to 64 attached microphones, multiple cameras, and recording equipment such as VCRs and DVD players.
An embedded web server and 10/100-BaseT Ethernet port lets you access the system for configuration and management via LAN, WAN, or Internet. A remote control operated GUI helps users through set up, and a tutoring device provides self-prompting instructions to guide novice users in configuring the system. The APV200
also includes an API to support customization and enhancements.
Global Crossing (Beverly Hills, CA - 310-385-5200, www.globalcrossing.com) offers Ready Access, an on-demand teleconferencing service that utilizes the carrier's backbone fiber network. Rather than having to make reservations in advance to schedule a conference call, users are given a permanent access code and PIN for any time service. A designated moderator has complete control over the conference and its participants, and can also choose to chair the conference via the web. This includes calling the roll, deciding who can enter a conference and when, dial-out functions, billing options (e.g., billing participants for a portion of the call), recording, broadcast mode (making all or certain participants "listen only"), and break-out sessions.
Ready Access accounts are available 24/7, and are billed on a per port and per minute basis.