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Chapter 2 Videoconferencing Services What is Available.

Structure of this chapter

This chapter will give an overview of the different kinds of services that are available in the market today to enable videoconferencing. The message that this chapter will convey is that the range of systems available is immense. Videoconferencing through one’s own PC or Macintosh computer can be achieved without any financial investment in software, and a minimal outlay for hardware. On the other hand, the sky is the limit for the large ‘room sized’ systems, £50,000 can sometimes be a conservative estimate.

The chapter gives an overview of this range of systems, and talks about the applications that have already developed out of the technology. Some of the technical aspects are then covered, including a brief description of different networks and standards (which are covered in the appendices).

The different systems are then covered in two discrete sections; the PC integrated systems, and then the standalone equipment, incorporating desk-top and room sized systems. There is a special section devoted to CUSeeMe, the most prevalent video communication tool currently available.

Overview of currently available services

The videoconferencing market has developed into three distinct bands: the full studio systems offering near television quality and a number of ancillary facilities; the office systems based usually PC integrated, employing dial up circuits where available from 128-384kb/s; and the video telephony market which is being developed for both ISDN and standard telephone lines. At present the PC integrated videoconferencing seems to have stolen the march over the alternatives for a number of key reasons.

Firstly, they are low in cost, in fact the very basic systems, which can be integrated into one’s existing PC, are free. There are a few different public domain videoconferencing alternatives, working in black and white, with no sound, with typical frame rates of about 10 fps. The most popular public domain software at the moment is CUSeeMe, which runs over a virtual Internet network known as the Mbone.

In addition the commercial PC integrated systems provide ancillary features to promote collaborative working, with the video component being just one of the contributing media. Most commonly file transfer facilities are augmented with shared viewing facilities of documents, in addition a shared whiteboard application will allow both parties to see annotations and changes made to the document. Some products allow the remote control of direct manipulation tools, so that editing of documents may take place even if only one party has the application.

It is usually a simply process to upgrade a standard PC into a videoconferencing tool. Minimum requirements are a 486 PC running Windows_ 3.0, or a Mac Quadra running system 7.0, most good systems run over an ISDN network. A video board is then slotted into the computer, a camera and telephone attached, and then the application can be launched.

Ovum, the London based market research company, has estimated that combined PC’s and videotelephones, will provide more than £2 billion of revenue for telecommunications companies by the year 2000. It now seems that the key to the successful take up of the ISDN telecommunications networks, will to a large extent be the videotelephony market.

Already applications of this technology are becoming widespread. At the University of Wales, a project funded by the Welsh Office has give PC integrated videoconferencing facilities to GPs and patients throughout Wales. Using this system patients can call up their GP and obtain remote consultations. At present there are 14 such systems linked to dermatologists around the country. Page and Moy have been involved in a EC funded home shopping trial recently, and similar experiments are being carried out throughout Europe. A RACE (Research and Technology Development in Advanced Communications Technologies in Europe) project AREA (Access to Remote Expertise in Agriculture) is investigating the possibilities of providing remote consultations for farmers by viticultural experts via PC integrated videoconferencing (using the TELES system). The system also provide expert system assistance, and will be given free of charge with a possibility of being sponsored by chemical manufacturers, whose products will be recommended by the system, and the experts.

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