GV February 1999
At TeleCon, It's Full Stream Ahead
By Sheldon Liebman
This year's TeleCon show was a very interesting place to be. It is still the best show to see the latest and greatest conferencing equipment, but this year, a few industry trends were very apparent and could definitely affect the way many of our readers do business in the future.
Did You Convert?
The first trend is a little distressing to me based on my history in this industry. In my 1995 TeleCon report, I wrote about how scan converters were revolutionizing the conferencing industry by letting standalone systems display computer-based data. As a former employee of Lyon Lamb Video Animation Systems, who created one of the first scan converters, and a former manufacturers representative for Chromatek, who introduced the first HDTV capable scan converter, I was really proud that this technology was finding a niche in conferencing.
This year, scan conversion booths were feeling the pinch of the shift to computer-based conferencing products. After all, if the system is based on a computer, transmitting information from that source can be done without using a scan converter. With a standalone conferencing system, a scan converter is still an important tool. For many new users, however, it is unnecessary.
Video Networking Grows Up
When I first started writing for Government Video (then GMV), one of the reasons Ron Merrell and I got together was that I had a feel for how computers and video hooked together. I was also writing about networked video for Videography, another publication in the Miller Freeman PSN family. The early days of networked video were very scary, since there was no viable network architecture that could handle the demands of real-time video data.
A pioneer in the area of networked video was Starlight Networks, who I first wrote about in 1993. They were one of the first companies to create a network structure that provided guaranteed bandwidth so video could be distributed around a company. It didn't support full resolution and certainly didn't provide 30 frames per second, but it was better than anything that had come before it. Earlier this year, PictureTel Corporation purchased Starlight Networks, which is a very significant move for our industry.
The combination of PictureTel and Starlight shows that the largest players sense a shift away from traditional phone-based conferencing toward a network-based alternative. In a LAN environment, this provides higher bandwidth resulting in better resolution and/or higher frame rates. In a WAN environment, this same technology can easily be used, although the bandwidth may be reduced.
Other companies are concentrating on networked video to provide either interactive conferencing or one-way broadcasting, and we've covered some of them in the past. Walking around the show floor a few years ago, most booths demonstrated how the person at station "A" could communicate with the person at station "B." A trip around the show this year was just as likely to feature recently released movies or cable television signals being "broadcast" to many computer stations simultaneously. With the right networking technology (usually ATM), these booths were able to show full resolution, full frame-rate video transmissions across a network.
The Ultimate WAN
Over the past few years, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people communicate with each other. If you look at it from a basic level, however, it's just another WAN, and the technology that allows video to move across a high-speed WAN can be adapted to support lower-speed connections as well. This is the basis for the streaming video industry, and TeleCon was a good place to look at this technology.
It's interesting to note that neither Microsoft nor RealNetworks had booths at this year's show, although both were present last year. I think this is a reflection of TeleCon's appeal to conferencing professionals, rather than consumers. After all, the 25,000 people (approximately) who attended the show don't want consumer-oriented products, they want real business tools.
Broadcasting video over the Internet is a very powerful tool. Companies can use this to let a CEO speak to employees at their desktops, rather than gathering them in auditoriums. People all over the world used it to watch the videotaped testimony of President Clinton. And schools can use this to broadcast lectures to anywhere in the world.
The key here is that geography is not a limiting factor when the Internet is the broadcast venue. In Albuquerque, TALNET (Teach and Learn Network) constantly broadcasts courses across the State of New Mexico. However, the cable system in Kansas City isn't likely to provide this channel. An Internet broadcast, however, can be received by anyone with an Internet connection, even if they are outside of the local area.
Many educators who attended TeleCon this year spent a lot of time in the booth of a Canadian company called EMULive Imaging Corporation. This was EMULive's first appearance at TeleCon, but it impressed a lot of people. The company goes beyond simple streaming of video and audio to create an interactive environment which seems to address a lot of the issues of distance learning.
EMULive's products can be used to stream live events or to play pre-recorded segments. This makes it easy to schedule a lecture for 10:00 AM on Monday and have it repeat at various times over the next few days, weeks or months. They also support video on demand, so that same lecture could be "called up" at any convenient time. The key to this is that you can record a program to disk at the same time it's going out live.
EMULive has also developed a technology called "ScreenScrape." With ScreenScrape, any portion of a PC screen can be used as a live video source. If a lecturer wants to open Microsoft Excel, for example, and show the contents of a spreadsheet, it is a relatively simple process to switch from camera input to screen input (without using a scan converter).
If a traditional videoconferencing package is running on the PC, ScreenScrape can even be used to "re-broadcast" a remote video window, allowing "guest lecturers" to be brought in from off-site locations.
Another key to the EMULive product suite is support for group chat and group web browsing. Using the group chat feature, any person "attending" a live broadcast can post questions for the group. If a private discussion is required, the products also support this feature, so that a group of students can communicate without everyone seeing it. Group web browsing can be used to send all attendees to a common web site that pertains to the class. For example, a class on Art History might take a trip to the web site for the Louvre during class.
EMULive was not the only company demonstrating streaming technology at TeleCon, but as a first time exhibitor with a few unique features, they made quite a splash. Next year, this may all seem like old stuff. For now, though, it's full stream ahead.
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