GV - November 1997

Telecon Gets Personal
by Sheldon Liebman

Earlier this month, the 17th Annual TeleCon show was held in Anaheim. This show is extremely focused on the Video, Audio and TeleConferencing market, which makes it a much more valuable show to people who are interested in these technologies. You may find many of these exhibitors at a more general show like Comdex (also held this month), but it would take many days to find them compared to the number of hours it takes at TeleCon.

As with most technologies, the products showcased at TeleCon have evolved to provide more speed and quality for at lower prices. What seemed to set this year's show apart from the rest was the ability to find more products that could be used in a small office, or even a home, environment.

A VideoConference in Every POTS
Plain Old Telephone Service, or POTS, is available in virtually every home and office in the United States. Systems that can move video across a POTS connection, however, have been thought of as unusable for most applications. While you still can't get full resolution, full frame rate videoconferencing using POTS, the price of POTS compatible systems is getting down so low that it's silly to dismiss it completely.

As in past years, there were a number of integrated videophones being demonstrated. These systems, marketed by Sony, Panasonic and others, typically cost over $1000 and utilize very small LCD screens. The performance varies, but usually doesn't reach even 10 frames per second. At this year's show, a big step forward was taken by 8x8, Inc. and 3Com. 8x8 manufactures the ViaTV VC105 POTS Video Phone and the ViaTV VC55 POTS Video Phone/Web Browser. These products recognize that people already have telephones, televisions and video monitors that can be used in a teleconferencing system. What they really need is a way to bring them together into a viable system. ViaTV VC105 does just that at a price of under $500.

Under an OEM agreement, the ViaTV VC105 is being marketed by 3Com as the Bigpicture TV Phone. With the marketing muscle of this big player behind them, this product is well positioned to finally bring videoconferencing to the masses. Basically, the product consists of a camera with all the control hardware built into the camera case. The device sits on top of a television and connects to the phone line between the wall jack and the telephone to be used. A separate connection allows the unit to sit between an incoming antenna/cable signal and a television or to feed into audio/video jacks on a TV or VCR.

Since the telephone connects to the unit, there is no separate remote control or even buttons on the camera. All adjustments are made using the telephone keypad. The real advantage of this product is that it takes low end videoconferencing to the big screen. Although the quality won't be the same, the feel is similar to that of a more expensive system based on the size of the image.

As a companion to the Bigpicture TV, 3Com also markets two desktop videoconferencing products for POTS. The Bigpicture Video Kit, priced under $300, includes a fast (56K X2) modem, video capture card and camera with built in microphone. Finally, for people that already have a modem or other data transmission device, 3Com offers the Bigpicture Video Camera & Capture Card package, which eliminates the modem.

Getting the Really Big Picture
It's hard to make a product that satisfies everyone. Some people would rather see full frame rate even if it means that the image is really small or very low quality. Others care more about high quality, even if it means the frame rate is very slow. This second group now has a product to use, PhoneVision, from Remote Vision Pte Ltd.

Remote Vision is a wholly owned R&D subsidiary of Systems Technology Pte Ltd in Singapore. Not only is this the first time the company has been to TeleCon, they don't even have a method of distributing their products in the United States. This is certain to change quickly, however, based on the capabilities of the PhoneVision product they were showing.

PhoneVision is a $70 software application that works with a video capture card and a camera. In order to support very high resolution, both sides of the conference must be running the software. If they are, however, 4CIF resolution (704x576) is supported at approximately 2 frames per second.

The company was also showing ActiVision32, which is a remote monitoring application that supports up to 16 video cameras at the remote site. ActiVision32 includes remote control of the cameras and also transmits 4CIF resolution.

Change Back From Your C-Note
The price of high-speed systems is also coming down. In the TELES booth, they were offering an ISDN Modem for $99. Other booths featured cameras that were also priced under $100 and could be used for conferencing applications. Capture cards are also being introduced at new, lower price points. Even though they weren't shown at TeleCon, the price of some cards is now under $200. What isn't clear, though, is whether these can be used for conferencing applications straight out of the box.

For a true ISDN-based system, TELES is also lowering the bar. Although it isn't priced as low as the 8x8 and 3Com products, TELES offers the Vision B5 system for under $700 including the ISDN adapter, video capture card and camera. A network terminator, if required, adds $200 to the price of the system.

Interest Abounds at All Levels
Many of the products shown at TeleCon are aimed at more powerful applications. Rather than cover the latest versions of traditional conferencing products, the rest of this article will focus on other unique or interesting uses of the technology.

Perhaps the most amazing technology at the show was demonstrated by Objective Communications of Chantilly, VA. Earlier this year, Objective announced a technology called VidModem, which adds full-motion S-VHS quality video, CD-Quality stereo audio and high-speed data to existing single twisted pair telephone wire. Rather than utilizing network bandwidth to move this information around, the product actually piggybacks the telephone system!

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it doesn't use LAN bandwidth to deliver the information. Second, since virtually every office in an enterprise has a phone connection, it allows everyone to gain access to this information without running any additional wires in the facility. Finally, it does this all without impacting the ability to use the phone system for telephone calls.

In August of this year, the company announced the EVS-50, a fully integrated, modular video network server based on the VidModem technology. At TeleCon, this product was simultaneously used to send laserdisc video to a number of workstations while allowing full resolution videoconferencing to take place on other stations.

If the EVS-50 were only able to support full bandwidth communications within an enterprise, it would still be a very impressive product. However, it also has the ability to link Wide Area Networks using a variety of interfaces. These include ISDN, multi-channel ATM, cable and DSS satellite interfaces. At least one reseller became very excited about the prospect for using this system in a statewide distance learning application.

Another interesting product was shown by Scala, Inc., also a first-time exhibitor. Scala InfoChannel IC200 would probably seem more at home in an NAB booth, but it is also applicable to the conferencing arena. The product allows corporations to quickly build and distribute information programs via internal or public networks. One interesting aspect of this product is that it allows the computer type devices to interact with the programs being sent out. Depending on the choices made at a multimedia kiosk, for example, the recipient will see a different result.

To create the graphics and information, InfoChannel uses an interface similar to a standard presentation program. This interface supports text, graphics, audio and video objects that can be presented and animated. Where it differs, though, is in its support for scheduled events. InfoChannel has a scheduling function by which individual elements or programs can be set to occur at specific times, for a specific number of times, or during a range of times. This feature provides a very powerful method of distributing different types of information similar to a playlist in a television station.

Deuces were wild at the Communications Specialties booth. The company's newest product, called Deuce, is an intelligent video scaling device designed to make traditional line doublers and quadruplers obsolete. Priced at $2195, Deuce accepts NTSC, PAL or SECAM input and can be set to output at six different non-interlaced resolutions ranging from 640x480 up to 1280x1024. Deuce also adjusts for 16:9 or letterbox sources to ensure the highest quality conversion and display.

The products and companies mentioned above were just a small sample of what was available at TeleCon XVII. However, they also represent products that attendees might have missed it they just stayed with the "traditional" systems at the show. If conferencing is of interest to you, you should definitely plan on attending next year's show. It's one of the last "pure" trade show experiences available.

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