I like being first. So three years ago I had Nynex install New York's first residential digital phone line in my office, and I set up a videophone on my computer. It cost me less than $1,500.
Computer pundits scoffed: the picture's too small; the image is too grainy; people look apoplectic on screen. They were right. But whenever friends visited, the first thing they wanted to do was make a video call.
Unfortunately, there weren't many people to call. Getting the special phone line and installing the software was a challenge, even for a techno-freak like me. Moreover, a lack of compatibility between different models meant that Intel ProShare owners couldn't call PictureTel owners. So my circle of connected business contacts was limited to about a dozen people. But that's changing.
Many phone companies advertise digital phone service on TV, so it's much easier to order. And videoconferencing packages are simpler to install. Most important, a standard for digital video communications called H.320 is almost universally embraced. That means Intel and PictureTel users can finally talk to each other.
If you thought e-mail and the Internet changed the face of business, wait until you try videoconferencing. Videoconferencing creates opportunities for collaboration that simply weren't possible before.
"We have crucial relationships," explains Jim Williams, CEO of Paramount Industries Inc., an engineering design firm in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "To make real progress, we need clients here weekly — but that isn't possible. With our ProShare, we can exchange AutoCAD drawings and use a whiteboard to brainstorm. We couldn't work together without it."
Not long ago, I saw another sure sign that videoconferencing is the next big development in online communications: "adult" videoconferencing Web sites. So what? So remember that adult videos sparked the popularity of VCRs. Now do you want to get connected? Read this edition of Power Tools to get the picture.
It's getting a lot easier to put your face on someone else's computer screen. Using a digital phone line called ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) , you can get face time with off-site coworkers and clients simply by dialing them up — just like using a modem and online software. Each of the power tools in this issue will enable you to hold a conference call, exchange documents, and collaborate on work online.
I've singled out the systems that are the easiest to install, deliver the best picture, and use ISDN phone lines. Digital lines give you a bigger electronic pipe through which to shove information. Consequently, they make it easier to deliver good image quality, offer near real-time motion, and make it easier to work with others on the same document.
Connection Needed: Quality video time with branch offices and clients.
Power Tools: PictureTel Live50, Live100, Live200p
Over the past year or so, Picturetel systems have come to represent the best in PC-based videoconferencing. The images they transmit are cleaner than just about any other desktop system. But it still doesn't look like TV on your PC.
To create the illusion of motion on your TV, images are broadcast at 30 frames per second. The best that most ISDN videoconferencing systems can muster is 15 frames per second. The images are reminiscent of MTV videos, full of skips and hops. It's fine for business calls, but don't expect to look like Peter Jennings on your PC.
To get top-of-the-line picture quality, check out PictureTel's Live100 — and be prepared to spend $4,995 for the full setup. To handle the video, graphics, and audio, you get three internal expansion cards to install in your PC; LiveShare Plus software; a speakerphone with good voice quality; and a top-flight video camera called the FlipCam. Mount the FlipCam on a two-legged stand, focus it on a document, and the image is sharp enough that the person on the other end of the line can read it. The LiveShare Plus software lets you and another person work together on any application onscreen. Call up a spreadsheet or drawing and make adjustments together, use an electronic whiteboard to describe the upcoming reorg, or transfer a file while you're talking.
Two caveats: The speakerphone and the FlipCam stand take up a fair amount of desktop space. And with some older computers, the system can be a struggle to install. To sort everything out, you might need to spend a day or two on the phone with tech support.
For comparable features at half the price, there's PictureTel Live50 ($2,495) . The Live50 lacks the additional video input that comes on the Live100 and doesn't come with the speakerphone. Instead you get an earpiece with a microphone that hooks over your ear. It's unobtrusive and surprisingly comfortable to wear. You'll also give up the FlipCam. The camera on the Live50 is a fixed-focus model that affords slightly less picture detail than the FlipCam.
PictureTel's new Live200p ($1,495) is priced to compete with Intel's ProShare (see p. 116) . It works on Windows 95 only. If you have a fast system, such as 166MHz Pentium with a fast PCI graphics adapter, which turns digital information into an analog signal for your monitor, the Live200p may be all you need. Its video quality is comparable to that of the Live50.
The Live200p is relatively inexpensive and takes just 30 minutes to install. But be forewarned: if your computer's graphics card isn't top notch, it will degrade the video image.
Two more gripes: None of PictureTel systems is compatible with the latest standard, called T.120, for sharing documents with other videoconferencing systems. Macintosh owners will also be disappointed; PictureTel's desktop systems work only with Windows PCs.
Geek Factor: Outside of booking the CEO's videoconferencing room, PictureTel delivers the best video pictures of any system.
Weak Factor: Setting up the two top-of-the-line models takes considerable patience, depending on your computer's idiosyncrasies.
Coordinates: PictureTel Corp., 800-716-6000, 508-762-5000; http://www.picturetel.com
Connection Needed: Acceptable, affordable video communication that can connect with different systems.
Power Tool: Intel ProShare Video System 200
For several years now, Intel has been struggling to make individual desktop videoconferencing systems as common as faxes and modems. With the latest release of its ProShare package, it might finally succeed. For ease of setup, flexible information sharing, and videoconferencing features, Intel's ProShare package is hard to beat. The two internal cards are easy to install, especially if you've got a Pentium computer. Proshare lists for $1,499, but when purchased from a carrier like Sprint it can cost as little as $999 when you sign up for ISDN. ProShare's video quality doesn't match that of PictureTel's more expensive systems, primarily because Intel relies on software instead of hardware to decompress the incoming image. The images are a bit more grainy and slightly smaller. But the other conferencing features, such as the ability to share anything on your Windows PC with anyone else, are as good as — if not better than — those of PictureTel's LiveShare software.
The ProShare system is H.320 compatible, so it makes a solid connection; it also conforms to the new T.120 standard for sharing data from different computer systems. You can also set up multipoint videoconferences by calling a service like AT&T WorldWorx (800-828-9679) . The catch? If you don't have a fast, up-to-date system, your calls won't look good and application sharing will be slow.
Geek Factor: It's almost as easy as installing a modem, and it's way cooler.
Weak Factor: You have to get a little black box called an NT-1 from the phone company or another vendor for the system to work. That adds another $100 to $200 to the price. (See "Troubleshooter's Guide for Ordering ISDN," p. 114, for more on the NT-1.)
Coordinates: ProShare Video System 200 Intel Corp., 800-525-3019; http://www.intel.com
Connection Needed: A low-cost, mobile videophone.
Power Tools: Enhanced CU-SeeMe; Color QuickCam
You live out of a garment bag. a laptop computer is your office. An expensive videoconferencing setup isn't going to do you much good. There's still a way for you to look your callers and coworkers in the eye: get on the Internet.
By using a comparatively crude software called CU-SeeMe and a camera that plugs into your system, you can dial up other CU-SeeMe users over the Internet using standard phone lines and a fast modem. While there are competing Internet videophones, CU-SeeMe is the de facto standard on the Web. Versions are available for Windows and Macintosh, and a Reflector (a CU-SeeMe server) is available for Unix and Windows platforms.
The CU-SeeMe images appear as a series of still photos rather than as moving video. The audio portion can also be choppy, depending on the vagaries of Web traffic and the quality of your connection. Even so, it's the most inexpensive way to set up a videocall. Go to the Cornell University CU-SeeMe Web site and download a free black-and-white version of the program. There's also a color version available called Enhanced CU-SeeMe, which includes basic data-sharing abilities like a whiteboard for taking notes together. The Enhanced CU-SeeMe costs $69, but you can download a free, 30-day trial version from White Pine Software.
To get the most out of CU-SeeMe, your laptop should have a 28.8 Kbps modem, built-in sound, and a way to capture video. For that last item, get the Connectix Color QuickCam. Available for Windows and Macintosh systems, the Color QuickCam lists for $299. It comes with additional software and hardware you'll need. You don't have to endure some arduous installation process, either. Just plug it into your computer's parallel port, boot up the software, and you're on your way.
The camera, which looks like a golf ball, weighs less than 8 ounces. When you're feeling creative, the software lets you take digital snapshots and video clips. It doesn't require external power, so you can take it around the world without worrying about power adapters.
Geek Factor: Because you're using a local access number to get online, you're charged only the local phone rate — even if you're making a videocall to Hong Kong.
Weak Factor: The onscreen image is tiny (about 1.75 x 2.25 inches) , and Internet connections are unpredictable.
Coordinates: CU-SeeMe, downloadable from Cornell University's CU-SeeMe home page, http://cu-seeme.cornell.edu/Welcome.html Enhanced CU-SeeMe from White Pine Software, 800-241-7463; http://www.wpine.com Color QuickCam from Connectix Corp., 800-950-5880; http://www.connectix.com/ .
John R. Quain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor at Fast Company and appears regularly on the CBS News program "Up to the Minute."
"Quain's Top Ten - VideoPhone"
"Troubleshooter's Guide for Ordering ISDN"
"Show Me Your Data, Not Your Face"
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.