Our company has had a few false starts with desktop videoconferencing, but the powers that be want us to look into the technology yet again. My assignment is to create videoconferencing abilities for selected executive and remote (i.e., telecommuting) workers. Ease of use and audio/video (A/V) quality are top priorities for us, and of course the usual budget concerns exist. Can you give me any recommendations or pointers?

The desktop videoconferencing industry as a whole has had a few false starts. The main problems up to now have included proprietary hardware and software, poor or unacceptable video-stream quality because of inefficient compression protocols, incompatible software packages, bandwidth constraints, and difficulty of use. Of all these challenges, insufficient bandwidth has been the most prominent. Decent video requires a lot of bandwidth, which means some form of broadband connection. Until recently, the average user didn't have access to broadband, which has stalled the vision of ubiquitous desktop conferencing.

Rumors of desktop videoconferencing's death, however, have been greatly exaggerated. With the advent of less expensive broadband connections and their widespread adoption, desktop videoconferencing has become a reality for many home and corporate users. In addition, quality and ease of use have improved significantly, and standards such as H.323 have been around long enough to facilitate product interoperability.

On the software front, numerous systems provide high-end features and capabilities (particularly for corporate users). However, the presence of Microsoft NetMeeting and Windows Messenger on practically every Microsoft system—as well as these programs' ability to function with most cameras, even inexpensive ones—have made them somewhat of a de facto choice for many implementations. (As a side note, many Windows XP users think that Microsoft removed NetMeeting from XP. But the program isn't gone; it's just well hidden. XP users can click Start, Run, and type

conf

to launch the NetMeeting configuration wizard.)

If the lower-end method of using a cheap camera with Windows' built-in tools isn't sufficient for your organization's needs or if you need to videoconference-enable a conference or meeting room, consider D-Link Systems' DVC-1000 i2eye VideoPhone. The product, which costs $439.99, sports an impressive array of features and nearly Plug and Play (PnP) usability.

Although the i2eye requires broadband and an external TV display, the product is a standalone device and doesn't require an attached PC. Think of the i2eye as a videoconferencing appliance that you plug into your broadband connection and TV for a virtually PnP videoconferencing solution.

The i2eye device resembles a small office/home office (SOHO)–class router with a camera in front, the necessary cables, and a decent remote control that facilitates device operation and configuration from across the room. I first saw the device at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2003 in Las Vegas, and my tests thus far have shown the product to work almost flawlessly. The device does everything from using DHCP to configure itself to setting up sessions with other i2eye units (the device works only with other i2eye units—one downside to the product), making downloading and installing new firmware revisions a snap. The unit was one of the easiest-to-configure network devices I've worked with. Additionally, the product supports operation with Network Address Translation (NAT)–based Internet connections.

The product can deliver as many as 30 frames per second of high-quality video—a far cry from many lower-end products on the market. Figure 1, which shows a session during my test of the unit, demonstrates the product's picture-in-a-picture screen arrangement. Depending on your needs, I'd put the i2eye on your short list of products to evaluate.